My recent return to Burning Man last week, this article about Taco Bell attempting to reach out to “burners”, and a few conversations about the apparent increase in festival attendance really has me thinking. If there is an increase in participation at “festivals” why is that? As is the case with all my blog posts I basically have no facts, just my own experiences and hypotheses that I think out when I should be working. It should be noted that for simplicity sake I use the word “festival” very broadly and include Burning Man (definitely not a festival in most ways), Lucidity style events that involve multiple days off site and includes a spiritual aspect, and EDC-style events that are more musically focused.
I think the biggest factor is the seemingly unique environment that people in their 20’s and 30’s operate in today. It is no secret that marriage is often being postponed, kids are birthed later in life, and college graduates are enjoying social freedom that is usually reserved for retirees. Many of them, including me, cohabitate with a partner or friends which allows for a lot of disposable income. Festivals can be expensive but if you have two people with college degrees and professional jobs sharing an apartment with no kids it is financially possible to participate often in multiday parties.
These celebrations can often involve intimacy and sex (the Orgy Dome at Burning Man is pretty awesome) but the focus is rarely on hook-ups or “one night stands”. In fact, festivals are very often attended by people in long-term committed relationships. I went with my partner, my best friend has gone with his fiance, our camp at Burning Man has had at least one married couple each year, and two of my dearest friends often go to EDC and similar events together. I also went to two weddings at Burning Man this year, one of which was a couple who got engaged at Lucidity.
Another important factor in festival attendance is technology, particularly the internet. Even relatively small events can spread the word quickly via Facebook to like-minded people across the globe. This is true for big events as well like Burning Man, which has been around for over 25 years, saw themselves face ticket scarcity for the first time thanks to burners sharing their pictures and videos over social media in the last couple years. Musicians who don’t have major labels can also use the internet to attract a fan base and advertise their presence at musical festivals. There is also greater specialization that is possible when people can communicate freely, it is now possible to attract participants to very unique and focused events where in the past smaller cliques would need to participate in big festivals and hope their classes would be attractive enough to get attention.
Lastly, I feel like there is a feeling of lost direction among many people due to the fracturing of society around us. Politicians continue to prove that party doesn’t matter and that they are basically all the same. Traditional religions are fracturing and failing at providing even the bare minimum support for individuals as their beliefs are unwilling to change to accept new scientific evidence. Modern media works tirelessly to tell us all how doomed the world is, despite evidence to the contrary. The social institutions that provide support, love, and comfort in the past have been found lacking so people are looking elsewhere to connect and find family. Festivals, particularly Burning Man and similar events, help fill that gap. At least that is why I go, because I reject violence, consumerism, religious zealotry, and the idea that I need to work in an office for most my life before I can have fun and celebrate life. Festivals give me community, love, support, and acceptance, and I think it does that for many others as well.
A few months ago at Firefly Music Festival in Delaware, a guy I’d met who was attending a festival for the first time asked me to sum up why I like festivals. Without giving it too much thought, I said, “It’s a place where I can do whatever I want, whenever I want.” Even music-focused festivals, I don’t feel bad or like I missed out if I miss half the shows and spend all weekend in camp under an easy-up because in that moment, that’s what I wanted to be doing. In the real world I have to be certain places at certain times doing certain things, but at festivals I can just float, move towards what speaks to me, and do what I most want to be doing in any given minute.
Related to your comments about relationships, though, I’ve often reflected how different my experience would be if I went to these events with a partner, because then I’d have to spend some of the time doing what my partner wants to do instead of only doing what I want to do. I frequently notice when I see couples having a rough time because they want to be doing different things and one or both of them has to compromise–guess there are some “real world” constraints you can’t escape from even at a festival 🙂
I definitely agree with you on the first part. Even at BM I would spend most of a day in my yurt just because it is what I wanted to do. No guilt or anything, just enjoying the moment and pursuing what made me happy.
i didn’t experience any problems when I attended with a partner though. Maybe it is because Anna and I are comfortable going off separately or alone if we want or maybe it is because generally we have similar desires, but regardless, I didn’t feel any constraints this year as compared the previous years when I was alone. If anything I felt like I experienced more because of the confidence and encouragement I get from my partner.