How To Do Festivals

Glastonbury festival-goers covered in mud

So this year’s Glastonbury line-up sucked, much like most of the bills in recent years. Let’s take a look, shall we? U2, yuck, but at least they’re “stadium rock” so you could make excuses. Coldplay? Why did someone shoot Lennon and let these guys live?* Beyoncé? Hells, no! I mean, I bought Single Ladies along with everyone else on the sodding planet and even contemplated trying to learn the dance routine before realising that I could never get my booty to shake that way. I like Beyoncé – just not in that context. Jesse J? Isn’t she the one they’ve desperately, desperately been trying to push to not much interest from anyone? They put her on the Glastonbury bill? Janelle Monáe – I’d love to see her in concert, but that would be a concert. Somewhere with plush seats and a foyer. Ke$ha, ffs? But it’s not just Glastonbury: it’s an epidemic. It’s like people have completely forgotten what festivals are supposed to do and to be, and they’re getting it wrong.

So, here is Reinspired’s public information broadcast on how festivals are supposed to work.

1. Get Grubby

The last festival I went to – Bloodstock, with Gamma Ray and Rob Halford on the bill – we stayed at a Travelodge. It was all very civilised. Between sets, we went to this nice little Australian bar and had kangaroo burgers or whatever it is that Australians eat, and then to a nearby tea shop for fresh scones with clotted cream. This is what happens when rock fans grow up. It’s also terribly, terribly wrong.

Prior to that, I spend Reading weekend in a six-man tent (though there were only two of us), with inflatable mattresses, a camping stove and picnic basket. By the end of it, I’d reasoned that given the expense of our equipment and comparative level of comfort, we may as well have stayed in a bloody hotel.

The first festival I went to – also Reading, some years earlier, I’d shared a six-man tent with five other people. Somewhat after the event, my mother worried whether it was appropriate for an unchaperoned maiden to be using such accommodation, to which I reassured her that we had all been much too drunk for any untoward behaviour. We had, in fact, spent the first evening hanging out with strangers from the nearby tents who demonstrated how to “fire-breathe” with Thunderbird fortified wine, and accidentally set fire to the tent next door. Never mind, though: the festival organisers had arranged emergency dormitory tent accommodation for pissed nutters who play with fire.

This was doing it right.

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2. The Bands Should Be Scruffy

This is the golden rule when it comes to festival line-ups. It doesn’t matter what genre you are, provided that you look like you’re slumming it with the rest of us. All the punters in the crowd are grubby, sweaty, probably covered in mud and definitely haven’t showered in two or three days. You need to look like you belong there. This is how Lady Gaga just about managed to pull off her festival performance – she stripped off her elaborate costume, shook her hair loose and sweated off all her makeup. By the end of it, she could have been any of the people watching her. You don’t necessarily have to be rock, but you do have to have “rock attitude”.

This is Nine Inch Nails doing it right:

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You don’t necessarily have to be covered in grime, but what you absolutely must not do under any circumstances is be wearing posh clothes.

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3. Go Outside

This shouldn’t even need saying. I went to a wonderful event called Vapour once, which had acts like Autechre and Aphex Twin on the bill. It was a solid all-nighter, but I wouldn’t call it a festival. More like a music expo or just a concert with lots of acts, held in an abandoned warehouse in London. I suppose in the strictest sense you could call it a festival in the same way that the Edinburgh festival is a festival – like an arts festival –  but the festivals I think of when I think of festivals are always outside.

The main thing about music festivals is that they’re a unique experience. Watching bands at an indoor venue is something that you can do any time under any circumstances (or at least, that’s how it was when people supported live music properly and festivals weren’t the only way to see the bands you liked). Watching hundreds of bands – even ones you’ve seen plenty of times before – at an outdoor gig is a completely different experience. It takes away the safety nets, too: the bands are generally unsoundchecked and the sound is often lousy (boo!) but the act is also – or should be – deprived of elaborate stage rigs, costumes and gimmicks and forced to rely solely upon the strength of their material. Turning festivals into indoor events, or sets with expensive sets and props, turns it into just another pop concert.

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4. Keep the stages close together

What always put me off Glastonbury – aside from dubious billing – was the sheer distance between the stages. Regular festivalgoers would tell me that the aim of going to Glastonbury wasn’t to see as many bands as possible, but just to go and have a great time.

If I just wanted to camp in a field and get pissed up for three days, I’d do that and save myself two hundred quid. It’s like the people who go to camping music festivals and insist on staying in hotels – if you’re going to do that, just take the family to Disneyland. You’ll have a much better time. You can go camping any time; you can stay in a hotel any time. The point of the festival is – has to be – the music.

The reason Reading was my ideal festival was because the stage area was in the middle with the camping areas radiating out from it. If two bands you liked were on the same bill, you could conceivably watch half of each set by running between stages. I tried it; it worked. You couldn’t, so I’m told, do this with The Great Escape in Brighton, because all the acts were playing in different venues spread around town. In fact, not only would you not be able to see two bands playing at the same time, but you’d miss half the next set, too.

This is doing it wrong!

The Essential Music Festival, which used to run in Brighton, and the forthcoming Shakedown festival, are both located at Stanmer Park. As the name suggests, it’s an outdoor green space where various tents are put up so if you want to skip Razorlight and run to the dance tent, you can do so in good time and not miss any of that lovely music you went there to hear.

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5. Don’t Charge Too Much

And, again, we run into the killer for live music performance. The big concerts cost too much money so people just go to a handful of gigs a year, starving smaller venues (which are shutting down) and cannibalising the live music industry. Ticket prices have doubled – even tripled – in the past decade or so, and festivals have followed suit. In 1993, a weekend ticket to the Reading Festival was £50. In 2001, it was £80.

This year, it’s £192 plus booking fee.

To put that into perspective, you could spend the same on a 7-night package holiday to Corfu or a brand new xbox 360 with Kinect. I bought my first festival ticket with the money I earnt from my Saturday job at KFC. To have saved £192 from my sub-minimum wage, as a teenager, is unthinkable. Major festivals have been priced out of the market of ordinary kids and are now the preserve of 35 year-old accountants, which is why the bills are full of the music that 35 year-old accountants like.

Personally, I won’t be either going to Glasters or staying in a shoddy apartment in Corfu. If I really wanted the festival experience, I’d just do what I did 20 years ago, when I was too young to go to festivals: just pitch a tent in the garden in the rain and play music through a low-quality cassette player at distorting volumes for that dodgy festival sound.

See? I knew how to do it right.

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*No, I don’t physically wish death on Coldplay. Career-ending RSI, though?

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