Music festivals offer unique opportunities for young people to actively engage with music. They usually take place over the course of several days, during which many participants camp on the festival site and thus become totally immersed in the festival experience. This research was conducted to gain a better understanding of the nature and outcomes of music festival experiences and to explore the extent to which they contribute to the psychological and social well-being of the young people who participate.
Constructs from various theoretical models, such as the psychological functions of music1, psychological well-being2, social well-being3, and subjective well-being4 were used to guide the research and the interpretation of the findings.
In Stage 1 of the study, a focus group discussion was conducted with ten young people (aged 18-23) who had recently attended a range of music festivals. Participants’ responses were coded and sorted in order to identify the major themes emerging from the discussion. This analysis revealed four major facets of the music festival experience that participants associated with well-being outcomes.
In Stage 2, a questionnaire survey was used to further explore these four facets and investigate their relationship with psychological and social well-being outcomes. Questionnaires were completed by 100 young people, aged 18-30, who had attended a two-day music festival on the east coast of Australia, and were at the festival alone or with friends but not in a family group.
The four facets of the music festival experience that were found to be important to focus group participants, and were seen to support the beneficial outcomes derived from music festival attendance, were labelled the music experience, the festival experience, the social experience and the separation experience. The following sections describe each of the four facets from the participants’ perspective, using illustrations from the focus group discussion.
The Music Experience
Festivals are about celebrating ‘something’5, and in the case of music festivals, the ‘something’ is music. Not surprisingly then, the music facet of the experience was integral to the meaning that music festivals held for participants, and provided the common ground that brought them together. In the festival context, the shared experience of seeing music performed ‘live’ added an extra dimension, which could not be obtained from simply listening to recorded music or even attending a concert. Participants reported a sense of connection and engagement not only with other festival-goers, but also with the performers themselves. Thus the music experience in the festival context evoked feelings of unity and belonging. Rather than being passive receivers of music, participants felt they played a central role in the music experience, which therefore became a more personalised and memorable experience. For some, experiencing music in the festival context was ‘inspiring’.
For me it’s more about going to see specific bands. All those additional things are a bonus… Music’s the main thing.
You wouldn’t go if there weren’t good acts… It’s the reason why you go, but you get a whole lot more out of it.
It can be pretty inspiring. If you really appreciate the music and you’re really into it, you get that extra dimension seeing the act live… it just adds that extra depth to it I think.
The Festival Experience
Although most participants considered the music facet to be fundamental to the experience as a whole, they also spoke of an ‘atmosphere’ or an ‘experience’ in which music was only one ingredient, a part of the whole. The experience was seen to start weeks, even months before the festival commenced. The anticipation and preparation contributed to a gradual build-up of excitement, and then when the festival was over the cycle started again, with anticipation of the next festival. The sheer enjoyment of festival participation was so satisfying that they were continually drawn back to repeat the experience. For some, the festival experience became part of the way they defined themselves. In some cases, the positive emotional impact of the festival resulted in participants looking at life differently, or being more open to receiving positive messages about life. Of course, in some cases, this heightened receptiveness may also lead to a greater openness to negative, as well as positive influences. Participants acknowledged that festivals had exposed them to other people’s negative behaviours and practices such as drug-taking that were formerly outside of their experience. One participant referred to this as a ‘loss of innocence’.
It’s a festival. It’s not just a music performance. It’s the food and the atmosphere and all that stuff.
I’ve had some of my most enjoyable times of my life at festivals, and so I try to model the rest of my life around that, and getting the experience.
So you go away and you get a different perspective … and then you end up in a really good mood, or you’re in a really good mood so you get a new perspective, but it’s just good to shake things up a bit.
The Social Experience
The social facet of the music festival experience emerged strongly from the focus group discussion as an integral part of the experience. This included being with like-minded people and also mixing with those who would normally be seen as quite different. Musical preferences became a unifying force, or defining condition, that brought together people from otherwise disparate backgrounds. According to Zillman & Gan (1997)6, once a group is formed in this way, its members benefit. They attain the emotional gratifications of belonging to an ‘elite’ group which they themselves define as distinct and different from other groups. Sharing a common experience thus helps to deepen relationships and safeguard against social isolation in the long term.
I went away with people I didn’t really know, and they happen to now be some of my closest friends. That whole connection with the other people thing — it’s like there’s been a couple of bands that we’ve all heard together for the first time, and then at a party or something you might hear one of their songs and then that brings the whole group back together again. Or you might go to another one of their concerts all together and it like starts a friendship group by hearing that one band and all liking it.
Any change I’ve experienced is because of the people I was with, and conversations that we had… some big, long chats when we’re camping of a night or whatever. They’re the things that I’ll remember in 10 years, not necessarily the acts I saw.
The Separation Experience
Being able to ‘get away’ to a new and different environment was an important facet of the music festival experience for many participants. Providing a new social context that was removed from the expectations and routines of everyday life allowed participants develop a new understanding and acceptance of themselves. For some, the festival provided an opportunity and a safe environment to try out new aspects of their identity. Attendance at the festival often provided an opportunity to exercise a different set of skills, such as social and organisational skills that were not necessarily part of participants’ everyday repertoire.
