As others herald the death of festivals due to Glastonbury not selling out in seven seconds, Greg Rose ponders the forces that underlie our fervour for fields filled with bands and toilets.
You used to know where you stood with festivals. Go to Glastonbury if you want mud and majesty, head to Reading for rough and ready rocking. Chance V for the clean and commercial, or try T in the Park if you can be bothered to trek to cotland. Now things have changed, with renewed interest in live music heralding a new golden age for festivals.
As the season approaches, it appears there are more festivals than fields. Whether it’s independent jaunts in unknown corners of Britain, marauding trips to European hotspots, or corporate events in the capital, there is something for everyone. So why have they got so popular?
“Festivals? They’re a place to escape control,” mused Jarvis Cocker at V last summer. “Everyone comes together, and makes something different. It can be brilliant.” They are a chance for a break from reality, where mini- civilisations are created with little more than tent pegs, narcotics and common musical tastes. The stress and strains of daily existence can be forgotten in a haze of alternative music and alcohol.
The feeling of community that springs when thousands of people are lumped in a field together is a particular sensation. With no opposition, the mob mentality that can be generated at sporting occasions is replaced by a collective identity that is built on shared experiences, be it cheering a headliner, or bemoaning a portaloo.
“But then, every day should be like that,” continued Cocker. “A festival of life. Yeah…Although, festivals aren’t always like that even.” This paradoxical statement highlights how festivals aren’t necessarily sunshine and smiles; they’re often warped, intense representations of life, with the lows included alongside the highs. You might see Muse one minute but Mika the next, make a friend one day yet end up lost and alone another.
The ideal experienced by many seems mythical to others, with rising prices, increased commercialism and growing numbers of people out for trouble as much as fun. Tents can be set on fire, valuables may be stolen – it can even rain. That all-for-one, one-for-all spirit can be easily extinguished by thunderstorms or theft. Nevertheless, attendee numbers continue to rise, as people treat festivals as replacements for holidays, or even head abroad and combine the two.
As they grow in profile, the cultural influence of festivals could be growing. Cocker was equally ambiguous on their merits in the mid-Nineties.
On classic Pulp track ‘Sorted For E’s and Wizz’ the bespectacled singer
questioned: “Is this the way they say the future’s meant to feel/Or just 20,000 people standing in a field?” It is difficult to decide whether they are important phenomenon, or purely business-savvy organisations cashing in on media-influenced people buying in.
The impact of festivals may be exaggerated; could it just be a bunch of kids with nothing better to do? We may be being manipulated into giving huge corporations lots of money to see short, sub-standard sets from bands simply after big paychecks and boosts in record sales. We are simply consumers buying well-produced, superbly marketed products.
Festivals can be highly-controlled hedonism, with restraints as unassuming as stage times and the price of beer, plus more obvious ones like stewards and laws, contributing to what you do and when. People head to festivals to go wild for a weekend and flee their routines, but they dive straight into another – it’s just this routine is probably a lot more fun. Yet the anarchy is drip-fed, in confined spaces; there is an order and a protocol to everything, often designed to ensure minimum fuss and maximum profit.
Of course, this extremely cynical view doesn’t account for the life- affirming experiences many people find. There is now an event to suit every taste, so as long you do your research you should end up somewhere suitable, or at least know what to expect. The key ingredient to all festivals remains people, all crammed together, idiosyncrasies and ideologies mingling and altering, with the hassles and delights that entails.
“We claimed the very source of joy ran through,” sings David Bowie, summing up the subject on ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’. “It didn't, but it seemed that way/I kissed a lot of people that day.” While you’re there festivals may feel like they mean the world, but even if they don’t, they can be incredibly enjoyable. Anyway, what else are you going to do with your summer?