the festival experience TM
article written for the Big Issue, May 1998
Free festivals have always played a big part in our alternative culture, providing a haven for underground acts, obscure performers, disparate politicos, seasoned travellers and weather-beaten revellers, all happy to put up with the possibility of considerable discomfort for their cause.
Often shambolic, disorganised and spontaneous, many free festivals followed a time-old tradition of celebrating local and seasonal events and gave people the opportunity to express themselves as they wished - even if that meant freezing to death on a windswept field, dancing naked to some dodgy drummers playing Albanian nose flutes.
In the nineties it seems it's all changed. For starters the free festival culture doesn't come free anymore - it comes with a hefty admission price way beyond the means of many, while the fields have transformed into mutant nightclubs, complete with ludicrous themed arenas, plastic rainforests and VIP bars. Now a festival is a 'life changing experience', complete with a wide range of merchandise and corporate sponsorship tie-ins.
So what happened?
In 1995, the government introduced the dreaded Criminal Justice Act, effectively banning many free outdoor festivals and instantly criminalising many established (but unofficial) events like the yearly Stonehenge celebrations.
This attack on the right of people to gather freely and celebrate was seen by many as the beginning of the establishment's attack on festival culture and the steady neutering and McDonaldisation of the free festival ethos.
Entrepreneurs like the Mean Fiddler and Universe were quick to recognise the major opportunity presented by the CJA to exploit and tap into this potentially lucrative market. There were thousands of people who still wanted to gather and dance, and seeing as the CJA was stopping them doing it for free, why not sell them back their culture - at a price?
So Tribal Gathering was born; a cynical cash-in to scoop up profit from disenfranchised ravers. Quick to adopt and parade their pseudo-underground credentials, their 1996 press release invited paying punters to "Join with us on our epic onslaught as we strike back against the establishment and clubland's evil empire of mediocrity, commercialism, and the creeping corporate capitalisation of our cosmic counter culture".
People soon found out just how far their claimed battle against 'creeping corporate capitalisation' went as bottles of water were snatched out of their hands as they entered the arena (after having to pay for the 'courtesy bus' to the event), while inside insufficient free water distribution points ensured that the tills rang to the sound of over priced water bottles.
But such is the need for people to dance, Tribal Gathering has remained one of the most profitable events in the rave scene, attracting huge amounts of corporate sponsorship, lucrative tie-ins and marketing opportunities while punters have increasingly complained of overcrowding and poor sound systems.
This year, the Mean Fiddler and Universe organised their own events with Universe's glossy flyer blathering on about the "freedom to party" (at £60 a ticket!) while claiming, incredibly, to be "the UK's first ever weekend outdoor dance festival". The Mean Fiddler's 'Creamfields' event was sited on a beautiful SSSI next to Twyford Down amidst massive local protest.
So much for their underground credentials
It's not just the rave events that are being tempted by the lure of the corporate sponsorship bucks either. Many feel that Glastonbury has lost its way from a counter cultural retreat to just another high profile date on the record company touring map. Each year brings bigger bands, higher priced tickets, more security and increasing crime. I stopped going last year after watching two tent thefts and three punch-ups in an hour.
What used to make Glastonbury so unique - it's laid back atmosphere, obscure and outlandish healers, oddball herbalists, travellers and the overall feeling of joyful anarchy is in danger of being commercialised, commodified and sold back as the Festival Experience (tm).
Whereas festivals like Glastonbury were seen as a welcome retreat from an over commercialised world, now it seems that the corporate world comes along for the ride too as punters are assaulted by marketing opportunities, blow by blow TV coverage, corporate sponsorship and endless branding opportunities. Free bottle of branded fizzy pop anyone?
Free festivals used to be a traditional meeting place where travellers, musicians and communities could get together to celebrate their own culture, but in the face of ever-escalating ticket prices, extra regulation and control and the ravages of the CJA, for many this is no longer an option.
As the big commercial events keep on growing, free one day events like the excellent Brighton, Deptford and Hackney Homeless festivals continue to face opposition and cancellation, leaving people with the choice of either paying a small fortune and being treated like technosheep or finding their own - unlicensed - entertainment.
Thankfully, a vibrant DIY scene has sprung up where, despite the very real risk of arrest, there are still sound systems up and down the land who are keeping the spirit alive and staging their own free and totally illegal festivals.
Meanwhile, regular Reclaim The Streets parties around the UK serve as a worthwhile reminder of how much better the free parties are. Who needs techno-by-numbers and toytown rebellion at sixty quid a head when you can have your own free festival in the street?
Look out for a Reclaim The Streets free party near you soon....
(© copyright Mike Slocombe/Big Issue 1998)
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