The world’s longest running music festival, Reading, was conceived as a contemporary jazz festival but, with alcohol and demand, it became a wretched sanctum that invited Britain’s youth to fuck their senses into resplendent oblivion. It started in 1961 and fifty-four STI filled years later, tickets for this year’s event are now on sale. The days of pilgrimaging to a field to drink jeroboams of diluted petrol while The Transglobal Underground soundtrack a descent into a naturally-sourced-whizz based nirvana are long gone. In the present-day, festivals are clandestine, tame, experientially marketed interpretations of an immaculate past attended by the worst of the public. That doesn’t mean they’re terrible – as anyone who found serenity in a tent sponsored by an energy drink last Summer will tell you, festivals continue to be one of the greatest releases from life’s grievances. It’s just that they’ve changed, and keep changing. In order to ensure 2015’s event’s don’t resemble some watered-down paracosm witnessed through desaturated Instagram filters and curated by Shazam, some things need to change.
Most disturbingly, festivals in 2014 became a matter of life and death. Although some have become tamer, drugs – and drug-related deaths – are more commonplace than before. Bestival seized €32,000 worth of substances last year and incidents were reported almost every weekend of the summer – yet it’s clear the law is irrelevant. People will continue pumping ambiguous shit into their body provided by someone known only on first-name basis. Festivals need to accept that most of their punters place serious confidence in strangers saved in their phones as “Adam Sniff”. A documentary released last year titled What’s In My Baggie tested samples of drugs from festivals across the US. They concluded that 100% of MDMA tested was actually bath salts and other drugs were cut with dangerous substances like fentanyl, a powerful opiate given to cancer patients. In the UK, PMA - a far more deadly chemical than MDMA - has been responsible for a string of deaths; accidents that could have been prevented if people knew what they were taking.
This is nothing new; every drug user has inhaled some dentist’s anaesthetic. But when so many teens are taking unknown substances (often for the first time) at festivals, there needs to be a safe, responsible reaction from organisers who know that not everyone is attending their event just to sample organic wood-fired pizza. What’s In My Baggie tested drugs at festivals but risked being kicked out because of the rave act: a piece of US legislation which says venue owners and concert promoters aren’t allowed to have drugs tested at their festival because it will be interpreted as them providing a venue for drug use. By allowing test kits to be sold, they’re acknowledging that there are drugs on site and not taking a preventative measure, only a harm-reduction measure, which for some reason isn’t seen as progressive or helpful even though it could prevent death. That law applies to the US but in the UK, there is no such law. We need testing kits available for those who want to Dance Safe and chew their gums off without accidentally ending it on the 10 o’clock news.
While some are comfortable taking their drugs from a sweaty key, others prefer the sanctuary of padded toilets. When the general public got wise to festivals around the millennium, the events began to change. The beer companies rolled in, life-threatening bands were replaced with the Killers, and brands paved over canvas opium-dens with human car washes. This reached a tipping point in 2014 with Wireless Festival – an event that showed how UK festivals are becoming less connected to the music industry and forming stronger connections with the "experience" industry.
Like many other festivals, Wireless had a VIP area – an exclusively segregated gulag where financially secure attendees could spend money to spend even more money. Two cocktail pitchers cost €130 and Very Imaginary Players swanned around in immaculate vests. The seclusion went beyond prosecco bars too and VIP guests were given a penned area at the front of the crowd, meaning there was a strong divide between attendees, leaving those without money to stand in a separate area at the back – which is surely the antithesis of the music festival: an event conceived out of equality and freedom. Wireless felt like a depressing insight into a future where festivals are controlled by businesses who want to sell spa-days at the Four Seasons or a hot air balloon ride. Instead of fostering an experience like Glastonbury does, Wireless asked its audience to pay for the semblance of one and then asked them to sell it back to friends on social media. There’s nothing wrong with casual advertising but the sort of events that promote inequality and division between people need to remain in the upper echelon of entertainment, not festivals.
Clearly, whether it's the champagne and midget-gem haircut crew at Wireless or the gurning GCSE students at Reading, festivals are in huge demand from a wide cross-section of people. The result is an industry in overdrive and nearing a breaking point - there are currently over 260 festivals in the UK with countless more across the globe, and Wandering Sound ran a piece last year which suggested the Summer Music Festival Bubble is About to Burst due to the amount of events that are put on. Festivals are a source of revenue for artists but, as the same pool of acts play festivals across the globe, booking agents are increasingly spending more money to secure exclusives. This results in a higher-ticket price for fans – of which many can’t afford – which is the reason why some events fail to sell out. Last year saw another increase in events shutting down and, while it’s understandable some are creative babies, 2015 needs to see a cull in the amount of events on offer. In doing so, line-ups can start to become more varied and festivals can cater to their audience better. That won’t happen for some time though and in the interim large festivals need to work harder to cultivate and keep an audience. There’s been a move toward Glastonbury-themed areas at places like T in the Park but, unless done properly and don’t just include a bunch of midgets juggling bowling pins, should be avoided. Basically: whether it’s cutting edge music or dystopian pleasure, festivals need to sharpen their focus.
Music festivals are one of the greatest pleasures in life. They’ve brought us many things: iconic performances from Nirvana to Kanye West, extraordinary stories (at Leeds Festival 2009 a girl, known as Poo Girl, was stuck headfirst in a poop-filled longdrop and this Summer I witnessed someone getting fingered in the middle of a Clean Bandit set) and, above all, a sense of unrelenting freedom - that outside the cruel world of overdrafts and foraging in the reduced section for anything but an Indian Selection box, a spiritual equilibrium can be reached, brought on by a shared love for live music, friendship, and ecstasy. Festivals are in no bad shape but those in charge need to continue to adjust their focus, the things they provide, what they stand for. If they don’t, we risk them turning into an over-priced mirage; infected with ennui where some teenagers go to empty their wallets and others go to die.
Follow Ryan on Twitter: @RyanBassil