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Page last updated at 07:22 GMT, Wednesday, 26 May 2010 08:22 UK

What does a music festival say about you?


By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

The season for music festivals is about to kick off, with seemingly more people going than ever before. But what does your choice of festival say about you?

Glastonbury, Bestival, the Big Chill, Latitude, Reading? Which wristband will you be flashing at friends and work colleagues this summer?

It's safe to say music festivals are now an established part of British summer time. There are 450 in the UK alone this year and more people are going to them than ever before, says Virtual Festivals UK.

They used to be about leaving the social snobberies and constraints of everyday life at the gate. The mud and general madness was a great social leveller. Banker or buddhist, everyone was in it together. Now many are sponsored by big corporate brands and money can buy you luxury unimaginable years ago - tipi with shower and double bed for £3,000 anyone?

Glastonbury, Worthy Farm, Somerset, 24-27 June
Latitude, Henham Park Estate, Suffolk, 15-18 July
Reading/Leeds, Little John's Farm, Reading and Bramham Park, Leeds, 27-29 August
Isle of Wight, Seaclose Park, Newport, 11-13 June
Bestival, Robin Hill Country Park, Isle of Wight, 9-12 September
Big Chill, Eastnor Castle, Herefordshire, 5-8 August

"They are completely mainstream now," says Caspar Llewellyn Smith, editor of the Observer Music Monthly magazine. "Glastonbury is a national institution. It's like an advertisement for the Somerset Tourist Board."

But with so much choice and such a range of "experiences" on offer, where you go says more about you than ever before. It's why people continue to wear the wristbands for weeks afterwards, it's about making a statement.

"Your choice definitely says something about your identity," says says Professor George McKay of the University of Salford, who has written extensively on festival culture, including the book Glastonbury: A Very English Fair.

"I often make the point that people don't go to festivals for the music, which is a secondary attraction. They go because of the mass experience, the event itself. Some festivals are simply 'cool' and others not."

And it's basic human nature that many of us want to surround ourselves with like-minded people at festivals - it's life affirming.

"For some, membership of a tribe gives them self esteem," says Professor Adrian North, director of psychology at Heriot-Watt University. "If you are with people you think are cool it reaffirms your own lifestyle choices - you're basically patting yourself on the back."

Saturation point

So what are these festival tribes?

"If you go to Glastonbury or WOMAD you are probably interested in ethical issues around the environment or multiculturalism or a global consciousness. You may even have an organic allotment," says Professor McKay.

"If it's Latitude you're a bit older and possibly taking the kids, but don't want to be too uncomfortable - perhaps thinking you'd like to hire one of those tipis."

Those who work in the festival industry agree divides exists. Reading and Leeds are a teenage rite of passage and all about the music, says Daniel Fahey, editor of Virtual Festivals UK.

Wristbands are often kept on for kudos

"The Isle of Wight festival is about big heritage acts like Paul McCartney, so attracts a slightly older crowd. The Big Chill is for the former rave generation who are now in their 30s and Bestival is still a bit hippy, with fancy dress and healing fields"

The increasing divides are something canny festival organisers have seized upon in order to survive what is now a very crowded market.

"The scene reached saturation point and it's now maturing and segmenting," says Caroline Jackson, a lecturer at Bournemouth University, who is doing a PhD on music festivals. "Individual festivals are now increasingly recognised for what type of experience you get there. Certain groups go to certain festival."

Glastonbury, the biggest and best-known festival, has cleverly adapted by expanding to offer something for everyone, she adds. It has segmented within the festival itself. The diversity means people go to the same festival but have completely different experiences.

The changing nature of the scene has triggered very heated debate about authenticity and what a "real" festival is, says researchers. Is it a one-day shindig in a London park or a three-day party in Somerset with healing fields and heavy rock?


One post on an internet message board moans about a family spotted enjoying a cheese board in a comedy tent at one festival. Another complains of people's "fake sentiment", while pushchairs, middle-aged people and "tame" band line-ups also get slated.

"There's a huge amount of snobbery when it comes to festivals these days," says journalist Alice-Azania Jarvis, who writes for the Independent.

Glastonbury didn't always have 180,000 punters

"The reputation of a festival is more important to some people than the acts who are playing. If watching your favourite band means standing in a field of people who look like mobile-phone salesmen, then some people will decide not to go. It's not what you're watching, more who you are watching them with."

It's inevitable when something becomes mainstream, like a festival, it loses its credibility among some people, says Prof North.

"If your sub culture sets you apart, once everyone else joins in it no longer makes you different. You're just normal."

But researchers say one thing has not changed and spans the divides - the temporary escape from the mundane routine of everyday life.

"Young people like festivals to experience the freedom of youth and their own new music, and older people like them too, trying to remember their own youth, not least by seeing their favourite bands reforming," says McKay.

"And that kind of child-like freedom is a great part of the promise of any festival: outdoors, open air, camping in the countryside, music and other arts, with a group of like-minded people, seeking relaxation or excess."

Put that way, it sounds so good.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Sadly, all festivals are for the well off now. I wouldn't have a chance of scraping together the money required for entrance, let alone all the travel, food and souvenirs. Yet another thing taken out of my reach by corporate society!
david pearce, gillingham, england

I think the festivals these days are getting too big. Its all about charging as much money from as many people as possible. And because there are SO many now hardly any of the festivals actually have any decent bands playing. Its all the next big things with half of a set and the rest filler.
Philip Shaw, Edinburgh

Festivals have definitely evolved in the last 30 years. As an avid fan of glastonbury who has sampled some of the other festivals it really has become a case of 'glasto vs the rest'. The changing clientelle at festivals is an issue for some, occasionally myself, with many people 'doing' glastonbury as a middle class right of passage, which leads to people being onsite who clearly have no idea about how to behave and largely not getting what it's all about. As for middle aged people? I am pretty sure the average festival goer is in their 30s these days.
david goldsworthy, Redditch

What does it matter? People coming together to be friendly and have a good time has to be a good thing, whatever the shape of it.
emma, Halifax UK

Nice to see the unbiased BBC ignore Download/Sonisphere, two festivals which far exceed the likes of Bestival in terms of attendance and size. Nice work! Stop pandering to middle-class people please.

Rock festivals do get a bit unfairly ignored, it's hardly middle class bias though is it. Metal fans are as middle class as they come
Liam, Manchester

Festivals are being destroyed in the UK, by council restrictions and ridiculous police charges. Big festivals like Glastonbury and Reading can afford to meet these demands but the smaller more niche festivals cannot. Both the Glade festival and Strawberry Fair in Cambridge have fallen foul of this this year and I believe at the current rate small and medium sized festivals will soon no longer exist in the UK
Stuart, London

Last festival i went to was maybe 8 years ago, and before that it was leeds in 2000 when entire towers were pulled down in a frenzy of drunken teen angst. Crazy, mental and fun! Nowadays its trying to get a pot noodle filled with hot water for less than a quid, paying a tenner for a chippy and a fiver for a cup of warm beer. Its all about the money. not about the people
shanks, edinburgh and yorkshire and fife

The term 'Festival' has become a misnomer. These events are now so huge and so aggressively commercialised that they should be called fleecetivals.
Bill Bradgate, UK

It's not about the bands, it's about the wristbands!
Ziv, London

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