An alien perspective on music festivals in general - Woodstock 2009

I'm not a big fan of music festivals. Somehow, the concept doesn't compute well with me. But sometimes, if it's free and I have nothing better to do, I go have a look.

That time, I went because it was on the right place at the right time. I was on my way from Hamburg to Odessa, and on the very day I was supposed to cross the Polish border, there was a festival featuring one band that I sort-of like. In addition to that, my ex-roommate was going to be there and we see each other once a year only. So I went.

The festival is called Przystanek Woodstock. It's a massive Remix of the Woodstock festival concept. And it is no less than the biggest open air festival in Europe.

Festival folks

I got there hitchhiking, with a light backpack, no tent, on the beautiful hot Sunday 2nd of August 2009: At 15:30, my ride dropped me within walking distance of the field where it was held. The 500m walk to the festival area was made through a stream of festival people, which was a rather quick transition for me to get from [normaLifeMode] to [festivalMode].

I used the word “festival people” and assumed that a very clear image of what that is occurred to you. But while writing it, I pondered a little bit. Maybe not everyone knows what a "festival people" is like. How would you describe festival-folks? Sure they dress in a peculiar manner, and I though about using their dress to help you figure them out. But then, I thought that it wasn't about the dress. The dress is just a side effect of some deeper common denominator. Something that really bonds the people in a festival, and out of it when they meet incidentally. So what is that thing that describes accurately the customers of festivals?

I haven't found. I suspect there is nothing. It's all about the dress.

So, in case you are not familiar with festival people, here's a description of their appearance:

A festival-folk is very likely to be wearing at least one military looking item. Most common are the camouflage pants and ranger boots, but it can be the jacket, I've even seen a couple wearing helmets. S/he is carrying a bag on one shoulder that has seen a lot of action. The original color is hard to make out, now it is blueish-redish brown . It has a lot of patches sewed on it, next to the holes instead of covering them. Each patch has a band name on it. The t-shirt s/he wears very often has a very deep meaning. It is either featuring the name of a band s/he likes, either a short philosophical phrase such as “There is no spoon”. Tatoos can be seen on various parts of his/her body, and pierceable places often are pierced.

S/he is drunk and behaves as such. S/he is carrying a mostly empty bottle of alcoholic beverage in one of his/her hands. S/he is very likely to be high on some harmless drug like cannabis.

On a social level, a festival-folk is very very friendly. Unless s/he is not drunk, wich is very unlikely. If you go up to him/her, s/he will gladly talk to you. S/he might even take you under her/his arm after only a few minutes of intercourse, witch can be a traumatising experience, as a festival-folk typically hasn't taken a shower in many days. You might think that s/he is only interested in the possibility of getting beer or cigarettes from you (as it is the first thing s/he will ask), but in fact, asking for beer and cigarettes is a form of politeness for festival-folk. S/he means no more harm than a dog means to undignify you by sniffing your hindquarters. His/her conversation is typically about popular-underground bands, cheap-and-good drugs, how great it feels to be so drunk, or some unintelligible speech if s/he's been on too much drugs.

I crossed many a festival-folk on my way to the festival ground. And finally I got there.

The first thing you get to see from the festival is a 100m long row of toilet-booth. This is a bit too long to walk holding your breath so you are obliged to take a few lungfull of nose-burning smell of whatever chemical compound they use to sanitize the tanks of those things, along with a subtle fragrance of urine and of excremental discharge.

After you've successfully walked this initiatory path, the festival area can be accessed.

The campsite

The patch of land I crossed to get to the camp site reminded me of how I figure a Palestinian refugee camp would look like. Scorched earth, thick dust in the air, people going about with no goal, red-uniformed volunteers patrolling in small groups or on quad-bikes. One young girl begged me for money to buy beer, a wretched boy came to me with an empty cup and almost dropped to his knees hoping I would pour some of my beer in it. I didn't have any beer, but that clearly didn't compute with his acceptation of reality.

I was headed to a particular place on the camping ground. On the couchsurfing website, a group had been started to connect travelers on their way there and make sure they would camp at the same place. My ex-roommate was settled there. The people there had released excellent information on how to find them in the thousand-tents jungle and I got there very quickly. Sure enough they had erected a “CouchSurfing” banner, but I didn't see further signs of couchsurfing-cult related items. It was only meant as a landmark rather than an aggregative symbol. They also had erected a symbolic fence around their patch. I greeted them through it and they all turned and looked at me defiantly.

There must have been 15 of them on the place at that moment. After a short uncomfortable silence, I asked them if BeWelcome members were allowed. They looked at each other in a perplex way. In the end, I told them I had a profile on CouchSurfing too and they let me in.

