The great, big, all-encompassing music festival is, for better or for worse, a British institution. In spite of erratic weather patterns, we still travel in droves to idyllic countryside spots in order to muddy them with vast quantities of lager, camping equipment, and, of course, mud.
But the economics of “greenfield” festivals are increasingly in doubt. Glastonbury only made 50 pence profit per ticket sold in 2014, around 100 mid-scale festivals closed in 2016 under economic pressure, and security & maintenance costs are constantly rising, causing the big ones like Leeds to adapt and change to remain relevant.
In any case, the modern, institutionalised music festival contrasts drastically its predecessors in the “free festivals” movement of the 1970s, where hippie culture promised a sonic “state of nature”. Thousands would gather around impromptu stages, without the permission of any particular authority. Glastonbury – itself a pioneer of modern festival culture in the UK – has its origins in this movement.
Nowadays, the largest music festivals, originating in great counter-cultures, more or less resemble the prevailing live music ethos: all ticketing, security and private enterprise. But these festivals don’t exist in a vacuum.
Consider two radically different "festivals" from my home county of Suffolk: Ipswich Music Day, which largely does what it says on the tin, and Latitude Festival. The former is exceedingly local, encourages community enterprise, and twice inexplicably played host to Ed Sheeran. The latter is run by Festival Republic, a large company also responsible for Reading and Leeds festivals. While less than impersonal, Latitude is stereotyped as being an extremely middle class affair that has about as much to do with Suffolk as it does with the literal concept of latitude. This is reflected in the statistics; only 5 per cent of UK festival-goers are from the East of England, while the corresponding statistical region constitutes almost 9 per cent of the UK population.
Ipswich Music Day, meanwhile, is the polar opposite. It plays host to six stages of emerging artists from Suffolk, and, although it’s the largest free one-day festival in the UK, it isn’t exactly ambitious, economically speaking.
But perhaps it ought to be.
Multiple studies into the dynamics and economics of festivals make similar arguments about how to drive “re-patronising” – in other words, how to make festival-goers want to come back next year. Evidence suggests that “social identification” – having something in common with other festival-goers – is often just as important as the quality of the music or the food.
Festivals can capitalise on this boon of social identification by offering a self-contained event designed, with both locals and tourists in mind. Locals are more likely to patronise events that emphasise community spirit; while tourists are enthused by events that symbolise & epitomise the local culture. Boardmasters, a large festival held annually in Newquay, plays to this trend by combining live music with surfer culture.
But it’s urban festivals, by virtue of their location in dense population centres, that have greatest potential when it comes to social identification – with additional opportunities when local communities are integrated in the event itself. Sheffield’s Tramlines festival, launched in 2009, began as a bold coalition of council and private business: over 70 venues playing host to musicians big and small, markets, workshops, and more. The festival continues to this day as an initiative that combines the council’s “Sheffield Music City” with a large-scale festival environment in surrounding green spaces.
In the midst of constant growth, however, it maintains connections to its community, through continued consultation of interest groups, integration of local businesses, and free ticket ballots for those most affected by the noise.
While not every city can be a Sheffield, the continued success of Tramlines, as well as other urban festivals such as Field Day in London’s East End and Parklife in Manchester, prove the point: the decline of the great camp-out signals the beginning of something else. But what benefits can a collaborative effort like Tramlines really bring?
First of all, these festivals boost the local economy. Urban festivals not only draw on local businesses for services and catering: they also offer a source of income for councils. Compared to private properties such as Leeds Festival’s Bramham Park, offering to host festivals in public spaces, such as Sheffield’s Hillsborough Park, ensures the revenue stays local.
Urban festivals are also more popular because of their cheaper ticket price. This attracts additional punters from the area directly around the festival, building the quota for social identification; but it also encourages festival-goers from further afield to stick around, stay a weekend, and spend money locally, especially when these festivals offer multiple days of music, as many do.
Finally, in the context of a struggling economy for local music venues, urban festivals help provide a more sustainable launch pad for more new artists, given their lower running costs. If Tramlines is any example, the collaboration of a large festival with popular appeal and a smaller, community-run initiative yields benefits and higher attendance for both parties.
So, there you are: with the right mix of public-private partnership and local innovation, the boom of urban festivals will do our cities good.
Incidentally, if we convince every town north of the Watford Gap to hold a local impression of Tramlines in their back garden, we could probably solve the north-south divide in the space of a bank holiday weekend. If that sounds too ambitious, just remember: British Summer Time got 65,000 people to pay to see Phil Collins live last year. Anything’s possible.