Pop music could be so much more than leisure: it could be the place where belonging, engagement, and community begin to acquire a programmatic shape. We need a reclamation of an alternative culture where music isn't driven by profit.
In a subtle and wide-ranging piece for openDemocracy last week, Niki Seth-Smith drew attention to the proliferation of “boutique festivals” in the UK, arguing that they answer to a “profound longing: for belonging, engagement, and community”.
This is accurate, I think, and Seth-Smith does a much better job than I could of applying – with some perceptive caveats – the argument of my book Folk Opposition to the vogue for Secret Garden utopianism. In Folk Opposition, I interpreted the rise of nu-folk pop music and the peculiar form of pastoralism we now see embodied in the boutique festival trend as a cultural expression of the neoliberal wealth gap. I suggested that, at the same time as the British working class has become socially and economically marginalised under Thatcher-Blair-Cameron, a haute bourgeois myth of grassroots Englishness has come to stand in for genuine populism, and for the more authentically egalitarian folk cultures of days gone by (and before anyone comments, yes, I know Nick Drake was posh, I know “authenticity” is a problematic term, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that Sixties revivalists like Bert Jansch and The Watersons were at least in some sense more authentic than Laura Marling and Noah and the Whale).
I don’t really have much to add to Seth-Smith’s useful evolution of this particular discussion. Rather, I’d like to apply another turn of the screw: if the yearning for belonging, engagement, and community is currently misdirected, how might we redirect it? After the diagnosis of these negative trends, how about a prognosis for an affirmative response?
Amid the neo-feudalism and profiteering of the festival circuit, Seth-Smith discerns an “in-between”, a “something that may escape”, a “Jester spirit that once liberated may slip from the grasp to work its mischiefs”. This is an intriguing suggestion. In capitalist societies, the seeds of opposition can be found in unlikely quarters; at the same time as workers and radicals are organising themselves into movements behind political change, from Shelley to Ruskin to Tolstoy there have always been wealthy aesthetes and maverick aristocrats willing to use their privilege and sheer excess of space to experiment with utopian schemes and provide a testing ground for projects that would be unimaginable for the poor and landless.
Being mindful of the historical precedents for what we might term radical patricianism, we shouldn’t underestimate the potential of what Seth-Smith calls (with perhaps a hint of exaggeration) our present-day “struggling gentry”. Could it be that the boutique festivals are acting as a sort of modern revival of the late-nineteenth century atmosphere of idealistic philanthropy and Arts and Crafts-style proto-socialism initially sponsored by the rich? Are such top-down ventures a premonition – perhaps even a precondition – of bottom-up reform?
In a society as elitist as ours has become, noblesse oblige may indeed have a part to play in combating the neoliberal pandemic of radical self-interest and avarice. However, the well-meaning projects of our more socially-aware nouveau (and not so nouveau) aristocrats must be a marginal tendency rather than a centrifugal force in popular culture. We have to remain determinedly angry about the lack of an alternative to the country house indie model. What is difficult to accept is that, in the space of a few decades, a once cogent counter-cultural infrastructure has been dismantled and replaced with an upper-middle-class leisure industry, one that will probably always, in the final instance, reflect the interests and values of its core demographic of affluent city-dwellers yearning for a weekend of fancy dress and frolics in the countryside. For every good-intentioned idealist in the new pastoral throng, there is a legion of consumers for whom a music festival is a combination of package holiday and fashion parade. As Paul Morley suggested in an appearance on The Review Show in 2010, going to Glastonbury is the twenty-first century equivalent of going to Ascot. It’s certainly very nearly as expensive.
There may be some buried potential in the pastoral utopianism of nu-folk and boutique festivals then (particularly in the more explicitly radical, “DIY” experiments), but with our live music scene, as with so many areas of British society at this juncture, it seems clear that we must look for a total overhaul of the system rather than relying on the gradualist fantasies of the nobility and the conscionable bourgeoisie.
What we desperately need at this juncture is a reclamation of an alternative culture that now has very few places to exist in outside of 02 Academies and Carling Weekenders and Barclaycard Mercury Music Prizes and iPod adverts and Skins soundtracks. We need venues and networks and websites and movements and ideals that extend further than the gardens of the gentry and exist in more permanent forms than weekend campsites that are forgotten by the following Friday. What we need now is an almost piece-by-piece reconstruction from the bottom up of an oppositional counterculture. And from the off, what must be refused admission at the gates is capitalism: the idea that any given venture should be motivated by profit, or serve the interest of music industry trends, or offer an excuse for lifestyle hedonism that reduces pop music to high-end cabaret.
We need to institute and nurture a strong anti-corporate culture in every city and every town in Britain, a pop avant-garde that is integrated with our everyday lives and isn’t a mere holiday romance. We need to multiply the music venues in which interesting, challenging, aberrant music is able to flourish free from an obsession with attracting industry attention and playing up to a Topshop fantasy of vintage cool. We need more raves (ie. boutique festivals organised by ordinary people), more manifestos, more co-operative parties and musical occupations of public spaces. We need to bury faux-indie: the idea that an independent scene can survive solely with the support of Zane Lowe and an NME that alternates coverage of Mumford and Sons with nostalgic retrospectives of Bowie, John Lennon, and Oasis. We need bands and artists to start to refuse to be involved with the more obviously compromised, corporate-sponsored wings of the music industry.
It’s fine to begin dreaming the new alternative culture in the fields of the British countryside, but we need to make these dreams burgeon into a political vision that recognises just how bad art has become under late capitalism, and sets about implementing concrete plans for a fight back. Pop music could be so much more than leisure: it could be the place where belonging, engagement, and community begin to acquire a programmatic shape, one more profoundly radical than a vague longing for a secret garden in a fairytale wood.