After a disgruntling summer for the UK’s music fans, Elizabeth Aubrey asks when did festivals forget the most important element: fun?
“If you buy a product and it isn’t what it says on the packaging or the quality is sub-par, you are able to get a refund – why should a festival or gig be any different?” asks Seena Shah, a gig goer who set up an online petition in June challenging festival organisers to issue a refund to fans following a terrible gig experience.
Days earlier, Shah had attended a gig at Finsbury Park headlined by Liam Gallagher. Alarming anecdotes about the event flooded social media, with fans reporting long queues, a lack of toilet facilities, “dangerous” overcrowding, poor sound and insufficient access to water – on one of the hottest days of the year. The following day, when Queens Of The Stone Age headlined in the same park, little had changed.
Music fan Adam Wilde attended the Queens Of The Stone Age gig and like Shah, reported poor organisational issues throughout the day. “A lot of festival goers felt a little bit exploited,” Wilde says of his experience. He spent most of his day stuck in long queues.
“There was a lack of care and knowledge throughout the stewards team; the queues for the bars were a constant presence all day. It took me roughly two and a half hours to get a drink at one point. The beer was overpriced and as the queues were so horrendous, people were buying three or four pints at a time only to then be charged an extra £3 for a cup holder. Some bar staff straight up refused to serve any one paying by card as they couldn’t be bothered to wait for the card machine.”
After the event the organisers of the gigs, Festival Republic, issued a statement which blamed the company behind the bars – The Workers Beer Company – for the issues. As one writer put it, it was “a statement that may as well have been headlined: “it was not me, it was the others.” The Workers Beer Company apologised saying “an unprecedented failure” led to “up to 40 percent” of their staff not turning up.
While a lack of bar staff might explain the long drink queues, it didn’t explain why fans endured excessive queues for toilets, nor did it explain why 45,000 people struggled to leave via a single overcrowded exit, or even why so many fans couldn’t hear the performers properly thanks to the alleged poor sound quality. For the 2000 people who signed Shah’s petition, the explanation didn’t come anywhere close to making amends. Festival Republic were approached for comment about these issues but did not want to respond at this time.
“With concerts, it’s not just about the music – you pay for an experience,” Shah says. “It was an exceptionally hot day, queues for the bar were hundreds of metres long and for the hour I queued, I moved no more than 10 metres. There were also very few toilets for the amount of people there.”
“The organisers claimed there were water fountains but these were taps, you needed a bottle or cup in order to drink the water for which we would have had to wait in the bar queues for. It felt really overcrowded.”
Wilde agrees. “I know a few people who left early as you want to be able to enjoy yourself, let loose and have a drink. For around £80 for the ticket, I just expected a lot more organisation to truly enjoy the day as opposed to feeling like the organisers had taken my money and shoved me into a holding pen. When the day had finished, it then took around 45 to 50 minutes to leave.”
The poor exit situation was also echoed by Shah. “There was only one exit for tens of thousands of people to leave the concert through and I felt really uneasy about that…[there was] dangerous overcrowding to get out at the end.”
CEO of UK Music, Michael Dugher, reflected Shah’s views, tweeting: “The worst crowd management I have ever witnessed at a gig or any event tonight. Fences being trampled down by heaving crowds, forced out of bottleneck emergency exists. At one point it looked really dangerous. Stewards, security and police totally lost control.”
BBC politics reporter Iain Watson, who was also at the gig, described the situation in more detail, saying: “Funnelling thousands of people towards one exit was a near disaster. If fences hadn’t been trampled and an emergency exit opened it would most likely have been an actual disaster. Hopefully everyone is safe.”
It wasn’t just at Finsbury Park where organisational issues have marred gig experiences this summer; the failings of many events – from urban weekend festivals to large stadium gigs – are numerous. Similar experiences were reported in June at The Killers’ gig in Swansea, where concert goers with standing tickets missed huge sections of the gig after being forced to leave the Liberty Stadium to use toilets situated outside the ground. NME contacted the organisers behind the event but have yet to receive a reply.
