Blog Link

Can festivals change the world?


I knew there was a problem when the head of site services stormed into the Production office demanding payment for 30 toilet doors. Before that I was too stressed to wonder what the small bonfires in the distance were made of. It was cold. So, in a gesture of creative anarchy, the heavy metal fans had ripped off the toilet doors and set fire to them.

But there was a more pressing drama about to unfold. The wop wop sound of helicopter blades announced the arrival of a man with an empty suitcase…  and there wasn’t enough cash to fill it. Ticket sales had been lower than expected. Looking across at the field of huddled bodies, litter and campfires, I half expected to hear Flight of the Valkyries as the chopper came into land. But this wasn’t Vietnam, it was Derbyshire and the only sound was the  closing refrain of Long Live Rock and Roll, just before Ritchie Blackmore smashed a Fender Stratocaster onto a Marshall amp.

Festivals were different in the old days. It was difficult to convince people to buy tickets in advance. People waited to find out which bands were playing and what the weather was likely to do. This led to a white knuckle ride for the promoter, who would spend the months leading up to the festival engaged in a variety of methods for stress reduction – meditation, long walks, LOL. Of course I mean heroic quantities of cocaine, tequila worms and indiscriminate shouting.

The rock and roll industry was full of tales of shysters, charlatans and shenanigans.

There was very little trust.

By contrast, the corporate world, the world of the ‘suits’ was measured, structured and calm. There were procedures, purchase orders, and status reports. There were meetings with lovely sandwiches where people were polite, agreed to suggestions and didn’t swear. It was an oasis of calm…

Except it wasn’t really.

Now that the internet is here, transparency has become a real thing (as opposed to a buzz word people are fond of adding to mission statements). We now know that those clean cut bankers were taking mad risks with other peoples’ money; that the caring clergy were preying on the vulnerable members of their flock; that CEOs and politicians were lying and cheating their way to the top.

In short, scratch the surface of this seemingly nice, ordered world and it is full of gamblers, rapists, punks and whores.

Meanwhile, what’s going on with the festivals? If they are indeed the harbingers of change, this is an interesting question.

There is trust galore!

Festivals sell out now before a bill has even been thought of. People don’t go to be passively entertained. They go because they actively want to be part of an experience. Part of something real in an increasingly surreal world. They don’t expect things to be presented to them, they bring the spirit of the festival with them. And of course no expectations means no disappointments, and therefore no corresponding anti social behaviour.

This new spirit is exemplified at Burning Man which kicks off next week in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. It’s not so much a festival, it’s more a gathering of people who want to create a different way of life, dedicated to art, self-expression and self-reliance. Tired of the fear filled ‘rule’ dominated societies we now live in, they want to demonstrate what a highly principled, totally connected community could look like.

It’s mind blowingly creative.

Rather than a financial exchange, whereby the audience part with large amounts of cash to buy the products or services on offer, there is a bartering system. Trade a hat for a bicycle pump, a massage for a feathered headdress, food for shelter. You can guarantee the food won’t be modified by Monsanto and the shelter will resemble something you built out of Lego or egg cartons when you were 8 years old… possibly the last time many of us were truly creative.

At the end of a week of partying, playing, climbing, cooking, dancing, talking, laughing and sharing, everything is dismantled and either taken home or burnt. Days after the event there isn’t a single piece of litter, in fact there’s no trace of anybody having been there at all – let alone 70,000 people hell bent on having a good time.

So, can festivals change the world?

Yeah, I think they can. The world changes when the culture changes. Culture is about art, music and the way people behave relative to their circumstances. Festivals are about art, music and community. They allow people a ‘lived experience’ of being part of a whole. And ‘lived experiences’ will always trump beliefs.

The corporate world would have us believe that anarchy is chaotic and frightening; that we need rules, protocols, health and safety regulations. That we need to be governed to within an inch of our lives for our own safety. They peddle fear. Because without fear they would have no power.

Of course socialist action groups try to gain public support and entice people to be more community spirited – caring, recycling. But they have limited success because they spring from the old regime. We were fooled by Tony Blair. But, in the words of the Who…We won’t be fooled again.

So, how to change a culture… when the centre of this one is not holding?

I was at a set of traffic lights the other day when a man pulled up in an extremely flashy sports car. Visibly annoyed at this brief interruption to his journey, he glared ahead while revving the very throaty engine. Twenty years ago this picture of alpha male supremacy  would have been designed to make women go weak at the knees. There were a couple of twenty something women in front of me, waiting to cross. They looked at him and burst out laughing. “Knob” one of them said as she skipped across the road.

This is how culture changes. Not by committee… but by humour. By our collective decision to break the old paradigm about what is cool.

I used to look back and cringe at my attempts at being cool. Adopting mannerisms I’d seen work for other people, repeating phrases I didn’t fully understand in an attempt to sound intelligent. How many original choices did I really make?  Steve Tyler’s cowboy boots, Stevie Nick’s  haircut, Patti Smith’s angst.

Now I look back and laugh. Because all we’re ever really doing is trying to belong. Trying to get someone to love us.

And this being the case, it’s time to throw away a few things we know will not help our endeavours. Things like… Cynicism. Being special. Pouting. The world would look a lot better if these were replaced with… Trust. Shared experience. Laughter.

If fear is what keeps us trapped in our own individual boxes, then these three things will not only free us from those boxes but they’ll create vast amounts of courage, vast amounts of creativity, and vast amounts of love.

There’s a scene in Dead Poet’s Society in which each schoolboy becomes brave enough to stand up and be counted for what he believes in. Throughout his life Robin Williams stood for humour, art, and that creative spark that links our human self with our divine one. But the old world weighed too heavy on his psyche. The old world is well and truly broken. But we need critical mass if we’re going to change it for a new one.

Perhaps it’s time for us all to make a stand. Not by attacking what’s there. But by making it irrelevant. Refusing to buy the stuff it sells… the fear it promotes. By imagining new ways of being.

Because as Robin said “No matter what people tell you, words and ideas CAN change the world.”






One Comment

  1. Wonderful, inspiring article, superbly written! Thank you!

Leave a Reply