Photo Credit: Wally Cassidy’s shots of Féile in the early 1990’s capture some of the carnivalesque madness fondly missed at today’s festivals. Take a look at the rest here.
With one half of us scrambling to find tickets for Electric Picnic at any cost and the other not bothered, Jamie Goldrick steps into takes us on a hodgepodge festival journey through anthropology, madjouvit wisdom and his own yearning to escape the bullshit of every day life.
Johnny from accounts has been awake for two days, he’s topless and covered with scrawls of permanent black marker marker. There’s Mary wearing an Indian headress. Andy just took a shit behind the chipper tent, it was gas. The lads from Foxrock are having the crack with the boys from Finglas. The Finglas lads think that the posh fucks are alright..
Here’s the thing…. Johnny doesn’t usually do rollovers, Mary doesn’t usually wear politically incorrect headdresses and Andy doesn’t usually take dumps in inappropriate places, did I mention this was a music festival? It does not really matter what type of nomenclature you give the thing, festivals are a place of escape, a place where the routine, rhythm and habits of everyday life are taken out of sync. A liminal place where the temporal realities of everyday life cease to exist…
In fact any look through the Anthropological record will reveal the role of festivals in maintaining the social order. The redistribution of food by the chiefs of the Trobriand Islands for example was integral to the division of labour in the Melanesia, so too for the Haida of the Pacific NorthWest during their annual potlatch festival. During the Roman Festival of Saturnalia, there was an explicit role reversal men dressed up as women, and vice-versa, masters also waited on their (temporarily) freed slaves. In ancient Babylonia, for New Years, all existing debts would be cancelled.
Feasting and celebrating can be seen in religious festivals exist too, a commonality exists between all of these, Easter and Christmas for example, or Eid al-Fitr. Festivals have been integral to the economic functioning of societies through acts of redistribution or extravagant feasting. Festivals are times when the social order is temporarily broken usually in order to consolidate power. The existence of festivals has been fundamental to the functioning of existing modes of domination and oppression in societies since the word go.
But what happens in societies where urbanisation and industrialisation becomes established in societies and religion or tradition ceases to be important? Cue the emergence of festival’s which were not always about the music. Take America for example; two decades of socially conservative postwar planning, Fordist economics and disposable income brought with it the mass suburbanisation and homogenisation. Combine this boredom with social discontent of the Vietnam war, music then becomes a vehicle in which to kick back against the squareness and monotony of said mass culture. Woodstock is the result, the counter-cultural display par-excellance. 450,000 people, an inherently dangerous getting together of minds and ideas. Needless to say Woodstock never returned to Bethel Farm.
Music festivals have always had counter-cultural elements to them, think Glastonbury for example and it’s role as an early fundraising links to the Campaign for Nuclear disarmament. When it’s a niche fringe of “hippies and doleheads” attending, this sort lifestyle is never really a problem to the authorities. When the lifestyle grows outside this and people realise how liberating this lifestyle may be, that’s when the authorities crack down.
Today cops shutting down parties is a frequent occurrence, but it wasn’t always like that. The initial crackdown on the “weedy little dope-smoking hippies” in the Battle of Beanfield in 1985 in the U.K. was Thatchers initial attempt to shut down this growing alternative culture. This culminated in the Criminal Justice act of 1994, Ireland of course already had its own liberal invoking of the Dancehall Act since 1935.
Legislation from threatened governments and moral panics have resulted in a compromise situation whereby today individuals can go wild for a few days, but not too wild. Thus music festivals in their current form fill the void that religion and traditional festivals have left in today’s society.
There is a certain poetic justice to raving in the castles and courtyards of old colonial oppressors, a postcolonial mark of modernity and progress if you will. Traditionally the relation of the dispossessed to these structures usually consisted in the form of rents and labour, these provided for the upkeep of these vast estates. In this respect, has much fundamentally changed? In contemporary times, much the same is true. The same landed gentry of Stradbally Hall and Slane and Ballinlough Castles open their gates to the great unwashed for a couple of weekends each year in a bid to raise capital for the upkeep of the estates.
Music plays a secondary role in all of this. In fact music festivals are bad for live music in general, when most acts play a festival they usually sign a contract stating that they will not play in the vicinity for the next X number of months on either side of the festival. This invariably has knock on effects. Groups end up being block booked and bands tour around the festival circuit develop to the detriment of the traditional touring band model. You wanna go see the your favorite band this summer? Well tough, that’s gonna cost you €200 thanks. Oh and the sound is gonna be shite too, sound checks are at a bare minimum and speaker systems may have to contend with gale force winds blowing the sound all over the place.
