Why we need informal events

(A guest post by James Woudhuysen). Why are music festivals now so popular? Where are they headed?

Music festivals are part of a wider trend for people to find value in live entertainments that are not mass-produced or tightly structured like a Premier League match or a stadium concert. Today’s popular quest for authenticity bodes well for such informal events. In balloon launches or a pop-up Japanese cultural festival in Leeds, people now gain not just recreation or relief from the virtual world of screens, but also a real and tangible chance to find meaning and social solidarity.

Yet informal events face problems. From licences for lap-dancing clubs to the spread of local authority Public Spaces Protection Orders, worries now attend every kind of casual gathering. Plays in theatres have been closed down for causing ‘offence’. Music festivals are charged with mass sexual harassment, and Glastonbury with not featuring enough women headliners. Last, a prominent events lawyer believes that the state may come to insist on events fulfilling ‘public health’ duties. Given that Public Health England isn’t content just with encouraging walking, cycling and ‘sustainable sexual health choices’, but issues daily edicts on alcohol, smoking and diet, we can expect trampolining, condoms and bans on sugar to be among the demands made of informal events in years to come.

In Britain arbitrary, technocratic and elitist double standards now surround the regulation of events. Drunken mass brawls at Ascot, for instance, do not prevent upmarket horse races from getting licences; but even a House of Commons committee recently warned of a need ‘to ensure that urban music acts are not unfairly targeted’ by local authorities and the police.

In the face of all this, we need to assert that free assembly and free expression in culture are, like free speech, rights fundamental to democracy.

Informal events form a significant source of UK jobs and exports. They could play a big part in reviving British high streets. Yet they face not just prejudice, but also outdated and illiberal regulations. The archaic 2003 Licensing Act runs to no fewer than 75,000 words. To hold a festival or a club night, and to sell booze there, one must not only pay licensing fees, but also fill out a 132-page Premises Licence Application; write out how the four Objectives of the 2003 Act – around crime, safety, nuisance and the protection of children from harm – will be promoted; give detailed plans for the event’s layout, and get a consent form signed by a person responsible for the daily management of the relevant premises.

With all this bureaucracy forming a barrier to informal events, it’s no wonder that more than a few local authority councillors have become adept at gaming the Licensing Act. Too often, these killjoys don’t so much respond democratically to genuine local grievances as pander, in the hopes of re-election, to the prejudices of a few vociferous residents.

That’s a great pity. It is a particularly dishonest way of repressing popular culture. Why? Because any serious analysis of statistics in the UK shows that fears about safety and crime at informal events are rarely justified.

Take music festivals again. Given that nearly 3000 will be held in the UK in 2019, we can suppose that perhaps 30million visits a year will soon be made to such events. Now suppose that, in the course of a year, a dreadful, record-breaking six deaths occur at them. That, of course, would be six too many; but the total would also represent just one death in every 5million festival visits. It would be ridiculous to generalise, from such figures, that music festivals ‘lead to’ murder, or to lethal over-doses of alcohol or drugs.

We can’t let officialdom perpetuate such myths. No matter how much we may dislike bad behaviour at leisure events, our duty is to keep a cool head, build tolerance, and insist on people resolving their differences around – but without calling in lawyers or the police. If we don’t do this, music festivals will not be the only kind of informal event to face more and more challenges in future.

Me, I’ve never cared for Glastonbury. But now that fear of The Crowd is growing throughout British society, it’s time to take a stand in favour of every kind of event. Too often, the 2003 Licensing Act allows event organisers to be done down by recalcitrant busybodies. Reform of the Act is needed, so that we can all relax and enjoy ourselves.

Is that too much to ask?

Professor James Woudhuysen is author of the new White Paper, The Political Economy of Informal Events, 2030. It is available here.