Citadel Festival in Gunnersbury Park was another, with fans struggling to exit the festival via long queues: many were stranded overnight in London. Writing on Facebook, the father of one young attendee said: “appalling arrangements for many people trying to get home. My daughter…left at 10pm – during the headline act. She was immediately herded into a static queue – just to leave the venue. The queue continued on to Acton Town tube, by the time she reached it an hour later, it had been closed, even though the last train west is at 11:43pm.”
Citadel later apologised for the situation, saying: “We sincerely apologise, this is not the experience we had envisioned for our guests, and not is it in line with our values.” They added: “we take all your feedback extremely seriously. We will undertake a thorough debrief process in conjunction with Transport for London to ensure all learnings are incorporated into any future planning of the event.”
At Eminem’s headline gig at Twickenham in July, fans reported chaos and “crush” fears after the show trying to collect bags supposedly “dumped” by security officials. One fan, Tom Rosher, told NME there was a desperate free-for-all frenzy as fans desperately attempted to retrieve their belongings afterwards after they were prevented from taking bags into the stadium earlier.
“There were two security guards and you [were] supposed to hand them your ticket to get your bag back. But they were shouting out ticket numbers and handing them back to anyone who said it was theirs. It was at this point I had to push in to get my bag back, there [were] metal fences falling over as others tried to do the same.” Eventually, Rosher had to jump a fence to retrieve his girlfriend’s bag but not before being blanked when asking for help. “I don’t care – I don’t get paid enough,” a security official allegedly told him.
Twickenham Stadium later apologised, with a spokesperson saying: “On the night there was a limited bag drop facility available operated by the promoter. Unfortunately this did not meet our usual standards. We’d like to apologise to all those who were impacted. We worked with the promoter and had a new process [for the next Eminem show] to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”
While the need for increased security at gigs is not in doubt after horrific attacks on music fans in Manchester, Las Vegas and Paris, music fans far and wide are voicing concerns about over zealous security measures, with many feeling as though the balance between enjoyment and safety has now tipped to the negative. Live music lover Benjamin Seville said poor organisation and heavy-handed security measures have left him not wanting to go to gigs anymore.
“I had a bad feeling when I received security instructions with my ticket that were more akin to an airport,” Seville said of his“next level awful” experience at Queens of the Stone Age. He added: “I accept that security is a big issue for any big city event, but established festivals like Glastonbury have largely resisted installing such punitive security measures and remain relatively trouble free.”
“The security was just like an airport, containers of liquid (even bottles of sun cream) were thrown away at the gates, there were several sets of queues miles from the entrance and vigorous body searches… it just hammered home how attitudes to punters have changed. Less than 20 years ago when I started going to festivals we were basically waved in with a smile and the positive atmosphere meant they were largely trouble free.”
“Less than 20 years ago when I started going to festivals we were basically waved in with a smile and the positive atmosphere meant they were largely trouble free”
Gig-goer Benjamin Seville
Another area getting fans down is the creation of a further “us and them” atmosphere through the use of “golden circle” or “VIP” areas. Speaking about her experience at Glasgow’s TRNSMT festival, Michelle Lindsay said the expensive VIP areas forced true fans to the outskirts.
“It was one of the most depressing sights in my twenty-plus years of concert going,” Lindsay said. “There was a huge expanse of empty space in a ‘golden circle’ section at the front of the stage while tens of thousands of people who had paid good money to see the show were fenced off and squashed behind a barrier…From our standpoint it looked like there was essentially two festivals: one for the rich and one for everyone else.”
Lindsay’s experience was mirrored by another music fan, Chris Scoffield, who went to see Roger Waters at BST Hyde Park’s festival this summer. “I managed to get as close as I could [to the front] and had the frustration that for most of the support acts, the space in front of me was virtually empty. For a performer, this must have severely impacted their performances due to the lack of atmosphere,” Scoffield explains.
“It looked like there was essentially two festivals: one for the rich and one for everyone else”
Gig-goer Michelle Lindsay
“I understand that when The Cure played the following night, one of the conditions was that there was no Golden Circle… I know it’s all about money and after all it is a music ‘business’ but it still sucks… it spoils it for those who can’t afford the prices and for the support bands. It is killing the live music experience.” Both TRNSMT and BST Hyde Park were approached for comment.
