Festival goers just want to break free

Monday 15 March 2010

Why will a record number of more than 500 music festivals take place in the UK this year? Some of the reasons for the rapid growth in the UK music festival and free party scene were showcased at an exciting, interactive multimedia exhibition organised in Bristol as part of the Economic and Social Research Council's (ESRC) Festival of Social Science last week.

Dr Andrew Bengry-Howell, researcher and event organiser says: "More and more people in the UK are turning to music festivals as a place to escape the pressures of everyday life. At the same time, festival goers can enjoy a real sense of belonging with other like-minded enthusiasts. Being able to both break free and belong all in one weekend is a key part of the rapidly increasing popularity of music festival and free parties in the UK."

The three year research project on which the exhibition was based has aimed to explore young people's experiences of music festivals and free parties (similar to festivals but with less or no commercial involvement) and how these experiences are affected by consumption and the presence of marketing and branding.

The Festivals and Free Parties exhibition offered a range of interactive opportunities for visitors to explore what festivals and free parties mean, from the perspective of corporate sponsors in the first instance and more generally for young people. The exhibition included projections of interview extracts, artefacts and photographs collected during fieldwork at festivals around the UK. DJs using a free party sound system recreated a free party experience during the evening event. Unusually, young people who had participated in the research project were also involved in organising the exhibition event and in particular, in documenting the free party scene.

"The event attracted an audience ranging from music festival lovers to those interested in social movements and people concerned by the commercialisation of places where young people spend their time," Dr Bengry-Howell points out.

"On the commercialisation issue," he continues, "our findings suggest that festival goers attach very little importance to the sponsorship they see around them at these events. Indeed, some suggested that the all-pervasive presence of sponsorship in their everyday lives meant that the 'corporate branding' at festivals rather passed them by."

Instead, research reveals that festival goers place enormous emphasis on the temporary escape they enjoy on these occasions from the stresses and strains of daily life. Music festivals provide a valued opportunity for people to 'be themselves', find the person they 'really are' and experience a real sense not only of freedom but also of community with others who share the same values and interests.

"Festivals appear to be on the rise as more people look for an experience out of their everyday lives," Dr Bengry-Howell concludes. "Festival goers suggested that while in everyday life they felt increasing pressure to act in managed and controlled ways, at these music events they could let themselves go and be more themselves. Interestingly, in a time of recession, some people described music festivals as a 'strange and exotic' place to visit that could replace a more expensive holiday abroad."

For further information contact

ESRC Press Office:

Notes for editors

  1. Festivals and Free Parties: a multimedia exhibition
  2. Dr Andrew Bengry-Howell is the Principal Investigator of a three year research project, 'Negotiating managed consumption: young people, branding and social identification processes'. This project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).
  3. The Festival of Social Science is run by the Economic and Social Research Council which runs from 12 to 21 March 2010, alongside National Science and Engineering Week. Events from some of the country's leading social scientists the festival celebrates the very best of British Social Science research and how it influences our social, economic and political lives - both now and in the future. The Festival of Social Science provides insight into research in a variety of formats; from traditional lectures and exhibitions to theatrical performances, film screenings and topical debates. The Festival of Social Science is aimed at a range of different audiences, including policy makers, business, the media, the general public and students of all ages. Press releases detailing some of the varied events are available at the Festival website
  4. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's planned total expenditure in 2009/10 is £204 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.
  5. You can now follow updates from the ESRC on Twitter@ESRC, including new funding calls as they are posted, press releases, events and more.