Why “Ethical” Music Festivals Might Not Work

There are more music festivals in the world than you can count. In the UK alone, 1,070 were held in 2015. And given that most festivals have to be held during a tight four(ish) month window, concert-goers only have so much money and that there’s a finite number of acts willing and/or able to play these festivals, competition is ugly. How can promoters make their festivals stand out? What unique selling point can they use to get fans to choose their festival or another?

Here’s an idea: an ethical festival where the whole thing as positioned as being eco-friendly, friendly to humans of all sexes and orientations, one free of corporate corruption and where the money goes to worthy causes like disease eradication, poverty awareness programs, animal welfare and providing baby kittens to shut-in seniors.

Here’s another idea: this may not work. In fact, it probably won’t.

Professor Todd Green of Brock University, Julie Tinson of the University of Stirling and Gary Sinclair took a look at the concept of ethical music festivals and came away somewhat…discouraged.

[M]usic and the arts are often presumed to be a powerful vehicle in which to advocate social responsibility because of music’s capacity to move us. There is a long history of live music events that seem to be testament to this, from the performances of the famous 19th-century opera singer Jenny Lind, who gave much of her proceeds to charity, to more recent events, such asBand Aid’s campaign to tackle famine and global poverty. Such examples demonstrate the power of live music to raise money and awareness for social issues.

But a question that has been rarely asked, particularly in academic research, is what the music fan/consumer thinks about the use of music events to promote socially responsible causes. Is music as suitable a vehicle for this as is generally presumed?

This is a question that myself and colleagues Todd Green (Brock University) and Julie Tinson (University of Stirling) asked in recent research. Our findings suggest that music fans have inconsistent levels of awareness, interest and support when it comes to socially responsible engagement in the music industry. We conducted 22 qualitative interviews that averaged 54 minutes with festival-goers from multiple cities across the UK and Ireland who represented a diverse population in terms of gender, age, and income level.

While many were able to identify “socially responsible” artists and events such as Bono and Glastonbury, they were unlikely to be able to elaborate in any detail how such artists and events were deemed to be this way, what particular causes they engaged with, or what charities they promoted.

It was also apparent that the participants only focus on socially responsible (or irresponsible) aspects of live music was if it directly impacted their own experience. While the value that comes with associating oneself with a socially responsible event was recognised, in general motivations such as price, quality of the music and convenience of the venue were deemed much more important.

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Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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