Dave Swallow on the problem with festivals

Not everybody looks forward to the festival season. Live sound engineer Dave Swallow explains why there’s a high chance not everything will be sunny backstage this summer.

Embarrassment wriggled around me like finding a marmoset in the trousers. The view from the front-of-house lean-to filled me with chagrin. You know that sense of sinking disappointment that starts in the cheeks and works its way to the lower intestine? That feeling you get when cracking into an egg to discover it’s over done and the soldiers will go to waste? It’s the same sensation you get when the phone rings and you’re told you’re booked for festival season.

Life does have a habit of running amuck when not carefully ordered so I place a lot of effort in pursuing ambition. Small goals. Easily obtainable. Nothing too fancy, I don’t want to over-stretch myself. My latest ambition is to go on tour. Again. This, proving a little more unobtainable than first thought, makes me think of how Napoleon must have felt when he nipped off to Moscow for a spot of empire building. The thought of having some rehearsals, and throwing the odd soundcheck in for good measure, really puts the Tabasco on the eggs, if you know what I mean. 

Festivals are the sort of thing my 21-year-old self would have felt was a nice change from the monotony of venue/tour life but, as life has been pulled kicking and screaming through the hedge of time, my 34-year-old self gets rather tired of their slapdashed pushiness.

You see, music, callously disregarding the fact we’ve been friends since childhood, has made a stinker. The surrounding circs of said stinker have been slowly building for many years, much like a Spanish hotel, so much so that you barely realise anything has happened. Byte by byte we now have a very different appreciation for music than we did 10 years ago. Remember those times when you used to save up for a month just to buy an album?

Festivals have become the typical type of production. Rehearsals and six-week-long tours are fading into the twilight of time and this leaves us audio professionals in the thicket. It’s the punters I feel sorry for. When do they see the band at their very best? The usual state of affairs these days is that the bands are thrown on stage without half the lines working. Is this right? Is this left? What would the marmoset say? So is it any wonder, that at this point in time, the pinnacle of human knowledge and endeavour, we are staring into the cuppa of life only to find the milk is off. Snubbed, that’s how I feel, snubbed!

I oozed down behind the FOH console in an attempt to hide my nauseating sense of mortification. Changeover had the distinct performance of a Puccini opera. There were about 40 bohemians on stage creating a massive song and dance, pushing risers from one place to another. Then back again. The Patch Monkey, who hadn’t slept for about three days, was hallucinating and lost the ability to count, we were due on stage six minutes ago and the stage manager looked as if he’d taken pole position in a beetroot look-a-like contest. In a nutshell, changeover was going better than expected.

The band meandered on stage to rapturous applause. It has long been said that anyone or anything that can get through their entire routine without being shown the rotten veg is doing well. The audience, in my view, were slipping. The performance was tepid for the first three songs and rising to a tropical lukewarm by the end of the set. I’m not sure about you, but I have a theory. It’s to do with the amount of waiting around. It gives you the jitters – a kind of anxious hollowness, the sort of feeling you get when you’re dragged to a barn dance. It lasts all day and when you get to the point you have to do something, lethargy has taken its hat and coat off and snuggled down in the wingback by the fire. It’s no good for a performance. ‘The audience enjoyed it’, I find myself saying a lot these days. Is that not what matters most?

As the peach-pale sunset spreads its yawning arms across the clearing summer sky I take a little time for myself. With more flavours than Jamie Oliver’s larder, festival food can be a delight – in my eyes the best thing about a festival. But, meanwhile, Fate was delicately placing twigs and leaves across the trapping pit. Casting my Blighty mojito and ham and cheese crepe into the air, for where else would that combination be acceptable, I stumbled, literally, into one of the little tents by the food concessions. The music was pretty awesome. I’d never seen this band before, but they were really cool and playing their little hearts out. Festivals do make new bands wonderfully discoverable, and make audiences wonderfully discoverable too.

I was left pondering the future; do the festivalgoers really worry about the sonic quality? Half of them turn up with earplugs in anyway. Others have apps that ‘correct’ the sound but the majority just want to hear the vocal, or whatever the top line of the song is, and a beat, so why spend the cash on expensive sound systems? Have we had our Concorde moment? I’m not sure it ever existed.

The answer is a simple one. Music is about making a connection. Much like the connection you’d make as an earthing rod. The sonic quality, although pleasant to the untrained ear, isn’t just about what you can hear it’s also what you can feel. Without a connection, Music is just an elevator ditty.

Dave Swallow also gave his thoughts on the festival circuit as part of our festival sound focus week.

Dave Swallow has over 15 years of experience mixing for Basement Jaxx, UB40, The Bloody Beetroots, DJ Fresh, La Roux, Seasick Steve and Amy Winehouse. He took home the API Industry Excellence Award for ‘Live Sound Engineer of the Year’ in both 2011 and 2012.