Minding the makers: the cost of resilience and innovation in the Irish festival sector

Dr David Teevan

Irish Arts Festival Archive Co-coordinator, University College Dublin

Since 2016, I have worked as a festival studies researcher in an academic context, while also acting as Festival Advisor to the Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaíon. This dual role, and my previous professional experience as a festival maker, puts me in a very particular locus within the Irish festival ecology; one that afforded me a privileged perspective on the challenges facing festivals during the last two years. Working independently as a researcher, I have completed a number of in-depth studies of the changing operating models of festivals in Ireland during the Covid-19 pandemic (Teevan 2021; 2020). Concurrent with this work, I was tasked by the Arts Council with curating and moderating webinars that were aimed at helping the festival community sustain their organisations during this unprecedented time -Talking Festivals (May/June 2020) and Pathways 2021 (March/April 2021). Together these documents form part of an important archive of the Irish festival sector’s struggles and evolution during this time. It was in this context that Dr Aileen Dillane and Dr Sarah Raine invited me to write a guest blog for Festiversities – to provide an overview of Irish festivals’ metamorphosis over the last two years.

Dr David Teevan

In Ireland, as elsewhere, the number and diversity of arts festivals grew exponentially over the last forty years. While not all festivals that include the arts in their programming are funded, it is a measure of the growth and importance of festivals in this country that support for festivals by The Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaíon increased from 12 events in 1977 (The Arts Council 1978) to 173 in 2018 (The Arts Council 2019).

Before the arrival of the pandemic, there were few weekends in the year that did not have an arts festival somewhere in the country, with a diversity of festival types catering for a wide variety of interests. In the field of music, which is the focus of the Festiversities research, this ranged from the world renowned Wexford International Opera Festival, to the Clonakilty Guitar Festival, Limerick Jazz Festival, Claremorris Folk Festival, Cork International Choral Festival, Killaloe Chamber Music Festival and any number of festivals that focused on Irish traditional music, like Masters of Tradition in Bantry and Traidphicnic in Connemara. The diversity of this sector is not confined to artform or genre differences, but extends to the operating models of the festival organisations. So, while some of these festivals have full-time professional management teams working all year round, others are managed by professional arts workers on short-term or part-time contracts, and still others are run by voluntary committees.

Over the last eighteen months I have observed Irish arts festival organisations with awe and admiration, as they worked tirelessly to operate in the face of unimaginable obstacles presented by governmental restrictions imposed to stop the spread of Covid-19. During this time the festival community demonstrated resilience and innovation as they cancelled, reimagined and reworked plans to enable festival events to take place in spite of the restrictions, all the while learning new skills and adapting their operating models to accommodate the transformed and everchanging reality within which they found themselves. As documented by the Festiversities research teams, similar stories of resilience and creative management were happening across Europe. In my own research, I documented organisational changes required to enable four case study festivals to successfully present programmatic content online, the challenges these organisations had to overcome to operate effectively during this period and the impact this period had on organisational planning for the future (Teevan 2021; 2020).

While it is still too soon to determine with any degree of certainty the longer-term implications for festivals of the upheaval caused by the pandemic, it is certain that the impact of the last eighteen months will have long-term consequences for this sector. For example, there is evidence to suggest that the digital dissemination of work that was so critical to festivals – particularly in 2020 when severe lockdown prohibited live performances of any kind – will remain part of many festivals operating models. This can be justified in terms of the wider access online presentation of programming facilitates, but it is also probable that the festival makers and artists that have developed digital skills, will be keen to persist with the use of these tools and platforms, which have opened up new creative possibilities and facilitated connections with new audiences.

Michael Gallen performing in ‘The City is Never Finished’, a site specific multi-media performance in the ruins of a Franciscan abbey as part of Kilkenny Arts Festival (August 2021)

The restriction on indoor live performances in Ireland during much of 2021 and a series of grant schemes for funding outdoor events, encouraged many festival organisations to discover and develop new venues in parks and other public spaces. Unable to run concerts as per usual in the Town Hall Theatre and Abbeystrewry Church, Skibbereen Arts Festival (an annual multidisciplinary arts festival in West Cork) had a stage built in a small enclosed park at the edge of town where it ran a series of concerts. The venue proved to be ideal, and Festival Manager Declan McCarthy admitted that without the restrictions they may never have discovered this facility. Taking advantage of a capital investment funding programme for outdoor infrastructure, Galway Local Authority Arts Office purchased a stretch tent with capacity to accommodate a stage and a seated audience of 300 people. According to Arts Officer Sharon O’Grady, this was a long-term investment aimed at being able to provide a weather proof performance facility for festivals throughout the county for years to come.

An audience enjoying early evening sunshine in the Skibbereen Arts Festival’s newly created outdoor venue in O’Donovan Rossa Memorial Park.

Another noticeable development in the festival sector in Ireland over the last eighteen months has been a much greater tendency for festivals to work together. Within days of the first lockdown being announced in March 2020, festival organisations realised the need to share intelligence to deal with the unprecedented challenges that they were facing. Over the following months different groupings of festivals began meeting online, some self-organised, some organised by Local Authority Arts Officers, others facilitated by the Arts Council. Over the following year different conflagrations of festivals emerged as consortia intent on sharing marketing, infrastructural and/or human resources.

