Are festivals still about the music?

It’s a topic that has been bubbling up to a boil in the dance music community, and particularly here amongst inthemix users; are festivals still about the music? There are points to argue both sides of that topic but we’ve decided to engage and explore it following a recent study of festival-goers over in the UK conducted by the Association of Independent Festivals, which found that the answer was a rather emphatic ‘no’.

The data suggests that while festivals are more popular than ever amongst ticket buyers in the UK, music is playing an increasingly diminished role for punters at festivals. More than half of those surveyed said that they’re attracted to festivals for the “general atmosphere and overall vibe, quality and character of the event”. This goes up against the minority of festival-goers – 28.3% to be exact – who chose to attend festivals for “the music” alone. Ranking even further below, the study found that festival headliners only held sway over about 11% of punters and their decisions to buy tickets, which is a pretty startling figure.

So how does this relate to Australia and the dance music festival circuit here? Well obviously it’s a very different kettle of fish in Australia with less festivals and a smaller population to attend them, but as an editor of inthemix for the past year I’ve personally noted a rising concern directed towards the ballooning growth of festivals, with readers suggesting that the big music events are becoming overrun by those people unconcerned by the music or even which artists are playing, attending festivals for purely social reasons instead.

In our recent feature, What’s Gone Wrong With Our Clubs?, we spoke with industry players and punters alike about the state of the Australian club scene and festivals in 2010 and received some particularly illuminating responses. Many of those interviewed shared the sentiment that some overly superficial motives have washed over festival audiences.

“There seems to be some discontentment with festivals generally,” Rise resident Simon Barwood offered. “The bigger they get the more generic they become and so the less appealing they are to people interested in the music rather than the ‘event’.”

So what does this mean for festival experiences? Is that afore mentioned majority of festival-goers who can’t tell the difference between Carl Craig and Carl Cox and who are, broadly speaking, going to festivals to engage in a combination of getting fucked up/ picking up/being seen destroying whatever is left of an ‘authentic’ festival culture? It’s difficult to say, and I certainly can’t offer a definitive answer myself and I’m really writing this to foster discussion on an issue I think affects every reader of this site whether you’re orange or otherwise.

There can’t be any question that at any single dance music festival these days you’ll find swarms of punters seemingly more concerned with keeping their hair looking just right than having a dance to DJ that’s smashing it. But I don’t know if this is indeed the death knell that we’re hearing. I’d say that it’s worthwhile to consider that festival organisers can use this ‘atmosphere’ focused mentality to everyone’s benefit, even real music fans. Hear me out. By knowing that a bulk of tickets will presumably sell regardless of the music on offer and for that great ‘atmosphere’ alone, bookers can theoretically throw some bank around on up and coming acts to appeal to the chin-strokers out there. For the We Love Sounds / Winter Sound System partnership, promoters Sounds and Future Entertainment brought out underground favourites like The Revenge and Proxy leaving the main room crowds to Steve Aoki and Crookers. It’s a theory, anyway.

But indeed it would seem as though Australian festivals are adapting to the changing wills of crowds. Parklife organisers Fuzzy, perhaps sensing the not-guaranteed appeal of a big headliner – smartly spread the Parklife 2010 lineup with upcoming acts like Delorean, Classixx, Memory Tapes, Brodinski and Kele with a handful of higher-tier acts like Soulwax, Groove Armada and Missy Elliott. Arguably, that kind of lineup offers more to see and enjoy for the music fan whilst still providing that broad festival atmosphere.

Conversely, there are events on the Australian festival calendar where the lineup of artists purposely takes a back seat to the so termed “general atmosphere and overall vibe, quality and character of the event”. We need look no further than the initial announcement for the 2010 Subsonic festival, which despite boasting the names of Michael Mayer and Extrawelt prides itself on its secluded setting and atmosphere. Indeed, earlier in the month Australian punters saw the local arrival of beloved US bush-doof Burning Man, a festival renowned for its distinctly individual ‘experience’.

On the other side of the coin completely, we have already learned that this year’s Stereosonic festival, brought to us by the combined powers of Onelove and Hardware, will feature none other than Tiesto as the headliner. Locking in an international DJ that can sell out 20,000 capacity arenas by himself shows the festival promoters keen to buck the trend of declining headliner appeal and reassert the music and artists at the top of the festival experience.

So what do you think? Are Australian festivals still about the music? Or are the hordes of people going to the festivals just for the sake of, well, going and not for the music on offer ruining your experiences and the festivals themselves? How bad is it? Whatever your take on the state of festivals, we can probably all agree that we don’t want the Australian scene to head down a similar path of the gruesome Electric Daisy Carnival in LA. Let us know how you feel in the comments box below and thanks for reading.