How commerce is tainting the festival experience

Music festivals, like Glastonbury, have become important social experiences for young people where they can experience a sense of collectiveness and belonging.

Research presented at the Society’s 2010 annual conference demonstrated that although festivals are heavily branded experiences, young people view corporate involvement in such events as a necessary evil that has little impact on their long-term consumption practices and brand loyalties and may even be seen as a constraint on the festival experience.

The research (undertaken at the University of Bath and led by Dr Bengry-Howell) investigated the experiences of over 100 young people aged 18 to 25 who attended music festivals during the summer of 2008. As well as interviewing young people at four popular festivals, researchers also monitored online forums where the festivals were being discussed and analysed unofficial festival documentaries that were uploaded to websites like Youtube.

Lead researcher, Dr Andrew Bengry-Howell (now at the University of Southampton) said: “There are more than 500 festivals a year across the UK and they increase in popularity each year. Although these events target particular audiences and appear to offer distinctive experiences, most of the major UK music festivals are now owned by an international live entertainment company. These events have become commercially branded experiences, run, promoted or sponsored by particular drinks or telephone companies, as they see festivals as opportunities for experiential and emotional marketing and stimulating brand commitments among captive audiences.

“It’s thought that the symbolic meaning of brands can create a sense of collective social identity.  In a culture where many traditional forms of community are in decline, brand communities are said to represent an important source of communal affiliation and meaning-making. We wanted to investigate to what extent how young people are affected and engaged with branding and marketing at festivals.”

It was found that the young people in the study anticipated and planned their attendance at festivals well in advance and saw them as important sharing experiences for groups and friends. The young people saw festivals as an opportunity to escape from the obligations and responsibilities of daily life, and as a chance to be free – an opportunity to wander, to disappear into the crowd, a place where time isn’t managed and can’t be wasted, where they can let go. 

Dr Bengry-Howell continued: “This idea of freedom potentially conflicts with the substantial levels of commercial involvement and relatively managed and regulated forms of consumption on offer at most festivals.  However, it seems that young people negotiate this through elaborate attempts to smuggle alternative products into spaces where their consumption opportunities are constrained, and by ensuring that a significant amount of their consumption takes place outside of increasingly regulated festival arenas.

“The brands that were available were rarely viewed as contributing to the festival experience, but rather as a corporate attempt to usurp festivals to make money. Instead of branded communities, we found communities that were organised around the collective experience of spending a weekend in the company of ‘like-minded’ individuals. Brands were recognised as an accepted part of contemporary British music festivals, but viewed as superfluous to the ‘real’ festival experience, which embodies a temporary escape from the individual stresses and strains of everyday life into a communal setting where a sense of freedom, community and belonging could be enjoyed by all.”

The Society’s 2012 Annual Conference takes place in London from 18-20 April.