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Unknown pleasures

Tom Ravenscroft on what to look forward to at this summer's music festivals.

By Tom Ravenscroft

I may be about to put myself out of a lot of potential work by announcing that festival season is on the horizon – the busiest and most lucrative period for almost anyone who works in the music biz – and that . . . I’m not sure how much I like it. Festivals fill me with dread a little. There are so many in the UK now, ranging from small parties held in the gardens of the parents of bored rich boys to huge, rather soulless affairs organised by multinational companies that have no interest in music but rather enjoy selling you stuff.

Given their sheer numbers, there must by now be a festival perfectly suited for everyone in the country – there’s probably even one called Tom in a Field and yet I still can’t find one that’s the perfect fit for me. The music is either too mainstream or too pretentious and the festival-goers are either too cool or not quite cool enough. The emphasis on good food and clean, ethical living and the excitement evoked by the word “shower” would make sense if we were planning on living there for the rest of our lives. I used to comfort myself with the thought that no one is really enjoying himself at any festival but just pretending to because everyone hates a party pooper.

In much the same way as I don’t like watching films with large groups of people, I think I prefer listening to music in smaller numbers. There is also the issue of sound: the bigger the stage, the worse the sound seems to get. A slight gust of wind and, as at a festival I once attended on the Spanish coast, the only person who gets to hear the songs is a fisherman three miles out to sea. (I’m sure he liked the Wooden Shjips and was grateful for their accompaniment to his daily toil.)

In recent years, however, something has changed. The larger, more commercial festivals have become the musical equivalents of gossip mags, spitting out drivel at a billion watts into the faces of ripped-off teenagers. As a result, the variety of acts elsewhere has greatly improved. It is slowly removing my years of scepticism and is perhaps even creating a drop of excitement (so, this is what it feels like).

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Listening habits have changed considerably: most people are no longer just being fans of, say, indie or techno, but pick bits they love out of an expanding range of genres. Festivals are increasingly representing this and, in doing so, are also reflecting my tastes better than they ever did.

To some degree, it isn’t about festival programmers putting on things you like, but about them having the courage to put on acts you might hate. Audiences don’t have to like everything they see over a weekend, but should be given the opportunity to discover something that’s fresh and unexpected. It’s that possibility of stumbling across your new favourite band that had disappeared a bit from the scene, with too much emphasis on buzz bands of the day or nostalgic acts you felt the need to tick off as “have seen”. The Field Day festival in east London is a good example: despite its ability to house briefly almost all of London’s twits, it packs into a single day a hugely diverse collection of noises. There are many acts I have no idea about and some I suspect I won’t like.

This summer, I am looking forward to see-ing Bob Log III, Fools Gold, C W Stoneking, Health, SBTRKT, Jon Hopkins, Ducktails, Emeralds and the Horrors – but looking forward even more to the list of new acts I hope to have heard at the end of it. Music is rather brilliant at the moment and there is frankly more than one can possibly get through, so it can be frustrating when you see the same acts everywhere you go; it’s a waste of all the talent out there. I hope things carry on in this vein – who knows, perhaps in the next couple of years a few organic food stalls might have been converted into stages for badly rehearsed drone bands from Long Melford. I’ll stop now – I’m sorry to go on, but I don’t get out much.