It’s easy to be disheartened by the extent to which corporatism has ended up infiltrating, co-opting and ultimately controlling the modern musical landscape. Oppressive financial interests have infested music’s ecology at nearly all levels - and to an extent that would have seemed improbable 20 or 30 years ago. This infiltration is to such an aggressive degree (and definitely now includes areas that used to be considered completely immune to such malign influence) that I wouldn’t necessarily blame anyone if they turned their back on the whole game. After all, once you’re aware of this heavy taint, it’s pretty hard to ignore.
Imagine you go into a very fancy take-away for your lunch. It’s been recommended by the top food critics in your local listings magazines, hyped up on the radio, raved over by What’s On websites and has spread like a rash across your local and national newspapers. Your friends and work colleagues alike have talked about little else for the last four weeks: “OMG! U have got 2 try that sun blushed cabbage + barrel-aged Dairylea bruschetta!” This joint has the kind of Tripadvisor rating that most restaurateurs would commit GBH for. You’ve gotten there really early to beat the queues that stretch out of the door, down the street and round the corner by 1pm each day. Everyone who lives and works within a five-mile radius wants lunch from this place! You plump for a take-away salad box - look at the heavenly quality! This is the world’s greatest salad! Artisanal dolmada hand-rolled by skateboarding chefs with waxed moustaches and authentic sailor tattoos! The rarest of wild Highland rocket - the sort that only grows on the North face of Ben Nevis during the second half of June and in the close proximity of a Peregrine Falcon eerie! A jauntily positioned amuse bouche of sprout, tree bark and dill trifle on top! An outrageous dandelion and snail coleslaw to the side ...
But then, just before you tuck in you notice something: A used safety plaster caked in blood and what can only be little nuggets of rat faeces. Let’s face it - what you have in your hands is no longer the world’s greatest salad is it? It would take some serious cognitive dissonance for anyone to get stuck into that food box - even if they were to carefully scoop out the offending ‘extras’ first.
I feel the same way about a lot of music festivals to be honest. I had little or no interest in going all the way to Indio California to attend the Coachella festival, as it seemed a wasteful distance to travel just to endure a heavily branded and patronisingly over-mediated experience - with little in the way of the rough round the edges, unexpected, challenging or genuinely exciting experience that makes being a music fan worthwhile; just a massive spoonfed dose of the ubiquitous, the hyped and the monolithically popular. That said, I also didn’t have anything against the festival itself or anyone who went there… until that is, I found out about Coachella’s owner.
Are these the kinds of campaigns you would support if you knew where your money was going?
Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival is one of the largest and most profitable events of its kind in the world. It was launched by the Goldenvoice company in October 1999, inspired by the type of European festivals where they felt artistry was considered more important than the commercial clout of the acts. Featuring Chemical Brothers and Beck, the inaugural festival was held just months after the disastrous Woodstock ‘99 festival (held in upstate New York) which had been marred by violence, arson and rape and came to stand in direct contrast to it, proving to be popular with both punters and critics. Despite this, however, it struggled to get enough people through the turnstiles; some big name artists agreed to take deferred payment and eventually Goldenvoice sold up to AEG in March 2001 for $7 million.
Coachella still has the reputation of a high quality festival but it also attracts the largest names, huge sponsorship deals and has an annual turnover way in excess of $100m. In short, it has become a corporate behemoth. As the Netherlands-based cultural commentator Joost Heijthuijsen pointed out last year the realities of this company stand in stark contrast to the rebellious, underground, hip image Coachella likes to present. AEG (and by extension the Festival) is owned by Philip Anschutz, an ultra-conservative billionaire who pours some of his money into supporting shockingly regressive campaigns that stand diametrically opposed to the image of counterculture Coachella trades on.