As festivals embark on putting in place plans for 2022, the shadow of Covid -19 still hangs ominously in the ether demanding that festivals remain flexible in their planning. However, this planning is being done by organisations with very different capacities to the organisations that faced the first lockdown. Resourced with digital skills, newly discovered venues and flexible infrastructure, and working in solidarity with other festivals has greatly strengthened the arts festival ecology in Ireland.

While recognising the value and importance of these gains, it is also important to acknowledge the burden the pandemic has placed on festival makers, and the potential for long-term damage to this important feature of Irish social and cultural life. In September 2021 when restrictions had eased, I was able to travel to a number of festivals around Ireland. After over a year without live entertainment, there was great excitement among the public to be out at cultural events, and in particular, being able to discuss the artworks experienced with friends and strangers. Among the event organisers however, the mood was not so ebullient. Without doubt there was satisfaction in presenting events and seeing the public’s delight, however, there was also, in many of the organisers I encountered, a weariness that was troubling.

Over the previous eighteen months working in isolation much of the time, festival makers had invested time and energy learning new skills while undertaking additional administrative and logistical juggling to keep pace with changing restrictions. They also had to strengthen health and safety protocols to ensure a safe space for artists to work and for the public to enjoy the work. Whether professionally or voluntarily run, the human resources of festival organisations are invariably stretched, reliant on a small group of committed individuals. While the committed individuals I met were, in the inimitable fashion of festival organisers, being positive about the future, there were also signals of distress, with festivals reporting concerns about fatigue and burnout. Among the voluntary run festivals, which are a crucial part of the festival ecology in Ireland, there were reports of a noticeable drop off in people’s availability, resulting in an unsustainable situation where more work was being undertaken by fewer people.

Attending the EFA (European Festivals Association) Summit in Galway (22-24 Nov 2021), I had the opportunity to meet with representatives from European festivals and festival resource organisations. The European festival makers spoke enthusiastically about opportunities the pandemic had provided, with many noting that lockdown afforded them time to re-evaluate their organisation’s mission. In particular, this enabled festival organisations to integrate issues of sustainability and inclusivity more centrally into their operating models. The exponential rise in the use of digital technologies by festivals was another recurrent theme. While the value of transmitting festival programming online was applauded in terms of the access it provided, opinions differed about the merit of digital dissemination in a festival context, where there is an expectation of a ‘concentration in time and place’ that digital media does not replicate. Mirroring the Irish festival situation, there were also many delegates who spoke about fatigue due to the extended duration of the pandemic and the demands of working with such a high level of insecurity.

In conclusion, I would add my voice to those who have rightly applauded the resilience and resourcefulness of festival organisers in villages, towns and cities throughout Europe. However, I would also caution that due care and attention be given to consider the long-term sustainability of the sector at this time, and in particular the importance of supporting the people that deliver for us each year these indispensable social and cultural events.


Teevan, D. (2021) ‘Online and on land: an examination of Irish arts festivals’ response to Covid-19’. Irish Journal of Arts Management and Cultural Policy, 8: 133 – 157.

Teevan, D. (2020) Digital needs?: supporting arts festivals’ transition to programming a blend of live and digital experiences. 11th Annual ENCATC Conference Proceedings, Cultural management and policy in a post digital world – navigating uncertainty, pp. 129-147.

The Arts Council (1978) Annual Report 1977. Dublin: The Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaíon.

The Arts Council (2019) Annual Report 2018. Dublin: The Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaíon.

Going hybrid: Cracow’s festival scene in the time of a pandemic

Karolina Golemo and Marta Kupis 

Uniwersytet Jagiellonski, Poland

A year ago, in March 2020, Poland entered the first lockdown, which influenced the cultural sector in general and the music festival scene specifically.  At the time, it was still believed that the critical situation would not last long, leaving festival organisers in a state of uncertainty as to how they should proceed with the events planned for 2020. Cracow a member of UNESCO Creative Cities Network with  its nearly 100 festivals organised annually, many on an international scale, had to face these new circumstances.  The  organisers were forced to cancel or  redefine the form of their events, as well as look for new ways of communicating with  audiences.  The three festivals that we observed (EtnoKraków/Crossroads, Sacrum Profanum, and Unsound) responded to the pandemic circumstances in a different way. 

Following the governmental restrictions, the EtnoKraków/Crossroads festival postponed the date of the 2020 edition a couple of times, waiting until the last moment to decide when, where and how to organise it. Eventually, it was delayed for two months and involved visible limitations due to sanitary reasons,  resulting in a hybrid form: live concerts with sanitary restrictions were combined with radio transmissions of previous editions’ concerts, and online streaming via Facebook and on their webpage. The Unsound Festival’s  first reaction was to cancel the 2020 edition, but shortly later the organisers decided to change its format, to launch a crowdfunding campaign, and to go online with a different programme encompassing less music and more talks. The theme of the 2020 edition was “Intermission”,  referring to a break caused by the pandemic, “a period starkly separating before from after”.  

