A few weeks back I took the plunge and visited an overseas festival. The Exit Festival in Novi Sad , Serbia to be precise. Not being one for festivals normally, this was a big ask. A visit in my young life to Glastonbury 1990 made sure I have subsequently carried many an issue with the festival experience.
It's not the inevitable rain storm just before your favourite band is due on stage, and all the resulting mess that comes with it, for me it is being in close contact with so many other people, all of varying stages in life, all digging different types of music, all pulling in different directions. And with so many different artists performing on stages far and near, I don't believe the festival experience these days provides an experience of 'oneness'. Maybe that makes me anti-social; maybe I just don't like people. Whatever, the festival is no more than a cacophony, or a hideous melee.
Glastonbury in 1990 was rancid. Mud, rioting, bad drugs and even worse bands totally unsuited to playing in fields of mud. The UK's youth was raving back then - things had changed. Glastonbury main man, Michael Eavis chose to have a fallow year after 1990 to rest the farm's pasture and as we know now, to rethink the festival. It returned in 1992 sharper, 'cleaner' and seemingly the seed was firmly planted giving way to visions of a golden, corporatised future. And boy did our future become corporatised.
A quarter of a century later, old Glasto still churns it out. Still bigger than the rest, in the UK at least, but these days perhaps reflecting the drudgery of a mainstream music industry resigned to minimal productivity, and denying new or emerging artists in favour for the nostalgia / heritage tip which of course these days is the industry's staple, lucrative market.
Throughout the 90s and beyond, the Glastonbury Festival blazed a trail for retro. It found a fun way of cashing in on British university students' penchant for irony. Token bookings like Tom Jones and Tony Bennet were mind-bending hits and they claimed the main stage as their own. Even the recently shamed Rolf Harris who returned for a second appearance in '98, emerged triumphant and very much a superstar reborn. Capitalism is indeed savage and the festival tide did turn.
Fast forward, and this year alone trading off nostalgia and heritage were Metallica, Brian Ferry, Pixies, Dexys, Dr Feelgood, Suzanne Vega, The Selecter and Dolly Parton to name but a few all appeared as expected big draws at Glastonbury.
One cannot directly blame the festival organisations for something that is simply a natural answer to modern capitalism, or consumerism. As the big festivals like Glastonbury increasingly struggle to make profits they are left with little choice but to do or cash in on anything to minimise loss, but their original message further disappears.
Maybe the UK festival these days is a reflection on the demise of militant political thought and the surge of a wishy-washy 'con-dem' era, which some might say is largely responsible for leaving the UK politically bankrupt. And if the all-empowering music festival was originally born out of an idea to utilise music in uniting people in possession of a common purpose within a struggling society, then in UK at least it has long gone.
The larger or more established UK festival is now devoid of any cultural exploration it seems, and are no more than a Las Vegas or a Disney Land type vehicle to rinse the last few pounds out of the common all-consenting, all-consuming punter. Of course, there are smaller festivals who still believe in striving for a common purpose like the sustainability campaigning Shambala and the All Tomorrow's Parties (ATP) series of events who are committed to a none-corporate booking policy and remaining as intimate as possible. But the mass marketing and cultural vandalism of the UK festival scene has only made short work of many a festival that strives to do this. And only this week ATP's Jabberwocky event was cancelled at more or less the last minute. Organisers claiming that while ticket sales were good. They were just NOT good enough! Just how long can a truly alternative festival survive as things are?
Exit Festival in its current mode is something to draw inspiration from, but I doubt it could exist in UK. It has a very different outlook. Its (Petrovaradin) fortress setting on the outskirts of a large city like Novi Sad is something beautiful to behold in itself, but more importantly the festival remains an outpost of anti-establishmentism. Exit was set up as both (i) a retaliation of a now forgotten oppressive regime, and (ii) as a celebration of the Balkan counter-culture marrying up with the mainstream.
Now in its fifteenth year, Exit festival is still only a spring chicken compared to the likes of Glastonbury but somehow, despite political regime change and Serbia enjoying stability, it remains part of the national community whilst recognising international issues. As it grows each year it gets closer to the people and not further away. The government are proud to use it as a PR tool. It is highly valued, and has a hands-on, if you like tangible, and highly diverse social responsibility policy. The festival has announced that over 140,000 Euros were raised to help Bosnian, Serb, and Croatian flood victims who this year experienced the worst floods in the history of the Balkans.
The Greenpeace relationship with Glastonbury is all well and good, but do many of us actually know what the donations are currently being used for? If you are interested you may look it up on the website but despite being given a platform each year other than the website it is hard to discern what is going on with such charities.
The Exit Festival is massive but somehow, and so far manages to keeps it real. Yes, like most festivals when you are there it is nothing more than a cacophony. And hard to navigate for someone so anti-festival as I am. But I do not hear the noise of nostalgia and heritage and massive ticket price increases. One still hears the noise of experimentalism, even though Gloria Gaynor and the Pet Shop Boys did appear this year! Co-founder Dušan Kovačević in response to my asking him if he thought these bookings were getting dangerously close to a Glastonbury 'Sunday afternoon' type scenario says "Last year we had king of disco Nile Rodgers, and everybody said that it was one of the best bookings. Disco is having revival all over; even Disclosure this year finished their set with classical disco tune. Modern electronic music has roots at disco, and having Queen of Disco was logical thing to do. If you look at great reactions from the audience, it's obvious we made a right move."
And after visiting Exit somehow I kind of believe him. But let's see where they're at in another 15 years. Even Michael Eavis doubts Glastonbury will exist in another 15 years. Let us hope the smaller festivals that are striving for something different have not only survived but also managed to keep it relevant. But I guess that depends on where the UK is as a nation. As it is I fear the worst.