The festival high

25 October 2010

Written by: Jean Kemshal-Bell

Like all addictions, the users will go to any length to recapture the feeling. They say it’s a natural high.

Your body grinds up against the throng of unknown people surrounding you. Salt encrusted skin chafes the person next to you, a sharing of heat-induced sweat. Your legs are stiff from continuous jumping movements; your ears are ringing from the baseline pumping through the crowd. But then comes one moment where a band segues into their infamous riff and 15,000 people sing the same words. At this moment, the music festival becomes worth it.

People will pay anywhere from $95 to $450 for these events, to feel this very atmosphere when a handpicked crop of artists are added to the tenacious energy of a 15,000-strong crowd. In one day, you can see 60 acts together. You can meet a world of people between sets, muse the fashions of girls wearing eccentric outfits normally reserved for the pits of the dress-up closets, or men without shirts parading their sweaty, underdeveloped bodies. Hundreds of dollars are forked out for this rush lasting one day, yet these festival users won’t spare $20 for a CD which has the option of replay. And it’s changing the future of the music industry.

Just last month, Record Store Day was held throughout the world on April 17. Artists and music lovers alike banded together, reminding the world of these archaic places that ask people to actually pay for music. Jack White, one half of The White Stripes, encourages people on the Record Store Day website to ‘show respect for the tangible music that you’ve dedicated your careers and lives to, and help it from becoming nothing more than disposable digital data.’

His words put up a passionate fight, but they do leave the question: could the music festival be the new way respect is shown for the industry? Or is it just another drug that has people hooked, a high that soon passes, like the drugs typically associated with festivals?

The festival concept itself is not actually new. Bringing artists together at once has been going on since the hazy-coloured days of Woodstock. But Australians are getting into festivals at a record rate with over 106 festivals across the country, bringing sell-out crowds each time. In the beginning,  Big Day Out was the pinnacle of every festival year, first attracting 9,500 people in 1992. Eighteen years later, that number has reached 263,054 and there seems to be another festival every month covering every corner of the country.

Askmen.com ranks the country’s top ten festivals on criteria of ticket prices, the types of people attracted and the quality of the lineup.  While St Jerome’s Laneway Festival gets the glory of number one, it is the Meredith Music Festival that is touted as the ‘credible music mecca’, taking out fourth position with its three infamous rules: ‘no glass, no bean bags, no dickheads’.

The fact that these rules exist brings out a sad truth in festivals: they can be viewed as occasions for attention seekers to wear next to nothing; for the underage drinkers to smuggle in strong spirits; and for the high-seeking users to take drugs. Festivals have become synonymous with a place of anarchy in the eyes of some people, an isolated day with an ‘anything goes’ attitude. Could these perceptions be losing sight of what festivals are actually about?

When Groovin’ the Moo toured the paddocks of Australia recently, the festival lived up to its name as it ‘rocked’ the country town of Maitland, NSW.  Only it was the residents who were shaken as 15,000 youth filled Maitland’s sleepy showground. With ‘only 60 drug busts’ reported following the festival and 15 people admitted to hospital after overdoses, the drug and alcohol culture of festivals begins to cause concern.

The Falls Festival, the inaugural New Year’s event combining music, camping, arts, fashion and three days of green livin’, acknowledges drugs are a part of a festival, even going as far as stating on their website ‘if you choose to experiment with drugs, be familiar with the information and health services on site and stay in close contact with friends’. Could festivals be a place where a blind eye is turned to behaviour that would normally leave you with a criminal record?

A 19 year-old festival goer finds this to be one of the most frustrating things about the events. After lining up for 45 minutes to actually enter the Groovin’ site in Maitland, she has a look of defeat as she recalls the ’12-year-old’ girls behind her who were obviously intoxicated, talking about the fake IDs they were preparing to use. Without a second glance, the three girls were admitted to the grounds and given over 18 wristbands, effectively permitting underage drinking for a day. ‘I think the security need better training to actually check people’s IDs,’ she says. ‘They let the 12-year-old girls with popped vodka baggies soaking their overly padded bras in without even blinking an eye.’

Maitland Mayor Peter Blackmore has dealt with the Groovin’ aftermath in the five years since it came to town. This year’s complaints include shift workers annoyed by the ‘incessant base beat’ and residents disgusted by ‘both male and female urinating on private properties’. But the part Blackmore finds most worrying were the reports of ‘used condoms and empty needles’ in backyards and on streets.

While these incidents all took place either before or after the festival, it is the alcohol culture of festivals that leaves Blackmore questioning whether this drug really needs to be present at all. ‘If they weren’t drinking, then they wouldn’t be urinating on properties,’ he says. ‘As a society, we have a problem with alcohol. We really do. Everywhere we go we seem to be encouraged to drink. I don’t know if I’d be so trusting as to let my 16 to 20-year-old daughters going off to festivals’.

It seems festivals are always making headlines whenever something goes wrong, the world waiting with baited breath and fingers at the ready to point the finger of blame of all societal problems. Two people were caught in March carrying some ‘bags of grass clippings’ on their way to a festival in Nimbin. Non-surprisingly, police later found it to be cannabis worth $110,000. Adding fuel to the fire, Western Australia’s R&B Supafest scored $20,000 worth of fines just last week after gatecrashers, mosh pit troubles and excessive noise led to the police shutting it down.

