These are fat days for music festivals, it seems.  Festivals for alternative music, heavy metal, electronic and dance, classical and jazz, festivals featuring music and film, festivals featuring music and academic lectures, festivals featuring acts who reunite just to play festivals—a whole lot of music festivals!  Not to mention the music festival’s baby brothers and sisters: the street fairs with music, the outdoor music concert series sponsored by municipal governments, the one-off events organized by your alternative weekly publications or your lifestyle retailers…  And let’s not forget the festival’s cranky old aunts and uncles: state and county fairs, village carnivals, and any other traditional event where they plonk together an outdoor stage and line up a bill of performers…

Yet this is a moment of transition and even peril for the music festival and its kin:

1. This summer has seen a nightmare of tragedies and near-misses on outdoor concert stages at Pukkelpop, the Indiana State Fair (Sugarland), Ottawa Bluesfest (Cheap Trick) and Tulsa (Flaming Lips).  These accidents have brought to light the fact that few regulations or government agencies enforce the safety of outdoor stages, leaving the concert industry to oversee itself voluntarily and inconsistently. Few industry insiders expect the state of affairs to remain laissez-faire for long.

2. A number of festivals have been cancelled in the U.S.  Just this summer in New York state, a second year for the Truck US Festival (an export of the UK’s independent music festival,) slated for the Catskills was aborted, and the launch of Music to Know, a new “boutique festival” scheduled in the East Hamptons never got off the ground.  The NY Times reports:

Music to Know joins a long list of New York City-area festivals that have flamed out before the first power chord sounded, or died after a couple years of disappointing ticket sales. Festival promoters face tough going in this region: labor costs are high, the permit process is difficult, and competition with the city’s rich cultural calendar is fierce. In addition, there are few large sites near the city with access to mass transit or enough camping for thousands of music fans.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles’s hipster stronghold of Silverlake, the fabled Sunset Junction Street Fair was cancelled after organizers failed to pay $141,000 in advance fees to the city.  Having fond memories of seeing the Geraldine Fibbers there in the late 90s, I was surprised to hear so many L.A. friends bid good riddance to the event, but then I hadn’t heard that it had since started charging admission.

In recent years, many residents and business owners have complained about the festival’s fenced-off boundaries and the admission fee, which they say has changed its character from a neighborhood event to a commercial affair.

Mark Thompson, who moved to the neighborhood 25 years ago, said he and his partner stopped attending the festival for three reasons: “Too many unknown people, too expensive, and overly commercial.”

“I think it has a confused identity,” said Sarah Dale, who owns a clothing store near Sunset Junction, where Sunset and Santa Monica boulevards meet. “Is it free street fair? Is it a music festival? There’s a reason that Coachella happens in a field. There’s a reason Woodstock happened at a farm. If you’re throwing a major music festival, I don’t think you do it on a narrow city street.”

Apparently Britain has a greater economic appetite for music fesivals than the U.S.  Certainly, a recession that makes people’s discretionary income vanish doesn’t help.  Still, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that we’re also living in a glut of music festivals, as the concert sector overreaches in response to the savior role it’s been assigned by an ailing music industry.  But there’s more.

Regulation, market competition, the emergence of specialized niches—for sociologists, these are the tell-tale signs of institutionalization.  (One might call this commercialization, a special case of institutionalization, but it’s not clear that all music festivals are primarily profit-oriented ventures, even if they have to survive in a capitalist environment.)  Institutionalization suggests, sociologically speaking, that the larger ecology or “field” for a social phenomenon (in this case, music festivals) has been entered by second actors—government, monopoly-seeking firms, secondary services (a festival-finding website, anyone?), and so on—whose non-coordinated actions effectively routinize the reproduction of the phenomenon itself.  Culturally, institutionalization is experienced as a taken-for-granted state of affairs.  The phenomenon acquires normative value for its participants as a general end in itself; no longer is it an instrumental means to a once-specific end.

And what was this original “end”?  What was the whole point of music festivals?  It was always more than just a good time.  Wasn’t it… the communal establishment of a temporary utopian city?  Since I dedicated some space to Woodstock in my last post, let me shine some light on the origins of England’s Glastonbury Fair.  Rob Young’s exciting history of British folk music, Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music (Faber and Faber, 2010), reports how Glastonbury summoned utopian visions long before rock and roll:

If Canterbury, the locus of pilgrimage, is the official capital of the Church of England, Glastonbury has long been its heathen obverse.  The enormous Tor, or earthen mound, that dominates its topography, topped with a lonely ruined tower, has exerted a magnetic pull on alternative pilgrims drawn by the local legends of the first English Christian church, the alleged hiding place of the Holy Grail, secreted somewhere by Joseph of Arimathea, and its supposed conjunction of ly lines and earth energies.  The writer and occultist Dion Fortune, a Glastonbury resident in the early 1920s, believed Tor to be a ‘Hill of Vision’ at the centre of a gateway to the Unseen’—a spiritual-architectural complex sheltering the slumbering spirit of Albion.

