Last year 3.9 million people attended music festivals in the UK. While Glastonbury is considered to be the ultimate, festivals are literally multiplying like unneutered guinea pigs in a shoddily run pet shop with every cricket ground, Butlins Holiday Park and stately home with a few fields attached hosting at least one weekender. Junction 2 festival is headlined by Carl Cox and staged under a motorway flyover. There is now a festival for every man woman, child and their mixed breed labradoodle dogs.
Ska Fests, children’s festivals, classical orchestral events to festivals solely using tribute acts. Even the foodies are catered for combining seeing bands with cooking demonstrations, ghost chilli-eating contests and specially selected food trucks whose menus include Monterey Fish tacos and Wagyu beef burgers in a brioche bun with sautéed onions and a choice of homemade condiments. A particular favourite of mine would be Grill Stock, whose tag boast to have all my favourite things ‘music meat and mayhem’ and with headliners like Black Grape and Fun Loving Criminals, they aren’t scrimping on either the artisanal sauces or musical line-up. But has it gone too far, is the market just too saturated?
Back in the sixties, festivals were celebrations of the counterculture, sitting in mud taking lots of drugs was both a high five to music and an up yours to the establishment. Now the festival market is being estimated at being worth over £2 billion and platinum-selling bands and mainstream pop dominates line-ups. Previous V headliners have included Justin Bieber, Rhianna, and Pink and Glastonbury has filled the famous pyramid stage with Jay-Z, Beyonce, Katy Perry, Adele, and Ed Sheeran. I can still recall with a shudder Leeds 2000, watching Daphne and Celeste getting bottles filled with concentrated piss and kebab-fuelled excrement lobbed at them, whereas now they would pull a crowd, be applauded and be the background to many a glitter-faced Instagram selfie. According to the UK Festivals Awards, rock and indie are still the biggest pullers of punters but pop is coming in a close third showing it’s no longer just a bunch of muddy sweaty hippies or guitar-strumming boys with skinny jeans and floppy hair.
Despite my general tone of mockery on the current state of the UK festival industry, I should point out I’m an outright festival lover. I run a venue based festival called Sonder (so wellies or Portaloos are not required) and run the press on four others. As well as the festivals I go to for work, I also attend for shits and glitter-covered giggles at least one camping one and a two or three one-dayers a year and have attended festivals in Europe and America so clearly I’m a lover of this particular pastime. But sitting on a bin bag at V festival watching the Verve, my teenage self never thought I’d still be attending them in my 30s.
As line-ups have changed over the years so has the audience. In 2017, the biggest demographic of attendees is still unsurprisingly 21 to 25-year-olds but the second biggest was the 41-50 crowd, those who attended in their youth and now have grown up children that they no longer need to bring along and can relive their hedonistic 20s in relative peace. They can also afford the massive price tags now attached with the average festival goer spending over £350 on the ticket, travel, overpriced food truck offerings and enough alcohol to make the camping in the mud bearable.
Festival-goers are also becoming more demanding in their expectation of facilities. For me, sleeping in my wellies and not unplaiting my pigtails for four days is half the fun but for some, a canvas tepee and airbed is as rustic as they will get. ‘Boutique’ festivals and ‘Glamping’ aimed at the more discerning attendees who can’t cope with having to take a dump with the proletariat are currently on the rise faster than the pants of a group of 17-year-old boys who have found a peephole into Margot Robbie’s dressing room. But even with solar showers and flushable loos, when the Great British weather pours down, a festival is still just a field of mud where day drinking is socially acceptable. In which case, there is an endless stream of one-dayers for those that just like their own bed or venue-based festivals like Sonder for people that just will not welly up.
Music audiences are varied, therefore it makes commercial sense that festivals reflect the wide range of ages, tastes, and expectations and with more choice than ever, organisers need to work that much harder in offering a quality event with a unique selling point. Newcomers Hope and Glory in Liverpool became infamous for the string of catastrophes and Cheshire’s Rum 100 flopped and closed its doors early due constant downpours but even before this, ticket sales were low and there were complaints about the lack of Rum. Neither are returning in 2018. Despite having a few years’ experience, Derbyshire’s Y Not Festival was cancelled mid-event due to safety concerns over the amount of mud, but they are returning this July and have The Libertines, Catfish and The Bottlemen, and Jamiroquai signed up for their hopefully triumphant return. 2017 also saw the end of long-running events the quirky Secret Garden Party and Scotland’s T in the Park, who decided to concentrate on the non-camping and non-vowels festival TRNSMT.
Whatever your views on the ever-evolving festival scene, they have begun too ingrained in British culture to go away and hopefully more festivals will make events more accessible for all and encourage organisers to make better events. As for me, I’ve got Kendal Calling, Atmosphere festival, Cotton Clouds, Macc Fest and then my own Sonder to survive so I better big out my wellies…