May 042014

This weekend I’ve been at Liverpool Sound City, a music festival based in the heart of the city centre, taking over disused spaces and opening-up events to audiences that might not otherwise use them. The Anglican Cathedral is a standout space, who would have though that hosting two thousand people for a rock concert could be achieved in one of Europe’s most iconoclastic religious buildings?

Liverpool's Anglican Cathederal

Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral

The UK has some fine music festivals, and the appetite for them doesn’t seem to be diminishing. The approach of most festivals is to offer a wide diversity of performances on different stages, with different styles and genres of music. Headliners are given a big push and coincide with the marketing plans of the major labels, while smaller stages are a great place for new acts to learn their craft, refine their ideas and message, and meet-up with new audiences. For many it’s the nooks and crannies that make a festival memorable, tent-poled between seeing iconic performers and events.

It’s generally recognised that pushing new bands is tough everywhere, and that a festival entirely consisting of new, or at least unrecognised music, would be too challenging. This is where the heavyweights are brought in. A strong headlining legacy-artists can make or break a festival, despite the collective value and the worth of the supporting performances. Though too much reliance on the legends or the old guard, depending on how you see it, can have a stultifying effect and we end-up with performances that are too well trodden and predictable.

Eyedress at The Kazimier

Eyedress at The Kazimier

For the punters, some will only want to see the mainstream acts that all of their friends know and recognise, thus joining into a collective experience of shared references and memories. Recognition rather than obscurity is a powerful force. Others, though, are happy to discover alternative performers operating in the parallel margins and regard happenstance and serendipity as a key motivating driver of the experience.

Luckily it seems that music festivals, when done right can accommodate both. Without a good mix from the mainstream and the alternative acts acting in parallel the vibe isn’t right. Festivals depend on the opportunity for chance and the random encounter. That performer that you never would have thought of seeing in a million years turns out to be brilliant and the highlight of the weekend.

Festivals are chaotic, ad-hoc, temporary and founded on a common will to share an experience that confronts and reverses the standard dynamic of bureaucratic control that is exercised in daily life. Mikhail Bakhtin called it the ‘carnivalesque’, the point at which the tables are turned, however temporarily, giving power and authority over to the crowd.

Creativity – either industrially sourced on a large-scale, or thrown at the wall in seemingly random micro-acts -has a premium. Transgression is valued. Individual experience is central. As the festival-goer you get to choose. Either you can put the work in with a confrontational performance artist, or you can let the work come to you by watching a mega-scale performance from a ‘branded’ act. Both are valid.

Solids at the Kazimier

Solids at the Kazimier

What is clear, though, is that none of this is achieved without a clear sense of communalism. Unlike mainstream consumerism, the music festival only works when the experience that is being proffered is collectively engaged. A music festival isn’t a privatised affair. Instead it gives people the chance to share in a set of interests and ideas that they recognise as a self-determined part of their identity.

A rationalist economist might be able to reduce the experience of attending a festival to an equation, a dictum or a set of instrumental principles, but I think they remind us that human nature is pragmatic, contingent and ‘spiritual’. Who wants to go to a festival that is organised by committee and which doesn’t have any meaningful risk? As long as there is an alternative form of expression, we often find that we accommodate ourselves with the commercialism and the sponsorship. Even to the point of Kasabian…. Well, I won’t go that far…

We are very good at rationalising the capabilities we have acquired at different times into something that is supposedly eternal and immutable. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc is what the economists call it. Rationalising after the event. At a music festival our successes are achieved by going with our gut instincts and foregoing the rational or planned exchange. Keynes reckoned that the economy is shaped by the animal spirits. I wonder what he would have thought of Glastonbury? A music festival is both an analogy of those spirits and an opportunity to engage in an animalistic way with the world. I would recommend that some of our more reserved and rationalist economists give a music festival a go at some point. They might just come up with a more humanistic and realistic way of thinking about the world.