It’s a commonplace that there are too many festivals in the calendar, which leads to audiences being spread too thinly (apart from perhaps the mega-festivals) and every year a few going to the wall. Bad for the organisers but probably not so bad for the scene generally as whatever audience they had should be redistributed elsewhere. Except every year there are new festivals springing up so the problem perpetuates itself. And as with gigs there isn’t an inexhaustible supply of potential festival-goers out there so clearly not all festivals can be successful.
You might think this competition would lead to better festivals and it does, sort of, but only in the peripheral things. “We have the best toilets”, “we have the best food”, “park your car by your tent”, “we have the most stuff for kids to do” and so forth are just some of the “selling points” some festivals use. What they don’t say is “we have the best bill” because competition, rather than leading to an attempt to differentiate by music instead seems to lead to booking the same old same old because it’s safer. This of course assumes that people spending £100+ a ticket want to know what they’re getting and don’t want much experimentation.
I don’t think that’s entirely true, as whenever I’ve seen a “new” or different style” band play that people aren’t familar with, they frequently respond better than to an established act. The same old same old approach also perpetuates the problem, because there’s no point in going to more than one festival because half the acts are on at all of them. So perhaps a bit more boldness might pay dividends. It’s a risk, but a calculated one. We can but hope
Last month I attended my my thirtieth Cambridge Folk Festival. (To see what I thought of it go here and to see some reasonable pictures go here.) It’s the thing I’ve been doing longest in my life, longer than jobs, house, relationships so I inevitably end up feeling a bit proprietorial about it. Inevitably, but wrongly. The festival isn’t run for my benefit or that of any other individual attendee, it’s run for the benefit of the attendees as a whole and given that after a blip a few years ago it’s back to selling out the organisers must be doing something right. In point of fact they do many things right and some things brilliantly.
And yet, and yet. It’s hard not to stroll around and think “I wouldn’t do it that way” or peruse the bill and think “I’d have put X on instead” and so on. An example. The food available is, to put it charitably, poor. Compared to say WOMAD or Green Man, both of which attract similar demographics, the quality, choice, price and even service are dreadful. But it never changes and probably never will. In terms of the festival as a whole this is a relatively minor gripe as its perfectly possible to put up with food that isn’t quite what you’d want and focus on the good stuff, like the chance to see band X. But the very fact that so much of the festival is superb both highlights and magnifies the bits that aren’t. And that proprietorial sense means that I feel that something should be done, because it’s my festival and it doesn’t meet my standards. Which is ridiculous but unavoidable, at least for me. It’s similar to the affront a superfan feels when seeing their favourite musician and they don’t play a song they wanted to hear. They don’t control the musician but feel, at some level, as though they do or should.
All of the above is just musing rather than leading to a point, a description of a condition rather than a cure for it. And knowing the condition and understanding it should be the first steps in resolving it, and maybe they will be. I wouldn’t bet on it though. And it would still be good if Cambridge improved their food. And used social media better. And…
I find myself going to fewer festivals these days. Fewer than I used to and fewer than I would like. This is because most festivals tend to fall into three categories. There’s the “folk circuit” ones, where the expected names appear at each, which means you only need to go to one. Then there’s the “something for everyone” ones, which means not enough for me. And then there’s the ones which are a mixture of the desperately hip and the completely unknown, and the former have no appeal and the latter are generally unknown for good reason. This is of course a vast generalisation but the principle is valid.
There are of course exceptions. Cambridge Folk Festival is reliably excellent and interesting. Others burn brightly but briefly before settling into predictability. But most provoke no more than a sigh of disinterest in me. I know that putting on a festival involves a huge amount of work and an even bigger amount of financial risk, so it’s not surprising that people play it safe and/or try to cover all bases. And of course that is exactly what a lot of people want, as witness the “sold out” announcements. But I can’t help feeling that there is a market out there for a festival that has that elusive blend of the safe and challenging, the new and the old, the predictable and the unexpected. Some people will say “but X is just like that” but for me, and i consider myself reasonably well-informed, it won’t be. Boo.