Tim Dowling: I’m at a cashless festival – it feels like a dystopian future

It took me half an hour to add £30 to my wristband and buy a pint at a festival – no wonder the fiddle player looks dazed

The band I’m in is playing a festival, our first in three years. We were first meant to play here in 2020, but it got cancelled because of Covid. We were rescheduled for 2021, but the festival was cancelled again. It is strange to be keeping this appointment after so much time has passed – it’s like being catapulted into a future where everything is the same, except there is no money.

“You have to pay for everything with your wristband,” says the fiddle player when I arrive. He and his wife have been camping at the festival for three days, and he looks like a man possessed of hard-won experience. His eyes have a glazed, faraway look, and he’s basically dressed for skiing.

I look down at my wristband: an improbable plastic square threaded on to a yellow ribbon saying “ARTIST”.

“How do I make my money go on to it?” I say.

“You’re supposed to download an app,” he says. “But I couldn’t figure it out, so I found a tent where some guy does it for you.”

“Can’t I just use cash?” I ask.

“No one here takes cash,” he says. “It’s a cashless festival.”

We are sitting at a table under a flysheet, next to a pop-up restaurant. A waiter comes over to take our order.

“I guess I’ll have to pay for this,” the fiddle player says, holding out his forearm.

“Problem solved,” I say. But it turns out he has insufficient funds on his wrist to pay for his food, and my food, and the food of the other four people at the table.

“We’ll have to wait for my wife,” he says, his thousand-yard stare spooling out another 50 feet.

Wandering around the festival later, I can’t even find the wristband help tent. It feels unfair that this technological leap – the large-scale cashless event – has taken me by surprise. It’s not as though I skipped two years of festival-going; there weren’t any festivals to skip. Under the circumstances I resent not being able to buy things with cash, even though I don’t actually have any cash.

Back in the dressing room behind the stage, with a solid wifi connection, I successfully transfer £30 from my debit card to my wrist. It only takes me half an hour.

“That wasn’t so hard,” I say.

“What wasn’t?” asks the guitar player.

“The wristband thing,” I say. “I’m all charged up.”

“Well done,” he says.

“Of course, I haven’t tried to buy anything with it yet,” I say.

“What happens to the money if you don’t spend it?” he says.

“I don’t know,” I say. “I didn’t read that far.”

At this point we are too close to showtime to go shopping. Our equipment is stacked on a drum riser, ready to be wheeled on stage as soon as the previous act finishes. Festival sets tend to come at you quickly: time is tight, and between bands the stage is in a state of controlled panic, like the deck of an aircraft carrier. It’s hard not to feel in the way. Then suddenly, while you’re wondering if there’s still time to go to the loo again, you hear yourself being introduced.

I don’t dare look out into the audience until the second song is over, and when I do it’s with an expression that says: I am the deer, and you people are the headlights. I step toward my microphone and open my mouth, but my mind is a perfect blank. The guitarist steps up to his microphone and says it’s great to be here at last, to have the festival in full swing after the limbo of consecutive cancellations.

“It’s like waking from a deep sleep,” I say. “To find yourself in some dystopian cashless future.”

I hold up my wristband, and the crowd goes wild.

Afterwards, drained and exhilarated, I think about making my way round the stage to try to buy a beer with my wrist. I know that if it doesn’t work, I will be crushed.

The drummer walks up to the dressing room door with a full pint in his hand.

“How was that for you?” he asks.

“Where did you get that?” I say, pointing to his beer. “And how?”

“Just there,” he says, nodding at a tent 10 yards away with a sign saying Artists’ Lounge on it.

“There’s a bar back here?” I say. “Since when?”

“It’s not really a bar,” he says. “You just help yourself.”

“You mean …” I say, looking down at my wrist, “you mean it’s free?”

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Inside the tent there are two kegs plumbed into a chiller tap, a stack of plastic pint cups and absolutely no one else. I’m alone. As the cold beer streams into my tilted glass, I think: it’s a good thing nobody told me about this before the show.


Tim Dowling

The GuardianTramp

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