Some reflections after my trip last weekend to Latitude festival...
25 years ago the British state mounted a huge and brutal police operation to clamp down on the Stonehenge Free Festival. 15 years ago it passed legislation designed to outlaw autonomous dance music festivals in the aftermath of Castlemorton.
The point was never to crush festivals entirely, but rather to make sure that they could only take place when approved, regulated and controlled by the state. Nevertheless it did feel as if the fact of thousands of people gathering together for days on end for music and dancing was something that was fundamentally alien to the ruling culture, at least to the cultural life of the ruling Conservative government.
Even officially sanctioned festivals retained some kind of oppositional edge under the Tories. Glastonbury in the 1980s mainly raised funds for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Lesbian and Gay Pride, which attracted huge numbers to free festivals in London parks, was already being criticised by some queer activists for apolitical hedonism, but this was an era when there was still an unequal age of consent and the government was passing its absurd anti-gay Clause 28. You certainly couldn't imagine government ministers approving, let alone attending either of them.
In the past few years, summer music festivals have become a huge phenomenon in the UK with seemingly countless weekend gatherings for all kinds of music taste. Hundreds of thousands of people must spend at least a couple of nights camping out at a festival. If you add in people who attend non camping festivals such as Notting Hill Carnival you are talking about millions of people every year.
So in a cultural sense the 80s/90s festival crowd has conquered. And indeed its the post-punk/raving generations who are now taking their kids to the more family friendly festivals like Latitude.
Equally of course, the festival scene has been conquered by commerce and administration. Many of the festivals are big business concerns with corporate sponsorship. The biggest player is Festival Republic Ltd which now runs Latitude, Reading and Leeds festivals, as well as being contracted to manage Glastonbury. This started out as Vince Power's Mean Fiddler Group, which grew from running London's The Mean Fiddler music venue in the early 1980s to putting on the Irish-themed Fleadh festivals in London before expanding ceaselessly to run 27 venues and many festivals. Vince Power sold up to in 2005, with Live Nation - a California-based multinational music events company - now the major sharefolder in the renamed Festival Republic.
Festivals have inevitably become more middle class as high entrance fees at most festivals prohibit the attendance of the kind of people who were the backbone of the earlier festival scene. In the 1980s at Glastonbury for instance there was a tacit understanding that thousands of people who couldn't afford tickets would be able to sneak into the site for free, now most festivals are surrounded by high fences and heavy security.
If Thatcher's government denounced festival goers as Medieval Brigands and passed homophobic laws, today's politicians feel festivals are safe enough territory. At Latitude there was several Labour politicians present (notably Ed Miliband, Minister for Climate Change) while the Prime Minister's wife was at LGBT Pride this year.
Despite all the commercialization and regulation of state approved festivals there are obviously worse ways of spending a summer weekend than staying out surrounded by music. But whether the desire for some kind of carnivalesque-lite collective experience has any kind of wider political significance at all I'm not so sure. Does the road to realizing human species being pass through a marquee in a field in Suffolk? Maybe not, but I am sure that in some policy think tank even now, somebody is sweating over how to assemble some kind of Gramscian popular historic bloc that can appeal to the festival public alongside more familiar political demographics like White Van Man and Ford Mondeo Man.
See also: If it's called a festival, is it one?