In the years between the first and second world wars, it was common for blues musicians, string bands and jug bands to earn a large proportion of their income on the ‘Medicine Show’ circuit. These shows would travel from town to town throughout the southern US with musicians like Blind Willie McTell in tow to attract the punters. People would travel to see the free entertainment on offer, whilst the organisers got down to the real business of flogging their, usually useless, patent remedies to a captive audience.
For quack medicine read cheap lager and mobile phones and it’s plain that little has really changed. This time of year, pop fans up and down the country wait impatiently, with their credit cards primed, for the announcement of the line-ups (and eye-watering ticket prices) for that peculiar summer phenomenon, the music festival.
As the years go by, the arrangements for buying the tickets becomes more complex and restrictive. The days of turning up on the off-chance that here will be some tickets on the gate are long gone. Sometimes it seems that there is more fun to be had in the mad scramble for tickets, and the kudos in actually obtaining them than in the subsequent three days spent in the mud watching a succession of corporate indie bands. Like membership of the MCC, or Centre Court seats at Wimbledon on finals weekend, a pair of tickets for Balado or Glastonbury is a trophy to be gleefully used to taunt envious friends.
So, who’s playing? Can you not guess? It’ll be the same bunch of bland guitar bands and winsome singer-songwriters who clog up the aisles of your local HMV. Add a little (ironic) pop glamour and a couple of reformed ‘legends’ who need the money to pay school fees / their drug dealers, and a tent for the dance heads (doubling up as a rain shelter), and you have the modern festival in a nutshell.
Big cheeses? The Arctic Monkeys, the Killers, Razorlight, Snow Patrol, the Fratellis (wot no Kaiser Chiefs?). Franz Ferdinand don’t have an album out, and besides, they’re sooo 2004, darling. Pop glamour? Lily Allen and the Scissor Sisters. Singer songwriters? James Morrison and Paolo Nutini. Old hacks? James (who at least are not yet in need of a Stenna Stairlift to get them on stage). Add My Chemical Romance for the sulky teens and Babyshambles for the tabloid hacks, and you have pretty much the quintessential festival line-up.
There are good acts, of course. Allen, the Arcade Fire, the Gossip and CSS spring to mind. But is a field really the best place to see them?
This may come across as sneering and snobbish, but there is a serious point behind the mockery. Festivals have largely ceased to be, well, festive. Unlike the early Glastonburys, the Stonehenge and Windsor Free Festivals of yore, the whole ethos is about selling. Selling albums, selling merchandise and selling beer. Fans are marketed at ceaselessly – the mantra being simply “Consume, consume, consume”. Whether it is Tennents, Carling, Virgin Mobile, or anyone else the message is the same – buy our stuff.
So what? you may ask. Well, there is no room for iconoclasts in corporate culture. Anything slightly out of the box, leftfield or perceived to be of interest only to a limited audience will never be invited. The sponsors want to sell you beer, not open your minds. There are alternatives. Arika’s Instal and Kill Your Timid Notion will not be to everybody’s taste, but they are programmed with the music first and foremost on the agenda. Barry Hogan’s All Tomorrow’s Parties shindigs, currently held biannually at Butlin’s in Minehead, are hugely successful without pandering to the latest trends. Curated by guest bands every time, the result is always an interesting mix of the familiar and the unknown, with surprises at every turn. Hogan eschews all corporate sponsorship, relying solely on ticket money, and a limited amount of merchandising to finance the events. In turn, he can attract acts who wouldn’t be seen dead at a corporate festival, and get people to play for a fraction of their normal fee because they want to be a part of something that still has a communal feel and is fun. How many acts will hang around at Balado past their allotted stage time? Most will be jetting off to their next European festival appearance. At ATP everyone mucks in together (although the pop stars always have the nicest chalets!)
It would be facile to claim that corporate sponsorship is killing music. It is, though, a parasite that feeds off it.
Oddly, the day that Tennents announced the line-up for T In The Park, figures were released that showed that in Scotland, people are twice as likely to die of alcohol-related illness than anywhere else in the UK.