Unsound Festival online 2020, on Instagram

Following the first governmental announcement about COVID -19 restrictions concerning the festival sector,  the Sacrum Profanum festival  organisers  made a decision about a total change of their festival form, treating it as an occasion for experimentation. They moved the whole event to the virtual space (using a special VOD platform ‘Kraków Play’ created to share cultural content during the pandemic), but with a brand  new cycle of live concerts pre-recorded in various festival locations specifically for the 2020 edition, with artists and sound technicians present on the spot. The “only” missing element was the  physical presence of the public. The duration of the event  was also prolonged from one week to one month, turning it into a “slow festival”, as stated by the organisers. The examples of the above mentioned festivals shows that  there are different  models of a “hybrid festival” where the “hybridity” may concern: the space, transmission channels,  geographic dimension, and content.

Sacrum Profanum Festival 2020, on Krakow Play Platform.

Although  the “hybrid events” are not a completely new phenomenon, it is only now that they become necessary to keep festivals from falling apart during the pandemic. Rather importantly, the majority of respondents to Event Manager Blog’s survey declared that they wanted to maintain the online audience after the pandemic crisis is over. If hybrid events are indeed here to stay, it seems important to study how they are experienced by all participants of the festival community: artists, organisers, and last by not least, the audience.

Hybrid festival spaces may be described as spaces where different types of festival experience can occur simultaneously: live/real and virtual; collective/shared and individual; public and private/intimate. The issue of hybrid spaces as domains of intercultural relations had already been studied before the COVID-19 emergency changed the understanding of participation in culture and cultural exchange. Leszek Korporowicz (2016; 2017) claims that hybrid spaces are areas of constant transgressions and creative potential, especially if they also allow for different cultures to interact. Moreover, this transgressive potential is also linked to the technological characteristics underlying the virtual-/cyber-space, which in turn influence the mental and social states of their users. Most importantly, they are spaces where “physical distances lose their importance in favour of semiotic ‘distances’”. As a result, the very understanding of space – especially in its symbolic and informational aspects – changes, becoming increasingly “contextual, hybrid and multi-dimensional”. Korporowicz  (2016:19) suggests that all of these characteristics allow not only for the broadening of cultural spaces’ borders, but made them very easy to cross: “They are full of “holes” or “gateways,” and, in equal measure, overlays and synergies that shift in the world of global information flow, and consequently of a new configuration of communities defined by their participation in the network society” (Ibid.: 20). Are music festivals, especially those taking place in hybrid spaces, such gateways? Another definition of hybridity can be provided in the context of the mass media. The term “hybrid” refers there to a complex intermedia dynamic between  mainstream  news media  and social media, as well as the complicated  circulations between messages and actors, and the recombination of media on a variety of media platforms. Sumiala et al (2016: 98) describe hybrid media events as “media events whose significance for media professionals, politicians, and non-elites is being reconfigured by the growth of social media”. The hybrid festivals’ formula can also be analysed through the concept of “time-space distanciation” introduced by Anthony Giddens (1991). According to him, the advance in communication technologies caused the stretching of social relations and made the remote interactions a significant feature of everyday life. As a consequence, the interconnectivity and interdependencies have increased, as can be seen from the example of the online festival communities, connecting people from many corners of the world.

The Unsound Festival’s  organisers made a direct reference to hybrid realities by including the theme of hybridity in one of the debates during Unsound Lab, a special workshop for people wishing to start a career in music management. The discussion “Online/offline – hybrid possibilities” focused on the immaterial future of music and the role of streamed music events. They also organised an experiment with the participation of the audience and invited people  to place multiple online-devices  (including those archaic ones) around their apartments and simultaneously listen to the same performance. The idea was to produce  a completely new sonic effect, a  “Corona-style multichannel-audio experience”.

Unsound Festival online 2020, on Instagram

The observation of the 2020 editions of the selected festivals allows us to enumerate the following COVID -19 challenges and opportunities the organizers were and are still dealing with: 

A) Reorganization and new uses of the festival space, including the appearance of cyber spaces, “time-space distanciation”,  and a blurring of private/public sphere(s). On a more theoretical level, it can be said that in hybrid and virtual events, all or part of the role usually fulfilled by space is overtaken by time: rather than by meeting in the same place, any sense of community is created by mass communication at the same time. The example of the Sacrum Profanum organisers showed a fresh attitude to the virtual space: they tried to treat the network as a place of artistic activities, rather than merely the means of reflecting them. The new formula allowed them to showcase concerts in interiors that could not be used in the traditional model. This has given them the impetus for change: in future editions, they plan to reduce the number of listeners in order to give them the opportunity to participate in smaller events taking place in original locations (beyond mass reach), as well as to go to the backstage and see how the event is produced in  real time.

