Sunday, 1 August 2010

Festivals: Bands, Booze, or Boredom?

How many music festivals are still about the music? That’s the question I’ve been asking myself having come home from last weekend’s Indietracks festival. For those who’ve yet to sample the charms of the Derbyshire-based indiepop festival, the facts are as follows: you have an outdoor stage, and indoor stage, a stage in a church(!) and bands playing on the trains. Aside from spending your entire weekend riding on the steam trains, in the merchandise tent, or in the craft workshop marquee, that’s your lot. In many respects you HAVE to be there for the music, and as such it seems to attract a crowd who – in the majority, at least – are there for one reason and one reason only. The reason, lest we forget that MUSIC festivals were originally conceived.

But looking at other festivals one has to question if the same mentality exists. Reading and Leeds have, over the years, appeared to degenerate into hoards of faux-rebellious teenagers turning up for the annual final-night riot and for the opportunity to set fire to their tents and maybe see a band or two while they’re there. The Wakestock festival at Abersoch (about 40mins away from me) appears confused as to whether it’s a wakeboarding festival with a side order of music in the evening, or vice versa. What it ultimately does is attract the masses of the North West (who in this day and age are unusually poorly catered for in terms of festivals and gigs) who then proceed to get utterly shit faced for 3 days straight and not do much else (or it was the last time I went there a few years ago, and I doubt much has changed). It was a scene repeated – by all accounts judging by the office banter at my workplace – at the recent Radio1’s Big Weekend, but as with Wakestock it’s the only logical conclusion when you take an area not catered for in terms of entertainment, and then give the populous free tickets. There’s a plethora of jokes I could make about getting wankered is the only way to put up with a Radio 1 festival bill, but that would require much stooping on my part.

You’ll have noticed that Latitude and Glastonbury haven’t been mentioned. That’s due to the fact that – in my not-so-humble opinion – both festivals have so much going on that it’s near impossible to class them as purely music festivals. Latitude’s attempts to cater for poetry, literature and comedy means to lump it in with the likes of Reading and Leeds would be ridiculous. The same applies to Glastonbury which for as long as I can remember has also not been marketed as solely a music festival. It has so much going on throughout the site and appeals to such a wide demographic for a variety of reasons that as with Latitude, I don’t think I can really classify it in the same terms as I’ve done with those above.

It’s hard to think of recent trends in anything other than a chicken-and-egg type scenario. Have the arrival of crowds who actually aren’t fussed about the music necessitated the arrival of fairground rides and god knows what else to the festival sites? Or have such additions been the catalysts for recent shifts in punter demographics and attitudes? Have people just generally switched off to music at a music festival? Short of doing some sort of mini psychology thesis on such matters I doubt we’ll never really know.

What I do know is that not even Indietracks was immune from apathy from its attendees. Just the other day I read someone’s day by day account of the festival on their blog. A sentence jumped out at me while reading, which stated that they went to the festival on the Saturday to see two bands, and were complaining about not having anything to do in the meantime. Now, I don’t know if they meant that they’d seen everyone on the Saturday bill already and only wanted to see those two bands, or whether they had loosely heard of those two bands and decided not to check out the rest, but the fact they only saw the headliners on the Sunday would suggest the latter. If my assumptions are correct it’s almost as if the concept of actually checking out new bands was totally lost on them. In comparison – and I’m not blowing my own trumpet here, a number of other people I know did something similar – I saw 14 bands on the Saturday alone, 9 of which I’d never heard of before, and of the remaining 5, only 3 had I ever had any meaningful exposure to.

