Brewers' Droop

SZA reports on how the UK’s once anarchic festival circuit has become dominated by brewery conglomerates and big business.


Dance music is the soundtrack to predictable events that are little more than a chance for the clubbed-to-death generation to get some fresh air. Same regulations, same security, same feeling of being ripped off at every turn. Same audio mediocrity as the so-called Superclubs. “Are fields the new clubs?” asked a Mixmag frontpage a few years back. Tribal Gathering claimed their post-CJA events occurred “in the face of ever more desperate establishment efforts to stamp out our basic freedoms to gather and party.” To imply that multi-million pound companies were in any way hindered by the Criminal Justice Act takes the (disco) biscuit. When the UK's underground sound systems were getting organised, Fighting For The Right To Party and raising awareness about the CJA's infringement on civil liberties, Tribal Gathering's Universe/Mean Fiddler partnership were busy preparing for their next event, scheduled to take place six months after the CJA became law.

The empty rhetoric of fake rebellion shifts tickets, records, haircuts. The music industry is a factory that makes counterfeit goods, re-packaging subversion and selling it back. There's nothing quite like rebelling against society for the weekend. Look at Glastonbury. The commercialisation and enclosure of a gathering that started life as a counter-cultural free festival alternative to the mainstream. I still find it ironic that people continue to scale the fence, when so much more fun is to be found at the free sound system parties beyond the perimeter. Last year's festival guide compares the Glastonbury experience to 'the utopian dreams of William Blake, (it) exists outside the mundane realities of out of town shopping centres ... appealing to that side of the British Psyche that always hated cities and dreamed of building Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land.' Whoever penned that peculiar piece of propaganda must have been looking through psychedelic windowpanes. Glastonbury mutated long ago. Far from being a back-to-nature escape from society and away from 'out of town shopping centres', the festival has become an outdoor shopping centre in itself, with hundreds of shops, cash points, security guards, muzak. Or maybe more like a city: complete with its own radio station, mobile communication network (to the highest bidder) and police force.

I used to love going to Glastonbury. I was one of the year-in/year-outers, a die-hard fan who knew which bands were playing when, and every shortcut through the tents. Always refused to buy a T-shirt though. Anyway, one needs look no further than the Green Field to see how the festival has changed. A supposed site of peace and tranquillity where there is no music, no market stalls, no camping. A chance to get away from the hassle and bustle of mini-Babylon. The imposing watchtowers and the sight and sound of two police motor bikes patrolling between the outer and inner fence obliterated the ambience. Penned in and monitored.

If you found the Glastonbury brochure blurb amusing you won't be surprised to learn the Americans do it better. While Glastonbury's brochure quotes William Blake, The Burning Man marketing cites contemporary cult anarchist philosopher Hakim Bey and compares their commercial event, long since severed from it's original counter-cultural impetus, to Bey's concept of a temporary autonomous zone. On the recent TV documentary devoted to the event, Larry Harvey, Burning Man's Mr Big, informs the viewers that there are 'no spectators' and that 'there are no rules.' A ranger cruises past in the background... 'This is all about participation' he tells the Guardian. 'This is not a show it's a little world' – complete with carefully planned parking that accommodates the increasing numbers of private aircraft. One need only compare the carefully organised parking facilities for luxury campers and light aircraft to the sprawled chaos of battered buses at spontaneous free festivals like Castlemorton and European teknivals to understand the difference between participation and consumption, the difference between asserting control over time/space and buying permission from companies and authorities. One should not be surprised at the lengths companies go to to associate themselves with subversion, it's taken at face value and sold in the supermarket of style.

However, when political lobbying and the passing of legislation enters the equation things take on a sinister new twist. The criminalisation of 'repetitive beats' and 'raves' (Criminal Justice Act 1994) played UK dance culture, with a nod and a wink, into the hands of commercially motivated promoters and breweries with profound effects. It used to be impossible to get alcohol at free festivals, and the well-documented origins of dance culture had little interest in the buzz-diluting and dehydrating effects of alcohol. From 'accciiieeed ! ! !' to 'lager, lager, lager' in less than a decade. The profits from the sale of alcohol command significant political lobbying power. Evidence suggests that, since the late eighties, such power has been regularly employed in a marketing battle between the alcohol industry and rave culture – a war against non-profit making drugs, dating back to a time when the concept of taxation began. So, when market analyst reports first identified the increasing popularity of rave culture and Ecstasy use with a reduction in alcohol sales, the drinks industry got a strategy down its neck.