One of them was very friendly. The others rather apathic. But the friendly one was out-balancing them greatly. He welcomed me with a shot of vodka, passed some food around to me, some shisha, made sure I felt comfortable. I was glad he was there. Without him it would have been very awkward.

As a contribution to the general prejudice that people have against Polish food, I'd like to add that the stuff he gave me was utterly disgusting. Excuse my french.

I also met with a friend from Hamburg that gave me a beer. I started to look on the bright side of life.

Another afternoon in Woodstock

My ex-roommate Paul, that I was there to see, had gone to town. I went to meet him at 4:30 near the beer tents. I was already a bit drunk and felt a bit more in-phase with the festival atmosphere. The sun was blazing hot. Dust was thick in the air, I wore my scarf over my nose and mouth. A band was playing some unoriginal rock on the main stage. Paul was late.

But he made up for it by buying me two beers when he finally showed up. While he was in the queue, I talked with the guy he had come with. That unsurprisingly asked where I was from. That's when a brilliant idea sparked in my head: I answered to him really loud, with one fist in the air: “I'm from Germany, Yeah!”.

There is something particular about being German: it is something to be ashamed of. Unlike most nationalities, that are stupidly felt by their citizens as something to be proud of, and unlike pretty much all the other nationalities, that are felt like something that matters little. Germans usually don't like to have to say: “I'm german”. Much less very loud, much less punctuated by the word “yeah”, much less with a fist in the air. The reason being that they are educated in the consistent reminding of the atrocities of 2nd world war. Few places in the world care about someone being german. Maybe in Israel, people still hold a prejudice against Germans and Germany. But a French person usually will not remember that 2 million french people were killed by german people between two world wars. They're more likely to be pissed off if the German football team recently beat theirs. And so it goes with most of the nations involved in those conflicts. But not in Poland. In Poland, the Germans are sincerely hated. And, sure enough, one guy behind me screamed very loud: “Well, I'm Polish”.

I knew that Paul could mediate in case of aggressive behaviour. One thing about him is that he acts first and thinks later. I turned around to find a group of three young guys looking at me defiantly. I put on my best smile and walked straight up to them to shake hands, share hugs and exchange beer. That worked alright.

I won't dwell on the topic of nationalities, Germans and Polish, as it deserves it's own story.

We headed back to the camp where Paul introduced me to another of his roommates that was called Pedro I think and that was a really interesting guy. First he's cute as hell, then he's pretty assertive and witty. My kind of guys. I also met Paul's girlfriend that is just as cute-as-hell and assertive and witty...

Paul and me have the same taste in people.

They were there for 3 days already, like most other festival-folks The festival had started on Friday. Including the crowd of couchsurfing members. The group was composed of around 20 people. But it seemed like everyone only knew 3 or 4 people. Which is the usual human-relationship equation, and which always dispoints me somehow.

So, Paul introduced me to the 3 or 4 people he had met there. We drank the beer with them and moved from the camp, back to where they sold the beer.

Near the huge Beer-refueling-station was a little stage with a DJ where a small crowd of festival folks were half-heartedly bouncing to the beat. We joined them, except Paul that had locked on a hot girl that didn't want to dance, so he sat on the side with her (probably reciting her all the clichés of his "hook up with girls for dummies" guide).

Just as with the social interactions, the music stired up some dispointment in me. It was painfully unimaginative and slow and... loud! I had to scream my disapointment in the ears of my new friends. Paul's girlfriend, that is called Aino (finnish), took advantage of that to kiss me. Suddenly the music sounded less bad.

We moved it to the Clawfinger concert.

The grinder

Clawfinger is a band that writes songs with much more concern about how they will sound on-stage than in the studio.

If a concert can attract big enough a crowd, it will naturally structurate itself according to a radial pattern. The centre of it is right in front of the stage and usually called the "mosh pit". Random Joe thrown in there would feel like a black guy in a skinhead tea party. Everyone is grabbing everyone, pushing, bouncing, hitting with arms and legs. The crowd is quivering with life, people are constantly thrown around. One crowd member can travel very quickly through the core as he gets molested by the rest. It's a very cathartic experience.

Paul and I left Pedro and Aino at the outskirt of the core and dived straight into the chaos. It is much less dangerous and much more fun than it looks from outside. One particularly refreshing sight:

If someone is hit so hard that he trips and fall, everyone around them that saw it will instantly create a perimetre around them while someone would jump in to help them up. Even better: just acting like you lost something on the floor will result in someone creating a perimetre. A few seconds later, five people will have turned on their flashlight and will be on the floor looking around with you. Whether you really lost something or not.

