Monday morning after Glastonbury Festival. The clarity of chaos is almost beautiful, biblical in scale. A city-like community, nine months in devoted build, unflinchingly and savagely decimated in one weekend. Razed to the ground. Scavengers plundering all manner of deranged and useless treasure, searching amidst jutting skeletons of abandoned tents in the hope of finding […]

Monday morning after Glastonbury Festival. The clarity of chaos is almost beautiful, biblical in scale. A city-like community, nine months in devoted build, unflinchingly and savagely decimated in one weekend. Razed to the ground. Scavengers plundering all manner of deranged and useless treasure, searching amidst jutting skeletons of abandoned tents in the hope of finding misplaced sanity or an all day breakfast in a tin. It is a vision made real by the frothing lunacy of acid eating, napalm breathing maniacs. A hellish poetry of horrors.

Glastonbury’s absence in 2012 was indicative of a challenging year for the festival industry, with high profile cancellations, brutal weather, floods, The Olympics and Jubilee all contributing to predictions of a lower turnout. According to figures published in the YouGov Sixth Sense Music Festival Report, attendance for major music festivals in 2012 were to be considerably lower than in 2011, with less than a third of previous attendants surveyed planning on going to a music festival and 50% not attending any at all.

To blame the downturn on the overall economic climate would be an obvious explanation, but even though only 5% of those surveyed thought festivals represent value for money, 45% said that the recession had made no impact on the number of festivals they attend.

Many say the industry is cannibalising itself with too much choice diluting the returns. According to a study conducted by researchers at the Universities of Southampton, Bath and Birmingham, the number of British music festivals has increased by 71% since 2003.

Having had the good fortune to have worked behind the scenes at many of the UK’s flagship events, it seems to me that organisers have lost sight of their target audiences. The major festivals have become corporate goliaths; too visibly commercial, formulaic and sanitised, to use the word loosely. Home comfort amenities and hideous ‘glamping’ accommodation options are just two examples of developments installed to appeal to a broader demographic. While some of these new punters are more likely to spend £9 on an ostrich burger, often they are part of a social consumer group who only attend out of curiosity or to be on trend. Yes, they’ll pay an extra £100 so they don’t have to set up their own tent, but they are not repeat business. This has led to a string of mainstream festivals being adapted to appeal to an audience who don’t attend on a regular basis, with the core audience looking for a more authentic experience elsewhere.

Dr Andrew Bengry-Howell from the National Centre for Research Methods at the University of Southampton says: ‘Lots of people drew comparisons between the sense of community they encountered at a music festival, and the lack of community they encountered in their everyday lives […] People came to festivals partly for the music, but mostly for a whole experience, […] The experience of spending time with people who share their interest in music and festivals.’

The experience of going feral, relinquishing yourself to a primal force and becoming one with fellow heathens, becomes uncomfortable when faced with regular upstanding citizens. The collective suspension of disbelief can be harder to maintain when shared with anyone so threateningly normal.

Developing a corporate business mentality has granted satisfying returns in the short term, but it will be damaging to the longevity of an industry established on hedonistic outcasts and misfits. To thrive again it needs to take inspiration from the independent success stories of recent years; whether it be the extravagance and exclusivity of Secret Garden Party, the carnival atmosphere of Camp Bestival or the quirky rural appeal of Kendal Calling. These events have so far stayed true to what made them popular, developing a strong sense of identity and community whilst championing new music. If the festival industry is to survive it needs to distance itself from the obsession with broad appeal and universal acceptance, and focus on the personality of its events. It needs to go back to basics and remember the marauding lunacy, the frothing maniacs, the deranged scavengers. It needs to recapture what it stood for in the first place – coming together and being free from the restrictions and obligations of real life. Because festivals should not be a reflection of society, but an escape from it.

Luke Campbell.