I happily sat packed in the back seat of the car cuddling my pillow, the landscape outside my window shifted from suburbia to shimmering blue lakes among the glorious Australian bush the further we drove North. Glenworth Valley; a luscious green canvas known for its horses and deep, whimsical hills. I breathed a sigh of release at the serenity, a feeling of escape.
Building our campsite was a frenzy of activity. Should the tents be placed like this? The tarp be draped like that (for ultimate tarpology of course?) Where should the esky, fairy lights and floor cushions go? Very important decisions to be made. All around me our neighbours were scurrying doing the same thing - creating their own tent village, a familiar territory, a home amid the craziness.
With our home base sorted, my best friend Liv and I ventured into the festival. I was painted as a lilac butterfly (obvs). If you have been to a festival you are already there. You know what I am talking about when I say - the first moments at a festival are absolutely magical, anticipation and excitement is thick in the air. It is like entering a new world.
Ahead, a giant stage soon to showcase the best musicians accompanied by dazzling laser light shows. All encased with bushy trees, night skies and a freshwater creek. To my left there’s a chill zone with hand-made pillows and rugs beside the kebab truck. (*Note to self: Get some chippies and chill there later.)
There’s a girl twirling fire and I grin at someone dressed as Darth Vadar raving with pink kaleidoscope goggles on his mask. This is my kind of place. I go deeper, the sandy ground vibrates from everyone dancing, the Earth is awake and radiating love through our legs into our hearts. I attend the yoga workshops by morning after a big night of stomping. Hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of people dancing in a Lost Paradise.
We returned three days later covered in mud, glitter and a fuzzy love. It was my first music festival celebrating the New Year of 2016. It was an unforgettably special time. From this moment, I was hooked. As mum would say... I had caught the “festival bug.” Groan. Thanks mum. But to me it was more than that, I felt rejuvenated, inspired and a greater connection to myself and others.
Forget what you have heard, “festivals are bad."
Prior to this experience my opinion (like many others) of music festivals was tainted. “Music festivals are rife with drugs, have higher rates of drug emergencies, young people are overdosing and they take young people's lives.” And while I will admit this unfortunate antisocial behaviour does happen, it is not in the way you would expect.
More recently, particularly in NSW, this has spurred on debate and resulted in what can only be described as a war on music festivals in Australia. Music festivals, particularly doofs in Australia, are under threat from the gov implementing tougher laws, higher rates and increasing police presence.
So, why then does Australia have one of the highest number of music festivals per capita with 23 million people between 2016-2017 attending live music events? And with the recent COVID-19 restrictions, people more than ever are eager to get back to their favourite music haunt. A recent survey by Triple J saw 57% of people would attend a music festival without a COVID-19 vaccine.
I was keen to understand why it was that I, like many others, are hooked on music festivals. Surely festivals must provide something other than pop-up entertainment for naïve, drug infused irresponsible youngsters? Why do people keep going back? And why the heck are music festivals so important within Australian culture?
I decided to nut it out and speak with a group of regular festival goers who collectively have attended greater than 475 festivals between them. Here is what I learned. The why.
1. You meet new friends and create lasting bonds.
Festivals are often an opportunity to meet and connect with people. Some of these are a fleeting in-the-moment-shared-experience-type-of-relationship, others develop into long term friendships or even love.
“There’s a sense of harmony with people I have never met before. It happens literally from dancing. It feels like the energy is picked up from one person transferred to another and then it circles back over and over… And these fleeting moments happen so often. It will be like, we are having a stupid time together, this is fun and special and then it passes. And I don’t know why but you are okay with that being just that.”
But some of these by-chance exchanges that happen in passing, can transform into longer lasting connections; and when they come bolting round the corner, you never see them coming. Burning Man regular Sarah (29) from West Coast USA says;
“I feel lucky I've met some extraordinary people at festivals. At Burning Man back in 2016 I met some Aussies who ended up becoming long term friends. A few years later, I was going through a break up and felt lost in my life. I knew it was time to mix things up. I called them, contemplating visiting Australia. They were like, ‘Yup, come. Show up whenever, we’ll pick you up from the airport, here’s a place to live and a job.’ I stayed for 18 months. It is a truly special connection.”
Studies showed it takes 90 + hours to turn a stranger into a real friend. The intensity of festival life coupled with shared experience opens one's heart to all possibilities. Festivals help friendships form… Like very quickly. You move rapidly through the honeymoon period and get right into the “deep” and “real” stuff.