So, when you buy a ticket to attend this hip, sun-baked festival - recent acts include Radiohead, Calvin Harris, LCD Soundsystem, Lady Gaga, Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé - your money is going directly to fund some grim stuff and to a man whose political influence matches his net worth, which is estimated at $12bn. Historically, Anschutz has been involved in things that any right thinking person should reject as a matter of course. As a member of the Board Of Directors of The American Petroleum Institute in 1998 he opposed the Kyoto Climate Treaty and poured millions into a campaign against it. And it turned out that his close personal friend George W Bush felt the same way. The Kyoto Treaty, which had been accepted by Clinton, never got ratified in the USA. Likewise he owns newspapers, Think Tanks and film companies that express a strong anti-union philosophy and his funding largesse stretches to ultra-conservative campaigners who alledgedly want to ban evolution from being taught in schools; the Institute For American Values which campaigns against single and gay people from becoming parents and the stridently homophobic groups Colorado Family Values, The Navigators, Dare 2 Share Ministries and Young Life among others.
Despite evidence suggesting the opposite, earlier this year a lawyer for Anschutz released a statement that asserted: “One year ago we stated publicly that we unequivocally support the rights of all people without regard to sexual orientation.”
After a flurry of adverse publicity, it’s true the billionaire has stopped giving his money to some anti-LGBTQ organisations over the last two years but by no means all of them. He also has deep pockets when it comes to the needs of NumbersUSA Education & Research, which calls itself an “immigration-reduction organization”; and he gave a cool million to the Republicans during the last American election.
But why should you, dear British reader, care? Well, AEG is a global mover and in the field of music alone, it owns (Manchester Arena) and operates (O2 Arena) plus several large British venues; it also looks after the management or acts as booker for nearly one thousand household name artists such as Bob Dylan, Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, Arctic Monkeys, Rolling Stones, Kanye West, Paul McCartney, Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Elton John, and Bruno Mars. And now, it runs large British festivals as well.
AEG Presents secured sole rights to put festivals on in London’s Victoria Park last year leading to the displacement of the popular Lovebox and Field Day events. The company’s inaugural All Points East bash was held this Summer, boasting a pretty hip line up of Bjork, Lorde, The xx and Father John Misty but really, how cool can any of this really be considered when there was a stall offering temporary tattoos of the logos of corporate sponsors to punters?
I mean, do you really want to watch Father John Misty play live while the ink is drying on your Red Stripe tattoo as money disappears directly from your bank account and quickly finds its way into the pockets of people who believe that men rode round on dinosaurs 8,000 years ago, that climate change is a myth and that homosexuality should be illegal because of what it says in Leviticus?
My experience of large corporate festivals in the UK is that they are unsatisfying money hoovers designed to deplete your bank account for minimal return and it’s easy to recreate the service they offer without actually handing them anything. You can simply mimic the sensation of attending All Points East by going to your local shopping mall, buying the worst burger on offer while insisting on queuing up for an hour first and then paying £14 for it. Then listen to a recording of Father John Misty taped onto a Dictaphone wrapped up in a sports sock while standing behind some really tall people having a loud conversation about Netflix. You should occasionally jump up and down as if you’re trying to catch a glimpse of him in the distance. And then to round the day off, simply take your life savings out of an ATM and set fire to all the cash. It’s OK, because by next year you will have forgotten exactly how annoying the experience was, the amnesia no doubt intensified by each and every £13.49 thimble full of appalling wine you consumed over the course of the day, and you can repeat the experience all over again.
Personally I’d sooner go to a smaller, more grass roots independent festival and have a clutch of genuinely odd, uplifting, joyous and memorable experiences on a smaller, freer scale and not have to worry about the nagging feeling you get on seeing that bloody plaster and those little nuggets of rat faeces.
The Best UK Independent Festivals
Date: 17 - 19 August 2018
Location: Escot Park, Devon
Best Artists: Manic Street Preachers, British Sea Power, The Wildhearts
About: A family run, completely independent festival organised by folk rock band Levellers now in its 15th year, it has a strong emphasis on being child friendly.
Date: 24 - 25 August 2018
Location: Totnes, Devon
Best Artists: Hookworms, Shirley Collins, James Holden, Jane Weaver
About: The brainchild of Rupert Morrison, the owner of Totnes’ premier independent record shop, Sea Change manages to attract stellar talent to this beautifully sleepy, Bohemian town with its philosophy of good vibes and unusual music.
