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Festival Fatigue: Why 2013 is where festivals go to die

Posted on Wednesday, 30 January 2013 | No Comments

Festival season seems to start earlier and earlier, doesn't it? Just like Christmas adverts or whatever cliche you want to substitute in its stead, where once the rumour mill barely got going until March, we're leaving January with the line-ups for many major festivals already out in the open. Desperate to soak up an ever-diminishing supply of punters and money, announcements are getting earlier and earlier to try and prop up the profit in the face of consumer indifference.

A few, in fairness, have managed a certain 'wow' factor: Primavera, as usual, have dished up the goods, End of the Road managed two genuine surprises in getting Sigur Ros and Belle & Sebastian to headline a festival far smaller than their usual pulling power and Download, while hardly to this blogger's taste, stands out as one of the very few festival line-ups that at least makes sense for their niche.

Largely though, this year it seems to be about getting the dissapointment out of the way early. Mumford & Sons headlining T in the Park? Red Hot Chili Peppers playing the prestigious 'fuck, the Rolling Stones won't do it and we go to press in an hour' slot at Coachella? The varied 'will-this-do' isms pervading from the big guns of Reading/Leeds right down to Beacons Festival? Christ. Even Bestival are now relying on the fact that people's sense of irony is now so confused and crippingly imbedded that they have honestly lost any sense of basic fucking decency whatsoever and will accept any old shit that's shoved in front of them as long as they've done enough ketamine to render the entire North Korean army unconscious for a month first.

For the last few years, there's been plenty of talk of the festival bubble that emerged in the mid noughties - a time when you could sell out Leeds Festival in seconds with the promise of some band the ginger one from Fall Out Boy once said were kind of okay somewhere and Pete Doherty promising to do his best not to turn up in anything like a viable state - was about to pop. And there's certainly been signs of struggle: the cancellation of big names like The Big Chill and Sonisphere (who, in fairness, went out into battle last year with a bill scribbled on the back of a napkin by a madman from the eighties) clocked up a fair amount of press, while Vince Power's collapse into impotence after Phoenix's failure to rise from the ashes and the ongoing failure of Hop Farm to attract anything approaching enough numbers to break even made it evident that even old hands to the game were struggling.

What marks 2013 out as a real worry for any self-respecting promoter though is the sense that the jig really is up this time, that greed and the bottom line have taken over any other priorities for good. Over the last few years, there's been too many travesties and rip-offs for them to be written off as one-offs. From the mind-boggiling comedy greed that sent Zoo8 to its ignomious fate (as this remarkable thread from Drowned in Sound outlined), the dodgy-as-you-like collapse of Newcastle's Ignition Festival days before the event and the now notorious travesty of Bloc 2012, where a combination of organisers far out of their depth, a venue clearly not fit for purpose and far too many tickets sold resulted in queues, crushes and the cancellation of the festival on the first night (check out FACT for the immediate aftermath and The Quietus on the shocking state of the venue for more details). That there have been recent signs that Bloc is now attempting to return as Bloc London shows the rather tawdry, desperate state of the festival circuit as we enter the new season.

The problems are obvious, yet nobody seems willing to address them. With too few acts to go around too many festivals, it's inevitable that not every bill that's advertised will be in a position to go ahead. And, as with the exampled above, a few will probably go ahead that really shouldn't have. The established names and the cult names that have already established a reputation for excellence are likely to survive, but unless a festival can offer something genuinely unique - and, unlike Bloc 2012, deliver on the ideal that's sold - people aren't going to want to go. The trickle of crowds away from British festivals towards European festivals with similar line-ups but a friendlier infrastructure and a greater sense of novelty will continue, the pool of headliners for the major festivals will become narrower and narrower, and with higher costs and fewer paying customers, corners are bound to be cut even further.

I'm not writing festivals off - hell, I'm hoping to make it to one or two this summer for certain. But the current system and way of doing things has clearly eached the point of exhaustion. Avoding the big hitters is one thing, but when even the 'alternative' festivals either die out like The Big Chill, stagger into disaster like Bloc 2012 or continue to be as mis-managed as Field Day, the options for the discerning festival-goer who doesn't want to go to an indie pop fest full of bands in cardigans that all sound exactly the bloody same are growing thinner and thinner. Unless something dramatically changes the way festivals are currently promoted and managed, crowd apathy is only going to grow and push people away, harming the industry yet further. And then? Well, we'll be stuck with The Killers, Mumford & Sons and the Red Hot fucking Chili Peppers as our headline acts, until the Earth itself yawns itself towards the apocalypse.

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