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Festive spirit

By Brigid Delaney
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Summer is here and music festivals have become as much part of the season as picnics in the parks, long twilights, sticky weather and men who shouldn't -- but do -- wear shorts.

Recently 177,000 plus people descended on a field in Glastonbury, England for a three-day music festival and throughout the UK there are festivals of different sizes and types staged nearly every weekend until the end of September.

In the U.S., South by Southwest, Burning Man and Lollapalooza are crowd favorites. In Australia, Big Day Out and Homebake draw big crowds in the southern hemisphere summer.

Are you keen to get amongst the festival action but want to avoid the drugged out teens, death-meal rock fans and mosh pit injuries? CNN.com talked to festival organizers about what's involved in summer festivals, how to find which one's right for you and why the summer festival business is booming.

Melvin Benn of The Mean Fiddler music promotion company is one of the most powerful men in the UK festival business. He has been a promoter for two decades and has a hand in some of the biggest festivals of the UK summer, including Glastonbury, Homelands and Latitude.

Deborah Kee Higgins and Barry Hogan run All Tomorrow's Parties which have staged popular festivals at the Butlins Holiday Center and an upcoming festival curated by Portishead. Hogan has been promoting for 15 years and All Tomorrow's Parties have been operating for 8 years.

A sense of community

Both operators see summer festivals as being more than just about the music. Benn believes festivals provide a sense of community that may be missing in modern life.

"My view has always been if you take out the issue of a band, the most important thing that someone gets out of it is a sense of community. We live in a society that is a very, very broad church so we live as individuals fifty weeks a year -- we have neighbors that have different political interests, wealth standards and values," he says.

"What a festival allows people to do is to sleep among people, pitch a tent and share time with people who share very similar cultural values."

Higgins says festivals play an important social role.

"People go there and don't even watch any bands -- they go there to hang out with their friends, some go to pick up others or drink and take drugs, others go to watch people. It also gives kids a chance to meet their on-line buddies. It's not like 'I'm ostensibly chatting you up,' it's something where people meet that's not confrontational."

While sporting events can also provide a sense of community, the experience is usually fleeting says Benn.

"At festivals the experience of community is over three to five days."

From muddy fields to upmarket events

The popularity of festivals and the volume of new festivals that have sprung up in the past few years is due to several factors, but Benn believes that festivals have morphed from something more primitive and exclusively youth orientated to more up-market and inclusive events.

"Festivals themselves have grown up and they now provide excellent sounds, excellent lighting and excellent production values. It means you get great bands that want to perform at them, good artists in each and every field want to perform at festivals because standards have gone up enormously.

"For the audiences the standard of facilitates and security and welfare and medical facilities have gone up. They've all gone up at a similar pace," says Benn.

There are also economic factors at play.

"In the UK and other parts of Europe the standard of living and the strength of the economy in the last ten years have been such that people have money they can afford to spend on leisure activities. That increase in spending power has coincided with festivals improving," says Benn.

Says Higgins: "People aren't spending money on records, they are downloading them for free. Instead they are spending money on festivals. It's a booming market."

She also believes that value for money is also a drive behind the boom.

"For most people festivals are value for money. People can see a dozen bands with just one ticket. It's like a concentrated social experience. You stay up later, you see heaps of bands, meet a lot of people. It's like a very exciting holiday, but you condense it between Friday and Monday."

And then there's the media hype.

"It seems to be this hype surrounding the huge British festivals, Reading, V and Glastonbury. The tickets used to be on sale all summer. Now it's a media driven thing. They described Glastonbury as the greatest carnival on earth and then you couldn't get into it," says Hogan.

More than music Festivals themselves are morphing into much more than music. At the Hay-on-Wye book festival recently, you could hear an author speak but you could also get tickets to hear Welsh tenor Bryn Terfel.

At the All Tomorrow's Party events at Butlins Holiday Center, when you are sick of bands, you can go to the cinema or watch Festival TV in your chalet, with the programs specially selected to match the mood of the festival. Latitude Festival in July also takes an eclectic approach with its line up that features a mix of comedians, bands, writers and poets.

Says creator Benn: "I've been around festivals for a long, long, time -- I've taken the view that I wanted to create a festival that was a representation of a large part of what my cultural interest are. I wanted to try and create something that I wanted to do on a Sunday morning -- I will sit and listen to music while reading the broadsheets.

"I wanted to create a festival that had all those elements that at the same time was quite gentle, it wasn't about rushing about from one thing to another -- it was about great books, great poetry, a fuller cultural picture."

Do you remember your first time?

What if it's your first time at a festival? The experts have this advice.

"If you really want to explore for the first time and dip your toes in, come for the day. The other alternative is to do it a bit more comfortably and book a B&B. You have entertainment during the day and have the warmth of a lovely bed but what you do lose is some sense of the community (but) staying in a hotel nearby is a great way of experiencing it for the first time," says Benn.

"Beyond that is having the courage to do it. Latitude attracted a lot of first time festival goers -- they're very safe, festivals are now are very well organized, you're not likely to be mugged, attacked robbed. And thereafter it's just having the courage to say 'let's do something different."

Higgins echoes that advice.

"Choose a festival that you like the look of and book accommodation close by so you're not camping with all the kids."

Higgins and Hogan run festivals on the site of holiday camps so each guest has their own chalet.

"It's good because you can retreat when it all gets to much, but you are still on site with hot showers and warm beds," says Hogan. As for the organizers, seeing people have fun at their festivals is part of the joy.

"It's entirely for that reason-- I wanted someone to create something that people enjoyed -- I was a festival goer myself in the 1970s and I loved it. That's where I developed my thing on community," says Benn.

"I set about putting myself in a position where I could create and develop festivals -- for me it's where my life is. It's like film-makers creating a film or like theatre directors; what goes into it is all of your own making and then people come and enjoy it."


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Not even torrential rain could dampen the spirits of some hardy souls at Glastonbury this year.

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