Maitland is yet to see a big drug bust go down though, with Blackmore believing this has to do with the Groovin’ organisers. ‘Full marks to the promoters for working closely with police,’ he says. ‘Each year they are doing a little more to satisfy complaints.’

The hard work of promoters is something Stephen Halpin can testify to. As director of Cattleyard Promotions, the organisers of the Groovin’ festivals, he knows it takes 10 months of planning for one day.  With headliners Vampire Weekend and Tegan and Sara hitting the stage earlier this year, Halpin says 2010 has been ‘one of the best line-ups so far’, leading to the entire event selling out for the first time. That’s 75,000 who went through the gates, a far cry from 1,500 at the very first Groovin’.

Ultimately, Halpin thinks it comes down to the formula of the festival: taking a regional venue, adding the big acts, and watching the crowd come alive.  ‘The bands were really stoked with the crowd. Vampire Weekend, coming from New York, were used to playing the big cities. But there’s something really different about a rural crowd, which don’t get the big festivals like cities. There’s an energy, an excitement, and the performers were amazed at how well they fed off that energy.’

While Groovin’ has become a successful festival, its return each year carries the stigma that these events are just about youth getting ‘high’ in various ways. Halpin sees it as an obstacle, but not only one faced by festivals. ‘We had sniffer dogs,’  he says. ‘We warned everyone there was a zero tolerance. But there’s not much we can do when they go steal Mum and Dad’s vodka at 10am in the morning before they come. It’s more of a social issue, not a festival one. If they weren’t doing it at festivals, there’s always another club or party where the behaviour will take place.’

Talking to Halpin, it’s clear he could easily become jaded by the way people have taken to festivals. But he knows to look to the bigger picture of what they actually can achieve. While the punters always see it as a social and cultural occasion, festivals hold value for the artists too.

Newcastle-based musician Jack Dawson is one future artist who can vouch for this. After attending more than 40 live music events in his youth, Dawson now studies music at the University Conservatorium in Newcastle, while playing and touring in Australian band Rubix Cuba.

Being in a band, Dawson sees the value in letting unknown acts play on the same stages touched by the guitar-thrashing rock stars headlining the sets. ‘At festivals, the support slots are invaluable,’ he explains. ‘Some of the best bands I have ever seen were early in the day, not the headliners. Take Big Day Out 2009, for example. You go to see Neil Young, find Lupe Fiasco playing on the stage next to him. Suddenly, everyone knows Lupe Fiasco. It’s the job of the support act to steal the fans of the headliner. It’s a way of sharing fan bases.’

So if people are so enthused by the festivals, what happens to the recording industry? For Dawson, he doesn’t share the same ‘downloads killed the recording industry stars’ approach others might have. ‘Downloads are unbeatable,’ he says. ‘It’s the downloads that get people to the festivals. How many people have seen Led Zeppelin live? Then how many have a downloaded copy of Stairway to Heaven? It’s the recordings that make it timeless.’

Timeless as the recordings may be, the festival-goers are there wholly for the moment of connection between one band and 20,000 people. When Groovin’ the Moo hit Maitland, there was at least one person there solely for the music. Kerry O’Brien (and no, not the ginger-haired ABC journalist) had been waiting all day for Silverchair to take the stage. Despite the night chill, with the festival taking place in late autumn, as soon as Daniel Johns took to the stage, nothing else mattered.

O’Brien says the reason a festival like Groovin’ is worth the $95 ticket price is that it is like taking the connective feeling of music, then intensifying it in a way recordings cannot replicate. ‘Seeing a band, watching the crowd dance and sing in response, is identical to the call and response of group chanting,’ he says. ‘It is quite spiritual. That’s why you hear people talking about the high of music. It’s the group appreciation of music that’s glorious, especially if everybody’s in the right mood.’

He’s actually not alone in seeing festivals as an emotional experience. For some punters, it is about combining the raw emotion of music with a connection between people. As a festival devotee tells, ‘festivals are most amazing when your good friend allows you to sit on their shoulders throughout the entirety of your favourite band’s set.’  For the people whose future depends on the festivals, this is a vital feeling. Stephen Halpin believes it is about festivals finding their niche markets that will see their longevity. ‘In the future, the established ones like Big Day Out will do well,’ Halpin says. ‘But I think it will be very hard to start a new one. So many have grown over the last few years, and they’re all competing for the same acts. So next summer will be an interesting one as to which ones make it through.’

There is one thing Halpin is sure of though – the value of festivals is a way of connecting with audiences. While downloads may be taking away revenue for artists, festivals are coming up trumps in terms of importance to the industry. ‘They are becoming the way to see live music,’ Halpin declares.

Because ultimately, to see live music is exactly what a festival is all about. There are always issues of drugs and alcohol raining on the festival parade, but the bigger picture comes down to this: by the festival’s close, the weary bodies walk from the ground as they come down from the high of the music. Legs are aching. Ears are ringing. Yet faces are always smiling.

While the record industry and the public at large may be anxious, the faces leaving the festival tell a different story. One that seems to have a long future ahead, if the descriptions are anything to go by. Even though Maitland’s Mayor Peter Blackmore may be a little past his festival days, he still manages to give the greatest compliment of all: ‘some people say the festival is the greatest thing since sliced bread.’ And it won’t be going stale any time soon.

Shelby Houghton is a Bachelor of Communications/Bachelor of Laws student at the University of Newcastle.