The Golden Age of Music Festivals is Over

Festivals are losing their basic tenets of culture, togetherness, and hedonism, in favour of comfort, luxury, safety, and snoozeboxes.

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Apr 28 2016, 12:25pm

Humans have always understood that the music festival is one of the most unrivalled forms of cultural entertainment. Like democracy, competitive sport, and olive oil, the advent of these events can be traced back through time to Ancient Greece. As part of the country’s Pythian Games, young Grecians would dust off their finest sandals and compete in singing competitions, which were held to celebrate the Greek god of music and general mythological badman, Apollo. As centuries passed, similar events materialised across the globe, from the Hindustani music festivals of India to the earliest Trinidadian carnivals.

Obviously, the concept of the modern music festival has evolved since then. History bears no account of people sleeping in tented neoprene coffins, or wearing questionable fancy dress, or purchasing falafel wraps from a motorised vehicle dressed to look like a psychedelic spaceship. In many ways, it’s easy to see why today’s music festivals look different, because this is a different time. The Ancient Greeks had a loosely-dressed man calmly playing the pan-pipes; we have David Guetta three-pills deep at Tomorrowland, struggling to hold on to reality as his world spins on a different axis to that of planet earth.

Some change in the sensory environment of music festivals is to be expected: fashion trends, music genres, drugs – these things fluctuate in popularity. But unlike the transition from flares to rolled-up skinny jeans, heavy metal to deep house, LSD to laughing gas, the shift that’s taken place over the last few years is centered within the semantics these events are built on, rather than a particular sound or dress-code. And it’s within these deviations that there’s a sense the golden age of music festivals is over.

Photo by Carys Lavin

Before you draw out your contorted tent pegs and aim them straight towards your laptop screen, I get it: the music festival has died several times already. First, when Bob Dylan’s electric guitar shat on the folkies who had gathered at the Newport Folk Festival, changing the feeling of their festival forever. Again, when sponsors crawled into the gargantuan alternative music events that took place during Generation X, making their branded stages feel more corporate. Then, once more, with the birth of EDM, which threatened the rock purist’s idea of what a festival should be, replacing guitars with cracked copies of Traktor and riffs with the untz-untz of dance music. So calling the death of music festivals can often be mistaken with generational stasis, in which some old fart can’t accept that the world has moved on and replaced Creedence Clearwater Revival with Caribou. This is different, though.

These days, the things that are apparently tantamount to making a festival good are so tepid that festival culture has now mutated in a way that doesn't feel strange or different, morphing into a concept we don't yet understand. Instead, it's changing in a grotesquely boring way. Part of this change is down to the fact that these events have become increasingly alike: from Reading Festival and the Isle of Wight to Stateside events like Coachella and Bonnaroo, the festival experience has seemingly merged into one coalesced, purchasable vision of the exact same idea – wherein it’s possible to watch an electronic DJ, a rock band, and a rap artist before queuing up to buy some day-glo paint and a strawberry flavoured cider. As The New York Times put it in an editorial recently, “Want to see LCD Soundsystem? You can catch them at Coachella, Bonnaroo, Panorama and Way Home. Major Lazer? Coachella, Sasquatch, Firefly and Panorama. ASAP Rocky? Coachella, Firefly and Panorama. Gary Clark Jr.? Coachella, New Orleans Jazzfest, Governor’s Ball and Way Home.”

Britain’s music festivals have been plagued with a similar problem to the one pointed out by the New York Times. Our biggest festivals often exist in the same venn diagram, where each can feel like a version of Groundhog Day but with lukewarm burritos and a medium sized stage that’s headlined by Jack Garratt or compèred by an extended member of the BBC Radio One family. The topography of each event remains slightly different – Wireless has more Nike messenger bags and rap acts than any festival; Latitude sits at an intersection for confused fans of both Mogwai and Paolo Nutini; Bestival is a favourite for gurning students. But while an essence of each event remains, the uniformisation of music festivals has codified what should be a unique experience into something that resembles a piece of flat-packed furniture, wherein the contents are a main stage, a dance tent, a transportable branch of Squarepie, some painted bins, and a novelty hat shop. Yet while that image of the modern festival is so commonplace it’s become easy to sketch, it’s also only one part of what’s become a much larger, commodified whole.