I think it takes you so far out of your normal routine of life that it gives you different perspectives when you come back to it. I think every festival I go to changes the way I think about myself. The very first festival I went to, I came back from it an absolutely, totally different person. It makes you think about who you are more, because you haven’t got your job, or your car, or your study to rely on. So you can’t say I’m a lawyer or something. You’re just a person that’s there at that moment.
The four facets of the music festival experience which emerged from the analysis of the focus group discussion are illustrated in Figure 1. The music experience provides the common ground on which both the social experience and the festival experience are built. It facilitates a sense of connection between participants, between audience and performers, and between those who celebrate and the object of celebration. The separation experience distinguishes the festival event from everyday life. It provides a sense of disconnection which prompts festival attendees to reflect on their lives and their understanding of themselves. Together, the four facets of the experience have the potential to impact positively (or in some cases negatively) on psychological, social and subjective well-being. While some of these potential impacts were suggested by the qualitative analysis, they were explored more specifically in Stage 2 of the research.
The four facets were measured using 16 items (four per facet) each rated on a 5-point scale. Well-being outcomes were measured using 23 items, each rated on a 5-point scale. The four facets of the music festival experience (the music experience, the social experience, the festival experience and the separation experience) were compared in terms of their importance to participants, and their contribution to explaining psychological and social well-being outcomes.
The music experience and festival experience were found to be the most important to participants, followed by the social experience, and finally the separation experience. Most participants (78% to 95%) indicated that they had experienced each of the well-being outcomes to some extent; a smaller proportion (8% to 20%) reported that they had experienced each item a great deal. The items most strongly endorsed were I feel happier with myself as a person; I feel I have grown/developed as a person; and I feel my relationships with others have grown/developed.
The best predictors of the overall well-being outcome variable were the music experience and the separation experience. This supports the model as illustrated in Figure 1, where the festival experience and the social experience are seen as a function, to some extent, of both the music experience and the separation experience. This is not to say that social and festival experiences do not contribute to well-being outcomes, but rather that their contribution adds little beyond that explained by the music and separation experiences. In fact, when considering individual items rather than the four facets, the strongest predictor of well-being outcomes was the social experience item Getting to know my friends on a deeper level.
The only demographic variable that was associated with well-being outcomes was frequency of attendance at music festivals. Those who attended once every couple of years reported a greater level of well-being outcomes than those who attended either less or more frequently.
This study explored the music festival experience from the perspective of young adult participants, and in particular, investigated the extent to which the theoretical constructs of psychological, social and subjective well-being resonate with the ways young people describe and give meaning to the experience. Four distinct facets of the experience — the music experience, the festival experience, the social experience and the separation experience — were identified in the focus group discussion and confirmed in a questionnaire survey. The music experience was seen to provide the common ground upon which the other experiences were built. It facilitated connections between attendees (the social experience) and provided the focus for joint celebration (the festival experience). The separation experience provided a context within which attendees could disconnect from their everyday lives, and thus become open to exploring new relationships, new ways of understanding themselves, and new ways of perceiving the world. In most cases these were positive experiences, although the potential was also there for more negative influences to hold sway. The findings of this study suggest that one of the most important functions performed by music festivals is to provide a time and space where young people can experience personal growth and self-discovery.
The most commonly expressed psychological and social well-being outcomes related to issues of identity, self-acceptance and positive relationships with others. Participants reported feeling more positive about themselves, others, and life in general as a result of attending a music festival. Indeed, for some participants the music festival experience was not only meaningful in itself, but gave meaning to the rest of their lives.
People come to a music festival with a sense of anticipation. They engage actively, and feel part of the performance, more than mere spectators. Sharing the experience with others provides a sense of belonging and social integration, which can often continue beyond the event itself. The end of the event then becomes the beginning of a new cycle of anticipation for the next event. It is possible, however, that over-attendance may detract from the impact. In this study, for example, it was those who attended music festivals only once every couple of years who reported the highest level of well-being outcomes.
This study has provided preliminary evidence regarding the impact of music festival attendance on participants’ psychological and social well-being, and has proposed a conceptual model that can be used to guide future research. Better knowledge of the music festival experience will enable festival organisers, performers, attendees, and concerned community groups to take optimal advantage of opportunities to enhance psychological and social well-being through festival attendance. This is particularly important as music festivals provide a venue that positively engages sections of the population who are otherwise difficult to reach. Further research regarding the possible negative outcomes of attendance, such as exposure to antisocial behaviours and drug and alcohol abuse, is also required in order to enable preventative measures to be designed in this regard. It is possible that the positive aspects of self-acceptance, personal growth and social integration highlighted by participants in this study might be incorporated in such strategies to help young people make positive choices. Festival-goers themselves may also benefit from a deeper understanding of the music, festival, social and separation facets of the music festival experience, in order to build and personalise a transformative experience that has an enduring and positive impact on their lives.
Jan Packer and Julie Ballantyne. Originally published in Music Forum, April 2012, Vol. 18.3, 31-33. Entered on knowledge base 12 May 2013.
This article is drawn from a more detailed discussion of the study which is published as: Packer, J. & Ballantyne, J. (2011) The impact of music festival attendance on young people’s psychological and social well-being. Psychology of Music. 39(2) 164–181. http://pom.sagepub.com/content/39/2/164
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