This summer, British music festivals finally made it back to normal service. After nigh-on three years of cancellations and half-arsed, ersatz ‘COVID-safe’ versions, the natural order is back. The Tesco tent sales are on, the bean burgers are slowly digesting and drug dealers across the nation are booking lavish September holidays.
No matter what you think of ‘festies’, their relative absence over the last few years has been noticeable. Festivals are now so well cemented in the culture that something felt awry – eerie even – when our train stations were free of giddy A-Level grads; Buckaroo’d with roll mats, body jewellery and trench foot. The TV schedule seemed emptier without three hours of Sister Bliss and Maxi Jazz cuing up Insomnia on the Red Button.
At this point, their place in the establishment calendar is every bit as assured as Pimm's at Murray Mound or fist fights at Cheltenham. Their codes, tropes and clichés are written in our constitution, their line-ups as predictable as the weather in the Canaries. Yet, they still possess a rare and quite beautiful power; an ability to unite disparate, but ultimately homogenous groups of people through quasi-pagan merriment. UK festivals are both village fete and bacchanalian sex ritual, Pigeon Fancier’s Ball and Temporary Autonomous Zone, sponsored by Tuborg and staffed by Serco. They are celestially-aligned, heavily monetised rites of low-key chaos for underage drinkers, first-time buyers and sinister crusties alike.
But recently, a new type of festival has started to rear its head, one that seems to move with the rumblings of wider society, rather than just endlessly booking Queens of the Stone Age and hoping nobody dies. This experimental breed of event swerves the standard compromise of ‘big bands, bad food’ and instead brings the festival experience towards the world of Sunday supplements, Zero COVID threads and Jessie Ware podcasts, creating something that I can only decree: ‘the lifestyle festival’.
You’ve probably seen the posters; pasted on the tube, flashed onto your Facebook feed or a DM from your most hateful friend. They jump out at you with wacky, incongruous line-ups that appear to give TV chefs and public intellectuals equal billing with disco legends and Hacienda DJs – reading like a broadsheet culture section soaked in liquid psilocybin. Oxford’s KITE Festival - described on its own website as ‘a new festival of ideas and music’ – was the one that caused the biggest stir amongst the purists, with a really-quite-deranged programme that somehow brought together Grace Jones, Richard Dawkins, Delia Smith, TLC (yes, that TLC), post-indie upstarts Black Country, New Road, hard lockdown advocate Devi Sridhar and ‘David Miliband on Crisis Leadership.’
Extraordinary as it sounds, KITE is just the frothing head of the pint. Peruse through this summer’s events and you’ll find countless examples of this creeping Guardianisation of the music festival – at both newer, purpose-built events and at burgeoning food, comedy and ‘discussion’ stages at established festivals. Talks from Jarvis Cocker, Caitlin Moran, Marcus Brigstocke, David Olusoga, Wahaca’s Thomasina Myers, NASA’s Tim Peake and someone called ‘The Guilty Feminist’ seemingly draw sizeable crowds at ‘family-friendly’ festivals like Bluedot, The Big Retreat, Elephant Camp, ‘Tom Kerridge’s Pub in the Park’, and I’m sorry to inform you of this, ‘Alex James’s Big Feastival.’
Musicians tend to get top billing, but looking at the programming it's clear that they’re something of a sideshow for a more holistic, socially-centred experience. While dyed in the wool ‘music festivals’ cram as many big acts onto their stages as possible, lifestyle festivals are happy to throw their line-ups off a cliff, going from Grammy-winner to ‘North Oxfordshire area Battle of the Bands-winner’ in just a few bookings. The promoters have likely worked out that their punter-base are mostly there to guzzle prosecco and teach their children to skank, rather than check out the latest Four Tet material – a dynamic which certainly doesn’t harm their overheads.
The ‘name’ musical artists that do appear tend to fall amongst identifiable lines; alimony-riddled legends, coffee table stalwarts, political folkies and quasi-novelty ‘genre acts’. The likes of The Cuban Brothers, Dub Pistols, Norman Jay, Charlotte Church’s Pop Dungeon and Craig Charles’ Money-Making Funk Machine seem to be omnipresent; usually nestled amongst Alan Rusbridger, a handsome young comedian with a BBC Sounds podcast and some god awful Bristol brass/bass troupe called ‘Mr B’s Gentlemen's Boogie Down Roadshow’ or the like.
While the traditional itinerary of a festival includes a week of heavy duty aftercare – lathering yourself in Apres-Soleil and waking up screaming – health and wellness are integral to lifestyle festivals. All facets of the Greater Brockley life are on offer; from run clubs to wild swimming, Finnish saunas to cooking classes, hip hop karaoke and ‘paddleboard yoga’. ‘Rock Oyster’, an event run by Rick Stein’s son Jack, dips into the random activity generator to give us ‘hip hop yoga’. Food is another big draw, with sustenance provided by the likes of Dishoom, Hawksmoor et al – upping sticks from Great Eastern Street to do an ad-hoc version of their fare.