2. You become part of a community (*cough dance CIRCLE).
The word community is pretty synonymous with festivals. If you do any kind of research on festivals you will find that most cite “community” as being the main reason they keep going back. Ivana (26) from Sydney, summed it up the whole friendship experience nicely when she said;
“When you go to festivals you’ll meet random people because you’re camping next to them. You become a family by the end of the festival because you’re simply sharing the space. The music is what brings everyone together but the entire community is what keeps us there.”
But what happens when the collective community comes together? Hours before Burning Seed was cancelled last year, Patrice (25) from Sydney, and his festival friends were still geared up with hope of going away.
“A last minute doof popped up in May 2019. It was crazy seeing the effort and ingenuity that people can put into an event in less than a day. There was a huge sense of community because everyone put in the effort. At the end when the generator ran out, everyone was still dancing. I’ve observed a lot of power in circles. Magical things can happen when you’re sitting, standing, playing or dancing in one!”
3. You express yourself creatively.
Self-expression is the achilles heel to a creatively-minded person. The burning desire to show the world who you are unapologetically through self-expression is innate to some and learned by others.
Music festivals provide the opportunity for people to express themselves and well, just be bloody creative. Musicians, visual artists, street performers, lighting designers, sound people, DJ’S and VJ’s (Video Jockeys, I went on a date with one, trust me, it’s a real thing) hair braiders, cupcake bakers, face painters, booty shakers, fire makers, creative tent city neighbours and all those in between get a chance to contribute.
“Festivals create a space where people feel completely comfortable expressing being themselves. We go and dress-up in the most outrageous outfits. With that comes a freedom of expression in everything you do.” Dylan (26) Melbourne.
But our hats should not only be tipped to those paid for their craft, but also to punters who unleash their inner peacock.
Patrice reflected on his favourite festival getup.
“It was the day I put on my first disco robe. It's a crazy, glittery robe with silver triangles. – everybody can see you. It was the first time I ever received a lot of attention for expressing myself with what I wore... It was the first time I felt seen at a festival. I got so much love and a sign from the universe that day. I traded something I hand-made in exchange for a secret note from a lady. I picked from a selection and the note said ‘Today is your day to shine.’ It was meant to be and it was one of the best days of my life… so far.” Patrice from New South Wales exclaims.
Image: Patrice explores and expresses himself in his magic mirror ball cape.
Alice (26) on her most memorable costume.
“My favourite festival costume was a guy who dressed like a grandma at Burning Seed. He had a walking frame, a wig, a string of pearls and glasses on a chain, he’s had the whole getup. Tennis balls on the bottom of the walker, it was an amazing look.”
Everyone has their own little schtick. Whether you are sporting an impressive tropical Carmen Miranda vibe or dancing to your own beat like Dylan, Melbourne 26.
For me I am a “glued-to-the-dance-floor-kinda-guy. I will go and be an absolute weirdo on the dance-floor and move my body like I have never moved my body before. It is my form of expression. I express my thoughts with the way my body moves.”
4. You unlock your “inner child” discovering the importance of “adult play.”
The phrase “adult play” feels like something out of a “management consulting” handbook. While “unlocking your inner child” feels like something Judy would recommend to a Sagittarius in her astrology column in the Herald Sun.
But what the eff is adult play anyway?
Overall it’s very hard to define exactly what play is. However there are three main characteristics, it’s voluntary in the sense that you’re not obligated to do it; it’s flexible and can be changed or manipulated; and it’s freakin’ fun!
Adult play is important because it focuses on the experience rather than having a definitive end goal. Activities can simply be purposeless, fun and pleasurable. AKA play. It’s the opportunity to reinvigorate joy, encourage imagination and release those warm and fuzzies). It also keeps our mind malleable and empathetic. We have a children’s willingness to learn through instinct, expression and experience.
Music Festivals are so enriched with play-time like activities - workshops, art and activations. They provide a safe space for adults to explore without agenda through play. Honestly if you compare a children’s playground on any given Saturday, well, you pretty much get the equivalent of a live concert or music festival... Minus the dozens of screaming toddlers.
Kirsty from the UK is a content producer, activations creator and project manager. As a true jack of all trades and a regular on the festival scene both here and abroad she is passionate about creating authentic sensory experiences.
