The Sidney B. Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre in Marin County, California, on 10th and 11th June 1967: the location for the oft-forgotten Fantasy Fair And Magic Mountain Music Festival, regarded as the very first US rock festival. Taking place one week before the Monterey Pop Festival and two years before Woodstock, Fantasy Fair played host to tens of thousands of Bay Area music fans; the first twinkle in the eye of what became the Summer Of Love. The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Captain Beefheart And The Magic Band and The Byrds played, while a group of Hells Angels kept the peace, and an ‘acid doctor’ was on hand to mitigate bad trips.
How far things have come in the intervening 50 years. In today’s festival landscape, the defining principles of Woodstock and Glastonbury – guaranteed escapism, experimentation, meeting new minds – are repackaged and sold back to us in a thousand different hues. The #ultimatehedonisticexperience can now be livestreamed from your phone, while your local MP has a very public meltdown on Twitter. A study conducted by UK Music in 2016 revealed that more than 3.5 million people attended a music festival in the UK in 2015. The festival industry itself accounts for more than 39,000 full-time jobs, according to further research by Oxford Economics, also for UK Music. The counterculture has entered the mainstream.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not down on festivals. There is something primal in the thrill of a shared festival experience that normal gigs can’t touch. The communal joy you get from a festival ‘moment’ is somehow a heightened version of the usual experience, bringing a rush that is addictive. And I love that fact that there’s so much variety out there now, that we don’t just have to make do with what big-hitters like Live Nation serve up (the festival behemoth operate nine of the 10 biggest festivals in the UK, and over 90 worldwide). From venue-hopping metropolitan festivals to more traditional greenfield events, almost every niche is catered for: geek out on science at Bluedot, mosh to your heart’s content at Download, or relax with a good book at Hay Festival – there’s something out there for all of us.
As good as this surfeit of choice is for the festivalgoer, it occasionally feels as though the dependence on festivals is overshadowing the smaller gigs and venues, the bricks and mortar of our music industry. Indeed, it often feels like the festival season never really ends. An estimated 1,000 festivals – from music, to literary, to beer and food – took place in 2016, according to research by delivery group ParcelHero. And even though there are regular high-profile casualties – Safe As Milk, the Fyre Festival debacle – a steady stream of new ‘weekenders’ and ‘boutique’ happenings are coming our way. I just worry about the industry chasing that addiction – that over-festivilisation (is that a word?) waters down the feeling. But, if you’ve got a spare $799 to spend on Live Nation’s ‘festival passport’ – and all its attendant travelling costs – then I suppose you’re not worried about a saturated festival market.
All of this activity brings in a sizeable economy, too. According to data gathered by market research firm Mintel in 2015, the live music and festivals market in the UK has a value of more than £2bn, and could rise as high as £3.5bn in 2020. Mintel’s research claims that music festivals and concerts have been the fastest growing area of leisure spending over the five years to 2015. It’s a growth area that Paul Reed, General Manager of the Association Of Independent Festivals, thinks is healthy – but is aware that the reality of festival bottom lines isn’t always so clear cut. “It’s a risky business: you look at the margins, and the expenditure and costs for building a town in a field, and there’s got to be something compelling you to do that because it doesn’t make much economic sense down on paper!” AIF is a non-profit festival trade association that represents independent festivals, and empowers them through encouraging sharing ideas of best practice. These events have been vital in ushering in a series of initiatives, building on the work done on tackling ticket touting and the secondary ticket market.
AIF’s most recent initiative is the Safer Spaces At Festivals campaign, and has backing from experts at Rape Crisis England And Wales, Girls Against, Safe Gigs For Women and the White Ribbon Campaign. “This campaign is building upon the positive measures that are already being taken by our members. We are reiterating that we have a zero tolerance towards any form of sexual harassment or assault at our events,” says AIF’s Campaign Manager Renae Brown. “We’re aiming to tackle these issues in both a sensitive and impactful way – pushing awareness of sexual safety to the fore, while ensuring all those working on-site are properly trained, and that UK festivals continue to provide the safest, securest and most enjoyable environment for their customers.”
This follows on from a number of other initiatives that have been seeded in the festival world, before being taken on and implemented throughout the live music sector. Secret Garden Party and Kendal Calling were two of the first festivals to pilot the MAST (Multi Agency Safety Testing) scheme, an anonymous drugs testing platform that helps festivalgoers’ awareness of the risks of drug taking. Rolled out in collaboration with local police and public health authorities, the scheme forensically examines substances put forward by festivalgoers to determine what’s actually in them, and helps festivalgoers make informed choices about what they are taking. “It’s effectively about harm reduction, caring for the audience,” says Reed, who cites MAST’s work in improving awareness around drugs consumption as having benefited festival organisers and attendees alike. At one festival, they identified that certain ecstasy tablets were found to be 100% concrete, and helped to remove them from circulation. “We all have the starting point of zero tolerance, but you’ve got to ask yourself quite honestly, is that enforceable?” says Reed. “If you can get drugs into prisons you can get them on to festival sites, quite frankly. As a festival organiser, you’ve got a duty of care to your audience – how do you reduce the risks for them?”
A joint initiative between Attitude Is Everything and AIF, Access Starts Online is another successful scheme with its beginnings in the festival world that has the potential for much wider use. A joint aspiration to see all AIF member festivals offering comprehensive and clear access information for potential deaf and disabled customers, Access Starts Online has resulted in the drawing up of a charter of best practice for festivals to abide by.
The success of these various initiatives has been largely down to individual festivals, who have shown a great desire to solve issues that they themselves have brought to the table. As a forum and vehicle to carry these discussions, AIF enabled their members to work with the right people to improve standards across the board. And where festivals lead, the rest of the industry follows: if you expect high standards in accessibility, safety and artist care at busy event like festivals, why can’t you expect it throughout the industry?
“We think it’s important to have a collective voice on these things,” says Reed, in summation of the ongoing work AIF does. “I still think there’s a countercultural undertone to a lot of festivals, a certain rebelliousness or punk rock spirit. But, ultimately, we hope to be part of a wider step-change within the industry.”
Independent festivals are in a unique position to be able to offer an entry point in to lots of these discussions, primarily because of their independent nature. As Reed points out, to build up your own festival independently takes a lot of dedication and financial risk. There’s a level of care, of personal investment and of nurturing there that doesn’t quite extrapolate to some of the conglomerates. The people running independents are closer to the regular festivalgoer; they know the issues first hand, and can shout about them from the perspective of organiser and reveller. The wider implication is how these messages seep through to us, the festivalgoers. It doesn’t take much to be excellent to each other.