New formats for festivals, merging smaller crowds with larger virtual programmation, may be the key to offer accessibility to all music enthusiasts. Through the stories of festival goers with disabilities preventing them from attending events, Natálie Zehnalová gives us perspective on a lasting positive impact the crisis may bring.

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Author: Natálie Zehnalová

Picture Credit: Maurice Mikkers

The extended festival-free season has seen many people reminiscence of sweaty festival crowds, slow queues and spilt beverages with a nostalgic sadness. But does the future hold the capacity for mammoth events with a massive carbon footprint that have long constituted the prototypical image of a music festival? The involuntary halt offers an opportunity to consider what kind of festivals do we want to attend when it is possible again, whatever the exact date that will be.

Forced to alter their working processes, organizers succeeded at taking their events online and expanded the options of on-screen entertainment with various digital formats ranging from niche festivals to major showcases and branded mainstream events. Digital gatherings have shown that navigating a game-like environment can be an entertaining way to experience music and interact with other attendees.

AR and VR technologies open up exciting possibilities – in some genres, digitally enhanced performances might even work better than a traditional concert setting. While most festival-goers agree that digital events cannot qualitatively replace an in- person experience and will readily take their leisure time off-screen as soon as it is safe, integrating digital formats and tools into in-person events might help address two issues the festival industry will have to tackle going forward: sustainability and accessibility.

Unsound NYC @ We are Europe
Unsound NYC © Unsound

Festivals across Europe have developed sustainable strategies over the past years and attempt to reduce environmental damage by various available means. They are switching to ecological energy sources, increasing the amount of sorted waste, using recycled materials, serving organic food, and offsetting their impact by donating to environmental organisations.

Flow Festival in Finland managed to reduce its carbon footprint to 272 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) at its last edition in 2019 and fully offset the amount that equals to return flights of 317 passengers travelling between Helsinki and Bangkok. But despite such efforts, enormous energy consumption, air pollution and waste production continue to be the reality of major cultural events. Added to that are travel emissions, as performers and crew, visitors and workers need to get to the site, with open-air events also causing noise and light pollution and vegetation trampling.

Loud noise and flickering light also pose a challenge for Clare McAfee. Clare began developing symptoms of Visual Snow Syndrome in her thirties, including light sensitivity, tinnitus and balance issues, and static in vision. “Things like bright lighting make me pretty dizzy, as does loud music, which is a problem, since I love music, and loud! I do find the prospect of going to a gig quite daunting since I don’t know how my body will react“, she tells me.

She can cope with the photophobia and tinnitus, but the dizziness can be tough. Clare is nonetheless determined to equip herself with dark sunglasses and earplugs, take a fair dose of Valium and anti-nausea pills and give festivals a try when they return.

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TodaysArt © Maurice Mikkers

Outdoor summer festivals are challenging for Francesca Baker, who has anorexia, because it gets too cold sleeping on the ground, and the food can be tricky. Like Clare, she is not too keen on virtual events and, despite challenges, plans on attending festivals in the future. For others, however, attending in person is not up for consideration.

People who are homebound gained unprecedented access to live culture, discussions and workshops with the proliferation of digital events and hope they will not lose it again when others switch back to attending in-person. The pandemic is likely to increase the numbers of people with long term or chronic health issues who would benefit from better accessibility and digital access options.

Reducing crowd size and implementing technological solutions could help create a safer environment for everyone: Imagine a festival area organized to prevent congestion and easy to navigate, with designated calm zones providing shelter from the abundance of various stimuli.

There is a band playing live, and you can choose to watch the performance in the crowd gathered in front of the stage. At the backside, there is a screen where you can sit down and watch the musicians in close-up, listening to the live audio. Other musicians might choose to stream their performance from their home studio or whatever unusual location, while some projects only exist virtually.

Every show is at the same time live-streamed for people who purchased digital-only tickets. Both virtual and in-person visitors can log on to a chatting platform, move around the festival area as avatars and talk to one another.

Le Sucre @ We are Europe
Le Sucre (Lyon) © Gaetan Clement

Expanding into virtual realms would help reduce crowd sizes present on site while at the same time maintaining attendance numbers and thereby profits. Virtual attendees will not be buying food and drinks, but they might be willing to spend their cash on exclusives such as virtual backstage access, artist meet-and-greets, limited merch, or festival edition artist packs with sounds and templates for fans to play around with.

Special filters and virtual badges can serve as proof of attendance in place of traditional selfies or photo booth pictures. Speaking at the Eurosonic Noordeslag conference, industry expert Mark Mulligan stressed that instead of trying to imitate a regular concert, live streams need to offer a new kind of experience. How exactly should such events look like is a debate we need to have.

Organising a festival in some hybrid format would undeniably come with its own challenges. It would, moreover, require letting go of the romanticised idea of festivals many visitors hold dear, but that seems inevitable in the face of the climate crisis and numbers of people with health and mental health conditions increasing.

Hybrid formats would not only open the festival experience to more people, but it would also make festivals more flexible and adaptable to all sorts of disruptions – be it severe weather conditions or the next disease outbreak.

This article was conceived as a result of our first call for contributions that aimed to address the challenges and changes that festivals and cultural entities may face in the future. Thanks to the contributions we received, we were able to create the Future(s) of Festivals feature series, that this article is a part of. We’re open to new proposals for our next call for contributions, available here.

On the author

Natálie Zehnalová is a freelance culture journalist and translator based in Berlin.

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