B) New forms of organiser-artist-audience cooperation where the festival experience is turned into a “mediated experience”. The artists and debate participants had no or a limited ability to interact with the audience or gauge their reactions, especially in the case of pre-recorded performances in the Sacrum Profanum festival. Consequently, the organisers had to explore the online mediums’ affordances to deal with this barrier: for Unsound, this meant the occasion to finally fulfil their long term plan of publishing a book of essays and an album of songs recorded for the festival – both of which are available in the traditional (indeed, vinyl!) formats, as well as digital downloads. However, probably the most interesting examples of hybridity in performance came as a direct result of a Coronavirus infection suffered at the time by the festival’s artistic director, Jan Słowiński.  Firstly, he had to coordinate a live event entirely virtually, which may be usual in the preparation stage, but is less common during the festival. Secondly, his wife Joanna, who is also a singer and was isolating with her husband, participated in the performance with the Sokół Orchestra via an online connection . This also meant that the musicians had to coordinate their live playing with her virtual vocals – and it must be stated that they did this flawlessly.

The pandemic crisis had its financial aspect which proved quite painful for the cultural sector, though it must be noted that the festivals we analysed were in a relatively good situation, as they do not rely fully on ticket sales. Still, the usual financing from central and municipal administration was largely cut, leading the organisers to look for alternative sources of money. In Unsound’s case this meant an online crowdfunding action, which turned out to be very successful, showing their festival audience’s strong sense of solidarity with the event. On the other hand, the organisers of  Sacrum Profanum Festival decided to work exclusively with Polish artists to support native performers, as the individual artists were also affected by the pandemic restrictions.

C) New understanding of openness/exclusion. Online events are available theoretically for a limitless public, but in practice participation is restrained by technological skills and resources. Among those who do have them, new patterns of accessibility can be observed: the virtual/hybrid concerts are available for people who would be excluded from the traditional live format (especially people with disabilities and those who can’t afford to travel to festival site). Additionally, there may be increased participation from people who would usually be indecisive on whether they want to go to a given event, as monetary and time costs are much lower in such circumstances (the case of Sacrum Profanum, a festival of experimental and modern classical music). 

D) Rethinking active/passive participation. While the intrusion of the festival into private homes has its disadvantages, it may also pose an opportunity for the audience to take a more active part in the event’s life. The most striking example of this is the case of Unsound being crowdfunded by its fans. While some prosumptive behaviours – in the sense of consuming/experiencing the concert through the audience’s own creations and activities – are possible and indeed frequent in traditional, live concert circumstances, in the hybrid situation they become the only widely available way to engage (or at least feel engaged) with the artists and other viewers. Whether it is a photograph of oneself while watching the event, a comment under the transmission or a handmade painting on the festival theme, the real-time online audience activities become much more important for the maintenance of festival atmosphere. The Sacrum Profanum festival also provided other forms of online  interaction with the public: Cracow’s soundwalks for children, DIY digital workshops on making musical instruments or an interactive composition with alternative variations to be chosen/voted by the audience watching  the event via Play Kraków platform. 

E) New opportunities for (virtual) cultural exchange. The example of the Unsound festival audience showed that its online actions – on Facebook and Discord – were aimed at maintaining a sense of  community.  Live commentators are eager to share where they come from and non-Polish speakers are usually welcomed by local participants, often offering help in “moving around” the virtual stages. It can be seen as a realisation of Manuel Castells  (2010) network society, with the festival itself serving as the central “node” of communication, surrounded by many multidirectional exchanges between the participants from different cultures.

Probably the most profound change that emerges in the festival sphere due to the emergence of hybrid festivals is a change of the very meaning of “liveness”. A festival can be a “live” event even in a virtual space, where the interactions within the festival community and real-time reactions of the public occur through digital channels. 

As Paweł Potoroczyn – an EFA member and culture manager – states, “festivals are ideas in work, and not brands”. The emergency situation and atypical conditions often make space for new (courageous) ideas, experiments,  and “extravagance”, as was manifested during the restrictions during the time of the pandemic. The current circumstances remind us that the concept of ‘liminality’ is inscribed into the phenomenon of (music) festivals, and especially to festival communities. The new festival formats that appeared as a consequence of Covid -19 are unquestionably a manifestation of organisational creativity, even though for some researchers and festival sector specialists, like Robert Piaskowski, nothing can replace the real, material (physical) event and that “emotion that spreads in the crowd and not only in the network”.  


Castells, M. (2010) Społeczeństwo sieci (M. Marody (trans.); 2nd ed.), Warszawa. 

Giddens, A. (1991) Modernity and self-identity: Self and society in the late modern age. Cambridge: Polity Press. 

Korporowicz, L. (2017). Extended cultures : towards a discursive theory of hybrid space. In A. Duszak, A. Jabłoński, & A. Leńko-Szymańska (Eds.) East-Asian and Central-European encounters in discourse analysis and translation, Instytut Lingwistyki Stosowanej, WLS UW, pp. 13-31.

Korporowicz, L. (2016)  ‘Intercultural Space’,  Politeja 5 (44): 17-33.

