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David and Goliath: Glastonbury vs. Boutique festivals

Jun 25, 2008
A variety of explanations have been put forward including the traditional Glastonbury mud-bath caused by repeated bad weather, the festivals uncharacteristically lack lustre 2008 line-up, the sharp rise in British festivalgoers defecting to European festivals and the surge in smaller, more intimate festivals popping up across the UK.

It is certainly possible that repeated bad weather could be to blame for Glastonbury's dip in popularity but it seems highly unlikely. The mud is, in my opinion, an accepted part of the festivals appeal. In previous years the BBC's advertising for the festival has even featured mud streaked revellers cavorting in puddles of grime. The festival has always had a strong link with the muddy, carefree "back to nature" vibe and to blame this for a downturn in ticket sales seems odd to say the least. It is far more likely that the festivals problems come from far closer to home.

A truly disappointing line-up headlined by U.S rapper Jay-Z and a heavy reliance on bands very much in the now rather than those with a wide-reaching appeal is far more likely to have impacted ticket sales than the public's fear of mud. In previous years acts like The Who, Bjork and Oasis drew in a mixed crowd but this years decidedly trendy line-up may have left a good portion of the festivals older regulars slightly alienated. The controversial choice of a rap act as the headliner at what is widely considered to be a rock festival may have also negatively effected ticket sales.

A factor often looked over when trying to figure out why ticket sales have been so slow this year is Glastonbury's pre-registration system. Unlike other festivals where tickets are easily available through online booking engines and telephone lines, Glastonbury demands people who want a ticket register with them. Registration requires a passport photograph and personal information.

This process was implemented largely to prevent ticket touting and for that it should be commended. The astronomical prices demanded for festival tickets on eBay is reason enough for any fair-minded organiser to investigate ways to prevent unscrupulous individuals profiting from a event which is heavily charity focussed. With this kept in mind it is understandable that Glastonbury organisers felt the need to do something but the clunky pre-registration process and the demand for a passport photograph is enough to put many potential festival fans off. The Orwellian undertone caused by the festival collecting such personal information from its attendees is only heightened by the presence of police surveillance cameras, dampening the free and easy atmosphere.

Perhaps the biggest threat to Glastonbury is the rapid rise of the small UK festival, often called a "boutique festival". The small UK festival used to be the reserve of the painfully cool, a small gathering of like-minded people enjoying niche bands that were of no threat to giants like Glastonbury. In the past few years these small festivals have grown in number, stepped into the media spotlight and gathered an impressive band of devotees which in turn allowed organisers to spend more money and increase the standard of the facilities and the acts.

The massive choice of small festivals has allowed music fans to find a festival which has the particular line up they will enjoy. Festivals like Kent's Lounge on the Farm offer an eclectic mix of small bands, typically the sort of acts with a large online following but little presence in the charts. The Isle of Wight's Bestival offers a similar lineup featuring many of the same bands as Lounge on the Farm but with some big names with wide appeal such as 80s legends Gary Numan and the Human League thrown into the mix. It is this eclectic mix that Glastonbury seems to have forgotten.

Anyone who has been to a large festival in the UK recently has probably noticed the rampant commercialisation of outdoor music events. The choice of music is leaning more and more towards whatever band is enjoying favour in the charts and as the festivals gain sponsorship and expand they loose the intimacy and gain vast amounts of advertising. The few weekends a year the British public gets to spend in the sunshine enjoying live music is not the place for shameless advertising campaigns. That place is after Coronation Street.

Having attended both major festivals and their smaller, more civilised cousins I for one am a happy convert to the boutique festival. Cheaper, smaller and with increasingly pleasing headliners they are the future of the UK music festival scene.
About the Author
Samantha is a London theatre fanatic and regular West End theatregoer. She writes and researches some of the biggest London shows you can view examples of her work here Oliver
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