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Power to the People: How the changing online landscape of music festivals is changing the perceived power of music festival attendees

photo of Rev Kylie McCormick

Rev Kylie McCormick  
PhD Researcher, University of Birmingham

Music festivals, do you remember them?  My mind swirls with memories of them; of weekends spent in rain and in shine, of laughter and glee swirling around empty fields, of packed tents undulating with the beats of music. Sequestered in our homes, music festivals have morphed from stages to television and while these at home music festivals have allowed us to catch glimpses of our summer favourites, they are certainly missing something, changing the ethos of the music festival experience. This blog will explore one of the missing entities, the entity of power and a power that is specifically connected to the roles found in the music festival structure.  The blog will explore the traditional intersectionality of roles found in “normal” music festivals, moving on to explore the ways in which festival attendees may experience a limitation of power in this new online music festival season, ultimately ending with a proposal of how this reduction of power may limit the attachment to the music festival community.  

Music festival attendees rarely think of their role within the music festival hierarchy. Many are there merely for the enjoyment and festivity, and yet my research over countless festivals has led me to conclude that one of the reasons why music festivals offer such liminal experiences comes down to the mitigation of structural roles. The music festival attendee not only acts as the consumer, purchasing a ticket for the festival, but they also act as planner and creator. Music festival attendees choose where they make their camp, what their schedules look like, and how they spend their time. It is a freedom that allows the music festival attendee to feel a sense of ownership and control, an authoritative power.

I find that this form of power, a power designated with the role, aligns with what leadership theorist John Adair outlined as positional authority. Reflecting on differing types of authority stemming from leadership, Adair noted that some roles yield positional authority, power stemming when the individual holds a “position in a social or organization hierarchy and have authority within defined limits.”1 I believe that Adair’s definition points out the type of power emulated for music festival attendees who are given the role of organizer and leader within the music festival structure. At typical music festivals the attendees act as a situational leader2 that has the ability to completely craft the experience, the power resting firmly in their hands.

This power is non-existent when the music festival turns from in person experience to an online experience. While online music festivals may scratch the itch for music lovers, the festival is pre-programmed and thus individuals are powerless, mitigating the roles organically established in normal music festival rhythms. The online experience lacks the opportunity to travel to a location, to set up a makeshift weekend home. The online experience lacks the opportunity to choose which food truck to buy overpriced coffee from. The online experience lacks any decision that promotes creativity; attendees lack the opportunity to choose which artists they will listen to, which rave tent they will enter into, which outfit to wear. Overall the online experience lacks any opportunity for decision making, and so the music festival attendee takes on the role of consumer rather than creator, a role that is ultimately lacking in the perception of power.

One may naturally ask what the problem is with the limitation of roles and therefore the limitation of power? I would argue that ultimately the lack of ability for engagement that perpetuates a role of power limits the potential attachment to the overall music festival. Throughout my research I have had informal discussions with other music festival attendees who emphasize their commitment to a singular festival; a pilgrimage that could not be missed, the festival of choice becomes not only a yearly calendar event, but the music festival also morphs into an identity marker for the attendee. I would argue that part of the reason for the devoted nature is due to the music festival experience which allows individuals to divulge in a role of power, a role that is often not found in daily non-festival life. While the music and the liminal joviality of the festival is also of great importance, I have found that an experience that allows individuals to explore their authoritative roles creates an attachment and bond for the individual, crafting not only the temporary identity of the music festival attendee but also the long lasting attachment to the music festival itself. The mitigation of roles of power as noted in our online music festival does not allow music festival attendees to explore this role, thus providing a mitigation for the individual that culminates in a detachment from the music festival itself.

The changing landscape of music festivals, and the necessary movement online, is changing the way that individuals not only consume the festival experience but also the way in which these individuals interact within the music festival experience. The pre-programmed nature of the online festival dilutes any sense of power ultimately leading to the modification of relational attachment between attendee and festival. Part of the music festival experience thus rests in the ability to yield power to the people, a point of reflection as music festivals adapt to a season where the music festival experience is regulated to an online existence.

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