Date: June 2019
Location: Digbeth, Birmingham
Best Artists: TBC
About: The UK’s best festival for challenging music has just successfully concluded for another year. This year’s weekend of sonic and visual mayhem included sets from GNOD, a world debut from Gazelle Twin, Yves Tumor and Moor Mother and was of such a high standard that we’d recommend early booking for next year.
Date: August 2019
Location: Braziers Park, Oxfordshire
Best Artists: TBC
About: The UK’s... no, the world’s... best celebration of grassroots DIY music and psychedelic culture took a break this year due to reasons of exhaustion (everyone was) and money (no-one had any). However, everyone who likes to fly the freak flag breathed a sigh of relief when the Supernormal team announced recently that they were getting ready to for a new event in 2019.
Date: 13 - 14 July 2018
Location: Fellfootwood, Cumbria
Best Artists: Godflesh, Vibracathedral Orchestra, Grumbling Fur, Cattle
About: There can’t be that many British festivals where you can see mountains, lakes and forests from the festival site and where the sublimely heavy and beautiful music matches the landscape but Woodland Gathering ticks all of these boxes and more.
Date: 16 - 19 August 2018
Location: Brecon Beacons, Wales
Best Artists: King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard, Baxter Dury, Simian Mobile Disco
About: Actually Green Man has the mountain angle covered as well, not to mention great food, family entertainment and the traditional burning of the Green Man effigy at midnight on the last night.
Kelburn Garden Party
Date: 29 June - 2 July 2018
Location: Largs, Scotland
Best Artists: A Guy Called Gerald, Goldie, Nyege Nyege, Ibibio Sound Machine
About: OK, so Kelburn Garden Party, has mountains, a forest and a lake - or it has a glen if we’re going to be precise about this as it’s in Scotland. And if the proximity to a glen doesn’t clinch it, the fact that it’s set on the grounds of a castle should do. This is rather an idyllic setting for the kind of festival that should appeal to dancers rather than rockers.
End Of The Road
Date: 30 August - 2 September 2018
Location: Larmer Tree Gardens, Dorset
Best Artists: Fat White Family, Mulatu Astatke, Moor Mother, Omar Souleyman
About: Aseemingly universally loved festival that puts as much focus on quality international acts as it does on homegrown underground, leftfield and independent talent. Importantly, End Of The Road, is on eof the growing number of eco-friendsly festivals, tacking problems such as plastic and recycling head on.
Bloodstock Open Air
Date: 9 - 12 August 2018
Location: Walton-On-Trent, Derbyshire
Best Artists: Power Trip, Emperor, Watain, Judas Priest
About: This family run festival set up by Derby born and bred metalhead, Paul Gregory, has been building slowly over time since 2001. The first five years were held indoors at the Derby Assembly Rooms before heading out into the sunshine and the fields of Walton-On-Trent. Its reputation has grown and grown until it can now attract some of the biggest names in heavy metal as mainstage acts.
Date: 9 - 12 August 2018
Location: King’s Lynn, Norfolk
Best Artists: Optimo, Ben UFO, Andrew Weatherall, Ricardo Villalobos
About: Set up as a bit of a country retreat by Craig Richards of Fabric, this rarified rural rave takes place in the grounds of Houghton House, which is remote enough to make a noise complaint from the neighbours unlikely. And yes, it has a lake.
Correction/Clarification: An earlier version of this feature included a reference to Festival No. 6 in Portmeirion, Wales. This event is no longer an independent festival and as its owners Soundcrash have just announced via social media an alleged buy out by Live Nation, we thought it would be in better keeping with the theme of the feature to replace this capsule for the 100% independent End Of The Road festival. This article was edited on 5th July 2018.
John Doran is the co-founder and editor of The Quietus music and culture website. He writes for VICE and The Guardian and is a broadcaster for BBC Radio 3 and 4, as well as the presenter of Noisey’s British Masters series. His acclaimed memoir about the recovery from alcoholism and mental illness, Jolly Lad, is republished by Strange Attractor Press this month.