The changing economy of festivals


The economy of festivals is now changing dramatically.

When the first T in the Park festival took place in 1994 the only other festivals were Glastonbury, Reading and WOMAD – now there are hundreds all over the country and they have changed from being a place where you watch bands outdoors, to an entire multiple-day experience or a long weekend away.

Indeed, we are already seeing changes in the purpose of music, from escapism to activism. Matthew Morgan, the co-founder of Afropunk, believes fans will look to live music to understand the world around them. ““We’re in line for some really great art over the next four years, [and] what we’re doing is going to be even more important,” Morgan says. “So many people are looking for things that are positive, that give them something meaningful in their lives.”

An interesting example of the changing economy of festivals is the Burning Man festival at Black Rock City – a temporary city erected in the Black Rock Desert of northwest Nevada.

One of the community’s 10 guiding principles is “Decommodification” – a harsh shunning of consumer culture. With the exception of ice and coffee sold by the organizers, there are no vendors. Instead, what fuels the festival is a principle called “gifting”. In the gifting economy, participants provide everything but the festival’s infrastructure. Whiskey bars, food stands, workshops, washing facilities and DJs are provided by the festival go-evers, called “Burners”. These are free of charge and for the enjoyment of others.

But what drives this giving, this willingness to pool resources to create something for collective reward and collective good? Burning Man is only possible because of the principles of gifting and decommodification – an example of the potential fruits of the sharing economy.

“People invest in the joy it will bring to other people,” says Matt Schultz, the artist behind several behemoth Burning Man pieces. “We’re trying to tell people to invest in things not because they’ll get a profit, but because it’s beautiful, because it’s compelling.”

In a world of tech-driven isolation and high-speed consumerism, Larry Harvey, founder of Burning Man Festival, believes giving acts as a much-needed antidote to what he calls “capitalism on steroids.”

“What counts is the connection, not the commodity,” Harvey says. He believes it offers a challenge to the “default world’s” system.

“That spirit, if spread in the world and widely adopted, would condition how people, as consumers in the marketplace, behave,” Harvey says. “Whereas if all of your self worth and esteem is invested in how much you consume, how many likes you get, or other quantifiable measures, the desire to simply possess things trumps our ability or capability to make moral connections with people around us. There should be room in the world for both systems to flourish. If they did, they would inform one another.”

“We’re trying to find a way to make capitalism more equitable,” Schultz says. “Instead of saying one system is bad, or another is bad, we’re finding ways to make it function for more people.”

According to Harvey, the aim of the gifting economy is to “rediscover values that used to be automatically produced by culture but aren’t anymore because culture is subject to commodification in our world”.

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