On Twitter, rapper Example is another artist taking aim at VIP areas at festivals this summer, tweeting: “Dear festivals – when you put that stupid VIP area IN FRONT of the stage (and they’re always half full) you ruin the vibe of the whole show. Especially for the real fans at the back. Put those VIP areas to the side or back and raise them if you have to. FUCKWITS.”
“When you put that stupid VIP area IN FRONT of the stage (and they’re always half full) you ruin the vibe of the whole show.”
According to Festicket, the world’s largest online booking portal for music festivals, new statistics reveal that European festivals are growing hugely in popularity. Its annual data about ticket goers shows that attendance at oversees festivals has seen a “massive” 29% increase in one year alone. Hungary saw the greatest growth in festival visitors from overseas (773%), followed by Portugal (127%), Spain (132%), Belgium (120%) and the Netherlands (104%). Could this suggest that people might be starting to turn their back on UK festivals, in favour of those overseas?
“I think the main problem with UK festivals is that they’re all about profit,” says music journalist Derek Robertson, who covers a wide range of festivals in both the UK and Europe. “They put profit above the experience and they put profit before the paying customer. In Europe, you’re treated so much better. The facilities are vastly superior, you don’t have to queue as long, things are cheaper. In the UK, I think a lot of festivals now are an absolute rip off and it’s just an excuse to make money.”
For gig goer Hannah Aine Smith, Glastonbury’s fallow year has illustrated the glaring discrepancies between festivals that put profit before fans and experience. “The problem is you have really great festivals like Glastonbury that’s just so spectacularly well organised that it shows up all the other ones.”
“Now, there just seems to be a festival every weekend throughout the whole of summer in London, in a park. There is a new one every year as another organiser suddenly decides to throw on a festival. They’re not thought out, they’re not organised and they don’t seem to be learning from their mistakes. I went to the first Citadel and they ran out of beer at 5pm, at Lovebox it was permanent queues,” Smith claims.
“The main problem with UK festivals is that they’re all about profit. They put profit above the experience and they put profit before the paying customer.”
music journalist Derek Robertson
Fewer line-up clashes and more diverse line-ups are proving a big attraction to Europe’s festivals too. Due to the sheer volume of festivals in the UK, fans can often find themselves seeing the same acts repeatedly during the summer period. Meanwhile, line-up clashes or poorly thought out schedules have led to more overcrowding and ruined experiences for some, like Alex Gibson who attended Field Day festival in June where a Four Tet set was shut down due to overcrowding.
“We went to see Nils Frahm early in the afternoon and already the tent was at full capacity. This was ominous given that there were more popular acts to come on the same stage later in the day. Probably the biggest cause for concern was that entry to the tent was possible from only one side.
Later on, we squeezed into the same space to see Floating Points but within minutes the crowd was getting crushed dangerously tight, people were climbing onto tent scaffolding to get a view and escape the crush. The temperature inside was unbearable. A friend and I decided to leave prematurely…we were finding it impossible to enjoy the set. By comparison, the open air main stage was much less densely populated which highlighted the clear errors in scheduling.”
In a statement, the organisers of Field Day wrote: “There was a pause during the show in The Barn on Saturday evening to allow concerns about congestion to be addressed. We realise this delay was frustrating but the safety of everyone on site is always out top priority and we are grateful to the audience for their patience and cooperation…please be assured that we will be collating, reading and reviewing all feedback so please do send any further comments you have.”
A lack of diversity in line-ups has also once against plagued festivals in 2018. Earlier this year, Lily Allen tweeted a picture of the Wireless festival line up with all the male acts removed from the bill. It left just three female artists. After criticism, the organisers added a female-only stage in what was seen as a welcome, if overdue, move. While initiatives like PRS Keychange are aiming to achieve an equal gender balance on festival line-ups by 2020, there is still a long way to go, argues musician Catherine Anne Davies aka The Anchoress.
“As a female performer, it’s still very challenging to look at line-ups at the festivals in the UK…they are still very male dominated on the whole. It just seems like a very self-perpetuating system whereby artists that are female or bands featuring female musicians are not given the opportunity to perform in front of these very open minded audiences. I definitely feel a sense of frustration about that with regards to the UK festival scene and I hope the state of play changes.”