But it's still a violent place. I was in a real frenzy in the middle of that mess. At one point, the band asked that the crowd be split in two, with a 5m large trench in the middle, going from the middle of the stage to the outer crowd. He counted to 3 and, at the same time, both half of the crowd started rushing to one another. The song started as the two bodies of people smashed into each other. We're talking of thousands of people right now. I was on the front line and was lifted clear from the ground by the impact.

I had a cracked rib from a fight club two weeks before. It was almost healed when the concert started. After the concert, it hurted worse than ever.

I'm pretty sure that the band could have asked both half of the crowd to run to each other headlong. Resulting probably in several head trauma.

There are few things more stupid than a crowd.

After the concert was over, I was all alone. I had split with the others. I called Paul's cellphone and got Pedro. We met at the beer station. Aino was there too, Paul was lost.

The next concert was going to be boring, but the one after was one that I didn't want to miss. A great German band called "Guano Apes" that every polish people to whom I mentioned they were from Germany was quick to remind me that the lead singer had Croatian origins... We decided to wait the boring band out with a beer. Paul was likely to look for us there anyway, though I was more suspecting that he was busy looking for cute girls to harrass.

While we were in the beer-queue, Aino went to the toilets. She came back limping. She had tripped on a pothole and probably sprained an ankle. I was still sober enough to arrange something.

Medical duty

I left Pedro at the beer station in case Paul would show up, telling him to keep an eye on the phone. Then I lifted her on my shoulders and we headed to the first aid booth.

They didn't let me stay with her. They were too crowded. She didn't have a cellphone so I left her mine, after giving a strict meeting point to Pedro. He was there (efficient people turn me on!), and we went back to the beer station to drink some more and in case Paul would show up. The boring concert was still on, no big deal. I was sorry for Aino though. She got herself way too drunk.

She called a bit before the Guano Apes concert, Paul was still lost. We met her, she had a thick bandaid around the ankle, and was completely sobered up. They hadn't given her clutches so she was heavily limping. I put her on my shoulders again to go to the concert ground. Guano Apes had arrived on stage.

I'm no musical critic, but I must say I found their performance bleak. Around me, everyone else was frantic though. I did a quick dive in the mosh pit but I was worrying a bit for Aino. Pedro sticked around too so it was the 3 of us. Aino did her best not to burden us too much, we danced, singed along on the songs we knew, made out in an extatic threesome, my hippies friends would probably say that we exchanged a lot of energy.

That's when the storm broke out.

Rain apocalypse

It was no ordinary storm we're talking about. The sky seriously fell on us. The thunder was covering the music, the dust-field instantly turned into a mud-pool. The wind was blowing some of the tents flat. We walked our way back to the couchsurfing camp.

The guys there had stretched a huge tarp so as to shade the sun rays and it was in a patch of forest so the muffled wind didn't take it away. It saved a lot of people's ass this night. Paul's tent had completely collapsed, and it wasn't the only one. Festival-folks like tents cheap. Everyone was gathered under it, watching the debacle. Paul was there too. Into the furry, I could hear the next band, Korpiklaani, starting to play. The very band I had come to see. But the storm was really scarry and I was exhausted of the day. I watched the lights of the show under the lightning from the distance with a ball in my stomach.

Paul, Aino and I slept on the ground, under the tarp, huddled together so as to keep warm as the temperature had dropped a good 10 degrees. It rained all through the night.

God decided that a torrent of rainwater should not wash away the campsite and I'm greatful. I saw the next morning that not everyone had been so lucky.

The next morning, I gathered my wet stuff together and left, shivering and sore. I made a run to the food selling area in hopes that I would find some leftover food in the trash but they were already packing. The trash themselves were repelling to look at. I decided my festival time was up and that I still had a long road to Odessa.

I took my wet self back on the road.


Epilogue

After this quite exhausting review of what happens in a festival, we're left with the question that haunts us since the begining (doesn't it?):

Why Music Festivals?

Because when you really think about it, the concept of "Music Festival" doesn't go without saying. What is it? A music festival? You make a lot of bands play music on stage one after the other, from late morning to... hem early morning. You make it last non stop for days. You sell drinks and food next to the stage and wait for customers.

And the customers come, by the thousands. By the hundreds of thousands in our particular case. In most cases, they are ready to pay to be allowed in the festival. In most cases, they are ready to pay a very high amount of money. Tickets for the next Roskilde festival (in 6 month) are available at the moment I'm writing this for 230€.

