Ben West: Decline of the English music festival

Undoubtedly the biggest downer is receiving a pint of urine on your head

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The music festival season is in full swing – the massive V Festival finished last weekend, while Reading and Leeds take place this weekend – yet why on earth are these fixtures of the rock calendar so popular? I'm a music fan, and witnessed some fantastic live music moments at V this year, but the festival experience overall is always so vile it amazes me that people return.

Apart from the horrendous expense – around £150 for tickets, £250 if buying off eBay, and even a cup of tea at V cost upwards of £3 – it is such an uncomfortable experience. The queues for everything – whether for beer, dire junk food, or the loos – are usually immense. And when rain creates a gigantic mudbath, obviously the comfort factor plunges even more.

The safety issues of many thousands of punters crammed into a field, and lots of them drunk, must be a huge challenge to the organisers of these events. At V this year, I witnessed two vicious fights and numerous tense moments.

Music festivals are often greatly disappointing. At V, I saw some great bands up so close that I could almost see if there was any white powder lodged up their nostrils, but these were acts I'd never heard of. When I saw headliners The Killers, I was so far away from the stage I was almost in another postcode. Oasis pulled out due to their lead singer, Liam Gallagher, having come down with viral laryngitis, but I very much doubt that anyone will get a refund.

With the bigger acts, most of the audience are so far from the stage, the musicians are a speck on the horizon. It is so profoundly unsatisfying audibly, visually and atmospherically when compared to the venues these bands usually play. For example, I saw The Specials at the Brixton Academy earlier this year and the band was electric, the audience ecstatic, the acoustics crisp. At V, the audience was subdued and the sound muffled. Weirdly, sound quality improved the further you were from the stage, rather defeating the object. Festival performances are spoilt by the constant nagging feeling that you might be missing something better on another stage. Why they programme bands on different stages at exactly the same time seems madness to me.

Undoubtedly the biggest downer, however, must be when you receive a pint of urine on your head. The increasingly popular phenomenon of throwing cups and bottles of urine into the crowd – unbelievable, but true – has become so common that I doubt many festival-goers now escape a drenching. I was splattered three times during one performance at V and simply gave up watching. However good the music may have been, how could anyone possibly enjoy themselves under such circumstances? It really focuses you into questioning what kind of society you live in.

Most chilling for me at V was witnessing a mother embracing her baby, about one year old. They were parked by the speakers watching a band wearing scary masks. The baby wore ear defenders but, unbelievably, the mother removed them. The baby screamed in terror and confusion at the ear-busting decibel levels, the darkness and flashing lights, and the masks. How could anyone possibly expect a baby to enjoy that? Apart from the possible child abuse issues, why do festival organisers allow babies and young children into such a drink-infested (and possibly drug-infested) hellhole?

ben.west1@virgin.net

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