Latitude 2014 – A Review
21/07/2014 § 1 Comment
It would be fair to say that music festivals are not the best place for introverts. The relentless competing noise from stages, bars, and stalls, combined with never-ending swarms of identikit punters and the impossibility of finding anywhere quiet for even five minutes combine to create an experience that is an amalgam of FBI torture strategies and Shaun of the Dead. So, while I worked on any number of music festivals during my time at the music industry coal face, my only festival punter experience to date was Glastonbury 1991, which was so traumatic I swore I’d never be a punter at another festival again – until this weekend, when I was prevailed upon to go to Latitude.
Latitude is one of a portfolio of events organised by Festival Republic. A man called Vince Power set up the Mean Fiddler in 1982, a London music venue that became famous for charging bands to play there and that was on the receiving end of the Musicians Union “Pay to Play? No Way!” campaign of the late 1980s. Power subsequently bought another venue, the Astoria 2 on Charing Cross Road, in 2000, and the Mean Fiddler Music Group was born. The MFMG accepted a take-over bid from Hamsard, co-owned by Live Nation, who were previously a division of Clear Channel Entertainment, in 2005, and following a restructuring in 2007 Festival Republic was born.
So far, so corporate.
The Festival Republic website claims they have “largely created the modern music festival market in the UK” That may well be the case, but please don’t think they have anything to do with the creation of music festivals themselves, which started back in the 1960s, and which led to the radical free festival movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s. This episode of festival history is interesting because free festivals sprung up as a direct counter-cultural response to the neo-liberal, capitalist, individualist policies of the UK’s 1979-1997 Conservative government. And while it may be easy to dismiss free festivals as a subcultural flash-in-the-pan, they remain to this day the only subculture to provoke a direct political response, in the form of the Criminal Justice Act 1994. Section V of this legislative hotch-potch made it a criminal offence to attend an outdoor event where music “includes sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats” was played. Overnight, free festivals and raves were criminalized.
Despite the moral panic around outdoor music events in the early 1990s, and subsequent government crackdown, they were, in fact, incredibly popular, with tens of thousands of people attending dozens of festivals in the summer and raves and warehouse parties all year round. Into this fray stepped the Mean Fiddler/Festival Republic, with a weather eye on capitalising on existing cultural practices that they could co-opt into a corporate strategy and generate as much profit from as possible.
The punters at Latitude 2014 seemed to fall into one of a handful of demographic groups, all of which were very white, very straight, and very middle-class. Femen-style floral headbands were worn by women of all ages while Native American parody headdresses were worn by the men, all purchased on site from approved retailers.
There was a large family camping area and lots of activities for children, as the organisers are clearly keen to emphasise the family-friendly nature of their event. Alton Towers is family-friendly. So is McDonalds.
Latitude was also one of the most over-staffed events I have ever encountered. Everywhere you looked there were coloured tabards with hi-viz strips on them – blue, white, green, red…. They all had numbers on the back too. Like the police. And for all the job descriptions displayed on these tabards – customer service officer (steward) customer protection officer (security) and so on, it was always quite clear that they were the eyes and ears of the event owners. Customers, if they were considered at all, were, like everything else on site, there to be controlled and exploited in the service of the event organisers.
The customer experience at Latitude included:
- An arena-based event, where you had to have your wristband checked and your bag searched every time you went in or out of the arena. There was a checkpoint, similar to those found in the Berlin Wall during the Cold War, where customers were subjected to this indignity. It opened at 10am every morning – if you arrived earlier you were told that the festival was closed. You were not allowed to take your own drinks into the area and I was required to empty out the last 200ml of a 500ml bottle of mineral water in case it was vodka. Drinks could only be bought from pre-approved merchandisers, at a significant mark-up.
- Either spending an eye-watering amount on junk food (£7 for a burger, £3 for a freshly ground coffee that was nothing of the sort, and a good hour-long hunt for something vegetarian and edible for breakfast) or else cooking for yourself on a camping stove at your tent, and then queueing up to wash your pots at a stand-pipe, like they do in the developing world.
- Being advertised at – there were advertising hoardings with posters on them advising you when the latest album by Mogwai or Royskopp was coming out, or else that you could attend the University of Essex because, well, you could. There was also a large Peugeot promotional stand where you could dress up in themed costumes to match the themes of paint jobs on the latest 105, and then get your picture taken in the car, to be used on the Peugeot website for marketing purposes at a later date.
- Spending £10 on a programme, because running orders weren’t available by themselves, and could not be downloaded from the website. A programme that, incidentally, was printed on cheap paper and was tatty and in places unreadable after a few hours in your bag. It was the size of a novel and too large for your pocket. And, from the number of typos, spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, had been copy-edited by someone who failed GCSE English and didn’t much care.
- Watching a programme of events that had been devised by the finest minds the UK music industry has to offer – a tick-box list of charting dance acts, singer-songwriters and thrashy rock bands, augmented by retro 80s pensioner-stars and a bit of world music at lunchtime. The non-music programming ideas that the organisers had lifted directly from Glastonbury Festival (circus, cabaret, poetry, etc) were intermittent with large gaps in their running orders, and of erratic quality. Outside of the programmed events there was nothing – spontaneity and creativity were conspicuous by their absence, to the point where there was not even a lone stilt walker mingling with the crowds.
- Enduring medieval plumbing arrangements. Toilets that, while considerably better than they could have been, are still effectively latrines in the campsites, and a bucket in a box in the main arena. They were fairly well-maintained, but you are still more proximate to other people’s faeces than you should be in the 21st Century. And yes, there were showers, but the water pressure was so weak they could not be used at full capacity, and if you wanted to use them you were looking at up to a 90 minute wait.
Tickets, including booking fee, cost £187.50 for the weekend, with basic camping.
Over the years Festival Republic have won a number of industry awards for their events. But since when has a festival, which is, strictly speaking, a celebration, an occasion of gaiety and joy, been subject to “industry standards”? The humanity that unites us all, that we used to celebrate in festivals of all kinds, has been entirely subsumed in a scramble for profits and a series of joyless, formulaic, locked-down events has been created instead. There is a real sense of Emperor’s New Clothes, where the hype far outstrips the reality but no one wants to be the person to stand up and say as much. I don’t know which is more tragic – the festival organisers that have created this situation, or the festival-goers that have allowed them to – but whichever it is, next time I want a celebration and a bit of joi-de-vivre, I won’t be going to anything organised by Festival Republic.