Photo by Carys Lavin

After the festival economy boomed in the mid 2000s and subsequently burst in the early 2010s (with festivals from Truck to the Big Chill going into liquidation) it became necessary for the bigger events to appeal to a wider group of people in an effort to sell their tickets. That’s why festivals have a varying degree of crossover with each other. In some ways, that crossover is healthy; it brought certain festivals in line with this generation’s genre-hopping listening habits and pushed back against accusations that they’d become infected with ennui and lost touch with their audiences. Yet as festivals shifted their focus to be inclusive, they’ve also become more exclusive. Today’s events are barely about culture, togetherness, hedonism and an unpredictable (and sometimes muddy) experience. They’re becoming more about comfort, luxury, and safety: yurts, showers, Michelin star chefs, designated drinking areas, tipis, podpads, snoozeboxes, yoga, and being partitioned away from the normal people.

Look to the biggest festivals in the United Kingdom, and you’ll see that nearly every single one is guilty of mollifying the raw togetherness of the festival experience. This year’s Reading Festival offers an exclusive ticket for a “seat of luxury” (a private toilet, basically), which they say will be shared with “a privileged few” (their words, not mine). At V Festival, you can buy a ticket to a luxury VIP area that includes “a wide choice of exclusive food and drink outlets”, a hairdressers, and a beautician. £220 will get you a “premium club experience” at Wireless Festival – an exclusive option that grants access to an area of the crowd that’s closest to the stage. Latitude are selling “Luxury 6 berth trailers” for £4,440 a pop; Glastonbury’s tipi village leaves little change from a grand; Bestival has a “VIP Area for the discerning festival goer set on experiencing our four-day futuristic adventure in style”. Then there's Wilderness, a festival that is built on "relaxation and revelry", that offers a "truly opulent" tent-house suite for £10,320 (plus festival tickets), for punters to relax in after spending an afternoon horse-riding, wild river swimming, or soaking into a lakeside spa. Wherever you go, it seems exclusivity and luxury are now the profitable buzz-words.

Now, everyone likes a hot shower, squeezing out your lunch is a lot more satisfying when you can wipe the semi-solid remnants of it with some quilted, scented toilet paper, and a luxury trailer has more flat surfaces than a tent. These exclusive apparatus are desirable, which is why they exist. A festival is a business, after all. As a festival commodity though, exclusivity and luxury are inherently boring. They are imbued with cleanliness, a comfortable degree of safety, a way to seperate oneself from the world. That’s not to say that festivals should be dirty, dangerous, threatening places, but by offering up an segregated experience that sits somewhere between Shoreditch House and Glastonbury’s Greenfields, an important component has been removed from the big music festivals.

See, festivals have always been places where people would come to participate in the euphoric and often transcendent power of music, which happens to be wielded most effectively when experienced in a huge crowd. Or, in the case of the last twenty years, after dropping some salty MDMA. Plus some shrooms. It’s that image of togetherness that runs through the music festival's historical bedrock, from the bare-breasted hippies of Woodstock to the supermarket punks who coalesced into one piss-throwing whole when Daphne and Celeste took to the stage of the 2000 Reading Festival. Yet the inclusion of these VIP and VVIP packages has meant that the sense of togetherness that once lay deep within their core has gone missing. Now, it's replaced with a chain-link fence that seperates the haves and the-have-nots from cushioned chairs. Or to be less trivial about it, the part of the crowd where the most passionate music fans would traditionally post up for the entire day, risking a urinary tract problem to retain front row seats for the headline act, is now available at specific events to a select financially well-off few.

Image via Flickr user badjonni

Undeniably, festivals offer these VIP packages because they make the business a lot of money – more than the already bloated standard price tickets, which have risen way ahead of inflation. They have relocated their focus from providing an experience open to everyone, to one that directly appeals to an unenthusiastic, comfortable, and lifeless class who want hand delivered familiarity. It’s not hard to draw a line between the rise of middle-brow rooftop clubbing – a world where the hard and transgressive edges of the club-night has been softened with brioche buns, mixologists, corporate sponsors, deck-chairs, and “taste-making” DJs – and the shift that’s currently taking place in Britain’s festival culture.