Solaris, J. (2020) The Future of Events Is Definitely Hybrid: What Will They Why Hybrid Events Are Here to Stayhttps://www.eventmanagerblog.com/future-is-hybrid-events

Sumiala, J., Tikka, M., Huhtamäki, J., & Valaskavi, K. (2016) ‘#JeSuisCharlie: Towards a Multi-Method Study of Hybrid Media Events’, Media and Communication, 4 (4): 97-108.

Glastonbury and its vivid presence

Magda Mogilnicka and Jo Haynes

University of Bristol, UK

‘It is with great regret, we must announce that this year’s Glastonbury Festival will not take place, and that this will be another enforced fallow year for us. In spite of our efforts to move Heaven & Earth, it has become clear that we simply will not be able to make the Festival happen this year. We are so sorry to let you all down.’ (21 January 2021)

Will the summer of 2021 offer a beacon of hope for festivals? After a somewhat subdued Christmas and New Year with very little socialising with friends and family, summer was looked to as the time when the pandemic would be behind us. The assumption was that normalcy would return, social gatherings of any size would be feasible, friends and families reunited, and public spaces could again be filled with people, celebration, music and dance. It turns out, ‘summer’s lease hath all too short a date…’  For many, the above statement from Worthy Farm signalled that summer ‘21 may all be over before it has even begun.

This time last year, Glastonbury (along with other very large music and sporting events) were the first to cancel, because it requires many months of significant on-site construction of its infrastructure and securing that its complex supply-chains are in place. At the recent DCMS (Digital, Culture, Media & Sport) select committee on The Future of UK Music Festivals, Paul Reed from the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) stated that smaller music festivals and events could leave their decisions until March. However, without a government-backed insurance scheme in place to support their business activity in the lead-up to this summer’s events, another cancellation would push many festivals further into precarious financial positions with the future of (some) music festivals looking rather bleak.

Despite the dark, foreboding clouds hanging over music festivals again this year, it is worth remembering what many festivals did in 2020 to recapture the festival community and to remake the festival space in alternative forms whether online or through other spaces and creative practices. Glastonbury was able to present a multimedia set of alternate events in 2020 in conjunction with the BBC, but can the same be repeated this year? Will the same technologies of nostalgia and collectivity work again in a second fallow festival year?  

A sheep grazing on a field with Glastonbury Tor in the distance by Chris Dorney

Watching Bowie perform on the Pyramid Stage in 2000 during GlastoAtHome 2020, and hearing him reminisce about playing there in 1971 created many intersecting layers of representations and memories of Glastonbury (and of Bowie who died in 2016). Those of us who weren’t there in 2000 or 1971 imagined how both performances were for him and the audience. Doing so enabled us to join a wider, yet largely unknown, community of festival goers, producers, workers and artists who for years have contributed to making one of the biggest music events in the world happen. It shows how virtual festivals create music’s ‘vivid presence’ (Schutz 1976) – that is, they enable a dispersed audience to share a fleeting portion of time, across a vast, networked space.

Glastonbury is a truly iconic festival, an integral part of the British summer, and indebted to the spirit, myth and reality of the original 1969 Woodstock festival, like most if not all, large scale music festivals, according to Bennett (2020:216). Its impressive 50-year-old history spans from the 1970 hippie and free festival movement – when a fledgling, unknown Bowie first appeared, through the 1990s when dance music was introduced, to the 21st century becoming one of the most famous commercial music festivals of all time, adding pop and hip hop to its musical fabric, and ensuring a plentiful supply of the eccentric, the grotesque, the strange and spectacular. With over 200,000 people on site each year, Glastonbury festival embodies the social and economic history of the changes observed in the festival industry. It is one of the most important cultural phenomena in British music history.

With large gatherings of people in fields cancelled last summer however, as an alternative the festival website offered links to numerous playlists, documentaries, activist talks, streaming dance classes, poetry, and access to its archives. The message on the website was clear, it asked people to stay away from Worthy Farm, suggesting that many might have been tempted to ‘camp out on the land’ and ‘get their soul free’ on the weekend it was due to take place. Instead, thousands of people celebrated the 50th anniversary of Glastonbury online. Social media was full of stories from previous years with hashtags (e.g. #GlastoAtHome) bringing pictures and memories from festivalgoers and artists together. Given the importance of the festival, people were invited to re-live or imagine the experiences of the past 50 years through a virtual network of the festival’s community, mediated and narrated by the BBC. The BBC provided access to past headliners with at least 10 million views on the BBC iPlayer alone.

But, for all of the multisensory experiences of art, theatre, dance, and humanity on offer at the event itself on Worthy Farm, music was the main item on the virtual menu for that weekend. It was music that united us with our friends, it was music that sutured different times, diverse memories, imaginations and spaces together. GlastoAtHome showed us what it means to experience music across time and beyond a physical festival space, as Smith (1979:16) argues music is ‘a continual becoming, in which the modalities of present, past and future are brought together not spatially only but as the emergence … of the musical phenomenon’. Music, therefore, according to David Hesmondhalgh, creates possibilities for ‘life-enhancing forms of collectivity, not only in co-present situations but across space and time’ in mediated ones (2013:85). The collective emotive experience of music at festivals creates and reinforces a sense of belonging to the festival community. Indeed, in our research, all festival organizers emphasized the importance of the community of people who produce and consume the festival. And this collectivity is not only constructed through music but also through the physical space, i.e. face to face encounters with like-minded people, sociabilities, sensory experiences and aesthetics of space. However, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted festival communities that had been maintained by these temporal proximities. The lack of physical connection meant that music, available in the virtual space, became the only sensory experience through which belonginess could be maintained.

