Chal Ravens reflects on how electronic music festivals evolved over the last decade.
It's hard to imagine now, but at the turn of this century, festivals just weren't that big a deal. There were plenty of them, obviously, including massive dance jamborees like Creamfields and Tribal Gathering in the UK. But taken as a whole, they didn't have the same cultural penetration, nor the same influence on summer calendars. The turning point, in Britain at least, was probably Glastonbury 2002: the year the "super-fence" went up, and with it a sudden veneer of exclusivity around a festival that was previously best known for hippies, mud baths and hordes of freeloaders, who now had to fork out £90 to get through the 12-feet-tall barrier.
By 2010, festival culture was embedded in the UK national psyche. Glastonbury, now with off-site "glamping" options, was given hours of prime-time live coverage. Festivals started popping up like fairy rings, appearing in the middle of cities (Field Day, Wireless), in the countryside (Secret Garden Party, The Big Chill) and in seaside holiday parks (Bangface, Bloc). They were for teenagers (Underage Festival) and for parents and babies (Bestival). All kinds of other cultural interests underwent their own "festivalisation": craft beer, natural wine, comics. Once hotbeds of countercultural thinking, psychedelic encounters and free love, festivals underwent their own process of commodification, turning into consumer experiences with clear price tags (as anyone who went to Burning Man in the '90s will enjoy telling you).
Meanwhile, the bottom fell out of the record business as music ownership was replaced by the ephemerality of streaming. One effect of the collapse in record sales is that money shifted towards the live experience: gigs, clubs and festivals. Ticket prices skyrocketed as promoters discovered that they had "undervalued" music; scalpers proved that fans were willing to pay several times face value for a sold-out event. In dance music, producers often found themselves launching DJ careers in order to support their studio graft.
The 2010s also saw electronic dance music, in its broadest definition, become a central pillar of global youth culture—a shift that saw events like Tomorrowland, Electric Daisy Carnival and Ultra Music Festival become a rite of passage for teens in the US and Europe, while the UK charts once again filled up with dance-pop crossover tunes. The mainstreaming of dance music also expanded the underground. New festivals sprang up offering niche experiences and locations, like Unsound in Kraków, where shows take place in an old salt mine, and the sustainable festival Terraforma, set in a Baroque villa near Milan. Intimacy and exclusivity became valuable attributes in the face of corporate festival culture, with invite-only weekenders like Freerotation and Sustain-Release becoming cult favourites.
The festivalisation process created an increasingly homogenous mass of mainstream-adjacent offerings. The same small pool of names cropped up on every lineup, as if picked out by a random lineup generator website. A-list DJs would appear on various bills in different orders, typically playing sets of only one or two hours. This maximalist attitude was also apparent at club nights where lineups were stuffed with big names playing short sets. It's a system that offers excellent value for clubbers—the chance to see dozens of favourites in one night—but doesn't always leave a memorable afterglow.
By the second half of the decade, dance festivals were starting to feel too similar, generally catering to a certain seam of house and techno fans. The differences between them were often less about the music than the location, atmosphere or extra-musical activities on offer. Any real sense of historicity or context was getting harder to determine, because DJs who had come up in totally different scenes had become associated with each other, and with their headline slots at these massive events, rather than with specific musical movements.
This decontextualisation has something in common with the way streaming has redesigned our relationship to music. Platforms like Spotify have shorn music of its context by removing production credits, minimising artwork and stripping out information about record labels and genres. Discovering your favourite new DJ at a Croatian festival can be a similarly opaque experience. Obviously, it's easy to look them up later and Shazam the tunes you like. But what comes to replace that extra-musical information—the context around the music—might just be the identity of the festival itself. Festivals sometimes feel like expressions of collective identity in their own right, a form of cultural consumption designed to be extravagantly displayed in our social media feeds. At the mainstream end of the scale, a festival's unique selling point might not be the music but the local activities on offer: snowboarding, sandy beaches, legal weed, cheap beer.
An insatiable desire for novelty took punters to increasingly far-flung destinations. Zipping across the continent (or the world) for a techno festival is a luxury made possible by a golden era of budget flights—an era that may soon be over. The environmental damage associated with cheap air travel has become impossible to ignore as a mood of "flygskam" settles over holidaymakers. Several festivals have started to engage publicly with this issue recently, however. This year's Freerotation will be the last "in its current format," according to organisers Suzybee and Stevio, while they work on ways to reduce the environmental impact of flying in artists. Unsound recently asked European fans if they would consider coming to Kraków on coaches.