Has big business dampened the music festival spirit?

It’s become customary to denounce them as corporate and overcrowded. But has popularity really diminished the festival spirit? Miranda Sawyer investigates.

I was 19 when I went to my first festival: Glastonbury, in 1986. There were three of us in a two-man tent and despite various misadventures – losing each other for hours at a time, one of our number having an unexpected epileptic fit – we all absolutely loved it. Glastonbury was a world we had never experienced before: a vast, temporary city in a field, packed with noise and music and art, where familiar rules had dissolved and new ones seemed flexible. I remember walking around the Green Fields – the area that promotes alternative lifestyles, particularly eco-friendly ones – and settling down at a party where the sound-system was powered by whoever could be bothered to pedal a bicycle.

The bands seemed almost secondary, but I watched The Cure as a storm came rolling in and lit up the vast skies with lightning and Gil Scott-Heron, on the Sunday night, when a stranger fell asleep standing up, his head on my shoulder. My mind was thoroughly boggled; everything was amazing.

I write this to remind myself about what Glastonbury is and who it is for. I’m in my 40s now, and loath to spend three days camping amongst mud-drenched drunks for the sake of watching the Rolling Stones on a stage a thousand miles away. It has become traditional for people my age to sneer at festivals, denounce them as corporate and overcrowded and no longer worth the effort: “I’m not going to Glastonbury this year, I’m just going to pour beer on my head and lie in the back garden with my iPod playing inside a bin somewhere on the other side of the house…”.

Rolling the changes

But is there truth in the older, cynical voice of experience? After all, Glastonbury – the UK’s mother of all festivals – has changed since 1986, and even more since its first days in the early ‘70s. Like many other British festivals, it has become bigger, safer, more mainstream – and a lot more expensive. Health and safety rules have become more important in UK festivals, which for a long time were rather lackadaisical about break-ins and sanitation. Do such changes diminish the festival spirit?

Rob da Bank, Glastonbury regular and founder of two highly successful UK festivals, Bestival and Camp Bestival (for families), thinks not. “You might miss the creative elements of festivals past,” he says, “but we’ve also got rid of the scarier elements. Also, we have to move with the times, and people’s expectations have got much higher. Even five years ago, you’d have got away with dirty toilets, but not now. Toilets and showers have to be spot on, or everyone will be Tweeting and Facebook-ing about it within minutes and your reputation is in tatters. People are understanding about bad weather, but not if your systems don’t work, if stages close or people can’t get off site in their cars.”

Da Bank, who loves festivals, has travelled to many. He understands the desire for the special experience, that element of alternative reality, of freedom. The bands are great, he thinks, but, for him, festivals are about memories, about meeting people you didn’t know before and “becoming part of a larger family. Letting your hair down, doing whatever you want, feeling free.” As such, he draws a contrast between UK and European festivals and those in the US. “I went to Coachella,” he says, “and you had to drink your cocktail in a caged bar area. There are a lot more rules over there.”

In the US, festivals have a more corporate edge. Kyle Anderson, a staff writer at Entertainment Weekly, says that, with the exception of Bonnaroo and Burning Man, “most US festivals tend to be run in a somewhat uptight fashion. Organisers are terrified of being sued, so they twist themselves into safety and logistical requirements and end up with a much more controlled environment than the true festival spirit is used to.” Still, he too, doesn’t think this is an entirely bad thing: he was at Lollapalooza last year when a storm was blowing in, and organisers managed to evacuate 90,000 people off-site and then get them all back without much incident.

For many years, Lollapalooza seemed like one of only a handful of music festivals in America. Despite the US holding one of the first acknowledged music festivals at Monterey in 1967, the size of the US meant that a festival ‘circuit’, such as there is in the UK and Europe, was harder to establish. Lollapalooza got over this by travelling to the fans, until 2005, when it set up camp in Grant Park, Chicago. It now forms one of the tent-pegs (no joke intended) of the burgeoning festival season in the US, which includes Outside Lands, Coachella, Bonnaroo and the various festivals held on Randall’s Island in New York.

Camping it up

Camping is not favoured by US festival-goers. To the British, this seems like an essential element of the experience, but Gavin Edwards, contributing editor of Rolling Stone, does not agree. He went to Outside Lands, in San Francisco, and took an hour-long bus ride into the site every day, with other fans, and proclaimed it “fun”. He credits America’s blossoming dance music scene with injecting energy into the country’s festival scene.  Dance tents now provide much of the pull to rock events such as Coachella, and festivals like the Electric Daisy Carnival, which used to pull four figure crowds, are now able to attract 100 times that number.

“I think festivals, in general, are great for music,” says Edwards. “They implicitly teach that music can be a communal celebration rather than a private ritual with your iPod. They expose fans to artists and genres they wouldn't have heard otherwise. And they often pay musicians healthy fees, which helps finance more music.”

In Budapest, on an island in the Danube, the Sziget festival, set up in 1993, now attracts 450,000 visitors. It has grown so big that it even has a hospital tent, where surgery can be performed (if needed). Still, at Sziget, camping is a priority: although many visitors stay in guesthouses and hotels in the city, others camp on site, and the festival allows you to pitch your tent wherever you like.

This, says Fruzina Szép, Sziget’s programme director, is part of the festival’s spirit. Sziget was set up a few years after regime change in Hungary, to introduce the country’s young people to the idea of multi-culturalism and liberal social attitudes. Even now, Sziget has a stage set aside for music from the Roma people, a stage for gay and lesbian performers, one for world music, and another for Afro-Latin music.

But, Szép says the festival’s attraction is still that other-worldliness that I remember from my first Glastonbury. “It’s the island of freedom,” she says. “You enter on a small bridge into a different world, and leave everything behind. If you’re 16 years old, you have the pleasure of sharing music with many different nationalities. If you’re 35, you can forget your Blackberry and iPhone, forget your stress and just sit and watch people performing. It’s about being together, with strangers, and feeling as though they are your friends.”

My 19-year-old self would certainly agree.

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