While the insipid proliferation of pulled pork sandwiches feels like it won’t end until every rooftop in London has a shit party taking place on top of it, it hasn’t completely ruined festivals yet. Ignore it, and it’s possible to embark on the soul-searching mission that these summertime events used to pride themselves on. The music, after all, still exists – and so do the drugs. But while that’s the case, it’s hard not to feel like festivals are becoming less connected to the music industry and forming stronger connections with the “experience” industry, who are the people that will let you fly in a hot air balloon or give you a "Legends Tour" of the Etihad Stadium. It’s because of these people that even if you avoid the VIP areas, the atmosphere of the festival has fundamentally changed. By perpetuating an idea of fun that's derived directly from a "festival inspired" look-book, these festivals are no longer places of reckless abandon. In some cases, it's like they've been purpose built for a bunch of people wearing boo-hoo.com summer wear, whose main intention is to sit down and relax while having a nice time to some nice music.

By arranging themselves into these identikit experiences, music festivals have arguably lost hold of the crucial component that made them interesting, which is that they heralded an unexpected experience. Even a high proportion of the media coverage surrounding them has become routine, boring, and repetitive. If the only difference between the biggest festivals is the level of premium tiers each one is willing to provide, what’s left to say about them? It just becomes the same experience, year in, year out. That’s one of the reasons why the New York Times say they’re not making plans to cover Coachella or Bonnaroo this year. And given that The New York Times maintain a strong cultural stance, this is perhaps the most prominent indicator that the lights have dimmed on the golden period for the biggest festivals over in the United States.

It’s through a combination of comparable line-ups and the rise of premium services that the golden age is over for the biggest festivals in Britain too. Previously, each one of these events felt like it meant something, but they’ve been condensed into one amorphous whole where it’s impossible for anything unique or meaningful to happen at any. The bands are bored of playing, so they don’t give a shit, and the people that’ve been snared in by the premium packages don’t either – it feels like most of them are only there to update their Instagram. But above all of this, the most important thing is that these VIP services have meant that the sense of togetherness – which meant that people of all classes could come together to hear music as equals – has been eradicated. Festivals now look as grimly stratified as British society – the exact thing that you hoped attending a festival would get you away from.

Image via Pixabay

So, where does that leave everything? To be fair, each of Britain’s big festivals have secured relatively different headliners this year: Adele at Glastonbury, Justin Bieber at V Festival, Kygo at Wireless, Foals at Reading and Leeds, et al. But if these bigger events have lost their intrinsic feeling, then the headliners feel mildly irrelevant. Perhaps the only one that retains an unrivalled adventure is Glastonbury, which at least still offers up a chance to explore.

Culture has a habit of reaching these points where it feels like we need to rip it up and start again. And so we look to the smaller events. These places have retained a sense of equality and a strong, music orientated line-up that caters to specific groups of fans wherein it’s possible for something exciting to happen. Perhaps the onus is on us to explore them in-depth rather than treading the same well-travelled ground again, and again. It's these places that continue to grow and build on the original concept of the festival. Even as new events start up, there’s no way the simple yet core quality of togetherness could ever be permanently eroded from music festivals - their premise is built on people collecting together. Without people, a music festival is just a field or desert full of taco trucks, cess-less cesspits, security guards, and entrepreneurial ice-cream men.

Music festivals will not die, at least not for a long time. So long as there is music to be played and people to listen, they will continue to exist – whether in a primitive form, sponsored by Monster Energy, or on five different tiers of exclusivity. It’s human nature. So while the biggest events have irrefutably changed, twisting the nuanced meaning that runs through the core of their existence into something that celebrates exclusivity and harbours a tepid, repetitive experience, there will always be something else waiting to burst through the tiresome malaise. The golden age of big music festivals is over, but the gates are open, waiting for something else to storm through.

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