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Photograph: Time Out / Shutterstock

The tyranny of the talk tent: why music festivals are getting nerdier

Live podcasts, book readings and panel discussions are all over this summer’s line-ups. Are we simply more interested in stuff? Or is it a sign organisers are skimping on headliners?

Written by
Henrietta Taylor

If you’re an avid festival-goer, you’ll have become used to seeing events like ‘Upgrade Your Orgasm’, ‘The Power of the Breath’, ‘Masculinity Rebooted’ and ‘The Science of Singledom’ shoulder-to-shoulder with acts like the Arctic Monkeys, Suede and Peggy Gou. 

Music festivals have a long history of promoting political movements and social-justice activism, with bigwigs like Glastonbury and Womad famously leading the way when it comes to highlighting big-picture issues like nuclear disarmament, human rights and combating climate change. But since the number of festivals across the UK has ballooned to more than a thousand, it seems like every other line-up is brimming with book readings, live podcast shows and panel discussions. So, what’s the deal? Is this a sign that festivals are no longer for the young, care-free crowd, simply in it for the tinnies and tunes?

Lines of people sitting in a talk tent
Photograph: Mike Palmer PhotoKITE

Aaron Horn, a songwriter and music producer who’s been an avid festival-goer since he was 16, first noticed the shift towards more cerebral experiences – talks, debates and workshops – at British festivals around 20 years ago. ‘Festivals seemed to explode into a multitude of experiences,’ Horn says, citing Glastonbury, where he watched the Dalai Lama take the stage in 2015, and Secret Garden Party, another early trailblazer in the space.  

Of course, not all talks are created equal – sometimes they’re just perfect background fodder for a mindless break between headliners, like lazily popping on Selling Sunset after a particularly ‘bleh’ day at the office. Horn recalls one such show: ‘I can’t exactly remember the content of the event, but a number of people were dressed in Scuba-diving equipment and a proliferation of rubber gloves and snorkels.’ Nonetheless, for the most part, he claims that the talks he’s attended have improved his festival experience, giving him something to take home other than the typical souvenirs of blood-shot eyes and tinnitus. ‘Discourse, education, communication, poetry and storytelling are important parts of culture, not just music,’ he says.

We’ve become more curious, more informed, more passionate and more activist thanks to the internet

Kite festival, based in Oxfordshire, launched last summer and took the concept of the talk tent to new levels. At Kite, music and ideas are given equal footing, and this year the line-up pairs music from Hot Chip, The Pretenders and Candi Staton with appearances from an eclectic – and slightly jarring – mix of comedians, journalists, politicians and academics. We’re talking everyone from Alastair Campbell and Michael Gove to Joan Collins and George The Poet. Its niche vibe means it’s even been dubbed ‘Glastonbury for centrist dads’.

Ciro Romano, Kite’s founder, believes that audiences have become more eager to engage with alternative views and perspectives as information has become more readily available online. ‘In the last 20 years, we’ve become more curious, more informed, more passionate, and more activist as a result of the internet,’ he says. ‘Then we’ve got social media, which gives us the ability to debate that information. I think everyone’s a bit more interested in the world around them than we used to be.’

There are now also an estimated 21.2 million podcast listeners in the UK, with almost 70 percent of them between the ages of 15 and 35 – so it’s no wonder festival organisers are tapping in. The very demographic that festivals are built for are also the ones diligently tuning in to The Diary of a CEO and The Rest is Politics as they bound out the door each morning, suggesting young people might be just as interested in soaking up ideas as they are bopping to PinkPantheress. Tch! Kids these days. 

People sitting in a talk tent
Photograph: Garry JonesWOMAD

Then there’s the possibility that filling out line-ups with speakers could be a smart tactic to make festivals more cost-effective for punters and organisers alike. Authors, politicians and campaigners with podcasts, books or causes to plug are an easier, ostensibly less expensive option than big-name bands with fancy riders and dazzling stage shows. And many have large social media followings for promo, too.

Despite boasting a line-up loaded with techno DJs and alternative electronic artists, Lost Village is another example of a festival where deep discussions are thoroughly encouraged. Enlightening guests on everything from food and tech to sex, fashion and rave culture, its mix of hedonism and wellness – with organised banquets, creative workshops and lazy lakeside walks – makes the unabashed, mud-drenched chaos of Reading and Leeds look like Lord of the Flies. Andy George, one of the festival’s co-founders, thinks its holistic approach is part of the appeal. ‘The people who come to Lost Village aren’t looking for 100mph action 24 hours a day,’ he explains. ‘We attract a very open-minded, creative crowd and The Institute of Curious Minds [where the festival’s talks are held] is one of the ways we feed that curiosity.’

George believes that creating a space for open debate and an exchange of ideas, IRL, in the sunny glade of a disco-ball strewn wood, provides a much-needed feeling of unity that our very online population is missing. ‘Inside our own echo chambers, there really aren’t many physical places where you can come into direct contact with people from different industries, walks of life and backgrounds,’ he says. ‘With that in mind, it’s become a really strong part of the Lost Village experience.’

One of the best things about festivals is interacting with people you’ve never met before and having these unforeseen connections

This is all well and good, but music festivals, particularly Glastonbury, have long been criticised for becoming gentrified spaces. Currently, a nasty combo of Brexit and inflation means that the price of a ticket has increased exponentially, leading to a growing sense that many festivals are now the reserve of Left-leaning middle classes, rather than ‘real’ music fans with fewer pennies. Does the increased presence of talks, with names like ‘Reading Between the Wines’, ‘How to Own the Room’ and ‘Sunday Papers Live’ run the risk of entrenching this perspective? 

Romano doesn’t think so. ‘I think all festivals are trying to create an environment that’s still palatable, even if you're the kind of person that goes “I hate camping, and I hate muddy fields”,’ he explains. ‘You can come to Kite and do luxury camping, or you can just come for the day for £50 to £60. The demographic that we’re catering for are people who are interested in ideas, and that goes across all income brackets.’

People sitting in a festival tent
Photograph: KITEKITE

George agrees. ‘There’s no distinguishable demographic that varies from the [Lost Village] festival at large,’ he says. ‘We choose people [for our talks] who have interesting or unique stories to tell and who will, hopefully, provide ideas or inspiration for those who are present. One of the best things about festivals is the conversational side of the experience: interacting with people you’ve never met before and having these unforeseen connections.’

While the prospect of encountering Michael Gove while trying to get a buzz on may not appeal to everyone, the sentiment behind the rise of talk tents feels somewhat pure. And although many of us have become conditioned to consuming new opinions solely through screens, surely tapping into the happy-to-be-alive atmosphere that only British summertime, live music and overpriced beers can bring is a smart way to get us all talking IRL again.

Read more: The 17 best music venues in the UK – by acts who’ve played (almost) all of them.

Plus: The best music festivals to book for 2023.

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