Opinion: the Future of T in the Park
With the long-standing Scottish festival 'taking a break' in 2017, is this just a smokescreen for the end of T in the Park?
Apparently, this news was meant to surprise no-one. T in the Park 2017 will not, as was rumoured earlier in the week, now be happening after all, for a variety of reasons. Take your pick; the oil pipeline-enforced eviction from the long-standing and trusty Balado site after 2014's edition; the apparent £1m extra it was costing DF Concerts to work around nesting ospreys on the new Strathallan site; or just the flurry of bad press created by admittedly diabolical traffic planning in 2015, the resistance of Perthshire neighbours, and a bunch of drugs and antisocial behaviour-related reports.
To read the papers, vultures have been circling for quite some time. It's not a situation many who were at the festival back in July might recognise, with a strong line-up (including capable headliners the Stone Roses and Calvin Harris, whose dropping of rave 'classic' and now official Scottish football 'goal song' 'Bits 'n' Pieces' by Artemesia was a signature T moment) playing out amid mostly decent weather and a positive, upbeat experience. Even the traffic had been sorted out.
Yet, while we've championed T in the Park both as a gathering point for young music fans and as an event where class boundaries enjoy a welcome blurring, it's probably right that it takes a step back. There are three simple reasons for this; each of the people who died in drug-related incidents at the festival in 2016.
As Glasgow's Arches and London's Fabric have discovered, it's a tricky issue for some observers and a simple one for others. On one hand, total policing of an event this size is nigh-on impossible, these things can happen when tens of thousands of people congregate, and maximising preventative measures is the best that can be done. Yet on the other, nobody goes to a music festival to die. It's probably right, then, that T takes a break and thinks properly about what it can do to improve things across the board, rather than just fire-fighting the big issues while trapped in an annual cycle.
What does this say for the festival scene in Scotland? The 1990s and 2000s were high watermarks for the traditional music festival – let's not forget it was a relatively niche activity before that – and there's no question the market has shifted this decade. This market report infographic (albeit from 2014) is really useful, if you're interested. At that point, 48% of people at festivals were over 30, the average age of a festivalgoer was 33, and a third had children. It cost the average festivalgoer £230 for the entire weekend, and 13% of those questioned had been to one overseas festival that year, mainly for the weather. But 98.2% said they went for wholesome reasons ranging from the music to hanging out with friends to love of the great outdoors, and only 1.8% cited 'getting trashed'. Only 25% took drugs (or 'only' 25%, depending on your level of surprise).
There's no question the festival demographic is changing, although not in a simplistic 'they're becoming less popular' spiral. As audiences get older, great little Scottish festivals like Kelburn Garden Party, Belladrum and Doune the Rabbit Hole thrive, and while Wickerman has also announced its closure for very tragic and personal reasons, Electric Fields has bloomed in its place. Hopefully the absence of T will create a vacuum for others next year, not least DF themselves; it's rumoured that they'll launch a non-camping festival on Glasgow Green over the T weekend, and if it's anything like the much-missed Connect, which they held twice in Inveraray, it could be great.
To many, the statement they issued this week would have felt like the end of an era, an admission of defeat with an air of dispiriting possible finality. 'Thank you,' it began in all-caps. 'For over 23 years, T in the Park has been at the heart of Scotland's music scene – with you by our side. But for now, sadly, we need to take a break.' Yet the closing promise to 'resolve the issues (and) once again deliver the kind of camping festival you are used to and deserve' is promising. After all, if Glastonbury can take every third year off and continue to thrive, T is hardly likely to be forgotten after an extra 12-month gap.
The purpose of a music festival, however, is not to service a brand or to wallow in tradition. The purpose of music is – as trite as it sounds, it's rarely been more true – to bring people together and offer them shared experience and understanding. It happens in tiny pub basements, it happens before 12,000 people at the Hydro regularly, and it happens in fields across the country every summer. We hope for and look forward to T's return.