The place where we belonged

The Spook School headlining Indietracks 2016. Photo: John Kell cc-by-2.0

Another world is possible. As well as equality, sustainability and justice, it has cute sparkly bracelets and audiences who just smile when the guitarist plays the wrong chord.

Since the end of Indietracks was announced, people have responded in different ways. Some have taken to social media to reminisce and share videos and photos. Others have beaten me to the punch and already blogged about it. Importantly, MJ Hibbett reminds us that Indietracks was the only place where those of us whose audiences have always been a bit on the socially distanced side could perform and feel like proper rock stars. Validation matters. There was a Viking thunderclap in 2016, the last time I played Indietracks – which was also the first time I really felt like I deserved to have an audience.

Other people, I know, are too numb with loss to participate in the socials. There is, quite clearly, a lot to lament around the world in 2021 – and some might deem it a little indulgent to speak of grief or shed tears for the loss of a music festival. I hope not. That would be wrong.

I empathise with the nice men who went home after the event and wrote on their blogs every year that Indietracks was really special and probably their favourite among all the festivals on the calendar.

But I empathise most with the awkward humans, the queer and gender-non-conforming, the ill-adjusted and exhausted, the grown-ups who still can’t stand wearing suits, the beautiful blue-haired gawks who, after all these years, still draw startled glances when they walk into a team meeting. Those for whom Indietracks was the only festival ‘on the calendar’ that it was even possible to attend.

Why it mattered most

Earlier on I thought this was because Indietracks was the only live music weekender where you could avoid seeing Ed Sheeran, or at least the only indie fest where you could be sure you wouldn’t hear brawny cishet northern lads singing through their noses about nightclub bouncers and bacon.

It’s very important to have a place where those things don’t happen. But as time went on, I realised that Indietracks was important only partly because of the music. More than that, it was vital to the awkward humans because it was the only place where we felt we belonged.

Jyoti Mishra plays the merch tent, Indietracks 2011. Photo: Ed Jennings cc-by-nc 2.0

A few years ago I played an afternoon slot at the Moseley Folk festival in a big park in Birmingham. I didn’t know anyone there, but after my set I wanted to stay and watch the Pastels and Saint Etienne (no, it wasn’t actually a folk festival in Moseley; it was a festival for Moseley folk). So I drank some beer. Then, instead of feeling sober, awkward and alone in a big crowd, I felt drunk, awkward and alone in a big crowd.

For all my discomfort, Moseley Folk had at least managed to evoke that sense of removal from everyday life which is implicit in the history, etymology and anthropology of the festival. Temporary escapism is its defining feature – not just the popular music weekenders of the past half-century in the western world, but all kinds of get-togethers, rituals, religious and folk traditions, right across the calendar, in thousands of cultures. It’s about shelving your day-to-day concerns to free up your mind for a bit – be that via indiepop, folk, jazz, fire and light, God, or getting spectacularly off your face.

For one afternoon in the West Midlands, then, the credit crunch belonged to another realm. But when I left, I walked through a gate and a short alleyway and I was on a busy high street on an ordinary Saturday night. I’d fallen through a wormhole, back into the universe of the humdrum, subsumed into a throng of non-festivalgoers shouting at each other over the roar of pointless traffic while they tussled for kebabs.

Total immersion

At Indietracks the closest thing we experienced to urban alienation was a curious glance from the locals if we needed to pop into the Ripley Sainsbury’s for suncream and a bag of apples. The seclusion of the Midland Railway Centre, blanketed between the modest slopes of the Amber Valley, meant it was possible to immerse entirely in the subculture. As Shaun Brilldream has it, Indietracks “provided a teasing glimpse of a world where Pink Floyd and the Conservative party had never existed”. You could go three whole days without a Muggle to spoil the magic or scream “freak!” while you’re waiting for a bus.

Now I wouldn’t recommend trying to live your whole life as an escapist, but if you are someone whose day-to-day social interactions can be fraught with a thousand small terrors then having a safe space for three days out of 365 can be salutary, affirmational and transformative.

Saying goodnight. Photo: me

So if you’re emotionally shredded by the end of a music festival, then you have a right to be – because it was more than a music festival. Perhaps many of the Indietracks crowd enjoy relatively comfortable lives, but many also are marginalised or disenfranchised in some way. Many experience homophobic and transphobic abuse, or mental health problems; others deal with physical illness or disability. And in the end, everyone deserves a place where they can feel they belong.

The nice men with blogs will go on to End Of The Road and Glastonbury, they’ll have those weekenders in Preston or Wakefield, hear bands reprise songs from their 1988 John Peel sessions, and see The Lovely Eggs go down a storm. They’ll be at events without steam trains or owls or people with glitter on their faces, and they’ll have a great time. I’m chuffed to bits for the nice men with blogs, that they still have places to go. But I’m devastated for the people who might never feel able to attend a festival again.

Here’s a thing though. The Hidden Cameras in 2014, on the main stage, when the electrics went down – carrying on regardless, one acoustic guitar and a handful of voices reaching out to hundreds of us, across the space. The Hidden Cameras had no power but they made the best of things. It was moving and unforgettable. The rest of us have no power either. Whatever instruments we have to hand, musical or otherwise, let’s take a cue from Indietracks to make the best of things too.

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