Why Festival Culture Needs To Change

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People standing beside a stage

If I asked you what your favourite things about festivals are, what would be the first few images to pop up in your mind? Would it be a field on a hot summer’s day, filled with a sea of bright outfits – including those feather scarves which litter the ground and leave it looking like a bird blew up in a rainbow? What about the smells? Let your nose trace the sweetness of freshly made churros dipped in milk chocolate, still warm in your hands.

Or, for those of you who have your fancy tickled by more savoury foods, perhaps you are salivating over the thought of smoky hot dogs and piping hot chips. Let’s not forget about the live music, which usually takes centre stage (quite literally) at most festivals. Whether you find yourself dancing to your favourite bands or bobbing your shoulders up and down to a cool-sounding tune, live performances are an integral part of any festival.

But, festivals were not always like this, and they only really became popular in the UK during the 18th century. Before this, festivals can be traced back even further in history, whereby the majority of festivals marked religious occasions and transitions in the natural world.

The History of Festivals

To understand the extent to which festival culture has changed over time, it is interesting to consider what some of the very first festivals were like firstly.

The Nowruz Festival (which is the Persian New Year) is one of the oldest festivals in the world and is still observed to this day. During Nowruz, people visited each other’s homes bearing gifts, including authentic dishes and holy books. The ‘Min’ Festival, also known as the Egyptian Harvest Festival, is another ancient festival that was among the foremost. The occasion was dedicated to ‘Min,’ the God of fertility and harvest and was celebrated with a parade, feasts and music.

Whilst both of these festivals were celebrated with music, dance, feasts and communities uniting together, like most traditional festivals, they also served specific, celebratory purposes, which seem to have been lost in present-day festival culture.

Too Many Festivals Have Become Tainted by Money-making Agendas

Over time, festivals have become far less concerned with marking specific cultural or religious occasions and, instead, have somehow become an excuse to be charged atrociously high prices for food and drink – and that’s after you’ve paid the entry fee to even get into the festival venue.

When Glastonbury Festival first began, tickets cost as little as £1. Currently, general admission tickets for Glastonbury cost £335, and that’s in addition to a £5 booking fee!

The same applies to Coventry’s Godiva Festival – which I loved going to as a teenager, mostly because the entry was free. However, recent changes have meant day tickets cost up to £12.50, with premium tickets costing £55. Although these prices aren’t extortionately high at face value, they demonstrate how consumerism has become a part of festival culture.

Other festivals, which usually involve cacophonies devised by tipsy festival goers, extortionate food prices, stinky porter-cabins and questionable clothing choices (sorry, it had to be said), also include Leeds Festival, Parklife and the infamous American festival, Coachella, which takes place in California. As crazy as it may seem, weekend tickets for Coachella can cost as much as $500, and that’s without factoring in the expenses for outfits.

Although the above festivals are all linked by the goal to provide entertainment, which, considering the thousands who attend them each year they certainly seem to do; it’s these types of festivals which propel a culture that has become tainted by consumerism.

Thus, one of the most important changes which festivals have undergone is that they are preoccupied with maxing out the financial figures which can be accumulated during them. The issue with this is it reduces the ability for festivals to be truly inclusive and ends up tainting your memory of the festival you attended with the image of a deteriorating bank balance.

A New Age of Celebration in Festival Culture?

That being said, not all festivals are incentivised by profits, and slowly but surely, more festivals are shifting the agenda from maximising profits to the people who attend them.

As discussed previously, whilst countless festivals cost ridiculous amounts to attend, through celebrating individuality and diversity, festival culture is becoming more considerate of festival-goers. It is this change which has allowed festivals to become invitational of people who strive to celebrate their ideas and individuality – regardless of their culture or background.

Take the Marxism Festival, for example. Although the concept of ‘Marxism’ seems oddly fitted next to the word festival, it is an excellent example of how festivals have changed over time – arguably for the better.

For context, the Marxism Festival celebrates socialist ideas and takes place in London at the School of African Studies. During the festival, topics such as racism, homophobia, and transphobia are discussed. Talking openly about these important issues, which are often subject to censorship, may seem strange in a festival setting. However, many of its aspects are not too dissimilar to any other festival. There are stalls which people can visit, occupied by activist groups, rather than people selling friendship bracelets or other overpriced items you often find at festivals. Several talks occur throughout the day, similar to how music festivals have timetabled acts which perform live on various stages. Therefore, the Marxism Festival is just one example of the ways festivals can be an excellent way for people to gather to celebrate their ideological beliefs in both a creative and meaningful way.

Another type of festival which reinforces the idea that festival culture has changed over time is Literature Festivals, with many taking place across the UK. Literature festivals seek to host local, budding authors and are characterised by talks, bookstalls, workshops, and literature readings. Personally, I think these types of festivals are a wonderful way of commemorating literary talent and incentivising individuals to read more – something too many people claim they no longer have the time nor the motivation to do.

Overall, despiting seeming like a festival hater, I actually really value the importance and joy which festivals can bring. However, I do believe festivals have changed in two very different ways, and one is arguably better than the other. As mentioned previously, certain festivals propel a consumerist culture and thrive off overcharging people to have fun and enjoy themselves. However, not all festivals have gone in such a consumerism-driven direction, and numerous festivals are starting to reintroduce more traditional ways of celebrating. These festivals honour individuals and focus on uniting them through shared ideas and beliefs. It is the latter change in festival culture which will be most beneficial in society and make the greatest positive impact on all those involved.

Words by Nadia Sayed


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