Live Music Exchange Blog

Home thoughts on festive occasions – Simon Frith


In our latest blog post, Live Music Exchange co-founder Professor Simon Frith OBE reflects on the history of festivals, along with how they have been studied, and considers the implications of Covid-19 for their future.

This year’s Ruisrock Festival, held annually in Turku in Finland, was scheduled for July 3-5. It was first staged in 1970 and to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, Kari Kallionemi from the University of Turku organised a study day at which I was invited to speak. My topic was to be the history of rock festivals. In the event the study day, like the festival, was called off.

On May 13, the Guardian reported: “The British independent festival sector is at risk of collapsing, with many cancelled events falling through the cracks of government support measures for businesses suffering as a result of the coronavirus crisis.” The story was based on an Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) survey of its members: 92% said that they faced costs that could ruin their businesses as a result of cancelled events, with almost all (98.5%) not covered by insurance for cancellation related to Covid-19. The sector was facing redundancies of 59% on average and was on track to lose more than half of its workforce between September 2020 and February 2021. As AIF pointed out, “the vast majority of our members are focused on the delivery of one single large event across the entire year, and that’s all been wiped out.”

The lost summer of festivals will undoubtedly have a huge impact on the live music sector generally. Agent Matt Bates told the Guardian that touring musicians would lose up to two-thirds of their live income from festival cancellations. For those who aren’t among the superstars who play arenas, “having no festivals to play this summer has absolutely destroyed their income and their livelihoods”.[i]

Soon after reading this I came across a blog by viola superstar Lawrence Power, reflecting on how his life had suddenly changed.

I can’t get my head around how we’re going to go back to travelling round the world as freely as before. A positive outcome might be that it means we have to focus our music making much more locally, in a community way. Luckily that’s something I love anyway: I have my own festival, the West Wycombe Chamber Music Festival, and that’s our ethos. It’s small and put together at very short notice, but we have an amazing audience, and fantastic friends and colleagues do it on that basis.

I feel embarrassed that I don’t do more locally, because I’m always going away to make music. This situation might force us to think. I’m sure that within a mile radius of where we all live, each of us could start a beautiful concert series. Maybe a by-product of this is that we have to engage close by. If I have to stay in one place, I would be happy to embrace that.[ii]

For AIF the issue is how its members can survive while waiting for their sites to reopen. Lawrence Power asks a different question: not how do we to return to business as usual but do we want to.

In preparing my historical talk for the Ruisrock event I was struck by how widely its business model is now taken for granted. In the last 25 years rock festivals, loosely defined and understood, have come to play the lead role not only in the international economics of live music but also, as a consequence, in international live music scholarship. Festivals seem to attract more academic attention across more disciplines than any other popular music topic. In an attempt to bring order to this mass of material I classified it under four headings.

  • Economics (including work on marketing, tourism, leisure studies, event management and local economic development). This is to approach the festival as a commodity.
  • Sociology (including cultural studies, youth and ageing studies and ethnography). This is to approach the festival as a rite.
  • Politics (including work on regulation, law, policy and ideology). This is to approach the festival as a setting for disputes and causes.
  • Psychology (including work on identity and wellbeing). This is to approach the festival as an experience.

Missing from much of this work is a sense of history and, in particular, an appreciation of two basic history lessons. First, things change: there weren’t rock festivals in Finland before 1970 and there is no necessity for there to be rock festivals in Finland after 2020. Second, things don’t change. Music festivals existed long before rock and will exist long after it. What is currently assumed to be the way festivals have to be is, in the long view, merely a moment in the history of festivals, a moment that could now be coming to an end.

To look at rock festivals historically is to reveal the contradictory dynamics of their evolution. On the one hand, staging festivals is an extremely risky business, with failure always possible: most rock festivals do not survive for fifty years; on the other hand, very few of these festivals were conceived as one-off events. They were planned to occupy an annual date in the calendar for the foreseeable future.

Some years ago LMX was asked to provide expert evidence in a court case, a contract dispute involving an annual festival. The dispute was eventually settled out of court but not before we had prepared our statement. The question we were asked was simple: what was the likely life expectancy of an established rock festival? Emma Webster and Adam Behr approached this by making a comprehensive survey of why rock festivals fail. They found many reasons, such as the Icelandic ash cloud in 2010 and the London Olympics in 2012, but the most common were bad weather and poor ticket sales. Our ‘expert’ judgement (we were expected to produce a figure, however tentatively) was that the festival in question could have reasonably been expected to last, in its current form, for another 25 years. We didn’t anticipate Covid-19 but we were aware that the threat of an epidemic was something to include in festival organisers’ risk registers. More importantly we understood that festivals are part of the live music ecology; over time they have to adapt to all sorts of developments in the live music economy.

People do, nevertheless, expect festivals annually to return as events that are familiar. In our live music history we cover the launch of the Edinburgh International and Aldeburgh Festivals, the Sidmouth and Cambridge Festivals, the Glastonbury and Reading Festivals, WOMAD and the Brecon Jazz Festival. These events became so deeply embedded in the cultural calendar that before the coronavirus struck no one seemed to doubt that they would continue forever, although, as we also document, they have in fact all faced serious threats to their survival and to survive have had to accept new ways of doing things.

There is an underlying historical narrative here, an evolution of big events from the post-war state subsidised model of the arts festival, through the 1950s and 1960s development of jazz, folk and free festivals into 1970s and 1980s consolidation of the rock festival, to the turn of the century emergence of huge international dance events like Creamfields and Tomorrowland. But there has also always been a vast variety of small events, some rooted in the long tradition of harvest festivals, village shows and seaside holiday entertainment, others (such as Lawrence Power’s West Wycombe chamber music festival) organised by performers or by enthusiasts for particular types of music. It’s as if there is a constant flow of festivals in Britain from which sometimes, with the right confluence of economic and cultural circumstances, one kind of event – Glastonbury, say – bubbles up to the surface and attracts commercial investment, mass media coverage and academic attention before becoming a taken-for-granted routine or sinking back down among the myriad of gatherings out of the public eye.

From this perspective the essential qualities of all festivals are these.

  • They provide a sense of community, however that is defined and experienced.
  • They are celebrations, whether of holidays, coming of age, or simply as a gathering of like-minded people, and carnivals, events outwith everyday social norms and conventions.
  • They are settings for local trade and commerce (and many festivals routinely involve musical competitions and prizes).

One way to look at the history of what became known as rock festivals, then, is to examine how they have retained the necessary elements of community, celebration and small-scale commerce in the context of digital technology, mass marketing and the corporate pursuit of profit.[iii] But it is also to realise that Covid-19 now threatens a festival model that was, perhaps, already reaching its safe-to-use-by date, as environmentalists have been suggesting for some time.[iv] Would it matter if the Glastonbury Festival were never staged again? Do we want Ruisrock to celebrate its 100th anniversary?

What the current crisis has made me realise is that a festival is a remarkably flexible way of parading community ties and cultural expectations and, in its carnival elements, loosening and poking fun at them. Festivals have played this social role for many centuries. Societies change; festivals reflect the changes. Rather than despairing that our favourite festivals may never happen again in the ways that we’ve got used to, we should be looking forward to new festivals happening in new ways, in ways that we presently can’t imagine.



[iii] This is a theme in the best academic study of rock festivals in Britain, Chris Anderton’s 2018 Music Festivals in the UK. Beyond the Carnivalesque.

[iv] See for example Abigail Dunn’s LMX blog:

Please note that this is a forum for discussion, dialogue, and debate, and posts and comments on this blog represent only the author, not Live Music Exchange as a whole, or any other hosting or associated institutions.


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