The strange bittersweetness of attending a music festival in 2020

The strange bittersweetness of attending a music festival in 2020

It’s a bizarre thing to say, but attending music festivals have now become one of the weirdest experiences of the year.

Header image via Snack socials.

For most people around the world, attending a music festival is a pipe dream that might not happen for a few years now. In the US, for example, mega-festivals such as Coachella have rumouredly forecasted an October 2021 return (at which time, it would be two and a half years since their last event), and even down here in Australia - where we’ve largely avoided the severity of coronavirus’ impact - it seems the forthcoming summer festival season will be a quiet one. Festivals including international acts may be even further away.

However, there are small pockets of the world where festivals can be held without gross irresponsibility, unlike those which have caught media attention for their recklessness across the last few months (such as this one featuring The Chainsmokers, whose organisers were fined $20,000 for). As many people know now, Perth is one of these small pockets of the world that have been sparred by coronavirus, with a lack of locally-acquired cases for months now largely thanks to the city’s geographical isolation, sparse population density, and restrictions - our hard border with the rest of Australia particularly - keeping things contained for six months now.

We’ve been one of the only places in the world able to enjoy live music in-person; the shift in restrictions back in mid-July allowing music events to operate as long as they abide by COVID-19 regulations and action plans, which include safety and health precautions alongside capacity limits. 

As a result, it’s been a busy few months for live music. The WA Unlocked event was one of the first major music events to take place in a few months, the thousand-odd-capacity event featuring ShockOne, Slumberjack and Crooked Colours at Perth’s HBF Stadium. Live music institutions such as The Bird, Mojo’s and Lucy’s Love Shack have been able to resume trading and thus, begin the path to revitalising the Perth nightlife and entertainment industries after its worst crash in memory. Even major-capacity festivals have returned, with lineups emphasising the peaks of West Australia’s music space - RTRFM’s In The Pines, Bar Pop’s Snack Showgrounds - and even some acts from the east-coast, who abided by Western Australia’s 14-day isolation rule (last weekend’s Hot Dub Wine Machine included Bag Raiders and Young Franco, for example).

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As day turns to night we still have plenty of talent to get through at #inthepines2020

A post shared by RTRFM 92.1 (@rtrfm) on

As you’d expect, these events have been quick to sell-out. There’s a newfound sense of urgency around music events that sees these shows move up to 10,000 tickets in the space of just a few months - a long contrast to Perth’s infamously slow ticket-buying rates, where shows would often sell-out the day before the event, if not the day of. 

But how does it feel to actually attend one of these events? Great, but then very, very strange. Across the last two weeks alone, three major-capacity music festivals have taken place in Perth, each of which often making the rounds on social media the days following, primarily due to people in the eastern states reacting with “I never thought I’d say this but I wish I was in Perth” or people internationally - unaware with our circumstances - calling it dangerous and irresponsible.

In the shoes of those that could attend these festivals in real life, it’s a strange experience. On the one hand, there’s the euphoria that comes with attending a music festival, heightened with it being your first festival after such a long, extensive period without. On the other hand, however, there’s a strange mix of feelings - guilt, surprise, sadness - that make it a bit of a rollercoaster, at least to those mindful of coronavirus’ implications in cities elsewhere.

Take how it felt walking into Snack Showgrounds, for example. The 10,000-odd capacity event was held at Claremont Showgrounds two weeks back, occupying the space once held by Big Day Out and Stereosonic. It was a bit of a rush to walk into an event that had a densely-packed moshpit full of kids off their face at 4 PM (power to them, I say), let alone throughout the day as the crowds continued to swell, and each of the stages began to fill.

Before we continue, it’s worth noting that they did everything needed to make it a safe event amongst the circumstances. There were health precautions everywhere, signs and banners suggesting COVID-safe practices littered throughout the venue, and the space was huge - more than enough to cater to double its capacity, the restriction in place at the moment. This was something shared by all the major-capacity events held over the weekend, including the Swan Valley’s Wine Machine and Somerville Auditorium’s In The Pines.

Still, there was a lingering sense of “If there’s one person here, we’re all fucked” which I don’t think could be avoidable considering the circumstances, regardless of whether or not they could’ve water-bombed the whole venue with anti-bacterial sanitiser midway through. It was a strange sense of concern and anxiety mixed with the happiness and “can’t believe this is happening right now” feelings that you’d expect; a cocktail of emotions probably heightened by… actual cocktails. There’s something strangely unsettling about seeing a pit full of thousands of kids jump and mosh against one another, even though you know that there’s no risk associated with it based on where in the world you are.

There’s also a strange sense of guilt, too. There was a question that seemed to define the festival: “Should I be uploaded this story to my Instagram, even though a lot of my following is based in Melbourne - somewhere that at the time, couldn’t even travel 5km’s away from their house?” It feels bizarre - and rude, to be honest - to celebrate something that other people are months away from being close to, at a time where their own Instagram Stories are filled with resources about self-care tips and mental health guidance. How are you meant to celebrate live music at a time where many are grieving its absence? It’s a question I don’t think anyone has an answer to.

However, it’s still important to celebrate these wins, and not let it hamper you enjoying the festival - or even stopping you from attending it full-stop. An event like In The Pines, for example, raises thousands and thousands of dollars for an organisation that have continued to support Perth’s music space amongst the pandemic crisis - RTRFM 92.1, to be exact - and puts money into an industry that has struggled more than many others over the last few months. An event like Wine Machine, as another example, was so needed for some acts that it was worth going through rounds of government approval to travel to Western Australia, let alone the 14 days of hotel isolation that greeted you as you arrived. The mental health benefits for an artist who thrives off live interaction to see a crowd like this in front of them would be astronomical.

Still, you get the sense that they probably had the same thoughts in their head. 

“How is this happening?”

“Do I - or should I - feel guilty for being here, and talking about it / sharing moments from it while others can’t?”

“I feel a little sad knowing that people who need this in their lives can’t have this.”

At least we can assure that when festivals do come back, they still feel really fucking good. There’s nothing quite like lining up for 30 minutes and missing an act you wanted to see in the process because you sunk too many warm, $12 Somersby cans and am now busting to pee. Nothing at all. 

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