How do you make festivals a melting pot rather than a bubble?

Fans raise their hands at a festival concert.
Two festival-goers sit on the ground having fun in a festival tent during Lowlands 2023.
ANP / Hollandse Hoogte / Joris van Gennip

What are festival organisers doing to make their events a place for everyone? This is what Britt Swartjes (Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication) investigated in her dissertation. The interviews she conducted show that many organisers are very aware of this issue and working to address it. Notably, there appears to be a strong correlation between musical genres and audience groups. At the same time, the research shows that the organisations themselves tend to be quite insular and often (still) lack diversity.

Blijdorp Festival, Motel Mozaïque and Rotterdam Unlimited: just a small sample of the diverse festival offerings in Rotterdam. But what are festivals actually doing to promote diversity and inclusion? That is the key question in Britt Swartjes' doctoral research. She interviewed organisers — ranging from directors to interns — and attended numerous festivals, where she shadowed photographers and others. "There is often an assumption that festivals by their very nature offer a collective and social experience, functioning as a kind of safe space. But that doesn't happen by itself. How do you go from an empty field to a vibrant spot where people come together? And what are the underlying processes? I'm curious about that."

The average festival-goer is unaware of what goes into organising such an event and the fact that nothing is left to chance. The interviews revealed that diversity and inclusion are important topics, which are often given careful consideration. This is reflected in things like marketing, ticket prices and decor, but also whether you hold your festival in the Zuiderpark or the Vroesenpark. And, of course, the artists you want to book: "One thing that struck me during the interviews is that there is a strong tendency to think in terms of genres and specific audiences. I kept hearing 'Techno is for young people and house is for old people, hip-hop attracts a black audience and singer-songwriters draw a white crowd.'"

Portrait of Britt Swartjes

Groups mix, but sometimes clash

At the same time, many festival organisers, such as Rotterdam Unlimited and Blijdorp Festival, feel it is important to create spaces where groups that do not normally interact can mix. "They think about how different groups move around the venue and might, for instance, intentionally book two completely different artists one after the other on the main stage", she says. While clashes between groups are thankfully rare, organisers are well aware of the risks and sometimes scale-up their security accordingly. "One organiser described dealing with a brawl between EDM fans and urban music fans. Then you have to start thinking about ways to prevent that kind of conflict."

Who do you put in the picture?

The run-up to festivals also involves thinking about how to reach different audiences through marketing. And thinking about who you show in promotional videos or in photos on social media. When children are welcome, for example, you want to trigger parents with pictures of children playing. Swartjes followed a number of photographers during festivals. "To a really large extent, they choose their subjects based on standing-out. At a rock festival, for example, I spoke to a photographer who deliberately photographed a black boy wearing a wolf mask. They’re painting a picture that is more diverse than the festivals actually are. But at the same time, this is also seen as a way to coax newcomers into attending."

ANP/Paul Bergen

Organisations often insular

So, while diversity and inclusion are receiving a lot of attention, the PhD student's research shows that the organisations behind festivals tend to be closed-off bastions. It's a real man’s world where you have to know people in order to get in. Swartjes interviewed numerous interns and the resulting conversations were sometimes quite intense. "Some of them were just completely disenchanted with the festival industry. Women in particular reported that the culture did not suit them. They felt it was too competitive, for example, and that the culture glorified taking big risks."

Blind spot remains

So, while festivals are very concerned with attracting diverse audiences, they are struggling to do the same in their own organisations. Swartjes finds this disappointing. "You run the risk of developing a blind spot, and if the same people stay in one place for a long time, then you’re also preserving that blind spot", she explains. In short, the industry still has a long way to go — but at the same time, the researcher sees a growing awareness. "When I presented the paper on organisational culture to festival organisers, they admitted that their world is quite insular. Nobody reacted defensively."

For Swartjes, the research had the nice side effect of allowing her to attend numerous festivals — although due to the COVID pandemic, it wasn’t nearly as many as she would have liked. The data collection period was extended by two years so she could make the rounds at the first 'normal' festival season post-pandemic. "I can't just attend a festival as a civilian anymore", she jokes. "I am very aware of the audience and who is on which stage, and then I start to think about what prompted the organisation’s decisions. While I’ll never entirely stop looking through that lens, fortunately you also learn to turn it off occasionally."

PhD student
More information

On Friday 31 May 2024, B. Swartjes will defend the doctoral thesis titled: ‘Making (a) Difference: A sociological account of music festival work and production‘.

Related content
What is the role of the festival organizer in creating a space where people meet others? That was the focus of a recent study by Britt Swartjes and Pauwke
Woman on someone's shoulders enjoying a festival
Making (a) Difference: A sociological account of music festival work and production
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