By ProgBlog, Aug 18 2014 09:13PM
My first ‘festival’ was quite far removed from the mud, tents and portaloos of Reading or Glastonbury. It’s not that I don’t like camping under canvas or some more waterproof and lighter-weight man-made equivalent, having spent a good portion of my youth walking around the Lake District bagging Wainwrights from improvised mountain campsites; it’s not particularly my idea of fun being in a muddy field packed with mostly drunk individuals listening to music that I’d prefer not to have to pay lots of money to listen to. Five or so people camping on a mountain requires some physical effort and allows you to appreciate the beauty of the natural world; Camping out for a music festival with tens of thousands of others does not.
Actual 84 was a Camden arts festival and my attendance set the general pattern for my favoured form of festival attendances in the future; genre-specific acts in small indoor venues. The main exception to this was the High Voltage festival in 2010, although there was still no camping involved; the trip from Croydon to Victoria Park involved a fairly easy commute on the recently opened Croydon branch of the London Overground. High Voltage had three stages and I, along with my brother Richard and prog-mate Gina Franchetti, set down in front of the Prog stage, only moving to the main stage at a time appropriate for getting a place that would provide a good view of Sunday headliners ELP.
The variety of bands that sign up to a festival and the relative narrowness of my musical tastes mean that there is inevitably an opportunity to do other things than simply listen to music, some of which, despite a billing on the prog stage, was not really progressive rock. Argent, Magnum and Uriah Heep, I’m talking about you.
The requirement for sponsorship and high ticket prices lend the big festivals a corporate feel. Glastonbury may be an exception though having never been I can’t say; Glasto obviously has ‘alternative’ leanings but the notion of the megastar headline act seems to me to be a betrayal of the founding principles. The High Voltage circus was quite unlike the previous big outdoor event I’d been to, a fund-raiser for anti-apartheid organisation The Lincoln Trust, featuring Peter Gabriel. This Selhurst Park concert in July 1983 was not at all corporate but, by its very nature, supporting a charity conceived after the death of Stephen Biko, was borderline political and certainly awareness-raising. I noticed the first signs of corporate-creep on the Division Bell tour where the tour programme revealed a sponsorship by Volkswagen; the Floyd invited partners along to ensure the smooth running of the show from a financial perspective and, in return, some of the magic would rub off on VW.
As the generation brought up on rebellious rock reached middle age and achieved a level of respectability that went hand-in-hand with a fair amount of disposable income, the music industry itself had been changing in a response to the adulation of the markets, de-regulation and the unfortunate loss of the founding ideals of progressive rock. The invention of the compact disc format in the mid-80s tied in nicely with Best Of, reissues and retrospectives that involved barely any financial outlay from the labels but which generated massive profit.
The sponsorship of mature, rock acts is fairly safe. The target audience know what they’re getting so potential financial backers are able to decide if their product fits in with that notion. Orange amplification back a number of events but the High Voltage sponsorships were overtly lifestyle-targeted; respectable but hinting at former rebellion like Harley Davidsons and mid-life crises. One brand associated with Classic Rock and, by extension, High Voltage, was Smokehead whisky which took the opportunity to launch what they described as “a new edgy advertising campaign, playing on the brand's growing rock credentials and rising popularity.” Their Marketing Director commented: "Combining its adventurous and modern packaging, with a rich rollercoaster of challenging flavours, Smokehead defies conformity and what people would traditionally expect from an award-winning Single Malt Whisky. Smokehead is powerful, intense and not for the faint hearted. The perfect match for a Classic Rock lover." That’s the kind of thing that makes me think marketing is a load of absolute, meaningless rubbish.
High Voltage was deeply impersonal, where individuality was crushed and you were encouraged to go along with the crowd. It therefore compares very unfavourably with the three festivals I’ve been to this year, Prog Résiste, the Riviera Prog Festival and Resonance, all of which were more egalitarian and dialogue between fans and fans, fans and sponsors, and fans and musicians was encouraged. I learned some time ago that sponsors are crucial to the success of an event. I was responsible for liaison between trade and my professional body for the BSHI conference in London in 1998 and without their financial support, the conference could not have happened. Bands can’t exist without financial input from the public and the presence of musicians at their own merchandise stands is recognition of the importance of the two-way relationship. I think this relationship, the willingness of artists to meet with audience members, has stemmed from the requirement to play smaller venues because the bands are either no longer able to fill large of medium-sized halls, or commit to tours without truckloads of equipment to ensure profitability. The intimate nature of some of these venues breaks down any barriers between performers and the paying public and merchandise can prove to be quite lucrative. My first experience of a pre-planned merchandise signing was at the King Crimson Nightwatch playback at the Hotel Intercontinental in London in September 1997. I’d been at the Epitaph playback six months earlier but lacked the nerve to get my freshly acquired 4CD set signed on that occasion. The playbacks were fairly intimate with ticket-only entry, and you were asked to bring a cake that you’d baked yourself! A feature of the Prog Résiste and Riviera Prog festivals was the question and answer sessions with the bands. That’s something I can’t see happening at High Voltage.
When it boils down to it, I like my festivals to be comfortable. I’m a firm believer in ensuring that any environment I use for teaching is comfortable for those listening. I don’t think I could take in music I’d never heard before if I was getting drenched and surrounded by mud and idiots; that would be a waste of time and money.