From Woodstock to Lollapalooza, Reading to Glastonbury, and Rock on the Range to Wacken Open Air, music festivals have a long and colorful history. Once limited to a handful each year, the number of music festivals has been growing exponentially with each passing season. Europe in particular is a hotbed for music festivals, with 169 festivals already scheduled for the summer of 2015 (www.musicfestivaljunkies.com). There’s a festival for every fan. Smaller festivals attract a few thousand fans while the larger festivals such as Rock in Rio and Coachella are bursting with around 700,000 people. The largest music festival is Donauinselfest in Austria, which attracts millions (yes, MILLIONS) of people annually.
As a lover of music, I have always most appreciated watching gritty rock, blues, and metal bands in small, intimate venues where the energy heaves between the musicians and the audience. I would have never suspected that I would come to appreciate festivals just as much as the bars and rock clubs. But in July 2014, I traveled to the U.K. for two music festivals in three days.
The U.K. offers music fans so many festivals that during the heat of summer, several run concurrently, sometimes making it difficult for fans to choose between them. This was certainly the case for us last summer. We chose to spend two days at the three-day Sonisphere festival in Knebworth so that we could spend one day at another festival in London. Sonisphere is a “touring rock festival” which has taken place in several locations across Europe each year since 2009. It’s on the small side, with roughly 60,000 people attending the festival each day.
Getting to a festival can be challenging. With tens of thousands of people converging on one location, one has to work out the logistics ahead of time. Unless you live close by, securing a place to sleep should be your first task. Accommodations near festival locations start booking up fast, and in some cases, the rates incrementally increase as the festival approaches. Sonisphere offered camping on the festival site. This option has its pros and cons. Camping on site removes the headaches around transportation, and when it’s the wee hours of the morning and you’re exhausted, you don’t have far to go to reach your tent. It may also be less costly than other accommodations. However, a benefit can also be a deterrent. You’re right there at the festival… but you’re right there at the festival. I’m told that means there is no respite from the noise, the dirt, or the drunken fans. It also means sharing toilets with thousands of fellow fans for an entire weekend. After weighing our options, we chose a hotel in nearby Baldock, where we enjoyed a comfortable bed, electricity, and our own hot shower. But I’m intrigued by festival camping and may partake in the future.
Travel to and from the festival site may be a struggle. In our case, the festival site was out of the way, and walking to and from the train wasn’t realistic. This meant paying, sometimes exorbitant, cab fare back and forth to the festival site. Driving to the festival is an option but parking can be a hassle, depending on the location.
The Festival Experience
My first view of Sonisphere was large open fields and a sky covered in rain clouds. We were warned to wear boots due to the rain and mud that’s common to Knebworth. My guy heeded the warning and wore sturdy boots, and I wore flip flops. If you don’t mind dirt on your feet, flip flops aren’t so bad for walking through festival mud. However, they aren’t so great at protecting one’s feet from a jostling crowd of fans jumping up and down to Metallica. They also don’t do much when one has to trek to the toilets. At Sonisphere, the portable toilets were adjacent to water spigots where people constantly filled water bottles and washed off dirt, leaving a lake of mud leaching away from the area. I’m fine with good, clean mud. I’m not so fine with wading through muck containing bodily fluids and other unknown matter. My advice? Wear some sturdy boots, or at least some Wellies, to protect your feet from the muck.
I’d always heard that festival food is terrible, but the food at the few festivals I’ve attended has been quite good. Though always over-priced, there’s a pretty good selection, even for someone like me who is intolerant to certain ingredients. Sonisphere offered all sorts of things, from typical fried fair goodies to paleo and vegan options. Of course, in the U.K., even food from an all-night gas station is tasty.
For me, the most difficult part of festival going is exposure to the elements. Depending on what part of the world you visit, you may need to be prepared for sun, rain, heat, wind, and cold. As someone with fair skin, the sun is my nemesis so I always pack sunblock and a hat. At Sonisphere, we also had to contend with bouts of rain and chilly evenings. This means smart packing. Preparing for a festival requires a sensitive balance between being prepared and packing light. I don’t want to carry a heavy bag around all day, but I also don’t want to hear the chattering of my teeth over the music after the warmth of the sun fades. Individual needs will dictate what you should bring, but stay as light as you can. Pour some sunblock into a smaller travel container instead of bringing a whole tube. Pack one of those plastic rain ponchos that fold into a tiny square instead of an umbrella. Believe me, you’ll appreciate these opportunities to save ounces after you’ve been on your feet jumping around in a crowd for 10 hours.
Another part of festivals that can be difficult is the standing. If you choose to be an active participant in front of a stage, you’ll be standing most of the day. The crowds at festivals are huge, particularly at the main stages, so if you want to get close enough to see the band (not on the monitors) you’ll need to claim your spot early. Standing near the front of the crowd means standing shoulder to shoulder with a gazillion like-minded fans. It gets hot and tight. Admittedly, my guy and I only did this a couple of times at Sonisphere. It takes time and dedication to be at the front of the pack when the band opens their set. While waiting for Iron Maiden to open on Saturday, we managed to get fairly close to the stage, but it required being there hours ahead, and listening to another band that we didn’t enjoy all that much. While waiting for the show to start, many of us took turns sitting on the ground among a sea of legs to take a rest. This was an unexpectedly awesome experience. There is a false sense of calm and security sitting below everyone, gazing out through legs as far as you can see.
It’s Worth It
Despite the challenges, festivals are an awesome experience. At a music festival, you’re with thousands and thousands of people who traveled for a similar purpose. It’s a pilgrimage of sorts, with people of different ages, backgrounds, and lifestyles coming together for one common experience. While at Sonisphere, I met people from other corners of the world. We talked about the bands, our experiences in the U.K., and what it’s like back home. We shared advice about where to eat and what to see, and sometimes we exchanged contact information or connected on social media sites.
It’s also an opportunity for growth of sorts. Traveling to a place I hadn’t been and surviving long days in the elements with little sleep tested my boundaries in a good way. I pushed through the uncomfortable to reach the ecstatic, creating a memorable experience in the process. There’s nothing like being part of a crowd of people like that at a music festival. The energy carries you, and in the moment, the music is everything. I can’t wait to do it again.
What’s your favorite music festival memory? Share it in the comments below.