With the increasing feel that festivals are orchestrating “I was there” moments, Getintothis’ Laura Brown wonders if social media is snuffing out the joy.
We sat on the steps of Tim Peaks Diner at Kendal Calling and there was a sudden rush of people. A teenager who’d obviously recently had a growth spurt and wore fluorescent paint on his cheekbones pointed and I turned round.
There stood Thomas Turgoose, him from This is England, shouting for his mate. He was about to do a DJ set. The crowd spilled onto the front green as the cabin isn’t very large. He played tracks from the ’90s, everyone danced in wellies.
When it finished, everyone basked in a “wasn’t the 90s awesome” moment. The way you do when something good happens at a festival that you spotted in the lineup and suspected might be good. You were all there.
Then the crowd swelled again. Over the green more people flocked. One security guard talking into a radio. Then two, then three, then they started stopping people getting into the cabin. Teens excitedly, continually, refreshed their smartphone screens.
Blossoms were playing a “secret” gig to the people lucky enough to squeeze into the wooden cabin. Possibly the people in the diner hadn’t realised quite how many people would show up. Officially the “hottest band right now” the band was part of Kendal’s extra lineup, the “secret” performances – what we call “moments” – scattered across the four days.
Betwixt performances you’d sit on the grass with a beer when suddenly an army of floppy hatted, glitter highlighted, floral headband wearing scene seekers would flood the space, eagerly watching the gig they’d just discovered was going to be happening via Twitter.
IF YOU'RE @KendalCalling TODAY WE'LL BE PLAYING A SECRET ACOUSTIC SET AT 5PM AT TIM PEAKS DINER!
Festivals are about moments. Of course they are. When you discover that band you heard a couple of tracks by and quite liked and realise they have a wild (and frankly hot) frontman and it becomes your soundtrack for the next six months. When you throw your head back with five thousand other people, hands aloft and holler lyrics until your throat is hoarse.
They are the bits we remember, when we’ve forgotten about the utter moron who snored in the tent next to us, the goddamn toilets, the fact that you can’t face anything other than Strongbow dark fruit after three days of hops and the fact that, well, you don’t really like people, especially when you have no personal space. You forget all that. The reason you buy tickets again is because you remember the sunset, the singing, the togetherness, the pack mentality.
And that has always been manufactured. There have always been rumours at festivals (we’ll never forget The FFs, officially NOT being Foo Fighters, FYI). There has always been a desire to stumble across an exclusive performance. Because festivals aren’t actually that exclusive and you have zero privacy, and you want reassurance you picked the right one.
Problem is, the minute festivals became a consumer product, where the business plan is reliant on ticket sales, you had to tell people exactly what you are going to give them; a perfect moment in sun dappled fields with their perfect mates having a perfect time everyone will be jealous of.
Match that with social networks designed to make people feel part of the gang and then to tell more people about it and you get a weird mirror image of the ideal festival. It’s about the marketers rather than the music. Instead of excited music fans hoping to stumble over something exciting you get a Twitter hungry mob waiting to be told where to go.
Desperate to avoid missing out, they pay £20 to get unlimited phone charging over the weekend so they can find out where the secret performances are (although, can we say, if you’re going to use social media to tell your ticket buying crowd about secret gigs, and you’re going to actively encourage them to “stay social” across the weekend on your official £10 programme it should be free to charge your phone, no?).
It doesn’t matter if they’ve never heard of the band, it doesn’t matter if they don’t know the songs, so determined are they to be part of a “moment” they swarm. Standing mutely until something comes on they’ve heard of and then dancing the way they’ve seen people dance in adverts for music festivals or through an Instagram filter.
It replaces the discovery, the punt, the experiment, the exploring music for the sake of it. Instead it’s replaced by something far more manufactured. Less risky. More Blossoms less our new favourite band. More Peter Doherty on another comeback, fewer risky groups.
Because what comes next? Bands that get the most buzz are the ones picked? Sorry, lads, no one tweeted about your performance on the Saturday so you’re not coming back?
This sounds bombastically cynical. It’s just that you get frustrated after four days of watching armies of zombie fans missing the actual good bits.
There is something to cherish in a festival that appeals to 80-year-olds and one-year-olds. Toddlers might not be buying tickets, admittedly, but there’s space for them at Kendal Calling.
Three years ago when I first went, this was new. This wasn’t gas canisters getting lobbed on fires at Leeds, or massive queues for a Booker prize winner at Latitude. At Kendal there are campsites for those who fancy an early night and those who’ll party until dawn. This ethos of inclusivity is very northern, very family and, yeah, very appealing.
It’s hard. Of course it’s hard. And, in truth, the idea of a secret gig at a festival isn’t new.
There are more festivals and creating a different lineup from those fellas doing something similar 200 miles away in a month’s time is tough.
But if you start creating perfect “moments” that are more about being there and less about the music then you get people who don’t really care, who aren’t really arsed, who wait for the songs they know and just talk to their mates throughout a set.
Who are there purely to create content on their social feeds. Who chip away at the atmosphere. Who are bored when they’re not in a “moment”. And you risk relying on sure fire winners with nothing new to say.