”Written byFreddie Hiney
Before we dive into the heat of the debate, let’s rewind 50 years. The most famous music festival in history remains Woodstock, held on a farm in New York State in the summer of 1969. Aligning itself with anti (Vietnam) war sentiments, it became known as a three-day celebration of ‘Peace, Love, Music and Mud’, and became the lodestar of subsequent modern festivals. Attended by an estimated 400,00 people, this unprecedented free event sparked imitations around the world among hipsters wanting social justice, individual freedom, an end to the military-industrial complex, and a damned good party. Glastonbury began in the 1970s with a similarly idealistic agenda, rebranding itself for a while as the Glastonbury CND Festival (‘Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’). They set the blueprint for the festivals we experience today; some stuck to the original ethos and others fizzled away to dimes and dollars.
Others followed, almost all of them counter-cultural in energy. Whether it was resistance against environmental destruction, war, elitism or conformity, the anarchy of early festivals allowed for heady processing of cultural shifts around race, religion, class, sexuality, and gender. Somehow, getting too intoxicated to walk became heroic, and a chaotic or creative scene (depending on how you saw it) developed, as some of the brightest minds of a generation spent their summers getting wasted in fields.
Ask most veteran festivalgoers (and even organisers) in Europe or America today, and they will tell you that big music festivals have lost their soul and succumbed entirely to consumerism, becoming part of a corporately sponsored, taxable reality they used to hate. If this is right, it would not be the first time a musical sub-culture has sold out. Once an underground scene (be it punk, hip-hop, or grunge) starts to gain popularity in the West, money men have invariably turned up with a chequebook and looked for ways to turn the energy of the movement into a mass-market product. Far from being anti-establishment, our heroes end up selling us Swiss watches and home insurance.
“What was once an illegal economy can now be found trading on the stock market.”
As the American cultural historian Greil Marcus puts it: ‘As soon as any ostensibly dangerous new musical phenomena appears in the sweaty clubs giving a righteous finger to the status quo, it is enticed in from the cold by the same old dangled carrots of sex/drugs/cash/fame and run of the mill of commercial assimilation.’ Take Punk: Punk was supposed to have an unbreakable spirit of defiance when it emerged in the 1970s, scorning Woodstock-era rock stars for having ‘sold out’. Punk’s aim was to smash up these compromises with ‘The Man’ and drive music to dangerous places with a countercultural audience. In the end, however, the impresario Malcolm McLaren signed the Sex Pistols to a major label and the movement was blown away by a hurricane of pounds and dollars. Indie, Grunge and Hip Hop followed suit; rekindling the fight, before in turn most of the big stars embraced the commercial opportunities provided by MTV etc. We cannot blame them, because we are all struggling in our own ways to retain that balance between integrity and viability, but we can say that the music tends to lose its bite when the serious money rolls in.
None of this means that the Glastonbury organisers were entirely innocent. There were big players and money men behind the scenes at Woodstock, and record companies have no doubt made more out of Glastonbury than Oxfam or Greenpeace ever have. Nor does it mean that a corporately sponsored festival can’t be fun. But fun is different to the old days and the rise in commercialisation has diminished the expectation that a big music festival is about anything other than making money. Most big festivals in Europe and the US have become highly structured, run by one or two entertainment conglomerates, targeting customers for their disposable income rather than their optimism; weekend hedonists with money to burn. What was once an illegal economy can now be found trading on the stock market. As US blogger Ashley Brozic puts it: ‘You might argue that as festivals have gained steam in mainstream media, they’ve lost many of their countercultural ideals, forging a path that celebrates ticket sales, elaborate theatrics, and luxurious amenities, rather than political activism and expression by the way of music. You’re not wrong.’
‘As soon as any ostensibly dangerous new musical phenomena appears in the sweaty clubs giving a righteous finger to the status quo, it is enticed in from the cold by the same old dangled carrots of sex/drugs/cash/fame and run of the mill of commercial assimilation.’ – Greil Marcus
South Africa has a fine array of music festivals, some of which have kept to their roots and have been rewarded with the loyalty of a glorious tribe of followers. Our nation has so much space and so many options for festivals that, from the 90s onwards, some of the biggest players in the underground European and Israeli festivals were gravitating here. You can find yourself dancing in a Garden route ‘rain forest’; Karoo desert; Free State canyon; on a beautiful vineyard or an old-fashioned warehouse in Cape Town. Nonetheless, we also have festivals conforming to capitalism, shifting away from the sub-culture, and turning into mass-marketed cash cows. Festivals like these started off as an alternative to which people brought tents and picnics; now you can’t take a water bottle in without feeling like a criminal. Their line-ups have changed from inclusivity and exciting acts to a focus on mainstream and commercial music. From an experience that once felt like freedom, we are bombarded with corporate sponsorship and branding every which way we turn.
If we accept all this (even reluctantly) as the natural trajectory of the big music festival scene, the evolution is instructive. Festivals have moved from the free festival movement of the 60s and 70s; to the more commercial, but still threatening, rave movement of the 90s and noughties; to the present, where digital advertising and bankable headline playlists dominate. Back in the 1960s, festivals were one-off events, whereas the 21 st century has seen an unprecedented rise of festival brands, including Glastonbury. Before COVID pressed the global pause button on all this (or was it stop?) big music festivals were big business, pure and simple.
There are small, independent festivals, and larger ones that have stuck to their roots and South Africa has a chance to lead the way globally, post-COVID, in finding a creative tension between what covers the costs and what rocks. There are hazards (even ‘authenticity’ can become branded over time) but we have the space, the enthusiasm and the experience. And it’s worth remembering the flip side of the selling out algorithm; just as edgy and brilliant music scenes usually end up selling out, so do new edgy and brilliant music scenes kept appearing. That’s also the natural law. Music is, at its finest, mysterious and irrepressible, capable of breaking down barriers and opening people’s hearts in a unique way. However depressing it might be to hear a song that a few years ago seemed to sum up your whole soul playing in a shopping mall elevator, the unique tensions and madness of any generation usually burst forth into song. The trick is to be there when it happens.
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