Music festivals are bad and it’s their fault

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Why does each band need a different drum kit? Why can’t they just share?

I’ve asked these and similar questions dozens of times over the years, never coming to a satisfactory answer, often to the visible irritation of the person who invited me to a music festival. What was critical to the performance about this particular snare and cymbal arrangement, I ask. What makes us wait 20 minutes for failover and sound check? Who benefits from all this duplication? Is it a job creation scheme for roadies? Why can’t professional musicians play on a standard kit?

Music festivals test a person’s ability to live in the moment. Psychologists call it dispositional mindfulness, the ability to be present wholeheartedly, and it’s something I’m very bad at. Relax, I’ve been told more than once, but how can I relax? How can a person get lost in the music when they don’t know how many drum kits are left behind, lining up like trucks at the ferry port of Dover?

Much of what we choose to remember about music festivals is rooted in the myths of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Youth counterculture praise helped preserve the beliefs formed long before, for small events, on the fact that it’s never just about music.

What matters is being there, in a mystical or traditional elsewhere, to feel the general sense of identity, community, authenticity of experience.

Such idealistic things were never easy to reconcile with reality. It should be hard to forget, for example, that Woodstock ’69 was the venture capital project of a Trustafarian and his golfing friends. Authenticity back then was largely a byproduct of the organizers’ poor planning, as it has always been ever since.

Sex, drugs, disorder and misery are the essential ingredients, wrote historian Michael Clarke in 1982. His book The Politics of Pop Festivals barely mentions the music but describes at length how “weekend hippies” shelve their responsibilities and inhibitions in an atmosphere of orgiastic chaos.

The extent to which this stereotype is still true is debatable. Whether that was ever true is a personal matter between grandparents. What’s easier to rationalize is his early 1980s notion that all four things must come together. Typical headliners of the era were Van Halen, Iron Maiden and The Grateful Dead. Misery and disorder were as integral to the scene as sex and drugs; organizational incompetence meant punters had only to seek out the bottom two.

Now that weekend hippies in their 40s line up in Snapchat’s street food village for CBD cola, it’s tempting to claim that festivals have been entirely co-opted by commercialism. The best etiquette is professionalism. Never shy about making money, the industry chose drug rehab to reach a comfortable quarantine. The order was imposed. Misery has been minimized, or at least made avoidable for a fee.

But having sanitized and monetized all the traditional cues of excess, all that remained was to create a scene through literal excess. A typical Glastonbury now hosts over 700 acts on 100 stages. It’s a Costco shopper’s concept of abundance applied to pleasure, the paradox of choice on a geographic scale, and all that inspires me is Fomo.

Hanging on every moment is a matter of stick or twist. Should I accept the fallacy of the sunk cost of staying put, or give in to the suspicion that something better must be happening where I am not? Is this experience the most authentic of all the experiences available?

And when participation is supposed to be life-affirming, is it my fault that I’m bored? Because honestly, for all the promises of intense bacchanalia, there’s a lot of waiting while the roadies swap drum kits.

The hippies who stayed to watch Jimi Hendrix perform “Star Spangled Banner” at sunrise on a Monday morning had to suffer first through dance troupe Sha Na Na’s covers of Duke of Earl and Blue Moon. They had no choice, and maybe that’s the point. The diverse excess of a modern festival, with its hectic lineup and perpetual Fomo, dilutes each individual moment by presenting them all as transcendent. Maybe we don’t have the tolerance for genuinely, genuinely bored anymore.

Bryce Elder is the editor of the FT, Alphaville. Janan Ganesh is missing

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