It wasn’t the first festival scene that I – or anyone else –could’ve imagined. I was drinking rum and coke with a scientist I’d just met, who had helped test the AstraZeneca vaccine for the deadly virus that bought the world – and live music – to a close for 18 months. On stage, a frontman told everyone in the crowd who was an anti-vaxxer to put their hands up and then ordered them to go into a wall of death. But this was the Download pilot, a 10,000 capacity mini-test of the regular Download Festival held at Donington Park and attended by 80,000 people. By design, the context was far from normal.
No one knew quite what to expect. Everyone was tested with both a lateral flow test and a PCR test before coming and had to prove their negative result on entry. On the first day, people were slightly curious and wary, not knowing if there would be extra rules or what the unspoken etiquette would be inside. But for the rest of the weekend, the festival was its own bubble, a place untouched by the reality outside of COVID-19 life and government restrictions.
“Now I’m here, it’s like the pandemic never happened because everything is superficially back to normal, almost with no warm-up,” said Jamie Lenman, who played the festival on Sunday. “I’ve sort of forgotten that 18 months.” That everyone had tested negative and somehow agreed that no masks and lots of hugging and moshing were par for the course, fed into a feeling of total safety, an ambiance that was marked and noticeable. As Lenman put it to VICE: “I feel as safe as can be expected and I don’t feel like I’m endangering anyone else.” It was a return to normality for 62 hours.
The shows themselves felt as explosive and entertaining as those on any typical Download weekend. Frank Carter, who headlined Friday night, said the following day that their set was better than any of the previous times they’d played Download. “In the middle of it, I realised I hadn’t taken a breath for about 30 seconds and that’s when I realised how much it all meant to us.”
Across the weekend, audiences were reminded of the fact that multiple artists playing had released albums during the pandemic and not been able to tour. One of these acts was While She Sleeps, the penultimate headliner on the main stage on Saturday. Guitarist Sean Long told VICE: “We made it work but for me, you write the music in two parts. You write it for the headphones and you write it for this live experience, for that connection. To not get that flip side of the coin is quite strange. These festival gigs are ways for people to have a brief respite from pain, for that brief moment of peace.”
For new bands, festivals – more so than regular gigs – are vital for reaching an audience and growing a fan base. “From a band’s perspective, Download is always the one you want to play when you’re starting out,” said Long. “We played it first about nine years ago now and it was one of the most important shows of our lives.”
That was the case for Static Dress, a up-and-coming post-hardcore band from Leeds whose notable aesthetic and handful of tracks have had little chance to be translated into a live setting – they formed only just before the pandemic started.
“This whole rock world is rough, so you’ve got to be able to stick through it and get better and be able to grow from it,” frontman Olli Appleyard said of the band’s live development. “When I go to other festivals of other genres, or other shows, you can get away with being a bit shit, people have vocals on backing tracks, all the instrumentals are done on a DJ deck, people are there for vibes. Here, you have other musicians in the crowd. You’ve got to be everything to be impressive to musicians and rock fans as well.”
None of the artists were paid, playing only for expenses, and had just over three weeks notice to prepare. “We played three new songs in our set so we had to learn them and get them tight, which is easier said than done in three weeks, especially when people have jobs,” said Appleyard.
On Friday – five days after the Sunday of the festival – punters will take another PCR test, sent out by the festival organisers. The government will then collect the data and work out how many of the 10,000 people have tested positive for the virus.
Organisers Festival Republic confirmed that they incurred a heavy loss over the three days just to run the pilot. If it goes well, it might mean that other festivals can go ahead this summer, and it’s important to note that it was the industry itself that campaigned for these tests and took a financial hit to do so.
“You always felt as an artist that in this society and in this culture we have in the UK, that art is absolutely last on everyone’s list. But you never like to find out if that’s really true,” said Lenman of the last 18 months. “Suddenly when the pandemic hit, the mask fell away, ironically, and you discovered alright, we are literally everyone’s last priority.”
Leaving the festival under a giant red banner that read “Current COVID-19 restrictions apply beyond this point” in all caps felt surreal and quite moving. But that was testament to the fact that, while the pilot’s wider success hangs in the balance, the festival itself was a triumph. It was a typical communal experience with almost no obvious security presence or rules needed to keep a blissful atmosphere.
“I think it could definitely work as a template,” said Frank Carter of the pilot, “but then it was always going to be a rough draft. Good thing for me; usually the rough draft contains the most magic.” Just being able to go to a music festival this year was special, but this year’s Download will go down in history – an event that radiates potential for our near future.