In 1989, a significant acidic date in the history of house, a new PR alliance was formed by Whitbread, Bass, Seagram and other leading alcoholic companies. Established at the headquarters of Guinness plc, their publicly stated aim: 'to promote sensible drinking.' Take a look around: the cultural landscape is littered with pre-club bars ('the new clubs' blurted a number of specialist dance glossies); alcohol sponsored clubs, festivals and record label tours are commonplace; advertising campaigns that associate alcohol with the imagery, assumptions and soundtracks of dance culture have infiltrated the mainstream. The once deviant beast of dance music has been well and truly tamed. How long before a dance glossy shows a photograph of a stylised bottle of alcoholic/energy drink on the front cover. The drink that saved clubland! Are pubs the new clubs?

A dance culture that conjures concepts such as empathy and community has been contaminated. I am not biased. I love drinking in pubs. Usually I cannot go without my daily fix of Guinness followed by a couple of Stellas. But I would rather be surrounded by people who are 'loved up' than people who are getting equally as out of it on drink. If you catch the eye of the former you may get a smile or paranoid glance back, depends on the social setting. At best it may be a hug, at worst a sweaty handshake and your ear chewed off. Catch the eye of the latter and you may get your head kicked in. ‘You looking at me? You looking at my bird?’

A report on Leisure Futures, published in 1993 by the Henley Centre, revealed that between 1987 and 1992, pub attendance in the UK fell by 11%, with a projected 20% decrease over the next five years. The report concluded: 'This poses a significant threat to spending for licensed drinks retailers and drink companies. Firstly some young people are turning away from alcohol to other stimulants; secondly, raves displace much of the time and energy which might have been expended on other leisure activities like pubs or drinking at home.'

Graham Bright's ‘Acid House Bill’, the CJA and the Public Entertainments (Drug Misuse) Bill were all legislative victories for the alcohol industry. When MP Barry Legg introduced the latter bill to parliament he noted: 'there was a lot of money involved in the business.' This bill would 'squeeze every penny of profit from the drug dealers.'

When last month's Police Foundation report (a landmark independent enquiry into drug use) recommended the liberalisation of Britain's drug laws it was immediately quashed by the Government. The Police Foundation report called for a reclassification of drugs such as Ecstasy, LSD and cannabis. This inquiry, the most comprehensive since the Misuse of Drugs Act became law in 1971, is a major establishment recognition that alcohol and tobacco are not only more harmful than cannabis but are so dangerous that, if made illegal, they would be classified as class A's. Unsurprisingly, headline hitting proposals which recommended a revolution of pub licensing laws, effectively turning pubs into 24-hour boozers of the 21st century, look like they will almost certainly be supported by the state.

Influencial style guides have become saturated with alcohol, as brands associate their image with youth culture in a determined bid to re-establish a revenue raising drink as the choice of a generation. Red Bull and Vodka-sponsored club nights have, along with Sony Playsation, become the two most regular brand logos to grace club flyers. An increasingly popular and mutually beneficial way of subsidising the unpredictable business of club promotion. When Jim Carey interviewed the founding director of Red Bull's PR company 'FFI' for Squall magazine, he told him 'There's a bit of a return to alcohol, which seems to be the new Ecstasy substitute.' I was shocked to learn that FFI also co-produced the sick anti-Ecstasy billboard campaign that showed Leah Betts lying comatose in hospital with the words 'SORTED — just one Ecstasy tablet took Leah Betts.' Alcohol associated deaths per annum = approx. 25,000, Ecstasy = 12. But it's not a drug, it's a drink. Right kids?
JonBo posted 30 April 2013 (20:03:09)
Im curious as what sources you used to craft this article? I'm especially interested in the section containing the beer brewer's alliance. Thank you.
JonBo posted 29 April 2013 (17:00:06)
Im curious as what sources you used to craft this article? I'm especially interested in the section containing the beer brewer's alliance. Thank you.
JonBo posted 29 April 2013 (01:58:36)
Im curious as what sources you used to craft this article? I'm especially interested in the section containing the beer brewer's alliance. Thank you.
JonBo posted 28 April 2013 (16:41:18)
Im curious as what sources you used to craft this article? I'm especially interested in the section containing the beer brewer's alliance. Thank you.
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