It's not hard to imagine the profit opportunities. Music-orientated festivals are required to spend a fortune on production; pulling in legions of roadies, sound engineers, lighting technicians, stage diving-adept security firms and on-site medics to make everything tick. Lifestyle festivals avoid a lot of this expenditure by booking just a couple of bands, a few low-maintenance touring DJs and London-based journos who’s set requires little more than a working microphone and a handful of drinks tokens. The food and wellness businesses will be most likely providing their own equipment, their own staff and giving over a hefty kickback for the privilege. Needless to say, these shin-digs are often held at great big country piles: KITE festival was held at Kirtlington Park – available to rent for only £28,000 per week. You certainly don’t need a forensic accountant to deduce that some people who are already incalculably rich will be getting a lot richer.
The way things are going, it can seem as if every field in Britain bigger than a bowling green has been given over to a lifestyle festival. It's like 1989 all over again, except it's 75 quid to get in, 8 quid for a pint of Meantime and Yotam Ottolenghi is in on the 1s and 2s. Even at established, music-focused festivals like Glastonbury and Latitude, public intellectuals and Perrier-nominees seem to be creeping their way up the bill, potentially taking us to a point where Tame Impala make way for Jay Rayner on the Pyramid Stage. Only honest-to-god mashups like Download and Creamfields seem to be unaffected.
It all seems a far cry from my first proper festival experience; at Reading 2006, where the only non-musical attractions I can remember were a late-night screening of Team America, a few Torture Garden types doing ungodly things with angle grinders and corn-fed emo boys fighting each other in makeshift cages made from aluminum safety barriers.
Of course, it would be remiss not to point out that festivals have been going middle aged for some time now, with the likes of Hyde Park Calling, Guilfest and the ‘Glastonbury Sunday Slot’ directing themselves firmly at the Radio 2-6 audience. The very concept of rock 'n' roll is in its geriatric years, and its live scene will naturally reflect that. But what we're seeing now are the boom days of something quite different. Lifestyle festivals – which are aimed firmly at the ‘Cool Britannia’ generation – abandon the traditional cornerstones of festival culture to create something more akin to a farmer's market or office summer social. They’re babysitter raves for supper club punks, with entertainment provided by a jarring mix of 80s rappers, 90s comedians, 00s chefs and contemporary journos talking about Brexit.
To me, it all suggests one thing: people are living too long. Half a century ago, 50-somethings would’ve had scant social life beyond local boozers and gold watch retirement dinners. But now, we're living through an era in which people well into their autumn years are very willing and quite able to get messy. And through lived experience and disposable income, they can actually do it better than their juniors. They're reliving Glastonbury ‘95 with cash, know-how and kitted-out glamping pods.
For the British middle classes, developments in diet, healthcare and the normalisation of exercise have birthed an army of ageless super-soldiers, who run companies and compete in triathlons, and sometimes become the problematic objects of younger people's desires. Generation X are sexy, solvent and looking for fun – all of which makes them a promoter’s dream. Because not only will they tidy up after themselves, nor flood the first aid tent with broken ankles and 2CB freakouts – their pound is astonishingly strong.
According to marketing statistics, Gen X controls 30% of all 'purchasing power', with baby boomers – many of whom also still go to festivals – pretty much making up the rest. In 2016, 41-50 year olds came second in a study of age demographics amongst UK festival attendees – a position that can only have been bolstered by the rise of the lifestyle festival over the last few years. On top of that, they’re often the ones fronting their kid’s Boomtown tickets, which makes them hugely, hugely valuable in this market.
And really, what’s the point fighting that? You can’t begrudge a person their kicks, even if they happen to involve watching ‘Rory Stewart on War and Justice’ at KITE Festival. An ageing society full of festival-goers is certainly better than one full of curtain-twitchers, and when you look at all the Bohemian Rhapsody sing along screenings and ‘golf club masked balls’ that dominate ‘INSERT TOWN + events’ Google searches – then your average lifestyle festival seems like Fantazia ‘92 at Castle Donnington in comparison.
But what is rather depressing, beyond the shameless profiteering, is how they provide confirmation that the bluetick roadshow has become the great spectacle of our time. That there is a class of media professionals in this country who have moved beyond Taskmaster and the New Statesman, appearing as rock stars for the age of comment. Victoria Coren Mitchell now appears to be as much of a draw on a Bank Holiday Weekend as Nicky Blackmarket, and I'm not sure that’s a particularly edifying place to be.
Because really, half that lot can barely sustain an interesting Twitter thread, let alone a couple of thousand sunburnt faces in a marquee. Although who knows, perhaps we will live to see the day when George Monbiot instigates a Wall of Death, Devi Sridhar brings out a laser show, or Ottolenghi decides to use a rather more ‘potent’ fungus in his mushroom and herb polenta.
There is real potential here for their Altamont moment – given enough power, enough people, and the commentariat might just go berserk, brandishing their chef-grade Victorinox knives at security personnel when the Led By Donkeys hologram show is hit by technical difficulties; just as long as it isn’t during term time.