I never want to go to a festival again, but UK music would be lost without them

<span>Standon Calling, the annual festival in Hertfordshire, has been postponed until 2025.</span><span>Photograph: Matt Eachus/PA</span>
Standon Calling, the annual festival in Hertfordshire, has been postponed until 2025.Photograph: Matt Eachus/PA

I’m talking about music festivals. I can’t abide them and never could, even when I was a fresh-faced goth, with crimped hair, a tummy full of snakebite, and a sweet and trusting heart.

Still, noting that more British festivals have been forced to postpone or cancel, I feel an anxious clawing, not least because this slide has been going on for a while. In 2023, the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) reported that one in six UK festivals had ended since the pandemic, numbers falling from 600 to under 500 (in 2019, government figures counted almost 1,000). Those most under threat are small/mid-size (grassroots) events. Some believe the UK is in danger of losing its status as a live music leader. Hence the unease. Whatever my view of music festivals, what would we do without them?

I’ve paid my hater-dues with festivals. I was there, sneaking through a hedge into an earlyish Glastonbury, only to be overcome by the stench of lager, patchouli, homegrown weed and unwashed prog-fans. As an ungrateful, resentful music hack, I festival-ed everywhere: Reading; T in the Park; European shindigs and more … so many more. One particularly memorable festival experience involved a space-cadet squatting nearby and exuberantly evacuating his bowels. Lovely.

This is the British music industry at its larval stage – where new artists emerge, and all the crew who put on the show

What, I used to ponder, was the point of these gig-themed mega-malls. Faraway stages with bands the size of ants. Overflowing toilets resembling medieval plague pits. Irksome faux-hipsters capering in jester hats. Overpriced veggie-burgers the texture of linoleum. Backstage areas filled with the mud-splattered undead, like Heineken-themed zombie movies. So, imagine my ageing, decrepit joy at leaving my festival-going youth behind. Watching the first post-pandemic Glastonbury on TV, I was surprised to find myself feeling misty-eyed and fond. Then I realised why: I wasn’t there.

This all stands, yet still what’s happening instils a sense of deep cultural dread. There’s not enough space here to go into the myriad reasons festivals are struggling: put simplistically, a gory mix of Brexit, rising costs, skint punters, changing audience tastes, artist-related issues and the aftershocks of the pandemic. Nor does there seem to be a quick fix, though the AIF, and others, make a strong case for a reduction in VAT on ticket sales until the situation improves.

What does seem clear is that festivals, like equally beleaguered live venues, are the pumping aorta of the UK music scene. And never mind the open-air juggernauts, smaller grassroots festivals are arguably the most important of all – a critical component of our cultural ecosystem. This is the British music industry at its larval stage – where new artists emerge, and all the crew who put on the show.

Complacency (lazily gesturing at successful market leaders) isn’t the answer: Glastonbury can’t carry the entire music festival circuit alone. Then there’s the issue of the UK’s global reputation for live music – taken for granted, almost deemed a birthright, but once lost it could take years, if not decades, to recover. To be clear: I never want to go to another festival: just the thought of a laminated pass brings me out in hives. But I still know the importance of a truly live festival culture.

• Barbara Ellen is an Observer columnist