Will we still be dancing in the fields in 10 years?

Festivals and festival culture are going through a rapid evolution. The notion of going to a festival for a focused event, be it purely music based or otherwise, has lost traction with the public. Demands on festival producers and organisers have never been greater, as we face up to the reality of meeting the challenge of producing a diverse festival experience rather than following the time honoured of format that used to serve the interests of all concerned so well.

How has the festival landscape changed?

Before we get into the development of festivals as a whole, it’s probably more pertinent to look at some hard facts to gauge the needs of the festival crowd.

The shift in the age range of festival attendees has become a hot topic, particularly as people in the 40-50 age bracket now rival people in their twenties, in terms of engagement with festival culture. This is key because people in this bracket tend to have the most disposable income.

The latest study into festival habits on a national scale was presented last year and showed that one in five festival goers were in the upper age range. This is telling because when you look at the eight hundred or so festivals that are now on the festival calendar we may wonder how many of those festivals really cater to this demographic.

Couple this with the fact that over 50% of total festivalgoers nationally attend one or two festivals a year maximum and the issue is simple – in an overcrowded festival landscape, how do festivals attract the top two age demographics to ensure success?

Experience vs Music

Traditionally, festivals been viewed as being:

  • More or less music oriented

  • Geared towards the 18-21 and 21-30 age demographic

  • Over a weekend or more than two days in duration

Times have well and truly changed, with not all festivals being able to keep pace with focus on the new style festival format.

While music still plays a large part in the decision making process when buying tickets, the needs of the modern festival going public go far further than a quality line up. Festival organisers now realise that people want one thing above all else – they want an experience, preferably a shared one.

The Glastonbury Model

Experience wise, you need only look as far as Glastonbury. Whilst still one of the longest running and venerated festivals, Glastonbury has developed into a destination to experience culture, food, immersive theatre (more on that further down) and ad hoc performances. Many people buy Glastonbury tickets blindly, without even being concerned about headliners or who is on whatever stage – they know there will be something for them. If they are not into a certain band, they will wander the gargantuan festival village in search of new experiences provided by a plethora of performers away from the main stages.

Yet Glastonbury is a British and festival institution in its own right - a carefully cultivated reputation means that it dominates the festival calendar and doesn’t concern itself with competition.

The new model festival format that is now establishing itself, beyond Glastonbury, looks a lot different.

Right now, the public wants:

  • An experience focused festival that the people can explore and discover

  • A festival that they can attend over one day

So, why the shift away from fields and sun?

Theatre reinvents itself as a festival experience

Immersive theatre is sure to be the next big step in festival production – as far as groups of people are concerned, everyone can get involved and have direct interaction with the performers, shaping a narrative and developing a more intimate atmosphere.

The Vault festival in London is probably the best exponent of this. Run over two months in Waterloo Vaults, this festival has set the tone for emergent ways to engage the public. No fields on hand here – you feel as if you’ve been transported to another place, deep underneath London where you’re able to directly interact with theatre performers as you delve into the stories of the underworld.

Couple this with the fact you can broadly dictate how you’re involved in proceedings and a real sense of freedom, knowing that you’re engaging with something truly unique. No hassle camping, live music on hand and the usual amenities mean that, while some things will never change, the execution of Vault is clearly tapping into the current trend with regional escape room venues. It pushes the envelope with respect to providing a liberated atmosphere, which doesn’t require you to deal with muddy field’s or bring half your house for the weekend.

Family Matters

The rise of the family centred festival is in response to the growing number of families looking to make the most of their hard-earned cash. Families places a lot of value on shared experiences, but there is a vast difference between a traditional festival atmosphere and a contemporary shared experience.

Our very own Street Eats N Beats is at the forefront of the family festival wave. We cater for all and everyone, adapting the focus of the festival to on-trend sensibilities. Most importantly, we look to adapt the format year on year in response to changing perceptions.

The teenagers who grew up in the 80s/90s are now in a very influential demographic – they wish to retain their festival roots but want to share that experience with their children. Some festivals go the extra mile to address the needs of families – from diversifying their line-up to even offering on site crèche and babysitting facilities (Standon Calling) for when mum and dad want to jump around a bit.

Festivals that fail to acknowledge the family could soon find themselves becoming rapidly irrelevant.

Evolve or risk become irrelevant

There have been some big festival casualties over the past year in terms of festivals running into issues – large-scale festivals such as T in the Park have had to scale down enormously and the demise of the V festival is indicative of a shift in attitudes. Some of these issues are down to a lack of engagement with the music in the case of the latter, but a lot of them are down to organisers overreaching themselves, ever expanding but running into all manner of problems.

The key is this – people are much more likely to engage with something on a scale of five to ten thousand head capacity festivals. Anything above this runs the risk of becoming too mainstream and frankly, will be ignored. The irony here is quite powerful – by trying to be everything to everyone a festival can quickly lose its identity and ultimately prove a turn off.

People are more likely now than ever to attend a festival for one day – a young family is far less likely to take on a weekend experience. Chelmsford’s Fling festival has been going strong for over a decade but has never overreached itself, being small enough to adapt to changes in trends but ample enough to offer value to the public.

TheTechnology Question

Home comforts die hard. If you were at a festival up to around 2010, you’d have two things in common with everyone else – little to no phone reception and internet access being an ever ongoing issue. Whilst some would argue this is all part of the experience, small things matter to the public.

Festival organisers have had to factor this is into their plans – from ticketing all the way through to the end user experience. Those that don’t may fall below the expectations before they’ve even sold their tickets. Many festivals now offer Wi-Fi as standard or an added extra. Some festivals offer free phone charging and there’s a good reason for this; like it or not, smartphones are the window into the festival and also beyond it.

Festivals are now developing bespoke apps that can be used before, during and after the festival. These apps are a powerful communication tool and a direct line to the festival goer. In terms of retaining customers, what better way than to use a bespoke app where you can push ticket alerts to people that attended the previous year? Moreover, you can make the experience even better for the festivalgoer by having drinks ordered and sent via the app to a GPS location, forgoing queuing . What better way to offer a VIP experience?

Can this be the end for the festival in the field?

We would be remiss if we were saying this. The attraction of sun, music and atmosphere will always play a key role in the festival calendar. However, we cannot look beyond the fact that the festival market is fragmented now into smaller festivals with a particular angle. Gone are the days when you had to pick between five or six major festivals.

Now is the time to look beyond the fields – as more unique spaces open themselves up to the festival format, at Curious Jam we’re expecting a seismic shift in how festivals are produced and delivered over the next two years. Rest assured, we’ll be at the forefront of those changes.

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