The sound of gentrification

Expensive food, fancy glamping and questionable hats: from Sonisphere, Emma Rees reflects on 27 years of music festivals

August 14, 2014

Source: Brian Rasic/Rex

Good, bad and ugly: the festival experience can include Monsters of RAAWWK, loitering within tents, pretty dirty things and carrying that weight

I think I’m falling out of love with festivals. Summer is peak Festival Season (actually, “festival season” is now like a shop “sale” and stretches almost year-round), and while this idea might once have thrilled me, now it leaves me with a feeling of weariness.

In festival terms, there are the heavy hitters – Glastonbury, the Isle of Wight Festival, the V Festival, Leeds/Reading – but there are also numerous smaller events sprouting up. For example, during this summer’s solstice you could have gone to Cornwall for the 3 Wishes Faery Fest, which advertises itself as a “Gathering of the Celtic Faerie Clans” and features music from, among others, the Formidable Vegetable Sound System and Spriggan Mist (I’ve never heard of them either). And then there is the ingeniously titled “OutCider Festival” in Somerset, where the organisers welcome “a ragged community of free-thinkers, drinkers and music lovers” who “live by a simple code of honesty, friendliness and good humour”.

At my very first festival, the camply-aggressively named Monsters of Rock (pronounced “RAAWWK”, of course) in 1987, I saw Metallica at Donington Park; at the Sonisphere festival in July, I saw Metallica for the 30th time. That is a lot of Metallica. And there have been a lot of changes in what festivals are, too. Almost everything about them irritates me now: the long, long walk from the car park; the overpriced food; the loos; the people wearing novelty hats; people who spend £15 on a novelty hat; people who charge other people £15 for a novelty hat.

For the fact is that nothing is ever quite right in Festival Land. The weather is either too hot (sunburn) or too cold (blue fingers) or too wet (trench foot). Years of going to festivals and I still haven’t mastered the art of taking the right equipment into the arena with me. If I take the factor 50, it rains, and if I take a cagoule, I bake. Sitting and standing – things that present me with little difficulty most days – suddenly become hard work. In an attempt to mitigate this, we now have a collection of 11 camping chairs, each a variation on a theme: there is the one with the built-in cupholders; the one with the integrated speaker system; the one in jaunty stripes; the faux Cath Kidston one; and the one that – no matter how many years it has been since we visited a beach – always disgorges dunesful of sand when being extracted from its canvas sheath.

Eating and drinking, too, need to be planned carefully. Take food in with you and you spend the entire day wondering where that smell of rancid banana is coming from (it is coming from the rancid banana that, half-way through a set, when you used your bag as an improvised pillow, broke down and sobbed its overheated banana flesh all over a half-empty tube of Pringles). Don’t take food in and you’re at the mercy of people with names like Ffion who think that they’re super-edgy because they got their nose pierced twice and are trying to sell you organic veggie burgers at £7 a pop.

I’ve learned a lot about myself after more than 25 years of festival-going. Donington, home of my initiation into raawwk festivals, is actually East Midlands Airport. The campsites aren’t quite on the runway, but they may as well be. While planes flying close to the stage at sunset make for wonderful photographs, their noise does not make for a good night’s sleep. Or any sleep at all. Which is why I refused to camp after my first camping-at-a-festival experience, a subsequent Monsters of Rock, which was relaunched as the Download Festival in 2003.

Camping turns me into even more of a misanthrope than I usually am. I hate the trek from tent to loos that, only a few hours after the site has opened, are dirty, smelly and sporting sodden lumps of what were once rolls of loo paper. I hate the noise of other people having fun when I’m trying to sleep on an airbed that undulates like a waterbed in a sleazy Vegas hotel room. And I hate the metallic dawn chorus of the “Zfffeeeippp. Zfffeeeippp” as hundreds of tent flaps are simultaneously unzipped because the tents have turned into saunas.

Mess left after end of music festival

Even if you can cope with all this – and I can’t – there is always the chance that a drunken, 23-stone heavy metal fan will fall asleep on top of your tent with you inside it. Thankfully (and my younger self would despair of my saying this), festivals have become big business and gentrified. The literally sparkling (she had glitter on her face and in her hair) supervisor at Tangerine Fields in Sonisphere’s glamping area was a delightful young woman called Robyn. The ethos of Tangerine Fields, Robyn explained to me, is: “Carry less, walk less, and have everything you need already set up for you.”

Sonisphere, alas, lacked the facilities that Tangerine Fields call “added juice” – no pamper parlours or cocktail bars at this festival – so it was still uncannily like the camping I promised myself that I would never do again. But, as press, we did have “Rock Royalty” status – an idea quite at odds with the democratic, carnivalesque ideal of the festival space famously celebrated by the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin (although he probably wouldn’t have been a raawwk fan). Hoi polloi had no access to the Royalty’s bar or shower blocks.

This style of ostensibly hassle-free camping is quite different from anything I’ve experienced previously, but the price tags can be hefty. Prices for some three-day festivals, including ticket and glamping, start at £810 for a bog-standard two-person tent, and can go up to more than £2,500 for a six-berth tepee.

Yet Tangerine Fields does perform an important task. At the end of the weekend, revellers depart and the “Tangerine Marines” move in to strike camp and leave the fields much as they found them. They cater for about 70,000 customers at more than 20 festivals annually.

This clean-up matters. Teresa Moore, head of event and music management at Bucks New University, has found that about 60 per cent of festival-goers (and more than 6 million people attended festivals and other live gigs in the UK in 2013) abandon tents for the organisers to clear up. As Moore told me, “The post-festival wasteland of campsite rubbish is now a common sight at many festivals and is on an almost epic scale at some of the largest events, with Glastonbury now handling some 5,000 discarded tents.”

But, if the music is good at a festival, the privations are – almost – bearable. At Sonisphere, we discovered acts we hadn’t heard of before (Glass City Vice, for example: four immensely likeable Brighton-based music graduates; and The Wild Lies, also young, articulate and phenomenally talented musicians). We listened to more established bands such as Alestorm (think pirates, heavy metal sea shanties and inflatable cutlasses); the wonderfully irreverent Airbourne; and The Cadillac Three.

Festivals also have the capacity for creating experiences that are never remotely replicated anywhere else. At this metal festival, for example, Chas ’n’ Dave played their Knees up Mother Brown boogie to a crowd of hundreds in the pouring rain. And Nick, otherwise known as “Animal”, from old-time punk-rock band Anti-Nowhere League, was a delight. I’d grown up listening to the League, which Nick proudly describes as “the first grunge bad boys of punk”, hanging out with people who, like him, were involved in biker gangs.

Biker gangs couldn’t be further from the genteel milieu of Sonisphere’s hosts, Martha and Henry Lytton-Cobbold. But festivals do have this Bakhtinian knack of generating weird juxtapositions. Rock festivals have been held in the grounds of their home, Knebworth House, for 40 years. I asked Henry what his father, the 77-year-old Baron Cobbold, thought of the annual arrival of tens of thousands of metal fans into his beautiful parkland. “He was at the front of the crowd for The Prodigy on Friday night and loved it,” Henry told me. “And, anyway, we live in a rock ’n’ roll house – there are bats everywhere.”

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