A Tale of Two Festivals: What makes for a perfect festival? – Emma Webster

I attended two very different music festivals this past summer, one of which I enjoyed significantly more than the other – partly for personal reasons, partly for factors relating to inclement weather.  What I will call Festival A and Festival B – anonymised to spare any blushes – both took place in the South East of England and were independent, i.e. not owned or managed by the likes of Live Nation et al.

– Festival A was a medium-sized family festival (cap. 25,000), based in a park outside the city centre.  The weather was foul for much of the weekend, and the festival was very muddy.

– Festival B was a small family festival (cap. 5,000), based on a farm at the edge of a small village.

While comparing Festival A and Festival B might seem a little bit like comparing apples and pears, there were a number of reasons why Festival B was more enjoyable than A, which festival organisers may want to bear in mind. The two festivals were different in terms of the attendee demographic, the music on offer, the size, scale, and feel; however, I believe that the following five points are valid and can apply to any size or scale of music festival in the UK, but particularly those engaged with attracting a family audience.

1)     Create an extraordinary space

Festivals are events outside the ordinary (no matter how mainstream they may have perhaps become); my preference is for spaces that evoke wonder and delight – like circuses or funfairs – rather than having the feel of a car boot sale.  Festival B, for example, had hired colourful, stripy tents, while Festival A used plain, white ones.  Festival B added colour elsewhere with flags and banners on poles, and by encouraging fancy dress among the festival-goers themselves; Festival A seemed to be populated by an army of teenage girls, all wearing the obligatory cut-off denim shorts and wellies.

One could argue that listening to music in a field with a crowd of strangers is extraordinary enough, but I strongly believe that adding colour and elements of showmanship to a festival enhances the festival experience for all.  Indeed, research by Bowen and Daniels (2005) into motivations for attending music festivals highlighted the need for festival promoters to provide more than just music: ‘equally important is creating a fun and festive atmosphere that offers ample opportunity to socialize and have new and non-musical experiences’.  I argue that the use of colour and opportunities for audience participation is one means of creating such an atmosphere.

2)    Provide seating

Festival A (the muddy one) was particularly hard work because of the lack of places for festival-goers to sit down.  Some of the concession stands had seating, but these were often clearly marked as being for customers only.  Festival B had provided straw bales for people to sit on, which were very welcome (even if it were possible to sit on the grass due to much better weather).  Research by Henderson and Wood (2009) found that there are two significant groupings of attendees at the festival: ‘fans’ for whom ‘the music really does matter’ and other ‘tribal socialites’ who seek an experience beyond the music being played on stage. As the authors highlight, this has important implications for how the festival is programmed but also for how the surrounding environment is arranged for socialisation.  I argue that this particularly applies to seating areas and that pub tables or straw bales give a good clear signal that the festival organisers are cognisant of the needs of their customers, particularly at self-styled family festivals which attract a broad range of age groups.

3)    Desegregate the kids zone

Festival A had a good-sized children’s zone, with shows aimed at kids and fun fair rides, etc.  However, the zone was apparently entirely fenced off from the rest of the festival, creating the impression that children and adults should perhaps be kept separate (the ‘teenage zone’ was kept equally separate).  Festival B’s smaller, de-segregated children’s area saw adults and children playing together and helped to create the ‘fun and festive atmosphere’ mentioned above. I very much enjoyed watching the classic game of ‘tie-a-balloon-on-your-leg-and-run-round-trying-to-burst-everyone-else’s-by-kicking-at-their-shins’, for example, particularly because even those without children were encouraged to join in.  This helped add to the ‘village fete’ atmosphere of the festival, and gave it a genuine family feel.  The location of Festival B’s children’s zone (which wasn’t signposted in this way, by the way) between the campsite and the main field also aided participation from a wider range of people.

There are obvious problems with this approach, however, particularly as the size of the festival increases: not everyone wants to be around children or teenagers and so such zoning may be entirely appropriate.  Equally, parents might also appreciate the chance to offload the children in a safe space for a period while they go off and explore without their children. However, sections of Festival A’s campsite were entirely dominated by under-age teenagers getting wasted on alcohol because they were unable to purchase alcohol in the festival arena and unable to take in their own due to the strict no-BYO policy inside, therefore the campsite became their space in which to run amok. (My favourite anecdote from the weekend was a young man’s explanation that the pile of fluorescent vomit by the front of his tent was the result of an inebriated girl’s unfortunate reaction to eating a glowstick).  Would this have been the case if the various sections at the festival were more integrated?

