Since 2002, I’ve been to 14 T In The Parks, and incredible memories were made – and lost – at each and every one of them. Following the announcement that the festival will be taking a year off in 2017 to address the problems that have plagued it over the last couple of years, there’s a very real possibility that I may have been to my last, but while T’s future looks uncertain, the challenges it currently faces are certainly not insurmountable.
On Twitter, the response was telling: sure, there were a lot of people mourning the loss of an event whose value to Scotland’s cultural landscape is basically incalculable, but their voices seemed to be drowned out by gloating good-riddances, or teenagers bemoaning the fact that they’d have to find somewhere else to get blackout drunk that weekend. Those people misunderstand what T In The Park is and what makes it so vitally important to Scotland’s small but vibrant music industry. The festival has always attracted big names from around the globe, but it takes its responsibility for promoting emerging Scottish talent seriously, as Biffy Clyro, Frightened Rabbit, Twin Atlantic and many others would tell you. What’s more, Scotland has already lost Rockness, Connect and Wickerman; for T In The Park to join them would be nothing short of a disaster, culturally and economically.
Which isn’t to say that news of the cancellation came as much of a surprise – there’s been an increasing amount of negativity around the festival for some time, and it reached a crescendo over this past summer. In hindsight, perhaps it might have been better for the organisers to take a break when they were forced out of Balado in 2015; that hiatus could have been used to find a more suitable site than its current home of Strathallan Castle, whose size, accessibility and population of nesting ospreys have made staging the festival such a headache. In addition to that unpopular move – and the myriad organisational and traffic problems that came with it – this year’s event came under intense scrutiny over the deaths of three fans, the rape of another, brawls that were filmed and shared all over social media, and an overall rise in reported crimes. Granted, the reflexive pearl-clutching of the Scottish media – who never fail to find it ‘SHOCKING’ that kids take drugs at festivals – doesn’t do T any favours, but there are too many tragedies, too many people who never make it home from the festival, to simply sweep those concerns under the carpet.
The festival’s problems aren’t only of organisation or security, however – there’s also the question of identity. In 2015, I watched The War On Drugs – the penultimate act on the second-largest stage – play to an audience of perhaps a couple hundred people. This year, LCD Soundsystem’s headline set on the same stage went viral for all the wrong reasons by attracting an even smaller crowd, just weeks after they’d played to tens of thousands at Glastonbury. These aren’t isolated anomalies, and they didn’t occur because the festival itself was poorly attended, but because the people who do go are there for the mainstream pop and EDM acts the organisers have prioritised in recent years. On the one hand, it’s a perfectly understandable policy – if Calvin Harris is willing to play your festival every year, why wouldn’t you book him? – but on the other, it’s resulted in a demographic shift that dissuades many people from attending, and has seen a steady decline in ticket sales. For fans whose tastes skew towards the alternative, T has lost its lustre, and simply bringing Kasabian back for the umpteenth time isn’t going to change that.
Despite all this, I remain optimistic about T’s future. After all the upheaval and uncertainty of the last few years, it’s not a bad idea to take some time out and reconfigure, especially if the result is a better festival with a more diverse and adventurous booking policy that gives lifers like me a reason to return. For more than two decades, T In The Park has been a national institution, and when institutions falter you don’t scrap them outright – you find a way to make them better. Scotland needs a healthy, successful T In The Park far more than its naysayers realise. Here’s hoping the festival’s year off is the first step towards that.