The music festival has traditionally been the ultimate social leveller. If you want to go to a festival, you just have to want a ticket more than the next person, you have to make an effort to procure a ticket, the price of the ticket is set, it is above profiteering. The moral economy of ticket exchange is visible in the wrath that the ticket-tout receives….. until recently with festival organisers now backing secondary resale sites, and taking an extravagant cut with Electric Picnic blazing the trail.
Let’s say you want to buy two tickets for the E.P, it’ll cost you €378 a pop (with the funds going to the original seller), the combined charges on top of this will be €137. There you have it, €893 for two tickets to the Electric Picnic, and fully authorised by them too (this is the cheapest listing by the way). Prices go up as high as €1784 for two tickets.
This completely changes the nature of the festival space, it’s one thing individual touts/scalpers selling tickets to make a bit on the side, but it’s altogether quite another for an official resale market to operate. This veil of officialism subtly turns the ticket into a commodity which can be traded remotely anywhere by anyone, just like any other; oil, coffee, bananas etc..
Is the ticket a commodity though? In one sense it is, market forces are required to bring the festival together, tradespersons, vendors, bands, promoters need to be paid, their labour and the materials the use is governed by the laws of supply and demand. Yet the moment a ticket gets printed though, market forces cease to be a factor, the ticket is viewed not as a commodity, but an entry into a ritualistic space that is above the morals of the market.
Don’t want to camp with the unwashed masses, no problem! Then posh camping is for you, arrive to the site and your lodgings will be set up for you. €200 per night for an architect designed pod is available for those looking for the “immersive festival experience” in an all “housed in secure enclosure with strict access conditions”.
A trend is emerging ,the very escapism offered by the festival is under threat, and it’s getting worse, first of all we have the pure commoditisation of the ticket, secondly the demarcation of space which comes in the form of posh camping.
Thirdly, space is then further demarcated with restrictions on entry granted upon your basis as a consumer outside the confines of the festival. For instance the Vodafone Tent, a place where you can go to get a free head massage or charge your phone is not a bad thing to have at a festival. It is open from 10AM -but only if you are a Vodafone customer, 12PM for all the other schmucks.
Two friends of mine were at Castlepalooza last year amongst the torrential rains (It started pissing down at 7pm on the Friday and didn’t end till Sunday midday). Their tent started letting in rain, all their stuff got soaked, they got up looking for shelter, the only place to go was the Vodafone tent, unfortunately for them, they weren’t 087, no entry sorry! They ended up standing soaked to the bone under a Yew tree for an hour until all the other tents opened. Hardly an egalitarian image.
Heineken has also started to make inroads into the festival scene with it’s “Sound Atlas” area (don’t forget the hashtag! #soundatlas), presumably as a reaction to the prospective banning of Alcohol sponsorship of sporting events in the near future. The interior festival space thus becomes a reflection of real world corporate strategy. It’s a slippery slope, very slowly it happens that instead of a semi-ritualistic space which serves a social need, the space then becomes nothing more that a reflection of the outside world that we are all attempting to temporarily escape from. A neoliberal fantasyland where the highest bidder takes all, complete with private security.
It’s not just a European phenomenon, this has been happening Stateside too, the riots of Woodstock 99 showing what happens when you try to recreate the scale of the original Woodstock and attempt to overtly commodify it. Burning Man is having issues too with it’s influx of tech capital, this is evident in the phenomena of “sherpas” (who hasn’t been to Nepal, right?) at the festival to cater to Silicon Valley types flying in and being waited on hand and foot. The Californian Ideology of social and economic liberalism, is dependent on the domination and servitude of others to exist, inside and outside Black Rock City.
There are smaller alternatives out there, but usually they follow the same path. Think Electric Picnic, or Body and Soul which in their first few years were quite small, and great. Over the next few years they got bigger, (which is a good thing as more people can experience it).
But something has been lost along the way with the arrival of drinks restrictions, corporate sponsorships and the carving up and demarcating up of the festival space to those who can afford to pay more. As the commodification increases, the escapism decreases, the festival, true to the postmodern experience is no longer a festival. For people who just want to go somewhere and get messed up, free from the bullshit of everyday life, where is there left to go?