For over twenty years Glastonbury’s community has stretched the temporal and spatial dimension of the festival’s site, with millions of viewers able to watch it live on BBC. But last summer the virtual dimension was the only one that connected people together. The community continued by the collective memory of the festival’s past that has temporarily transformed Glastonbury into a type of a nostalgia festival which expressed longing for the past. As Bennett and Woodward (2014:15) noted, ‘rather than merely celebrating a collective representation of the past, ‘nostalgiafestivals may also play an important role in helping festivalgoers to define their individual and collective identities in the present’. Nostalgia, in this sense, can be seen as a critical tool (Pickering and Keightley 2006:938), a productive means of creating security, that reinforces the sense of belonging in the times of uncertainty caused by the outbreak of COVID-19. The collective memories in the virtual space made Glastonbury 2020 real, alive, and thriving, while helping to imagine the festival’s future.

Although acknowledging the potential that music has for sociality and community, Hesmondhalgh also reminds us that music can ‘reinforce defensive and even aggressive forms of identity’ (2013:85). As much as we prefer to think of music festivals as enabling people to flourish collectively, they can also create division – we only need to remind ourselves of the Jay-Z ‘Wonderwall’ moment in 2008, where for some, rap had no place on the Pyramid stage, preferring instead a narrow, whitewashed version of headlining guitar acts. Many also remember the tensions surrounding Glastonbury’s changing status and identity in the 1990s – once a safe-haven for travellers and those supporting a free-festival ethos that became an ugly, stand-off with Michael Eavis, Worthy Farm, Pilton Village and the Avon and Somerset Constabulary. Given the increasing popularity, mediation and commercialisation of the festival, organisers were under pressure to secure, protect and refine the festival-going experience for a new generation of festival-goers wanting a shinier, slicker, celebrity encrusted version. And yet, in the virtual space of Glastonbury last year these tensions and divisions were absent as the festival celebrated its diversity showcasing a range of music genres and artists.

The unwelcome, but necessary, decision about the festival’s cancellation in March 2020 was transformed into a positive reimagining of the festival through a range of virtual platforms and spaces enabling a sense of belonging to the festival’s community amidst the loss and trauma of the global pandemic. Unlike smaller or new festivals, large, well-established festivals like Glastonbury did not have to worry about the possible threat to their integrity posed by its furlough last year, given they routinely have breaks so the pastures and land recover from the festival onslaught. However, last year there was hope that music festivals would come back in 2021 and the nostalgic reflection and participation in online festival spaces would be temporary. Will the Glastonbury festival survive another cancellation, or will it go bankrupt?

British music festivals are anxiously waiting the government’s decision about whether they can go ahead. With festivals contributing billions of pounds to the British economy each year, there is hope for the industry to survive, but only with the financial support from the government. Culturally, as the example of the virtual Glastonbury shows, there is a need for festival communities to continue. With significant negative effects of the prolonged pandemic on mental health, belonging to a community is now more important than ever. The emotional responses on social media to the loss of festivals last year demonstrate the resilience of the community. Last year’s Glastonbury’s ‘vivid presence’ constructed virtually through memories of music played an important role in giving hope for the community of artists, organizers and festival goers during the pandemic. But can the community survive another year without the festival? Will another virtual festival be enough to bring people together?

David Bowie is often heralded for his prescient views about the web.  In 1999 he said, at this point we had only witnessed ‘the tip of the iceberg’ in terms of its impact on society. Little did he know that in 2020 – and possibly again in 2021 – we would be shown how a vast network of people, times, music, memories and spaces that constitutes Glastonbury could be reimagined and remade through this medium.


Bennett, A. (2020) ‘Woodstock 2019: The Spirit of Woodstock in the Post-Risk Era’ Popular Music and Society 43 (2): 216-227.

Bennett, A., Woodward, I. (2014) ‘Festival Spaces, Identity, Experience and Belonging’ in A. Bennett, J. Taylor and I. Woodward (Ed.) The Festivalization of Culture. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate.

Hesmondhalgh, D. (2013) Why Music Matters Oxford: Wiley- Blackwell.

Pickering, M., Keightley, E. (2006) ‘The Modalities of Nostalgia’ Current Sociology 54 (6): 919–941.

Schutz, A (1976) Collected Papers II. Studies in Social Theory (ed. A Brodersen). The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Smith, F.J. (1979) The Experiencing of Musical Sound: A Prelude to a Phenomenology of Music London: Routledge.

Pol’and’Rock 2020: The Most Beautiful Virtual House Party

Netnography of a festival community in times of social distancing.