“Anyone who goes to a festival doesn’t leave with some sort of emotional response. It’s stimulating the six senses... My work helps to aid in this.”
So much so, that activations whether they were created by artists or funded by corporate festival sponsorships have become a huge part of the business. In Australia it has become a multi billion dollar industry. Some loathe this change, others love it.
“A few years ago there were a lot more independent festivals… People were against brands sponsoring events because they felt it made it feel too commercial and like punters were on high street again.”
In the past six years festival activations and indeed the opinions towards them have changed. Event organisers today want to create holistic and immersive experiences. And activations have become a quintessential part of this. Brands are increasingly creative with the way they are creating experiences. In a most recent Falls Byron the Iconic created a laundry nightclub - to access you had to slide through a washing machine. Nintendo switch offered a dance off gaming experience. Smirnoff provided an acoustic bar with local performers, poets and writers. There were swimming pools, with floaties, palm trees and sand in an actual water park.
“The activations at festivals like Falls Festivals or Splendour in the Grass, are really fun, playful areas for people in my opinion.”
It’s no longer enough to slap your logo on a free giveaway. We are seeing an age where brands truly understand the importance of genuine play and fun.
Our need for play doesn’t stop as we get older. Festivals are giant playgrounds for adults to cease all expectations and let go for a hot minute; embrace the concept of uncertainty and allow our inner child to run free. Really,
“Festivals give us a chance as adults to behave like the adults we wanted to be as children.” Sarah says.
5. You experience “AHA moments” by connecting with yourself, music + nature.
Personally I’ve found travelling to different festivals for both work and leisure has given me the opportunity to unravel parts of myself. Festivals can force you to better understand who you are, either through learning from others, reflecting inwards or having a profound experience. Patrice reflected on his own learnings,
“When I first started going to festivals I was very introverted. I didn’t know how to interact with people. It took one of my new friends who I met at a doof to pull me aside and tell me I don’t make eye contact. I was completely oblivious to it. After working on my social skills, I realised festivals are a great place to let your guard down and reach out. My body language completely changed as well.”
For many young people this chance at self discovery is a pivotal one. Something lasting that helps shape them in their journey to becoming young adults.
Dylan talks of an epiphany he had during a doof experience at Strawberry Fields enhanced not only by the psychedelics taken but the people around him, the music and the very festival itself.
“I was sitting on the grass. Everything went silent except for my friend, then the music went “voom” and I had a grin on my face, feeling content. It felt a light coming out of me, literally bliss. Then I burst into tears, I felt them splash on my legs. But they weren’t tears of sadness. I felt a joyful release as if I was shedding 20 years of weight from ego building. Letting go of non-specific childhood traumas and tension from things like bullying in high school, being gay and dealing with homophobia. It finally came off. It was a very intense experience.”
6. You feed your soul + explore a niche. Music or other.
Music Festivals have provided a live source of entertainment since the Pythian Games in Ancient Greece circa 600 BC. These games were a glorious celebration of all the beautiful things, accompanied by live musical competitions during the day. Nowadays it’s less about competitions and basking in the beauty of material things. It’s the chance to detach yourself from the mundane and to create new and exciting memories from the cocktail of niche fun experiences provided.
On a global scale, festivals are unique in their own right and attract a diverse array of people with niche hobbies, music preferences and ideologies. In Australia you have everything from Chinchilla Melon Fest, to the ever so familiar mainstream contenders, like Falls Festival, Rainbow Serpent and Laneway and boutique bush doof beauties like Burning Seed, and Dragon Dreaming - All with one common denominator: An eagerness to create a good time.
There are music festivals for just about every type of music and for every genre. And humans have been getting lit for a loooong time. And it makes us feel, like, really good.
“You listen to music because you want to dream.” Lady Gaga
And music, live on the festival stage is oh so good.
I recall when I saw Jamie XX at my first music festival experience. Until this time I’d never listened to his music. Faintly in the distance, I heard a drum loop. I walked towards the stage, the music beckoning me to a night of stomping in sand. The sweet electronic bass vibrating under my feet felt like I was floating with the wind. My curiosity led me to what I didn’t know would be a liberating hour of electronic trip hop bliss. My date that night was music, alone it restored my energy and I met so many cool, random humans. We create our own happiness and make choices, and I chose to stay up until 4am...
You’re only young once, ya feel me?
As the great Bob Marley once said, “One good thing about music. When it hits you, you feel no pain.”
