Sunday 11 December 2016

Festival Fever: The evolution of the music gig

As Longitude kicks off, our reporter charts the evolution of the music festival from muck-filled mayhem to today's sanitised, Instagram-friendly 'experience'

Tanya Sweeney

Published 15/07/2016 | 02:30

(l) Fans line out for David Bowie at Slane Castle July 1987. Photo: Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI collection. / (r) Music fans arrive at Electric Picnic 2015. Photo: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos
(l) Fans line out for David Bowie at Slane Castle July 1987. Photo: Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI collection. / (r) Music fans arrive at Electric Picnic 2015. Photo: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos
David Bowie at Slane Castle July 1987. (Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI collection.)
Not be to missed: Roisin Murphy is one of the homegrown acts taking to the stage at this weekend’s Longitude Festival in Marlay Park in Dublin
Controversial: Tyler the Creator is a highlight of Friday night.
Jack Charlesworth, Cork, Ben Rooney, Newry and Laura Tobin, Kilkenny at Body & Soul
Nicole Hughes, Amelia Slattery, Louisa Collins and Nicola Barton at Longitude 2015 in Marley Park. Picture: Tony Kinlan.

The high street is teeming with polka-dotted wellies, dry shampoo, fancy tents and a strange sense of trepidation. It can only mean one thing; festival season is here once again.

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In Ireland, we don't enjoy a summer season per se (look heavenward); rather, the season is officially marked with a dizzying carousel of music festivals, starting today with Longitide at Marlay Park.

Folks of a certain age know the drill by now: mucky portaloos, inflatable hammers, falafel stands and a general sense of carefree abandon. For years, the Irish festival has been a rite of passage for anyone who ever bought an album and wanted to cut free from the tyranny of youth.

And we've loved these rites of passage for years. In the 1970s, there first wave of festivals as we know them was born: Fleadh, Slane, Lisdoonvarna, and Siamsa Cois Laoi.

Revelers at Longitude 2015 in Marley Park. Picture: Tony Kinlan.
Revelers at Longitude 2015 in Marley Park. Picture: Tony Kinlan.

In 1981 we saw the advent of Lord Henry Mountcharles' big day out at Slane Castle, while music fans of a certain age will forever cherish memories of Féile (or the 'Trip To Tipp'), the no-frills music festival commonly regarded as the frontrunner to the weekenders of today.

When Feile faded out in 1997, music fans weren't long in waiting for another behemoth to roll into town: Homelands became the state's first dance festival in 1999, and Witnness was MCD's next big venture, running at Fairyhouse Racecourse (and later Punchestown Racecourse). The event later morphed into Oxegen.

In 1983 U2 headlined the event. Photo: Getty Images
In 1983 U2 headlined the event. Photo: Getty Images

But much like a weary festival on Sunday night, the question eventually raises its head. Are today's festivals in keeping with time-honoured tradition? Or are they a cleverly gussied-up triumph of commerce over culture? There's no doubting that in the years since the locals of Thurles set out their stalls of egg sandwiches, things have shifted somewhat.

At this weekend's Longitude, punters are likely to enjoy gluten-free and vegan fare in a variety of cuisines. There will be no camping per se, as it's assumed that punters will ship out of Marlay Park once the last act's megawatt amps have been turned off. Even the toilets have had something of an upcycle. Some of them even flush. Music is certainly front and centre at Marlay Park this weekend, but an unseemly truth remains.

David Bowie at Slane Castle July 1987.
(Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI collection.)
David Bowie at Slane Castle July 1987. (Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI collection.)

For the Facebook generation, music is not the cultural touchstone it once was. Teenagers no longer feel the need to subscribe to a certain aesthetic, like grunge fans, ravers or Britpoppers did. Where rock stars once reigned supreme, now bloggers, Snapchatters and Instagram icons are the ones being idolised.

There's no denying that Longitude's lineup is enough to rouse any self-respecting music fan from the sofa. Yet the truth is that music has, to some degree, taken a backseat to the overall experience, and large headliner acts are fewer and fewer. One statistic claims that the average age of a headline performer 10 years ago was 30, today it is 45.

FAO DAVID CONACHY : Pictured (l-r) was festival goers at Electric Picnic, Stradbally, Co Laois. Picture Conor McCabe.
FAO DAVID CONACHY : Pictured (l-r) was festival goers at Electric Picnic, Stradbally, Co Laois. Picture Conor McCabe.

Nowadays, the Irish music festival is about creating memories with friends. That's not just mobile phone advert talk; according to a recent Guardian survey, just 7pc of people surveyed quoted the line-up as being what they looked for in a festival; while 58 percent said it was the experience.

Ergo, it's about seeing and being seen. And for a few die-hard regulars, it's a chance to channel the spirit of Coachella's celebrity following with a statement outfit or two.

1. Bruce Springsteen at Slane Castle June 1, 1985
1. Bruce Springsteen at Slane Castle June 1, 1985

It's probably all Kate Moss' fault. Kate may be a die-hard music fan, but she was also the first to treat a music festival like an event on the social calendar. And where the glamorous model blazed a trail, millions followed. With women flocking to Irish music festivals, the accoutrements came thick and fast: massages, mobile top-up areas, make-up artists, hot tubs.

Suddenly, wanting to get a pedicure in the middle of a Midlands field didn't seem so outlandish at all. It was entirely feasible to create a home away from home with a glamping experience. Anyone who slept in a sleeping bag in the environs of Thurles during the Feile era has probably shed tears for their younger selves.

Michael D. Higgins at Slane castle in 1984 to see Bob Dylan.
Michael D. Higgins at Slane castle in 1984 to see Bob Dylan.

The glamour quotient hasn't just been amped up: the corporate factor has, too. Where once it was unthinkable that a mobile phone company or drinks giant would wield its considerable influence at something as grotty as a music festival, the fat cats soon realised that there was money in the pockets of thirsty young music fans. Even more interestingly, consumers are much more forgiving of a brand's presence on site.

Longitude and Electric Picnic are the two events that claim the lion's share of ticket sales and sponsorship, but it didn't stop a number of boutique festivals from getting elbow room in the market. In the last decade, Body & Soul, Castlepalooza, Sea Sessions and Knockanstockan have all stuck to a singular modus operandi; keep it niche and the punters will come.

Body and Soul Credit: Amy Mulvaney
Body and Soul Credit: Amy Mulvaney

As to what the future for music festivals will hold? The smart money says that festivals are set to become even smaller (like Drop Everything on Inis Oirr). It's also possible that outdoor events like last weekend's Beyoncé extravaganza could well usurp the traiditonal festival experience.

Meanwhile, food, literary, salon-style and arts events, formerly a fringe occurrence, are moving ever closer to centre stage.

Still, one thing is for sure, whatever way music festivals will shapeshift in the years to come, the seasonal fashion will almost certainly be something to behold. If this weekend's lineup is anything to go by, the kids will be alright.

04/09/15Music Fans pictured arriving to Electric Picnic in Stradballly. Pic Stephen Collins/Collins Photos
04/09/15Music Fans pictured arriving to Electric Picnic in Stradballly. Pic Stephen Collins/Collins Photos

Irish Independent

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