Karolina Golemo and Marta Kupis

Uniwersytet Jagielloński, Poland

How does an open-air music festival, that at peak popularity attracted hundreds of thousands participants, move to a small concert hall or to a virtual space? Instead of closeness, crowd spontaneity, unfettered contact between people, liberating dance and cathartic mud baths in front of the stage, there are rigor, restrictions, meticulous distance measuring, and face masks. In 2020, the year dominated by the pandemic, such a scenario was met by Pol’and’Rock, one of the most popular festivals in Poland, with a multitude of devoted fans. The event’s organisers moved this year’s edition to a television studio with a limited audience and made it accessible online through social media.

Pol’and’Rock Festival (formerly known as Woodstock Station), held since 1995, is an annual free rock music event labelled with the motto: “Love, Friendship, Music”. The event emerged as an idea of the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity Foundation (an initiative collecting money for Polish hospitals during the Christmas period for almost three decades) to show gratitude to its volunteers. Pol’and’Rock Festival (encompassing other genres like punk, heavy metal, folk, blues, electronic music) has been traditionally connected to the Polish third sector: different NGOs habitually present their activities in the festival venue. Along with the concerts there are other events organised during the festival, e.g. The Academy of Finest Arts – a space of encounter and discussion between young people and famous personalities: artists, politicians, and religious leaders. Throughout the years, there have been visible connections between music and issues regarding social activism and freedom of expression.

In 2020 the festival community was challenged by these unexpected circumstances. The decision to adopt the new format of the event was made quite early, at the end of April. Festival organisers’ announcement left no doubt: responsibility, solidarity and security proved to be more important than the annual group celebration of the musical ritual in Kostrzyn nad Odrą, the festival venue. Jerzy Owsiak, the president of the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity Foundation, stated:

Those who know us, know that we do not give up easily — no gale force winds, storms, or upheavals would dampen our resolve and energy to create the Most Beautiful Festival in the World. Unfortunately, we had to bow down to the virus (…) Now is not the time for pretending to be brave, for coming up with gimmicks to trick the virus. We know this very well, so we directed all our activities towards helping medical staff fight with the disease. We believe that we will overcome the worst, yet we are realistic and, above all else, prioritising health and safety of our festival guests and performers.(…).

He invited the festival audience to join the online 2020 edition and to maintain the sense of togetherness in the form of a distanced celebration:

We are gearing up to create a one-of-a-kind adventure and to recreate that community we have lovingly tended for all these years (…). Let’s create this festival experience together. Find a pleasant spot and, along with family and friends, immerse yourselves in the atmosphere of the Most Beautiful Festival in the World! Our stages will play internationally, and we will be honoured and humbled if you invite us to your homes (…).

This unexpected scenario caused by the pandemic influenced our research plans, too, making the fieldwork move to the virtual space. The participant observation, material encounters and dialogues with the public on the spot, had to be substituted by netnographic tools. These belong to a relatively new trend in social sciences, which can best be described in the words of Robert Kozinets: Netnography is a form of qualitative research that seeks to understand the cultural experiences that encompass and are reflected within the traces, practices, networks and systems of social media (Kozinets, 2020). The author further divides netnographic tools into three groups: investigative (a passive observation of online forums, groups, accounts, etc.), immersive (according to the author, it is difficult to speak of online observation as “participatory”, since there are many online actions that are neither passive nor active in classical ethnographic terms – for example, “liking” a comment – so he proposes the term “immersion” instead), and interactive (online interviews being the best example). The research presented here combined the investigative tools while watching the transmissions and the immersive tools for studying the audience.

The 2020 online edition of Pol’and’Rock Festival could be experienced, both in the sense of listening to the concerts and interacting with the rest of the audience, in two different ways. The first of those was through immediate, concurrent activities, creating a feeling of togetherness during the three festival days, while the second one was through deferred actions, helping to maintain a sense of community over longer periods of time. Different social media provided different affordances for interactions: for example, YouTube, the platform which was (and remains) the most popular way to watch the festival, offered both live transmissions and the ability to watch them after they took place. Similarly, the platform offered two forms of communications between viewers: a live chat and a classic comments section. The first of those offered an opportunity for public interaction only during the transmission, though the messages can still be read. The latter remains a lively forum of new opinions months after the festival took place.Two other main video platforms which transmitted Pol’and’Rock were Facebook and Twitch and each of them provided only a half of YouTube’s interaction affordances: Facebook’s comments and public chat were not differentiated, while Twitch offered only the live experience, both in terms of watching the concert and interacting with other viewers. It should be added that the last of the sites mentioned was also the only one where all events took place on the same channel, without any breaks in transmission.

