Don’t mourn the decline of the big camp-out: urban festivals could boost our cities’ economies

Fun fun fun. Image: Tramlines Festival.

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.

 
 
 
 

America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 


In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.