The great UK festival rip off: is it time we stop giving them our money?

The summer of 2018 has proven to be a memorable year for UK festivals – for all the wrong reasons.

Fans attending one-day festivals with headliners Liam Gallagher and Queens of the Stone Age at the end of June quickly flooded social media with complaints of poor organisation, long queues and overcrowding.

With reports of up to two-hour long queues for drinks on two of the hottest days of the year and drink charges in the region of £3 for a bottle of water, many fans expressed anger at festival organisers.

Liam Deane was one such festival goer who attended the Queens of the Stone Age gig on 30th June. He said excessive pricing and long queues tainted his festival experience.

“The queues for bars, and to an only slightly lesser extent food, water, toilets etc., were absurd…it was actually quite difficult to tell what was queue and what wasn’t.

When you started looking you realised that actually quite a large part of the festival was just queues.”

One fan on social media said it was the “worst queues” she had ever seen, another called the organisation “a shambles.”

Other issues reported by fans were overcrowding and poor sound quality. One festival goer, Seena Shah, started an online petition for refunds from festival organisers; it now has over 2000 signatures.

“We demand a refund in compensation for such a terrible and frightening experience,” Shah wrote.  

Whilst the organisers issued an apology from the Workers Beer Company at the festival, it did not address the other alleged issues.

Another fan, Michelle Lindsay, recently attended Glasgow’s TRNSMT festival and reported a different problem: expensive VIP areas that pushed fans far from the stage meaning views and sound were a lesser experience for some.

“[It was] one of the most depressing sights in my twenty-plus years of concert going,” Lindsay says of her experience.

“There was a huge expanse of empty space in a “golden circle” section at the front of the stage while tens of thousands of people who had paid good money to see the show were fenced off and squashed behind a barrier.

From our stand point it looked like there was essentially two festivals: one for the rich and one for everyone else.”

The issue was made worse, Lindsay adds, by the fact the “golden circle” tickets didn’t sell well, with the venue eventually giving some away with other sales. This upset many other fans at the event who had effectively paid full price for lesser views.

“To separate out a standing crowd is a scandalous attempt to fleece customers out of more money and create a two-tier concert experience which discriminates against poorer fans. To see such a system fail is no surprise.”

It’s also been a criticism of festivals at BST Hyde Park, with fans reporting similar issues.

One fan said on Twitter: “I really detest the idea of the golden circle. In what society could it be acceptable for people to rock up just before a headliner is about to begin and be allowed to stand in front of those who have queued for hours – just because they have money.”

Festivals need to do more too about unruly fans who ruin the experience for others, says festival goer Al Corner after her experience at Field Day Festival.

“Arriving at Field Day after work was a different world; so many people absolutely wasted and rolling around on the floor by 7pm…the crowd could barely support its own weight with people stumbling into one another.”

“You couldn’t even hear [Erykah] Badu over the sound of groups with their backs to the stage, chatting loudly.”

The gender-balance of this year’s summer’s festivals have also come under increased scrutiny with high profile artists such as Lily Allen, Shirley Manson and Annie Mac criticising the disparity.

In January, pop star Lily Allen tweeted a picture of this year’s Wireless festival line up with all the male acts removed from the bill.

It revealed just three female acts performing across the three-day festival. After criticism, the festival organisers eventually added a female-only stage in what was seen as a welcome if overdue move.

Elsewhere, Green Man, Slamdunk and Bestival have also been heavily criticised for a lack of diversity in their line-up’s.

Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson told the Quietus in May that female gig-goers should start to turn their backs on line-up’s that refuse to be diverse.

“My advice to young women is simple: if you don’t see yourself represented anywhere, if you don’t see women artists in festival line-up’s, stop going to them. Stop giving them your money.

“There’s a patriarchal system in place that needs to be immediately eradicated but it doesn’t seem like we’re getting too much help from the patriarchal power that’s in position currently.”

Whilst the PRS Foundation’s Keychange is a new initiative aiming to achieve a 50/50 gender balance on festival line-up’s by 2020, there is still a long way to go, argues musician Catherine Anne Davies.

“As a female performer, it’s still very challenging to look at line-up’s at the festivals in the UK…they are still very male dominated on the whole.”

It just seems like a very self-perpetuating system whereby artists that are female or bands featuring female musicians are not given the opportunity to perform in front of these very large and open minded audiences.”

Davies added: “I definitely feel a lot of frustration about that with regards to the UK festival scene and I hope the state of play changes.”

For many, the answer is turning to smaller festivals or those in Europe where the balance between music, diversity and fan well-being seem more important than profit.

It’s a view echoed by Drowned in Sound’s editor-in-chief, Derek Robertson: “I think the main problem with UK festivals is that they’re all about profit. They put profit above the experience and they put profit before the paying customer.

In Europe you’re treated so much better. The facilities are so much better, you don’t have to queue as long, things are cheaper. In the UK, I think a lot of festivals now are just an absolute rip off and it’s just an excuse to make money.

On the continent, I think music and the experience is still front and centre and I think that’s why they’re so much better as an experience.”

John Lowe, a music fan from London, agrees. “Festivals in the UK often involve filthy toilets, really long queues and anti-social behaviour from the crowd. European festivals are so much better.”

Lowe adds at Rock En Seine in Paris, he was given a guided tour of the camping area and helpful advice about facilities. At Primavera, he says headliners were staggered to give fans a better opportunity to see more acts. Prices and facilities were better too, in his opinion.

The increased criticisms of festivals has arguably been building for some time as year-on-year, experiences seem to worsen.

However, one thing seems certain: fans and artists are speaking up in volumes never previously heard; maybe now festival organisers really will realise it is time for some much needed change.

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