While these technical differences between video platforms may seem of little importance, they appear to have had some impact on the behaviours and dynamics of people watching the online edition of Pol’and’Rock. Those watching Facebook transmissions made only limited attempts at interacting with each other, unless to ask or answer about a specific issue. As such, the comments were mainly expressions of one’s own feelings or checking in with an information on their whereabouts. Since the main theme of 2020’s edition of Pol‘and’Rock was a house party, the viewers appeared eager to let others know where their own house party is. It should be noted, though, that bringing banners with one’s hometown’s name happens quite often on live concerts, too. Perhaps, then, this is one of the examples of attempts at recreating a normal festival’s atmosphere? Twitch’s live chat was perhaps the “wildest” of video platforms: the users were very expressive, both positively – about the music – and negatively – about, for example, advertisements. It is difficult to say if such open criticism is only enabled by the online situation in general, this particular website’s specificity, or if the same person would complain about the commercial aspect of the festival to their friends, or if they would loudly shout about their displeasure for everyone to hear, which would be the closest equivalent to the vocal (‘keyboard-al’) online criticism.

Having briefly described the three main transmission platforms, the following account focuses on the most popular one, YouTube. The live chat there was under much more control from the moderators in comparison to Twitch, though it should be noted that it was also incomparably more crowded. The same transmission could have a difference of a couple of thousands watchers on YouTube to a few hundred on Twitch, which – as was directly experienced during the online observation of the event – made it difficult to post timely comments, interacting with other viewers or responding to what was happening onscreen. Meanwhile, the attempts at recreating as much of a live festival atmosphere as possible, mainly through responding to what was happening in the transmission may be the most striking element of the live netnography presented here. A multitude of watchers was not only writing (or, one might say, shouting on their keyboards) the song lyrics and sentences symbolic for the events (Zaraz będzie ciemno – It’s getting dark), recreating flashmobs and waves using emoticons (astoundingly quickly created sign language), but even asking each other if the showers are currently occupied or if someone could borrow some toilet paper, clearly trying to recreate the realities of a festival camp (though that last issue recently proved challenging even in the home setting). On the whole, Pol’and’Rock’s live video channels proved to be a captivating field for online observation.

Still, we should also mention some other new media that helped maintain Pol’and’Rock in a safely distanced situation. Needless to say, every social media platform played a role here, with Twitter used to share quick thoughts, photos and videos, all boosting the popularity of related hashtags, while Instagram offered a special filter to take and share a unique festival selfie (as pictured above). Two channels deserve more attention, however, if for no other reason, then because they represent the media which were available for some time, but only gained popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic. The two dark horses are the festival’s mobile app and its channel on Discord (See https://discord.com/). The former has been available since 2014 and has certainly had some uses since then, being a pocket-sized map, schedule and communication platform in one. This year, however, as the main premise of the festival was to create The Most Beautiful House Party in the World, the app helped to create a global sense of community by providing a simple map where anyone could check-in their own house event (see map image below).

Map image of online events Pol’and’Rock Festival 2020

While the greatest number of such check-ins was, unsurprisingly, from Poland and the rest of Europe, they came from many other continents, all across the Earth. And if there was need of further proof that Pol’and’Rock 2020 was indeed an international event, one need only look at the discussions taking place on Discord, with some posts being indeed in languages other than Polish (mainly in English). The platform (consisting of a website, as well as pc and mobile apps), with its unique structure combining a collection of private group chats, a social medium format, and actually private chats, may be the closest approximation to the structures forming among the event audiences: most people gather and stay around a scene, others drift towards accompanying events, others go to eat or shop, and others form very small, private groups – all the while they still maintain a single, ephemeral yet strong community of a festival edition’s audience.

Festival audiences’ online actions focused on maintaining their community during the COVID-19 pandemic, as exemplified by the participants of 2020’s edition of Pol’and’Rock. Such collective behaviour corresponds to some of the classic anthropological theories. Among those, two deserve a short reference within the context of phenomena described above. Firstly, the presented online actions can be seen as a realisation of Manuel Castells (2010) network society, with the festival itself serving as the central “node” of communication, surrounded by many multidirectional exchanges between the participants. Secondly, Victor Turner’s (1991) work on ritual has long been applied to music festivals, which also involves the concept of communitas, the anti-structural community formed in the middle, liminal ritual stage. A much newer trend shows how the same theory also works well in application to online worlds and groups. What is more, the framework of ritualistic social drama has also been used in analysis of critical situations, with a crisis serving as a forced liminal stage, during which people have to come up with new ways of dealing with the reality. There is little denying that COVID-19 pandemic is one of the greatest global crises of the last few years. As such, the 2020 edition of Pol’and’Rock combines three different “liminalities”: that of a live event, that of an online community and the one caused by a crisis. And indeed, just as Turner’s theory predicts, this unique situation created a fertile ground for creative ways of keeping in touch and recreating the festival atmosphere.

Hopefully, these substitutes will not be necessary much longer, but at the same time one has to admire the high-spirited determination of Pol’and’Rock fans to recreate the live event atmosphere in any way possible.


Castells, M. (2010) The Rise of the Network Society, Volume 1 (2nd ed.). Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Kozinets, R. (2020) Netnography. The Essential Guide to Qualitative Social Media Research. London: SAGE Publications Inc.

Turner, V. (1991) The Ritual Process. Structure and Anti-Structure. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.