A Look Into Festival Decline
First the Queen got to polish her shiny hat and then a collection of millionaires ran around a field in Eastern Europe. Once that was over, a Scot who is a Brit until he loses, and then returns to being a Scot until next time, when he may or may not become a Wimbledon Champion, fell at the final hurdle. Now as we enter August, London hosts the Olympic public transportation games and all the while, global air currents shift and drop half of the Atlantic Ocean on our heads. Fortunately for our stiff upper lips, those little plastic flags appear to be weathering the storm better than the Eurozone. But as the sun eventually dries this green and pleasant land we call Team GB, one can’t help but notice an eerie silence.
This silence of course, cannot be found on the television or in the papers, which vibrate with the excitement of grandiose nationalistic events. Instead it can be heard in the spaces that host the countless number of small-scale festivals throughout the UK. For despite all our British backslapping, there is an unnerving sense that the little guys are in decline.
It would be rather melodramatic to suggest that the independent festival scene is in free fall; in fact it has never been healthier. As a nation the UK is spoilt for choice and almost every town is within spitting distance of some niche event, each catering for a varied diet of tastes, tunes and general tomfoolery. Bristol, for example, has seen two of its most highly anticipated street festivals cancelled due to funding issues, and yet in the same turbulent summer, the city has masterfully executed a booming array of live music, food festivals and artistic experiences, all free and fully attended. So why do some succeed where others fail?
One argument could be the weather and to a certain point this is a valid reason. Digging out the wellies is a staple of the British festival, but there comes a tipping point at which novel puddle jumping becomes a test of endurance – wading from soggy sleeping bags to the quagmire of the main arena. Furthermore, the June Monsoon caused a logistical nightmare. Parking, walkways, and toilets all run the risk of becoming unusable and before anybody has even unwrapped their plastic ponchos, festival organisers have to transport hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of speakers, stage and lighting equipment over sodden ground. Although the British festival goers will not shy away from a healthy dose of precipitation, when flights to sun baked Spain or Croatia are cheaper than a train ticket to Edinburgh, it is little wonder that the foreign festivals, which offer the same line-up as their British counterparts, seem increasingly more appealing.
Putting the weather aside, there is the grim reality of a global recession. It’s not necessarily the ticket-buying public who are feeling the squeeze on this one. More than one hundred pounds for a weekend’s entertainment is not exactly cheap, but it is an expense customers are obviously willing to pay. Whatever your own financial situation, the undeniable pressure is on organisers. Enticing the biggest acts, throwing the biggest party, not to mention security, and the hiring of land obviously racks up the expense. This requires forward investment, and more often than not this is prior to any ticket sales. The modest, yet relatively established ‘Cloud 9’ festival in Cheshire cited ‘financial pressure’ as the reason behind its cancellation, and there are countless examples of festivals folding under similar circumstances. Maybe the financial cream of this British summer is being siphoned off by the larger events. With month upon month of free entertainment on the street as well as on the telly, why pay for a ticket?
Festival fatigue is one of the phrases used by a local organiser to symbolise the bombardment of Great British entertainment. Glastonbury has lain fallow this year, and in retrospect maybe that is the financially sound decision. As the lessons from the disastrous ‘Bloc 2012 Festival’ have shown us, if it’s not done right, then it shouldn’t be done at all.
There is, after all, only so much room at the top of the tree; we have become a nation of festival gluttons but all too often this maelstrom of choice saturates and dilutes the novelty and excitement promised by organisers. It would be counter-productive to suggest that there should only be an elite selection of festivals, for this would undermine the core purpose of gathering to hear music. The idea that all tastes and styles have a space to be freely expressed and supported is integral to the ‘festival spirit’. Yet one can’t help but feel that somehow the vastness of choice is reductive to the novelty of the experience. If 2013 marks a spike in sales then hopefully our fears will have been unjustified, but if the numbers continue to dwindle, maybe we have to ask ourselves if bigger is better, and if less can be more?