[28 October 2013]
There has been an explosion of music festivals in recent years. From the UK standpoint I share with Marcus Barnes, I have seen countless new festivals spring up in almost every county of the country. Meanwhile, events in mainland Europe are marketed as music-filled holidays, and the media reports on major US festivals such as Coachella and SXSW.
It’s easy enough to understand why this is the case. Today’s music fan doesn’t have to go to a music store, pick up a physical product and take it home before they can play a new record. YouTube, streaming and downloading, legal or otherwise, have made all kinds of music freely accessible to consumers; it’s now easy to discover a large and varied number of artists within the space of an hour’s web browsing.
Festivals, whose bills include multiple acts and genres across the space of a weekend, replicate this kind of listening experience. There are economic reasons, too: in these straightened times, a £200 festival ticket that includes the opportunity to see 30 or 40 bands offers considerably better value for money than 30 or 40 gig tickets at £20 or so each.
But is this expansion of the festival market a good thing? Barnes seems to think so, and keenly espouses the virtues of 80 of them in this gazetteer of the festival landscape. The book is not intended as a travel guide; it includes only perfunctory information about each event covered, including brief histories of the festivals and details of few of the acts that have played in the past. For festival-goers who have been to all the obvious parties, it offers plenty of alternatives that they are less likely to heard of, and it also functions as a stocking filler for the armchair raver.
The summaries of each festival covered are generally sufficient to give readers an idea of whether any given event is one that they are likely to enjoy. However, there are areas where the book lacks clarity. Each entry includes a handy box that lists past headliners and assigns a star rating to the cost of tickets, food, beer and cigarettes. What’s confusing here is the star rating assigned to accommodation costs: there’s a surprising variance here between festivals whose admission price includes camping. But given that the book is clearly intended as a stimulus for further research rather than as a comprehensive guide, this can be forgiven.
Around the World in 80 Raves is a serviceable primer then, but what’s most interesting about it is what it tells us about the festival scene as a whole. The growth of the festival market is one thing that’s highly apparent. The 80 festivals covered here represent only Barnes’ choices from the vast pool that’s on offer. There’s clearly growth within individual festivals too: Barnes often points out that events grew from humble beginnings lasting a couple of days and attended by a few hundred people to week long events that sell thousands of tickets.
The internationality of the festival scene is also notable. The book is divided into four sections, namely the UK, Europe, North America and ‘Further Afield’, and while the coverage is fairly Eurocentric, it’s particularly interesting to see that Mexico City hosts its own major rock festival (Corona Capital), there is an annual electronic music fest in Beijing (INTRO) and South Africa has its own Burning Man inspired event (Afrikaburn).
The use of the word ‘raves’ in the title is a telling detail for two reasons. Firstly it indicates a slight bias towards electronic music that’s of no great detriment to the book: while electronic festivals are perhaps slightly over-represented, the overall coverage is sufficiently broad. ‘Rave’, however, signifies not only an electronic music party, but also a party in general. While the act of ‘raving’ might once have stood for travelling to an impromptu gathering in a field somewhere, it can now mean any kind of party or night out.
Barnes is largely very good at sticking to the music, and any distinctive features of each festival, but there’s an underlying suggestion that he might be writing for an audience that is visiting such events to indulge in copious amounts of drugs and alcohol. Of course, this is an important part of the music experience for many, but if this, rather than music, becomes the primary reason for visiting a festival, then the whole event loses something. Festivals may be becoming more about the party than about the music. This might not be a bad thing for festivals, but it can’t be a good thing for music.
Finally, it’s possible that the growing number of festivals might result in an undesirable homogeneity. Barnes includes no less than seven festivals set on and around the Croatian coastline: is this poor curating, an indicator that Barnes really loves going to festivals in Croatia, or a sign that the festival market might be being infiltrated by copycat events? Still, for each of these seven, there is at least one more distinctive festival to discover. Austria’s Snowbombing festival, which combines music with skiing, and the tiny 300 capacity Woodsist in Big Sur, are two good indicators that there is at least some room in the world for innovation.