7. You learn + share knowledge.
In saying that, festivals today are no longer about just the music. It’s about the overall immersive experience where you can try things you’ve never thought of before; finally do that yoga class you keep skipping back home or an art class to paint a picture of your dog.
Alice, 27, an artsy doof queen from Sydney, believes music festivals give people a chance to share knowledge on important current,
“You walk into a gallery and you hear six or seven different conversations talking about environmentalism, equality, using psychedelics to overcome mental health, a whole bunch of different things. It’s really important to have a platform where these things are discussed, not only on a political level but on a personal level. These are conversations where the change happens in everyday life.”
Heather (25) from Sydney, CEO and founder of the Kindness Hub, has an impressive resume. From fellow Sister2sister Ambassador to 2016’s Auburn woman of the year, spreads kindness and reminds us to be gracious. She has dabbled in creative and organic health based activations. She gives us some insight to art that encourages positivity,
“I’ve done art spaces at festivals where people literally wrote notes for strangers (or for themselves which is super awesome.) These art spaces are a beautiful, safe area for people to come and connect and learn.”
Heather also has an endearing but weird love for Tumeric lattes, and now I understand why.
“When I create a turmeric latte activation, it’s making sure people who come to our booth have an incredible experience and leave with a smile on their face. Having a position as a stallholder at a festival is so much more than just selling what you have. It’s about adding to the vibe and electricity for the people that come. You want to make sure they leave with a beautiful experience.”
Workshops, market stalls and art are a quintessential part of the music festival experience. Like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get but you know it’s gonna taste good. And it's for all types of people. Hannah (19), a fellow Libra and wandering spirit, shares her time hosting a workshop at Electric Picnic back in her hometown,
“I hosted what could be described as a meditative-dance-yoga workshop at Electric Picnic - the biggest music festival in Ireland (50,000+ people attend each year). It’s a popular, family friendly event and has music for every taste. With the workshop, the aim was to get people comfortable with moving their bodies while being sober. It’s funny because Irish people are generally quite shy when it comes to dancing sober. There was a light installation that went along with the psychedelic trance music. We did some light yoga stretches and ended it with meditation.”
Whatever it may be, don’t overlook what the festival community has to offer - because what you find may change your life for the better.
8. Escape, unwind + relax.
The escape you feel continues to unfurl long after you arrive at a festival. The physical change in environment creates a new environment in your mind. Over time you ease into the vibe and start to enjoy the simplicity of the present moment with friends out in nature.
“I feel like escape happens. It’s that step away from that reality we live in. It’s as small as not having a phone with me, which makes me unaware of the time. There is no urgency, no structure and you do whatever feels or comes. It’s like this other world and more flow. You get taken to other places partly because there are no expectations. A festival really provides that complete escape from reality and you leave everything behind.”
You can choose your adventure. Check out a second-hand market stall and buy some cute vintage dungarees. Or get your septum pierced. Go on missions for food. Browse the art installations created from upcycled and recycled material. Going for a cheeky boogie by the sand-stage. Swim in the lake. Attend a moon meditation circle or a chakra balancing workshop. Have a chill and a few cheeky beevies back at camp before swinging by Glitoris to glitter the heck up and look absolutely fabulous honey. Get your tarot read by a real genie-psychic-magician dude (Apparently I won’t be married till I’m 40. Thanks dude…)
You’re in the middle of the escapism experience. You can go for a dave rave right now, or you can take it slow for a while and relax….unwind… It’s up to you.
“You are able to explore whatever reality you want to be in.” Kirsty from the UK says.
So why festivals?
Through this I have found that festivals are deeply personal experiences. They are a home away from home for many people. It’s an organic place to make new friendships and solidify old ones with a sense of ease. Festivals are a bubble full of happy campers (literally).
The festival experiences I have had, opened my eyes to a new world where you can express your uniqueness without judgement. It’s given me the opportunity to unravel parts of myself in a vibrant, neon alternate reality where sound and light collide. A trippy paradox where heightened versions of my authentic self emerge.
The music, art, activations, workshops ETC engage our senses. It creates a space to feed and nurture relationships, with new people, friends, family, lovers, nature and most importantly; yup, you guessed it, your relationship to yourself.
Festivals are an adventure of togetherness. Our need for music and community at its core, is a place for people to express themselves, connect and empower each other.
By Lyndsey Fay Macnaught