have some festivals sold their soul?

bursting the O2 bubble

published: Mon 26th Jun 2006

Wednesday 21st to Sunday 25th June 2006
Hyde Park, London, W2 2UH, England MAP
£37.50 for each day
last updated: Wed 10th May 2006

I try not to be a cynical person. I really do. Especially when it comes to the mainstream music business. So, those of you scoffing at your screens right now - the oh-so-überchilled ones who believe clinching a major corporate record deal tops cheese-grating your whole head in the ‘shite stuff’ stakes - please take a precious minute to examine the evidence.

Gone are the days of colour-coded girl bands twatting around on TV-sponsored scooters. Now, the only manufactured elements of the smooth, Armani suited boy bands are their hip replacements. Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed the dust is starting to gather on that secret poster of the rock band with the prominent soft drinks. A brand new flavour, too. It’s not even retro-cool anymore, it’s just embarrassing, right? Even those naughty little gun-toting bling hoarders are being told off by Tories.

The music business is throwing a garland around the neck of its commercial element and making it dance into a new pink period of music for music’s sake. In the flash of those last promo photos, the record dons hark back to Dylan. No one seems interested in how many adverts the new Cowell Idol can muscle into in one prime time slot. The industry has flowers in its hair, laying down its backing dancers and aiming its guitars and tambourines at The Man once more. Or so it seems.

Just when I was waltzing across these new waves of music paradise towards a Sandi Thom-filled universe, a wise friend cautioned me. What was I really buying into? Could the mighty music men simply lay down their hats and profits to the free spirit of pirate downloads? To see if this world had finally turned, one acid test remained: could I believe that these reborn hippies had organised the O2 Wireless Festival in Hyde Park? Hmmm...

The first signs were encouraging. The hazy Friday afternoon had drawn a vaguely rebellious crowd. Giddy teenagers hid their cider cans from the roaming police mob on the outskirts of the advert-free walls. Rough-edged middle-aged men had bunked off work and looked for a shady spot to roll their funny ciggies. Yet I soon realised that their ill-kempt mops of hair had hidden a heaving squirm of fake-tanned, Pimms-saturated thirtysomethings who were drawn in droves to the third day of this festival.

A gargantuan tent was plastered in the toro rosso of everyone’s favourite energy drink. I couldn’t help this being my first glimpse of the festival. No one could. This did not dampen my desire for pure music, though. Surely I could need a taurine boost to keep me swaying to the revolutionary spirit I expected to encapsulate me. The prices seemed possibly too figure-laden at a quick glance... but everyone needs to keep the wolves from the door somehow, don‘t they? I could tell you all about a new brand of medium white wine, too. Nice young ladies were thrusting samples and fliers everywhere. It was free. How nice of them. Then, what looked like the scalp of a massive golf ball drew my attention suddenly.

Could this be the tent where I was to find the music commune that would prove all the doubters wrong? I bounded over enthusiastically... but I couldn’t enter this particular area unless my mobile telephone reception was managed by a certain network. Everywhere I turned in this corner of the park offered a similar trade off. My silly mistake, I suppose, and how rude to have to disappoint my wonderful hosts like that. I tried to grab a bite to eat to sturdy myself before the real soul-searching began, but the queue for the gourmet burgers was still too long by the time the music had kicked into gear.

Now I know what you’re thinking. I’m being far too faux-flippant to make any wholesome point here. I am being completely unrealistic to think that such a festival could survive if it was any other way. It’s a business, that’s the way it is and I should deal with it... and how I tried, oh, how I tried. Yet while I was sure all the advertisements were made from ethically sourced material and all, alas, the corporate cracks of the soulful sheen I had hoped for emerged in the music too. Mr. Pharrell Williams repeatedly informed the crowds of his undoubtedly measured and unbiased conclusion that his particular record label was the motherfucking greatest in the world. And that everyone needed to buy his new album. I know he is no hippy, but his self-promotion was undeniably crass. Also, Sway couldn’t grasp that his supposedly ironic take on shopping in Harvey Nichols only served to reaffirm its grand status to his particular audience. I was hardly surprised by the time that headliners Massive Attack emerged into the dim light that their pathetic ‘political’ interjections were as empty as the branded litter that was strewn so close to Speaker’s Corner, an emblem of a long lost time when those who spoke out generally served less selfish intentions.

The one delirious blaze of hope I took from the evening was an hour of The Flaming Lips, who alone drew most of the main stage audience’s attention from the incessant adverts on the big screens above. Streamers teemed in the sky like dancing spider rainbows and confetti showered amidst the feel-good sounds of the Lips. As Wayne Coyne descended from what seemed like the heavens in his psychedelic rock-orb, everyone wanted to keep him floating. A couple of Scientology aliens became engaged on stage before the masses launched into a wholehearted rendition of 'Do You Realise'. This special blend of magical mayhem was the way music was meant to be performed, I was sure. The sight of the bubble-bound Coyne had me believing this to the core... until I was stuck by another bubble... on the head. Our hosts had decide get in on the act by branding a set of identical plastic spheres with their prominent logo and forcing them upon the crowd, who had slightly less fun than with these than with Mr. Coyne, I am also sure. This tasteless hijack was soon copied by a vodka brand. Surprise, surprise. I’m sure it was all in the name of ‘fun’, but it could not fail to burst my own potential bubble of a new music business that cared at least a bit about the people it attracted rather than using them for their wallets.

As those who had had enough by dusk traipsed off to the gates, a couple scurried past. “Debbie, this is madness”, said the wizened man. I’m sure I’ll never meet Debbie again, but at least I am comforted by the knowledge that I must not be the only person who is saddened by the fact that this industry will always be as uncompromising as ever when it wants your money. Unfortunately, it pays to be cynical here.

article by Marc McLaughlin

Wednesday 21st to Sunday 25th June 2006
Hyde Park, London, W2 2UH, England MAP
£37.50 for each day
last updated: Wed 10th May 2006

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