Festival scene

Festivals: the other side of the curtain

In The Arts and Expression by Baron de Merxhausen2 Comments

A critical examination of the issues related to the festival scene, its community, and moving forward.


This piece comes from a position of hope and defence, experience and disappointment, and an eager desire for change.

It was written partly in response to Jules Sutherland’s excellent and intimate piece on festivals last month. While hers was very much an experiential and social piece, mine is more critical of broader issues related to the scene, and is strident in its opinion.

I have been working in the party and festival scene since I was very young and for well over a decade now. I have worn numerous hats, so to speak (or gloves as it were), from waste management to serving alcohol to operations and communications, to working in a harm reduction capacity, supporting people having challenging experiences, to teaching and production, and finally coordination and organisation.

It is from this position that I have seen and experienced the profound positive impact festivals can have on people’s lives and the even greater benefit they could provide our society in the future. I want to talk to some of the issues that face the festival scene.

Perception of harm

There are perceptions among the broader community that differs from the reality of the festival scene. There is a perception that festival organisers make lots of money at the expense of the community. This may be true for large commercially sponsored, metropolitan-based events that operate licensed bars. However, regionally-based festivals have significant overheads, sponsorship isn’t sought, and there are fiscal and social benefits experienced by the local regional communities who host them.

The festival scene is also often criticised due to the perception that they promote drugs. The perception is that the presence of drugs equals a dangerous environment, and this perception leads to a spectrum of behaviour such as (at worst) an outright dismissal of a celebration and the rejection of permit applications, or (at best) a paternal reaction – you need to be saved from yourselves so we’re going to sit here and watch you to make sure you’re safe. This is far from ideal.

Even the best outcome here is enormously burdensome, and I do not agree with officials that it is entirely benign. There are authorities and other organisations that directly benefit from the increased scrutiny of events that time-and-time again are shown to be about as safe as any public event can get. Inciting safety fears provides user-pays services, like policing, with leverage to inflate their fees.

The vast majority of incidents at festivals are very minor and mostly result from a lack of shoes and sunscreen – sprains, cuts, sunburn, etc.

The other difficulties for the general festival goer that require care are those related to something I have a more intimate relationship with, mostly alcohol and other drugs. As a harm reduction worker for some years, our most common issue was drunkenness, a more socially accepted but fairly dangerous and damaging form of overdose.

The additional layer of protection provided by a harm reduction service has an incredible impact on a community’s safety, and it is amplified further by the most significant protective factor in any group environment: the attitudes of shared care and consideration that the community provides. It’s why people receive such rapid care in the festival context, and more importantly, why they don’t need emergency care in the first place – people are looking out for each other. That community spirit of care is increasingly rare in an urban environment, where alienation and isolation can be common traits, and where we assume that institutions and services are an effective replacement for being interested in someone’s well-being.

A toxic dialogue

A wise friend once said to me that toxicity is simply a matter of dosage, and any biochemist will confirm the truth in that, so providing drug education at festivals is essentially about relating two concepts: take your mental set and your environmental setting into account before using any substance, and be as expert with your dosage as you possibly can be. Nowadays I realise that these points are as true to food as they could be to alcohol, heroin, or LSD. It might seem a stretch to compare heroin and food but obesity is experienced by 63% of the Australian population and is the third greatest burden on our health system. Perhaps dosage is a term we may need to reconsider as being only related to pharmaceuticals.

There is a strange irony related to the perceptions versus the realities of harm in a festival context and this is the rejection of drug testing facilities, a globally recognised, tried-and-tested measure for improving safety in our society. A significant contributor to drug related harm is the inability to know the strength or quality of the substance being taken with certainty.

There is a certain amount of rhetorical ammunition gained by keeping this service illegal, and that is by the honest admission that not knowing what you’re taking is risky. If those risks were taken away, the prime criticism against psychoactive substance use would be undermined – if people can know how to do something safely, why shouldn’t we let them? How can we empower people with responsibility in most other facets of their lives, but not this one? Suddenly the conversation is about moralising and not about factual health concerns. Once upon a time we had to push to have the ingredients published on the packets of our food. Is it such a stretch to do it for other consumables?

While working for England’s Home Office’s Drug Advisory Council, Professor David Nutt reported, to his peril, that ecstasy use was less dangerous than horse-riding and that it should be decriminalised. For his efforts he lost his job.

I for one, am proud of his martyrdom because I have seen first-hand what can happen when people with good intentions and a fair degree of sense fall victim to a bad batch of something. We need more people standing up for their evidence-based beliefs and calling out the problems of conservative thinking when they occur.

I implore you, dear reader, to do your own research on this topic, because the evidence is easy to find and in great supply. It has become almost commonplace for retired top police brass to recommend harm minimisation as the most effective strategy for drug-related issues in our society. Whether through hindsight or a newly-found freedom to express what they could not while on the job, they arrived at the same realisation that we all should: drug use is not going away; we need drug testing facilities to save lives, and we need to support people who use drugs with their issues rather than stigmatise them.

How can we reconfigure this perception?

My feeling is that the prevailing sentiment among our festival makers is not hugely courageous. In defence of our festival scene, we can’t really afford to be. Too much controversy can be very damaging or even disastrous to an event group that exists at the grace of Lady Luck each year. Even the largest and most well respected festivals in this country are incredibly vulnerable simply because of the nature of the production, let alone the shifting winds of political and public opinion.

Generally, if a festival organisation’s event is cancelled this spells their doom and they will be bankrupted. Many have been far too close for comfort. The ill-fated Maitreya Festival 2016 is a complex case study in this regard.

To my dismay, this position has caused many festivals to occupy a position of finger pointing as they try to distance themselves from the problematic events of other groups, rather than defending their industry as a robust and fundamentally important part of our society’s steam-release valve that is also economically beneficial, relatively safe, and which encourages positive social behaviours and norms.

So naturally, the weak position of constantly ‘trying to get away with it’ has caused our culture to be cautious in their approach to public issues and policy. Perhaps it also affects the suspicions of local governments when they wonder what kind of light will be shone on their own community.

Studies show that people are rapidly losing faith in their social institutions, and even democracy itself. These statistics are even more damning when analysing the younger cross-section of our society. Now more than ever we need organisations that claim progressive values to embody the ideals they put on their website so they’re not just buzzwords or slogans. Nowadays people can cut through hollow New Age tripe like a hot knife through butter, and if they don’t believe they won’t behave.

We need festival organisations to collaborate in their assertion of legitimacy because otherwise the idea of ‘transformative gathering’ will be co-opted by the only things that can survive an expensive bureaucratic labyrinth: major commercial interests.

By working together and claiming our space we can emancipate the ideas of the party-with-a-purpose, the festival scene, as a socially (or even environmentally!) beneficial core component of a flourishing modern society.

We need individuals to support and defend our celebration industry, particularly our vibrant festival scene. Check your favourite event’s blog, see the difficulties they’ve been facing (if they’re brave enough to admit them) and see if you can help. Even writing a letter has an incredible impact.

Alongside this joint effort, we can stand our ground and fight the false stigma of danger and decadence. The festival industry is in a unique position that can fight with creativity, community, and comfort because it cherishes beauty, it facilitates connection, and it provides a safe space.

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  1. Absolutely spot on, clearly outlines the struggles festivals are having putting on these incredible events. More prohibition isn’s going to change anything, this article makes it plain and simple. When will the government wake up.

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