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WPGM Commentary: Should Festivals Exclude Certain Audiences To Maintain Exclusivity?

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“With dance music more prominent on the airwaves now than at any time in the last decade […], festival organisers have started to worry about their events being dominated by hordes of lads with their shirts off. A new age of elitism appears to have begun, with elaborate techniques being deployed to discourage certain kinds of punter”.

This is how the second paragraph of a Guardian article began, published on April 1 (I’m now very aware of the date and hope that it isn’t a prank). I’ve only been to one dance-orientated festival so I wouldn’t consider myself an established member of the scene but I’ve been to a fair few festivals and this article provoked me to respond.

I suppose the main point of discussion is: is it right to try and avoid certain audiences to promote a sense of exclusivity at festivals? The “elaborate techniques” deployed to put people off include selling a limited amount of tickets, selling them to members-only, and avoiding popular headliners. The final method is the one that caught my attention most.

Headliners: the big names that pull people in and get the crowd pumped at the end of the night. There’s no denying that they are a core part of any line-up, but are they the be all and end all? “Some festivals have decided to avoid well-known headliners altogether, in a bid to deter the shallower type of festival-goer who turns up only to see the big names”, the piece reports.

Firstly, not everyone who goes to a festival to see headliners is shallow, and to generalise to such a degree is ill-informed and elitist. Perhaps someone really loves a band and is willing to see them anywhere, the band doesn’t have many (or any other) dates that year, they’re there for a specific act but want to discover new music along the way, the list goes on.

I think the criteria should be: Would you like to go to the festival? Yes? Then buy a ticket, my friend, and have fun!

My friend Morwenna identifies the types of people that the article may be describing and laments over those who ruin the experience: “I find that when I’m in a crowd its really overwhelming, and tends to ruin my time at the festival when you’re seeing a band you really like and there’s a bunch of people trying to cause a riot, throwing piss all over you and practically rubbing their sweaty bodies all over you”, which is something I can sympathise with (a stranger literally peed on me at 2011’s Download festival).

Caris, a seasoned festival-goer, agrees with the possibility of a ruined atmosphere, but adds “at the same time, I think excluding people from going isn’t fair…” and I agree. It’s not only unfair, it’s a poor way of combating the issue at hand; it’s not possible to tell who’s there for what reason, and why should some reasons be hailed above others?

Craig Richards, a resident DJ at Fabric, said that he’s “sick of expensive DJs and people who are only there to see half the lineup. It’s nonsense. This is one of the big problems with festivals today. It’s much more important to me that we present new artists and new experiences”.

Richards may personally find that more important but I don’t, and we’re all different at the end of the day. I wouldn’t pay £200+ for new artists and experiences, I’d want the excitement of seeing artists I absolutely love with new music as a lovely bonus.

The great thing about festivals is that people will be there for a multitude of reasons and it’s hard to feel restricted or bored. After speaking to friends, it was clear that they went for several reasons (music-, social-, and atmosphere-related) and each one felt valid.

There are (generally) so many stalls, stages, and events that if you don’t fancy listening to someone, you have the freedom to seek other things out! In the article, an unnamed DJ complained that “people can leave at any moment, especially when there are multiple arenas. If you bore them for a second, they move on” but this is exactly what festivals are like, and it’s not a bad thing! Music fans can and do get bored; it’s up to the performers to hold our attention.

A viewpoint that I understand more is that feeling of unity that comes with exclusivity. Being with “your people”, whatever the occasion, feels immensely satisfying and sometimes an exclusive group can do that. As Adam Saville put it: “Exclusivity does help promote a kind of unity – everyone there is into the same thing and there is less opportunity for a clash of cultures”.

Whilst this is true, I’m still not entirely on board with this. Why? First off, many festivals are genre-specific so it’s not hard to find common ground with others. Also, when I go to a festival I already feel a sense of unity with everyone who has, like me, taken time out to be there. Every stranger I’ve shoved playfully or screamed lyrics with has felt like family, regardless of how many bands they see, why they came, or how different they look.

In these sorts of situations, the questions that need to be asked are: When the goal is met, what benefit will this have not just for the festival but for the people in attendance? Can this benefit be met by different means? And, most relevant to my introduction, does this justify trying to single people out? A friend with a background in dance and performance mentioned something called “artistic justification”: when excluding someone is justified for the sake of the art.

Does this situation have it? Personally, I don’t think it does. It doesn’t enhance the music or create a more wholesome atmosphere (in my opinion, of course), it only seeks to try and filter out certain people based on weak generalisations who may not even create a negative or disruptive atmosphere in the first place.

Festivals should first and foremost be about the music, not homogenising the audience and maintaining an image. If certain people are likely to repel others based on image alone, they need to remind themselves that stereotypes don’t always ring true. Instead, worry about who you’re going to see and in which order, that’s much more productive!

What are your thoughts? Is my opinion null and void because I don’t frequent these types of festivals? Does it matter? You tell me.

Words by Shanade McConney

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