Now it might just have been the vicarious effect of imbibing the perfumed fug emitted by the shirtless undulating man in front of me, but swaying with thousands of strangers at this year’s Byron Bay Blues Fest had a touch of the euphoric about it. I found myself air punching with the best of them, shifting some rather novel reggae moves on the muddy turf and feeling my heart swell with transient joy. It felt damn good.
In the tradition of Coachella and Glastonbury, not only is Bluesfest renowned for its amazing line up of classy blues and reggae acts, it’s also infamous for its mud. If you ain’t got your wellies on and preferably no sense of smell, you ain’t going nowhere. Easter sends those rain clouds jostling for attention over the Byron Bay skies, reducing miles of meadow to a black squelchy mess, hair to an untameable frizz and tie dye t-shirts to the clingy variety not normally seen outside of a dodgy working men’s club.
But despite the challenges dished out by Mother Nature and an inadequate festival wardrobe, all you see around you is a sea of mellow smiling faces, resplendent in a collective sense of shared musical discovery.
Whilst there are all the normal fuels for tension: crowds, alcohol, flimsy tents threatening collapse at the slightest puff of wind (and puffs of other varieties, no doubt) unfathomable parking rules, and portaloo queues so long that you’ve divulged your life history before your bladder, somehow music festivals create a collective yet unspoken desire to leave life’s normal agitation on the motorway and just chill.
What is it about a musical festival that creates this feel good factor for all ages, from kids lurching towards adulthood and adults craning their necks to recapture misspent youths?
One theory is that as social creatures one of our core needs is to belong. Existing in groups has afforded us an increased chance of survival from caveman times to navigating the drinks queue at Coachella.
That stubbornly indestructible wrist band we receive on entry to a festival denotes an instant sense of belonging to this new tribe. In that moment, we miraculously slip off our everyday identity and shrug on the persona of someone infinitely more hip. Someone open to new experiences, cultures and questionable wardrobe and hygiene choices. A healthy dose of escapism.
Psychology has a nifty name for this, Social Identity Theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979) Because we are all unified in our new identity as festival goers, we feel a sense of relatedness to those anonymous sweaty armpits and undulating hips beside us. This casts a warm glow on our fellow tribe members, allowing us to be more tolerant and mellow towards those behaviours that would normally send us racing for the exit. And because we rate our identity as a festival goer, that sense of belonging serves to enhance our sense of self esteem. We tend to maximise the qualities of our group membership and denigrate those of other groups. Hence we feel a tiny bit cooler than others who have missed out on this musical revelation.
Of course the other thing that is happening is that we all love an experience. Research indicates that we are much happier when we fork out money for an experience than if we had spent the equivalent on physical items. This is because good experiences improve over time. We relish the reflection and the retelling and this gives us a little hit of the same feel good hormone we experienced fending off the ravages of the mosh pit. Think about it… How often do you reflect on a cherished experience compared to how often you reflect on the pleasure of a purchase?
So next time, you are dithering over splashing out $400 on a festival ticket just remember a little bit of short term muddy squelchy jostling pain is worth years of hipster gain….