Festivals go upmarket to avoid image of ‘beery lads singing with their shirts off’

Promoters of this year’s big music events are going invitation-only or avoiding mainstream acts to try to create a more exclusive vibe

Britain’s music festivals are looking to move upmarket this year, away from the beery, mass-singalong culture that has come to define summer as much as Wimbledon or a Test match at Lord’s.

With dance music more prominent on the airwaves now than at any time in the last decade, and the weak pound prompting young people to holiday in the UK rather than abroad, 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.

Some festivals have decided to avoid well-known headliners altogether, in a bid to deter the shallower type of festivalgoer who turns up only to see the big names. Other organisers are keeping numbers to a minimum and tickets scarce. Freerotation, an “electronic music party” held near Hay-on-Wye, Wales, in July, is members-only: only those who know someone who has already been can get tickets.

“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,” said Adam Saville, deputy editor of DJ Mag. Other festivals, such as September’s Field Maneuvers, have strong underground lineups, and numbers are deliberately kept low in a bid to create a house-party atmosphere.

The Sub Club XXX, a new festival held in Glasgow in August, is ensuring an intimate and knowledgeable crowd by splitting the festival into two days, aimed at different types of audience. The Saturday event, featuring highbrow artists such as Dixon and Peggy Gou, will be followed by more mainstream acts such as Maceo Plex on the Sunday. “The audience will be divided along these music policy lines,” said the organisers, who claim to be interested in appealing only to a certain crowd and have fastidiously avoided promotional videos featuring girls in bikinis and popular house music.

Fabric nightclub resident DJ Craig Richards curates Houghton Festival, in the grounds of a country house in Norfolk. He told the Observer: “I’m 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.”

Relaxed festivalgoers at the Wilderness Festival, 2014.
Relaxed festivalgoers at the Wilderness Festival, 2014. Photograph: Caitlin Mogridge/Redferns via Getty Images

Saville agrees. “If you are really into music, you don’t necessarily want the crowd to be people in vests and caps who are beefed up and there for the popular name on the scene, but don’t know any of the others. It creates a weird music vibe if people don’t get it. When you have a clash of cultures, it disconnects the harmony; you want everyone there to be on the same page.”

A DJ who did not wish to be named agrees that it is dispiriting to play for people who are only there for the headline act. “It’s completely different to any normal gig that you do. There’s a small proportion of people in the crowd who know anything about your music, and it means you have to hold them there by being more direct and by taking any subtlety out of what you do. People can leave at any moment, especially when there are multiple arenas. If you bore them for a second, they move on.”

Going upmarket may also be one way to ensure longevity. Although Glastonbury manages to appeal to everyone from rugger buggers to hippies, the festival industry generally is in a somewhat precarious state. The 15-year-old Secret Garden Party will call it a day after its July event in Cambridgeshire, and many others are not even getting off the ground. “Festivals are making a concerted effort to be more upmarket and appeal to a certain crowd, partly to make sure they survive,” said Saville. “The festivals that evolve and keep the attendees interested are always the ones that people talk about. Choosing underground artists and developing your niche is part of that.”

Bill Brewster, co-author of Last Night A DJ Saved My Life, a history of disc jockeys, thinks that the increase in elite festivals is not unsurprising but goes against the spirit of inclusiveness of dance music. “We live in a society that’s divided and that is inevitably going to have parallels in other layers of culture and music,” he said. “Festivals and weddings used to be one of the few places where different generations and different types of people came together.

“I don’t think it’s like that any more and it’s a shame really. You go somewhere now and it’s specifically aimed at you and your type of mates and there are other places aimed at other groups in society. You don’t really have that cross-generational thing.”

Saville agrees. “There’s a lot of snobbery around clubland and commercialisation of house music but there should be a degree of open-mindedness in clubbing,” he said. “Dance music was always hinged on everyone being allowed to feel comfortable in their own skin, whatever gender or class they were.”


Tess Reidy

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Festival fashion tips 2017: bumbags, gorpcore – and Corbyn T-shirts
With only days until Glastonbury begins, this year’s trend is likely to practical clothes with a hint of progressive politics

Morwenna Ferrier

18, Jun, 2017 @6:59 AM

Article image
‘It’s two hit songs then off’ – artists fight festivals’ shorter sets
Insiders say ‘stack ’em high’ formula of packing as many bands in as possible is driving performers away

Tess Reidy

13, May, 2017 @11:05 PM

Article image
Festivals warn: change self-isolation rules or our staff will just ignore them
‘Untenable’ rules will force workers to delete NHS tracing app to avoid being pinged

Miranda Bryant

11, Jul, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
‘I can’t keep making a loss’: bands shun UK festivals as touring costs rise
Musicians say they can’t afford to go on the road any more, while smaller events are cut back or cancelled

James Tapper

02, Jul, 2023 @9:00 AM

Article image
'Knee deep in mud at an English festival? Give me Spain any day'

With the British weather always likely to turn Glastonbury or Bestival into a gruelling expedition, bookings are up by 30% this year for events abroad where fans can pay less to see the same bands – and the backdrop is the sunny Med or Adriatic

fTess Reidy

25, May, 2013 @11:04 PM

Article image
UK summer music festivals forced to close as cost of living crisis hits home
Flatlining ticket sales and rising production outgoings have led to many events being postponed

Tess Reidy

04, Jun, 2022 @2:00 PM

Article image
Rocketing costs and drop in ticket sales force musicians to pull tour dates
Animal Collective, Bonobo and Mercury prize winner Little Simz among acts to cancel concerts

Tess Reidy

23, Oct, 2022 @9:00 AM

Secret Garden Party – review
Music is a secondary concern at this surreal hedonist's retreat but Django Django and Regina Spektor made a splash, writes Mark Beaumont

Mark Beaumont

29, Jul, 2013 @7:04 PM

Article image
Rail strikes spell Glastonbury travel trouble – and small events fear ‘catastophe’
As coach bookings soar for the festival in Somerset, the live music industry warns of the impact on other concerts

Shanti Das

12, Jun, 2022 @7:00 AM

Article image
Bands rally to help as jobless roadies turn to food banks
Stage crews laid off as a result of the pandemic are ‘falling through the cracks’ in government aid for the self-employed

James Tapper

20, Feb, 2021 @8:45 PM