Talking Points: Do We Expect Too Much?
As the festival world comes to terms with the demise of Sonisphere UK questions are inevitably being asked; Where did it all go wrong? What does this mean for my favourite festival? Should we be saddened or excited?
Inevitably this line of questioning puts the focus almost exclusively on the Sonisphere organizers. The scrutiny is entirely deserved, and shouldn’t be shirked for a second, but as the festival season has progressed an equally unflattering light has been cast on the average festival fan.
Facebook and Twitter are hardly new tools, but the last two years have seen social media become fully integrated, as they surpassed traditional media as a promotional tool and a cultural hub for the major festivals. This development has been uniformly beneficial for fans and long overdue in some cases, but it has had an unexpected consequence: we have come face to face with the average fan and his attitudes.
Now hold your horses, don’t cry elitism, we are not elevating one fan over another, we’re simply commenting on a genuinely new phenomenon. In the past the debate was dominated by the super fan, the kind of guy who would willingly sign up to a forum, create a username and post. The type of fan who would write an email to a site like Strictly Festivals, and the kind of fan who, even incidentally, possesses a base knowledge of how the industry works, what’s realistic, and what is not.
In the past debate was always filtered through the assumed knowledge of the community (shared assumptions), whether that was the Official Reading Forum or the websites of Efestivals and Virtual Festivals (if you made an unrealistic suggestion, people would correct you, if you had a query, other fans would answer). In short, you lived in a bubble surrounded by obsessive festival folk (myself included). Facebook, by comparison, is completely unfiltered; real people, with real names, giving their instant two cents, with little or no framework other than their own expectation. It might not sound all that remarkable, but after a decade of instant anonymous sellouts, we finally know exactly what a relevant sample size of festival fans are thinking, or more accurately, how large swathes of festival fans think.
Regular Joe’s aren’t afraid to say whatever is on their mind, that’s the first thing we collectively learnt. They’ll happily unleash hell (and why not?), savagely flaming festival organizer when that big first announcement is uncorked. This isn’t surprising in the least, or particularly new. Anyone who’s read the comment section of a major website will be accustomed to the snide vitriol, but what was surprising was a lack of realism, and a sense of unfettered expectation.
People weren’t angry because they hated the bands (the usual forum reaction), but because they were expecting acts that we’re either far too big or completely unbookable for their chosen festival. Follow the reaction closely enough, strip away the completely implausible acts, and you’ll see a core of names; Foo Fighters, Green Day, Red Hot Chili Peppers, the stadium sized giants, and anything below that level is considered a let down, if not an outright betrayal. One thing appears clear; in the eyes of the average punter the list of bands considered big enough to headline is narrowing and the number of acts judged not big enough (or not worthy of even a chance to prove themselves) is expanding rapidly.
How Did We Get Here: Nature or Nurture?
It’s genuinely hard to tell. Between 2005 and 2009 Reading, Glastonbury, V and Isle Of Wight Festival significantly upped the ante, radically altering fan expectation. The mid-to-late 2000s saw a speight of massive reunions (The Pixies, Rage Against The Machine, Blur), new top-level headliners (The Killers, Arctic Monkeys, Muse, Kings Of Leon), and perhaps most importantly of all, the return of veteran acts on a never-before-seen scale (The Rolling Stones, The Police, Bruce Springsteen). Bands that were once labeled uncool, old or not festival acts were all, en masse, invited to the party, providing some of the biggest blockbuster line-ups ever conceived.
The notion of a shaky upstart like Franz Ferdinand or The Darkness headlining seemed to be consigned to the past (until MCR forced fans to sit up and react). This rush of excess seemed to culminate in 2011 when Glastonbury well and truly jumped the shark. By booking U2 Michael Eavis signaled the absolute zenith of the festival bubble – honestly, where do you go from U2?
This massive expansion fostered the idea that festivals always sell out (one I battled against repeatedly), as this conception of the blockbuster headliners as the norm seemed to dominate. Fans reacted to the recent wave of festival announcements by loudly bemoaning the lack of Green Day and Red Hot Chili Peppers, while some even complained that the exact same headliners didn’t repeat a year latter (seriously, read the reaction to the Isle Of Wight announcements). Even low-key legends Tom Petty and The Cure were decried. Festivals have traded for decades on the well-regarded legend closing the show, but who has time for reverence when you’ve been raised on the Rage reunion, Bruce Springsteen, and £200 tickets?
It’s not limited to the headliners of course. Few acts have been more thoroughly brutalized than Florence + The Machine. Often described as an undeserving or underwhelming announcement, Florence is unimaginably bigger in 2012 than The Killers were in 2004, but they were never treated so ruthlessly. There were doubters, but giving a younger band a sub-headline slot appeared to be the norm, people expected it, that’s what a festival like Reading did. Similarly it’s hard to imagine the modern day Glastonbury giving a band like the pre-“Sex On Fire” Kings Of Leon a chance to headline the Pyramid Stage as they did in 2008. In 2011 the world’s biggest pop star was considered “a risk”, god knows what the press would label the booking of an almost on the cusp indie band in 2012 (suicide?).
In a previously editorial I suggested that the sense of deflation and aggression that greets seemingly every festival announcement (including V with The Stone Roses and Killers) may have more to do with the industries inability to create genuine stars than with reactionary fans, but as I continue to review the responses on Facebook and Twitter I’ve become genuinely unsure.
Do we all expect too much? Do we insult and mock too easily? Have we lost touch with reality or did the festival organizers move too far, too fast, jumping the shark, and sowing the seeds of their own demise?
There will never be one true answer but, in 2012 at least, expectation appears to be entirely out of line with reality.