What does the customer get for that? He gets to see a panel of bands playing live. He gets to have access to expensive junk food, expensive warm beer in plastic glasses, chemical toilets that are soon brimming over with bodily fluids, and a pair of square meters to pitch a tent, away from the shadow and in the middle of a tent-maze.

Sounds like a freaking concentration camp. But people are lining up with a check book in their feverish hands to buy their access to that slum.

Why?

I haven't come with the answers myself, I have actually interviewed a couple of people in the festival and outside of it and gathered enough elements to arrive to a conclusive answer. Or a couple of them.

Why music festivals

Three reasons really:

To have a good time. Well, it's not so obvious, is it? In particular after the non-biased objective description of the life conditions in a festival I just gave :) . In particular in the light of the high entrance fee that most festivals practice. But "having a good time" is something that seems scarce enough that people are willing to travel long distances, pay a lot of money and endure death-camp-grade conditions to get. Of course, if they are fanatics about bands, it's great value that they might be able to see a couple of the musicians they like ; but the most important in a festival is the atmosphere.

The bands are just a marketing trick. You put a couple of high profile band names on the poster to get more people to come, but they won't have a good time unless you provide them with a nice atmosphere. In a good festival, people are kind to each other, because we're all in the same festival, hey! It's a place that is safe (for you if not for your belongings), where everybody has come for the same reasons, probably people with the same musical tastes, which make it easy to befriend them. Which brings us to the second point of human contact.

Back in the normal world, on another week day, you're just walking between your office and your bus stop. When you get there, there's already someone waiting: "Hi, what's up?" - "Cool man" - "Got some beer man?" - "Sure take some, what's your name?" - "Julien. Shit man I'm so excited, this place is freaking awesome" - "True that bro"... And so on... Now, this is something very unlikely to happen at my bus stop, but in a festival, it's quite common. It gives festival-folks the impression that it will be super-easy to get laid too, which is just an illusion as most conversations are extremelly shallow, and during a concert, everyone is looking to the stage, with no exchange between the spectator, if not of blows and pushes.

If I said "Hi, what's up man?" to the guy at my bus stop, even if he'd be my age, even if he'd be dressed like a punk too, he'd probably look at me suspiciously, checking his facies databank to check if he knows me from somewhere else. And after finding nothing, he'd probably try to skip the exchange with a "nice nice", having reached the conclusion that I'm a total freak and that if he replies in a friendly manner, I'm probably going to tell him all about my life in a never-ending monologue.

In a festival, people would usually not judge you.

And this absence of judgement is the perfect excuse to, what the tight-ass-society calls "lose control". Because most human beings on earth spend most of their life with a broomstick up their asses. They are trying the enact the dream-child to their parents, the dream-employee to their hierarchical superior, the dream-partner to their spouse, and if at any time they stop acting, someone will quickly remind them to "pick themselves up". In a festival, carrying the broomstick is seen as abnormal. In a festival, you're expected to be yourself.

Removing the broomstick from the sphincter is painful to most people. So "losing control" usually involves massive amounts of alcohol. Or whatever drug is acceptable and available.

To some people, not all but a significant part, festivalism (let's call it so) fills the spiritual void left by rampant atheism in developped societies. Some of the people to whom I asked what they liked in festivals drowned me in a partisan speech on some deeper meaning to the soul... The fact of the matter is that festivalism shares a lot of specs with religious cult. The main one being the "crowd trip".

You are one with the mass, hardened by the power of love (- Sizzla), with nothing but absolute respect for each other, all chanting the same repetitive psalmody, all looking the same way, focused on infinity, under the guidance of the microphone-man. "Everybody say Ooohooo" - "Ooohooo".

This way to experience a festival as a surrogate of spirituality may sound like a sort of "dark side" of festivals, but I think it is one of the most positive points about them. Because there seem to be a need for spirituality in the human-being blueprint, and if it will not be filled with this, it will take the next on the list. And as we all know, some forms of spirituality are dangerous. Deprived of festivals, the atheist might turn to fascism, or worse. Buddhism... you name it.

Similar stuff

How meeting the founders and ambassadors of Couchsurfing eventually convinced me to stop using it.

This is a couple-of-chapters story on the consequences of weird economical and moral precepts taken to some extreme. Story happens in Mexico.

A couple of facts first.

My parents are devout catholics, but not fundamentalists, which is handy for this post since that's the most common religious group on Earth. They believe that "work is health" and that one must "win their bread sweat of their brow" and they might claim that money isn't happiness, but not wholeheartedly.

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