As I seem to do whenever I conclude a piece for this blog, it’s time to qualify what I’ve said. I’m not saying we should all go to music festivals with a sense of Cromwellian austerity hanging heavily over our shoulders, and that we should all sit cross legged in the same spot from dawn until dusk watching bands and nothing else in some sort of puritan cult. I woke up last Saturday in my tent with a crippling hangover that necessitated a bacon roll and a J2O, I missed bands on the Sunday by going for a ride on a steam train, and at other festivals going for a spin on the dodgems has been a great antidote to being crammed in between people at the stages. But it’s about a balance. Seeing people mashed the entire weekend (via some form of substance or another), behaving like an idiot all weekend and taking a wazzeroo on their mates’ tents (thankfully not something I’ve witnessed, though I’ve heard the horror stories) can - and in all probability will - impact negatively on your weekend. If you’re anything like me you’ll be left thinking ‘what’s the point?’ at spending a considerable sum of money to attend a festival you can’t remember jack shit about. Surely a festival is an opportunity to discover new bands, become re-acquainted with others you’ve loved in years past, or to check out if XYZ band are live as people say they are/as they are on record. If you want to spend the whole weekend tripping/inebriated then go with your mates to a farmer’s field for a weekend and do it there. Come to Anglesey, we’ve got hundreds of the damned things.

Ultimately it opens up the whole debate about gig and festival ethics. It’s not something I actually wanted to happen when I started writing it, for it’s a topic boards such as Drowned In Sound have had played out more times than I can remember. I don’t especially want it to happen again, but we’ll see which way the comments go. Please do comment, it’ll be interesting if I’m a lone agent on this or if there are others who share my views. Given my opinionated rant to date I sincerely hope it’s the latter.


  1. the problem with a discussion like this on a messageboard (especially one like drowned in sound) is that it's liable to turn into a shit-flinging contest between people a) either in the midst of a dysfunctional childhood, or b) still suffering the after-effects of it

    for what it's worth, i see your point - if not your frustration - but the fact of the matter is that in a time when festivals are barely struggling to keep afloat, it's the people who go just to, essentially, get mashed in a farmer's field that are probably keeping the festivals going year on year as much as the slightly twitchy indie boy desperate to see his favourite sarah records rip-off band ;)

  2. Hmm, interesting.
    My experience of festivals is pretty limited, because I am horrifically squeamish, tee-total, and like my home comforts.
    As a result, I've only ever been to one day festivals, and I've actually found the atmosphere at these to be pretty music centric... I wonder whether this is precisely because of their daytime only nature...
    (I may be wrong though, as I say, never been to the overnight kind)
    But if you're staying somewhere overnight, you have to think about camping, organizing food, and often when there are no bands on in the morning, other forms of entertainment are expected by the festival goers.

    Wheras at day festivals, (eg. Lovebox, Field Day), although there are bits and pieces of other entertainment laid on, the music is definitely the central focus. With people arriving early afternoon, and then leaving around 10 or 11, it's easier to spend that whole time just going round the stages, listening to music, than it would be say, if you're waking up on site at 10 and going to be again, still on site, at 1am.

    I'm not sure what I'm trying to conclude here...
    I think my main feeling is that if you're running a music festival, it should be about the music. By all means lay on a 'food valley' with lots of delightful eateries, and sure, maybe a couple of fairground rides make the site look fun, but any more than that and it kind of stops being about the music, and as a result stops being a 'music festival'.

    Also, day festivals are awesome.

    (P.S. Can't agree enough with your thoughts on Wakestock and the lack of festival based fun in North Wales.)

  3. Indietracks is an anomaly in that it's held at a historic railway site. As a result you have to find overnight accomodation of your own accord, the usual culprit being the properly accredited campsite 5mins down the lane.

    Staying there means you have to abide by usual proper campsite rules which means it's all quite civilised. As for the mornings, we just sat about chatting shit tbh, though apparently you can go on the festival site before bands and wander around.

    I'm by no means saying there shouldn't be food wagons - festival goers need to eat! Especially if, like me, the only food you'd brought with you were Wham! bars and crisps.

  4. I personally go to the festival for the music and will watch bands on my own when my friends will stay at the tents getting pissed! I love Reading for the music but over the years the people going have just got more and more fucking annoying. It's all college kids who's mummys and daddys have forked out 200+quid for them to get pissed all weekend!