“Artists that are female or bands featuring female musicians are not given the opportunity to perform in front of these very open minded audiences”
Artist The Anchoress
Next year, Festival Republic is partnering with the PRS Foundation to run ‘Rebalance’, a scheme which will see a number of UK-based female acts perform live and have access to studio time to promote female artists in the industry. Earlier this year, Shirley Manson said female gig-goers should turn their backs on festivals that refuse to be diverse. “My advice to young women is simple: if you don’t see yourself represented anywhere, if you don’t see women artists in festival line-ups, stop going to them. Stop giving them your money.”
“There’s a patriarchal system in place that needs to be immediately eradicated but it doesn’t seem like we’re getting too much help from the patriarchal power that’s in position currently.”
The patriarchal power Manson talks of is doing little to end the number of sexual assaults on female identifying gig attendees either, as a recent study by Durham University illustrated. The study found that 70% of women attending festivals are worried about sexual assault, with a further 69% concerned about sexual harassment. It also found that 30% of women had been sexually harassed at festivals themselves and 10% had been sexually assaulted at festivals.
In a statement, Mel Kelly of Safe Gigs For Women said: “These figures are shocking but not surprising, as this is just more evidence that women fear for their safety at live music festivals.” Kelly added: “This fits anecdotally with what we hear every day. Hopefully organisers hear this and respond appropriately.”
“Women fear for their safety at live music festivals”
Mel Kelly of Safe Gigs For Women
With so many festivals and live gig experiences failing gig-goers, what exactly can be done to make seeing live music the positive experience it should be? “Festivals need to focus on the experience more than profit,” says Robertson. “The ultimate problem with the vast majority of festivals in this country is they’ve become all about the money – not about the fan, the communal experience, the artists or the music. Until such a fundamental flaw is addressed, things will never change or improve and it’s up to the music fans to start voting with their wallet.”
Many fans are already shunning the larger, more commercialised events in favour of independent, smaller festivals such as End of the Road, Green Man and Sea Change where success stories are ubiquitous. For these festivals, fan experience, inclusivity and organisation appear central to success. Meanwhile, newcomer All Points East was widely praised as a London festival that did everything right, with an innovative line-up and good experience for fans.
“A lot of the motivation of the festival is really seeing the delight it brings to people – that is the motivating factor for us,” says Fiona Stewart, MD of Green Man festival. “For me and the people involved in running Green Man, we were brought up on festivals that were very inclusive places, we didn’t have the VIP [viewing] areas, for example. It was about creating an opportunity where everyone has value, and an equal right to be happy in that space. Everyone is a VIP at Green Man and I think it’s good for people to know they are valued in that way.”
“I think the beating heart of a really good festival is inclusion – and if you look back at the origins of festivals, they were gatherings for working people, it was where all the classes got together. Maybe we’re like an modern version of an old fashioned festival.” Stewart adds that their independence gives them a greater degree of autonomy.
“Green Man is a properly independent festival. My idea of independence is that it’s not supported by third parties and it’s run by people who own it. If we as a group decide to make something that isn’t going to make us so much money, then we don’t have stakeholders or investors or even government public funding that is going to dictate to us what we need to do.”
It’s a view echoed by Simon Taffe, founder of End of the Road festival. “End of the Road was originally curated by taking all the things I liked about other festivals and dropping what I didn’t like, after going to around ten festivals a year. For instance, we wanted to remove heavy handed security that you find at some of the more mainstream events, we don’t have a VIP area and we encourage the free and all-inclusive nature of Glastonbury… the main ethos of End of the Road I think, is always giving the audience more than they expect,” Taffe concludes.
“We try very hard to innovate rather than just follow the trend and I think that independence is something people recognise,” Stewart adds. “We try and take the ego out of it and just deal with people who have great ideas, and just give them the freedom to do it… It’s not about getting bigger and bigger, it’s about having an influence on music, arts and opportunities and creating something lasting… That’s what makes a great festival.”
It’s clear that many festivals and arena gigs need to learn from the mistakes of 2018 and make next year’s events a more enjoyable experience for the thousands of music fans spending their hard-earned cash on them. Fans deserve to enjoy the music they love in a safe, well-organised, enjoyable space where music and inclusivity – and not manifold logistical issues – are the at the heart of the gig-goers experience. Unless something changes, it’s starting to feel like fans are ready to walk away. Many already have.