[British composer Rutland] Boughton settled in Glastonbury in order to create his own conditions for carrying out his dreams, building a musical Jerusalem far from the metropolis.  Music performed outdoors, in the unpredictable acoustics of the open air, always appealed to him, and the summer schools he ran in order to make money placed emphasis on communal activities such as games, picnics and pilgrimages to romantic and historic local beauty spots.  The Glastonbury Festival continued until 1927, a valuable platform for new British music and an experimental base for new ideas and crazes to be worked through….

Something of the flavour of the conflicting claims upon the soul of Glastonbury at the time can be gleaned from John Cowper Powys’s 1932 novel, A Glastonbury Romance, in which an idealistic mayor who tries to turn the town into a centre for Grail worship gets caught in the crossfire between a group of anarchists and Marxists who have formed a commune and the profitable designs of a local business tycoon.  At the beginning of the 1970s Glastonbury’s peculiar energies were rediscovered by the hippy movement, kicking off an event that has grown into a huge annual pop festival, a temporary city that appears for three days and then vanishes.  The Hill of Vision shows no sign of shutting its eyes (pp. 95-6).

Rich Deakin’s Keep it Together: Cosmic Boogie with the Deviants and the Pink Fairies (Headpress, 2007) describes that first revival of the Glastonbury Fair (orFayre, to cite the bootleg recording of the Pink Fairies’ notorious performance):

Frendz reproted that the only real problem with Glastonbury Fair, at least as far as mainstream news was concerned, was that so little went wrong: “[F]or the people who came it was all they could have asked for.  About 8,000 together for nearly a week to hear thirty five groups, all in the sun, get stoned, make love, and roam around the countryside—all for free.”  The report stated that: “Glastonbury Fair was precisely what it was because of the extent of the organisation…  And despite the many notices in Glastonbury shops and café windows ‘No Hippies or such like served here’ the villagers never actually rose in armed pitchfork rebellion against the freaks.”

Phun City provided a tantalising microcosm of how an alternative society might work, and upon this the organisers of Glastonbury brought the possibilities closer to reality.  Ostensibly experiments in alternative living, these free festivals undoubtedly provided the inspiration for the alternative travelling culture lifestyle that grew up in the 1970s.  Interviewed in 1999, Mick Farren stressed the significance of festivals like Phun City and Glastonbury on the travelling culture lifestyle: “They were the absolute start of the whole thing.  Prior to the festivals, a few beats hitchhiked around during the summer but mainly headed for seaside resorts and London.  The festivals really provided a focus for what you might call potlatch tribal gatherings or clan meets.  Phun City and Glastonbury also proved that a festival could be staged on an economic wing and prayer” (pg. 204).

Now, travelling culture might not be your thing—smelly port-a-potties might definitelynot be your thing—but it’s worth considering what’s happened to the utopian impulse as the music festival has become institutionalized.  British musical journalist David Hepworth put it so well recently:

I’ve never been a big festival goer. I watch with interest as the people I know who are big ones for Glastonbury stiffen as the big weekend approaches. In the world I inhabit, where some kind of privileged access is what people are used to, the jockeying for position started months ago. Have you got the right kind of ticket with the right kind of pass and the right access to the right car park or camp site? Have you got the right equipment? Bin bags? Wellies? Wet wipes? Plastic bottle full of ready mixed gin and tonic? Insurance? Insect spray? Anxiety pills?

I seem to remember that in the late sixties and early seventies people set off to festivals with a tenner in their pocket and a carefree skip in their stride. Nowadays they seem to take with them all the comforts and anxieties of home. A friend of a friend’s daughter turned up at Glastonbury a few years ago with a pull-along suitcase and some hair straighteners. I thought this was funny until I saw, at last year’s Latitude, a special tent where one could go and, for a fee, plug in your hair and beauty aids.

What’s even more surprising is that while the original festival goers set off to the country intent on shrugging off the hierarchies and strictures of everyday society and getting back to the garden, nowadays people go to the country in order to obey the festival organiser’s rules, codes which are far more draconian and much less amenable to reason than any they would expect to deal with in their daily life. If ever you think the law of the land is unreasonable, think again. Try arguing with a festival steward over whether you’ve got the right wrist band. That’s when you learn about unreasonable authority and how a dog’s obeyed in office. But nobody seems to mind. They accept it as the price of taking part. It particularly amuses me how my daughter and friends keep the wristbands on for months afterwards – as if they’d like to prolong their weekend serfdom.

Is this price worth it?  What would a genuine alternative to the institutionalized music festival of today look like?