More than just the music

In recent years my music festival experience has changed somewhat.

I have moved on from camping in a tent I was ill-equipped to assemble and once left open for the downpour to flood. My rainbow jumpsuit is now in storage. I no longer spend time coming up with strategic manoeuvres to smuggle contraband alcohol into the site in my gumboots. In the lead up to the event I’m less overtaken by the titillating and exciting sense that anything might happen.

These days I go into music festivals a little more apprehensive and a little more anxious. I drive myself in each day and end the night with a hot shower and the comforts of my own bed. I spend a lot less time yelling directions into my phone and getting confused about whether stage-left is from the point of view of the band or the audience. There's less lining up for beer tickets. And beer. My meticulously prepared festival bag would make McGyver proud.

Despite my experiences over the past ten years having changed quite dramatically, I still love attending music festivals. However, recently I forgot this for a moment.

This last weekend I went along to a festival for predominantly work-related purposes. And in the lead up to the event, I was not all that stoked about going. I felt a bit too “old” to be attending. I complained that everyone would be “wasted and off their heads” and thus obnoxious. I complained that I hardly knew any of the bands on the line-up. I complained that it would probably rain and be muddy. Sorry everyone. I must have been one really annoying princess to be around the last few weeks.

Because it was awesome. And I should have known it was going to be awesome.

Image: @_sbphoto_

There’s something quite special that happens at music festivals. There’s a particular festival culture that exists; one that’s not experienced outside of the festival’s gates, and one that gives us an assortment of very specific, very buoyant feelings.

And the psychological research on this suggests that these feelings are attributed to more than just the music – it’s about the sense of belonging and social integration that’s generated and often continues long after the event.

Australian researchers Packer and Ballantyne (2010) investigated the social wellbeing and psychological benefits of music festival attendance in a sequential, mixed-methods exploratory study.

They reported that people experience senses of engagement and connection at festivals in ways that are not possible in even typical live music concerts. Not only is there much interaction with other attendees, especially in the context of multi-day events, but with artists themselves; the music festival allows for close proximity.

Packer and Ballantyne asked their participants open-ended focus group discussion questions, and qualitative analysis showed that young people attend music festivals for music, festival, social, and separation experiences. Of particular note is the experience of separation; this allows reflection on daily activities, experiences, and oneself, by feeling disconnected from everyday life.

“Music festivals not only provide the opportunity for people to think, feel and behave differently, but also encourage self-reflection and re-evaluation,” Dr Packer said.

George McKay, Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Salford, and expert in festival attendance and behaviour thinks festivals are a compensation for our everyday routine. He says:

"A concentrated hit of social and cultural being, an immersive 24-7 blow-out that makes up for the stresses of city life, precarious employment, the drudge and atomisation of sitting at a screen all day."

Being around people who are of the same mindset, whose primary goal is a good time, can bring us comfort, facilitate a sense of belonging, and give us an all-important sense of “freedom" that makes us feel like we can be ourselves. In fact, music festivals are perhaps one of the only places on earth you can freely be yourself. You can wear what you want, dance like no one's watching, and enjoy a social structure that's much looser and more accepting than it is in the real world. Whether we're dancing alone, singing along to our favorite band with a group of friends or just trying to find a tiny molecule of shade, we're engaging in something larger; with thousands of other like-minded people who are all there to chase the same experience. In a way, we've found our tribe.

Although we remain distinct individuals at festivals, it's easy to adapt a kind of herd mentality in which our voice and actions are just a small part of a larger whole, and that feeling of engagement and contribution can be immensely gratifying. It can also relaxing to get lost in the crowd, to know that you can be both seen and unseen by engaging with the festival as a larger organism.

Secondly, there has been buttloads of research on how music can improve positive emotions, relationships and wellbeing.

In a review for the Australian government, Pascoe and colleagues showed that engaging with music has "benefits in social, emotional, physical, and cognitive domains, and can bring joy to life."

Pascoe suggested that interacting with music has important implications that can span across an individual's lifespan. According to this review, music can improve resilience levels and self-expression, enhance mood, imbue a sense of place, and make someone feel like they belong.

Hooray for music!

Thirdly, the sense of adventure/sense you may also nearly die can end up making you feel pretty good.

A few years back I had the pleasure of being able to attend Glastonbury with another million-odd people. There was one unforgettable experience where we were at the ‘surprise’ Radiohead performance, unable to see the stage, listening to their new stuff. The man to my right was urinating and the man to my left was vomiting. It was pissing down with rain and I find Radiohead's music a tad gloomy. But I was mostly panicking about how I was going to make it down the very steep, mud-soaked hill with the other 200-thousand people en masse without dying. It was a really scary situation at the time. But I really, really felt like I had achieved something when I was back in my rented van having my baby-wipe shower that evening.

There's a well-documented connection between this kind of novel situation and your brain's dopamine-reward system. The more novelty, intrigue and adventure you experience, the more your brain floods with happiness causing hormones like dopamine, and you're left feeling energized, alive and optimistic.

So my sincerest apologies to all those that I complained to over the past few weeks. I forgot that festivals are splendid. I have been reminded. And I will endeavour to continue to remember this.

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