Big Music Festivals Suck Now, Sorry

todayAugust 24, 2023 5

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A dark photo of a girl holding hand in air at music stage.

Wibbly Woods, 2023. Photo: Izzy Copestake

Grab your wellies, two Tesco bags full of spongy beige food and approximately half a grand – you’re going to a big British festival, baby! Or at least, your mum might be. As ticket prices for larger festivals with big-name artists rise, so have the age of attendees, pricing out the younger, skinter music lovers. Just look at Glastonbury: In 1997 the average party goer of the Radiohead-topped bill was 26, in 2022 it hit a whopping 45. Headliners like Guns N’ Roses make a little more sense now, don’t they?

This hasn’t dampened young people’s desire for a weekend spent untethered from the mundanity of daily life, though – it’s just changed it. Some are increasingly seeing big festivals as money-making machines, vastly removed from what should be at their core: music, mates and three days of anarchy in a muddy field. After all, indulging in care-free chaos is much harder when your Monzo app is intent on reminding you “you’re spending more this monthafter you drop another £15 on a limp chicken burger.

To fight back, more young music lovers are seeking out uncommercialised, intimate weekend festivals to keep the summer madness alive and bask in underground vibes. (Mind you, it’s game over by the time Kate Middleton jumps on the bandwagon, sorry Houghton!) 

DJ and music lover Dom Shrimpling, 21, has been to many small festivals this summer, despite the cost of living crisis. “You can always do small festivals way cheaper, tickets are usually less than £100,” he tells VICE. “You usually hear about them through word of mouth, too, so you’re often not too far away and spend less on petrol.”

A blurry photo of a crowd at a festival, a man. i swearing budgy smugglers.

Wibbly Woods, 2023. Photo: Izzy Copestake

One of Shrimpling’s choices was Wibbly Woods, which welcomed just under 500 festival goers in its third year for a weekend of garage, disco and breakbeat. It’s got everything from art installations in trees to hidden stages at the end of trippy, winding forest paths, but for founder Otto Williams, it’s the intimate size that makes it so special.

“You’re never too far from someone you know, or someone you’ve become friends with over the weekend,” says the 25-year-old. Despite pressures on independent festivals to rapidly expand, Williams and the team aren’t interested in all that. “We’re committed to preserving the authentic and non-commercial nature of Wibbly. Its charm lies in genuine community spirit, we don’t want it to evolve into a massive event.” 

With early bird tickets working out to as little as £22 per day, and the festival’s size making genuine sustainability a far more achievable goal, it’s not hard to see why some young people are turning their back on huge festivals. 

And who says size matters anyway? The nasty elements of big festivals – ones you put up with in the name of saying “I did Boomtown” – melt away when you scale it down. Forget seeing the complete euphoria on a security guard’s face as they find you do, in fact, have four times the allowed 12 cans per person in your bag. Or the dictatorship of the dodgy big festival drug dealer, who can easily sell fake or dangerous drugs with little accountability and crowd anonymity. Crucially, goodbye to the £9 pint. 

Antibodies is another tiny festival whose aim isn’t all about making money. Launched just after the pandemic, in 2021, it’s held in a secret location outside Winchester every year, and in 2023 it purposefully sold as few as 400 tickets. “We’ve had a lot of feedback from people saying it’s one of the best festivals they’ve been to and we think that’s to do with the size and the energy that’s put into every small thing,” co-founder Mori Thompson tells VICE. “A small core group of us run it and we oversee everything. Hopefully, an event that isn’t built around making money makes it more enjoyable to attend.”

There’s also something to be said for low-effort, high-reward fun, which is rare in a world of the exhausting, lengthy ticket buying processes. “There’s something really refreshing about being at a small event with no real stress involved,” says Amy Turner, who’s been a loyal Antibodies attendee since its debut. “Antibodies tickets are cheaper, it’s more affordable when you get there, and the amount of prep involved is lower due to everything being more accessible throughout the festival. It just feels like a more effortless festival experience.”

Not everything is about reducing money and effort, either: “You all group together during the evening sets in the main tent at Antibodies and have this amazing communal experience. You leave feeling part of a friendship group, it’s very special.”

As for the artists, playing to a sea of fans is a huge career milestone, sure, but some performers see small crowds as a return to the truly creative side of the job. DJ Jay Carder has performed on stages from Glastonbury to Boomtown, but believes small festivals are essential to the underground music ecosystem. “Because Wibbly Woods was such a small festival with so many open minded people, I felt able to take risks and take the set to loads of different places,” she says.


Jay Carder (left) at Wibbly Woods, 2023. Photo: Izzy Copestake

Carder insists there’s something very special about the relationship she can form with a smaller crowd. “I’ve noticed that people who particularly enjoyed the set will take time to either come up afterwards, or scout me out on Instagram the following week to share their appreciation for the music,” she continues. “It’s amazing that people have such a genuine interest in the music they’ve heard that they want to find out more after the festival.”

Jonny Tawn, from vinyl-playing house duo Jive Talk, loves the challenge of smaller festivals, too. “Being up close to the crowd gives you more connection, which is important when playing records to people,” he says. “When it’s a massive crowd, it feels like you can just play anything and people will dance, but when it’s smaller you have to work to keep them invested.”

There’s no one-size-fits-all rule when it comes to genre, either. SladesFest, an independently run non-profit festival in Surrey, has a wide collection of live artists and bands performing in aid of mental health charity James’ Place. Dialled In have hosted three packed-out day festivals platforming some serious South Asian talent and creativity, in what Skrillex has described as “one of the most inspiring events I’ve ever been to”.

When it comes to wanting a return to the authentic festival feeling of community for a fraction of the price, it’s just a case of knowing where to look. But with limited resources and pressure to turn a profit, small festival organisers face immense challenges – treading a fine line between being able to fund next year’s intimate weekend party, or growing too rapidly and losing the magic. So next year, why not save a couple of hundred quid and see for yourself that size really doesn’t matter – it’s what’s done with it that counts. 

@izzy_copestake @izztheflashon 

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Written by: Soft FM Radio Staff

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