4)    Encourage low-key, respectful security

Following on from the previous point, Festival A had sniffer dogs on the main entrance and plain clothes policeman wandering the campsite, allegedly forcibly searching camper’s tents.  Festival B’s security staff were less of an obvious (and threatening) presence (although the location, demographic, and relative sizes of the two festivals makes such a comparison admittedly slightly unfair).  As a long-serving security staff member at a Bristol club explained to me, the behaviour of the security staff can have a direct impact on the behaviour of the punters.  The security staff member explained that he used to be ‘macho’ and aggressive, and used that ‘method’ for one particular promoter’s club night until the promoter talked to the security staff at the venue and asked them to treat people more humanely and with more respect, i.e. rather than shouting at them and pushing them around, talk to them calmly and without aggression.  After initial scepticism that this would work after years of doing it the ‘other way’, the security staff member told me that he found that customers were much easier to deal if he used the ‘new method’, as they responded in kind, rather than getting aggressive back.  He has since used this ‘method’ for other events at the venue, and finds that it’s a more effective means of dealing with people, concluding that customers mirror behaviour, therefore if security staff and police are aggressive, customers will be aggressive back, whereas if they’re not, customers won’t be as well.  While this is obviously more difficult to do at a festival due to the size and scale of such events and the often raucous (and sometimes illegal) behaviour by some festival-goers, Festival B’s ‘softly softly’ approach helped create a warm and friendly atmosphere.

In a related point, research by Gibson and Connell (quoted in 2012, p. 100) in Australia suggests that the Meredith Music Festival’s ‘no dickhead policy’ may manage excessive noise and anti-social behaviour more effectively than an increase in formal security presence:

Dickheads or people involved in dickhead behaviour will usually find that a solid citizen will firmly but politely inform them that their dickhead behaviour is not admired or appreciated.  The Dickhead will usually realise they are being a dickhead and pull their head in.  If not, our Helpers or Staff or even Security might make a discreet intervention.  So if you are a Dickhead, this festival isn’t for you.

T in the Park’s ‘Citizen T’ initiative is another example: it ‘encourages positive community behaviour including; looking out for your friends and fellow campers, binning your litter, taking your tent home and ultimately having fun but staying safe!’, and it would be interesting to analyse how successful such a scheme has been at such a large festival. Could it be that Festival A would be more self-policing and require a less heavy security presence by allowing festival-goers to take alcohol into the festival arena, by de-segregating the various demographic zones, and explicitly encouraging (and empowering) festival-goers to self-police themselves?

5)    Provide a 24-hour shop in the campsite

Festival B had a 24-hour shop on the edge of the campsite selling tea, coffee, and festival essentials such as toilet roll, toothpaste, and chocolate bars.  Festival A had a tent in the campsite which seemed to be set up for selling bacon rolls and tea/coffee, but I personally didn’t see it open over the weekend (probably as a result of the weather). Festival B’s shop was run by a charity and manned by volunteers therefore the shop was at no cost to the festival organisers (apart from free festival passes), but appeared to be very much appreciated by festival-goers judging by the length of the tea/coffee queue in the morning!  Festival A’s attendees, on the other hand, had to wait until they were back in the festival arena before getting their morning coffee fix.

This is certainly not an exhaustive list – if others have suggestions for what makes the ‘perfect’ festival, please share!

References

Bowen, Heather E. and Daniels, Margaret J (2005) Does the music matter? Motivations for attending a music festival.Event Management, Volume 9, Number 3, pp. 155-164.

Gibson, C. and Connell, J. (2012) Music Festivals and Regional Development in Australia. Ashgate, Aldershot.

Henderson, S. and Wood, E. (2009) Dance To The Music: Fans and Socialites in the festival audience. Available from: <http://livemusicexchange.org/wp-content/uploads/Dance-To-The-Music-Fans-and-Socialites-in-the-festival-audience.pdf> Accessed 24th October 2012.

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