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Society, Politics & Law

All the fun of the festival

Updated Thursday 10th July 2008

From the muddy field variety to town-based folk festivals – it's all the fun of the festival

So why do people go to festivals? That was one of the questions I had in mind when I was planning my research on festival audiences. Rather than just the muddy field variety, however, I decided to look at a range of festivals and my choices included a plush opera festival, a town-based folk festival and an indie-pop festival on the edge of a city.

Interviews with a selection of the punters from each festival revealed some interesting insights. First, I wanted to find out how people had acquired a taste for a particular type of music – a musical ‘habitus’ in French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s terminology – so I asked people about their life landscapes, to build up background about them. Bourdieu’s ‘cultural capital’ theories suggest, for example, that early family life and school experiences could have helped to sow the seeds of musical taste.

Smurfs at Bestival Creative commons image Icon Pooyall under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license
A crowd of Smurfs at Bestival

I did find that, for some, a certain style of music had always been part of their lives: one folk festival interviewee told me, "I’ve been going to folk festivals since before I was born." She still loved to go to several a year, 25 years on, sometimes still sharing the experience with her Mum.

In contrast to this comment, though, one opera festival visitor claimed: "My parents weren’t interested in the kind of music I’m interested in." For him, it was really at school that his interest in classical music germinated. He particularly remembered one teacher lending him a recording of the opera, Peter Grimes, to listen to, which was his early introduction to opera. Another opera festival visitor had clear memories of a teacher playing the piano as they went into assembly: "I now know that all those tunes she played were Mozart and Beethoven and Schubert."

School was not always a positive force for the development of musical taste, however, with one folk festival interviewee lamenting that "singing was not a terribly happy event for me at school," after a teacher had made fun of his performance. He is now an accomplished folk singer despite this discouragement, though! So perhaps early musical experiences had sown the seeds of musical taste for some of the festival visitors as Bourdieu suggests.

"many impulses, some conscious, some perhaps unconscious, inspire punters to go and stand in that muddy field and listen to music at a festival"

I then moved on to ask the festival interviewees about their later musical encounters. What did stand out was the importance of the late teenage years in musical taste development. Landmark events at the age of 19 were described by two people, for example. One opera festival interviewee spoke of his National Service posting in Vienna, which provided the opportunity to make use of regular free tickets to opera performances. This person had just enjoyed his 525th individual opera – which doesn’t include the many alternative versions of the same opera he had seen – over 50 years later, at the festival I was studying.  Also at the age of 19, a move to university had opened the eyes of one indie-pop festival interviewee’s eyes to punk rock. Nearly 30 years later he was still reading the NME every week and had just been to Glastonbury again, as well as to the festival at which I met him.

Even in their 50s, the tastes of some of the interviewees continued to develop. An Open University music course had provided the inspiration for one opera festival interviewee to attend her first opera 10 years before, at the age of 55, and she had been going to opera ever since. This was the same lady whose teacher’s piano playing had encouraged an early and continuing love of classical music, so perhaps it was those early seeds that were being further nurtured and diversified.

It wasn’t just people’s life landscapes that seemed to be providing motivations for attending festivals though, and the chance to bond with friends – or to build ‘social capital’, as Bourdieu’s terms it – was another big pull, as was the chance for some to boast about the festival to others afterwards. It wasn’t just tales about seeing the ‘big names’ that these punters were keen to impress others with, though. What was perhaps more important to many of them was to see something fresh and new. The opera festival goers wanted to be able to add another different opera to their compendium, the indie-pop fans wanted to be the first to see the next big star, and the folkies were keen to discover that previously unknown acoustic singer-songwriter playing in a corner of a field to an ever-expanding impromptu audience.

So it seems that many impulses, some conscious, some perhaps unconscious, inspire punters to go and stand in that muddy field and listen to music at a festival.

Further reading

Distinction: a social critique of the judgement of taste, Bourdieu, Pierre (1984 [1979]), Cambridge, Mas, Harvard University Press

'The forms of capital' in Biggart, N. W. (Ed.) Readings in economic sociology, Bourdieu, Pierre (2002 [1986]), Malen, Mass, Blackwell, (pp. 280-291)

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