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Music

Music festivals with less alcohol? Lithuania leads the way

Home to the world's heaviest drinkers, Lithuania has passed a detox bill banning alcohol ads and limiting booze at public events like music festivals. Can the Baltic state be a role model for other countries?

Over the last five years, acts like Lady Gaga, Red Hot Chili Peppers or The xx have visited Lithuania for the first time and were greeted by sold-out crowds. Lithuania has put itself on the map for the Western music market since breaking free from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

This may not have happened without the advertising money from international beer companies targeting young music fans - ads that Parliament voted to ban on Thursday in Vilnius.

"We wouldn't be able to bring artists like Ellie Goulding, Moderat or Nicolas Jaar to Vilnius without corporate sponsors. And beer companies were the only ones willing to invest in contemporary music," says Victor Diawara, a musician and director of Loftas, one of the busiest music clubs in Vilnius. The club also hosts its own music festival.

Beer and live music traditionally go hand in hand, not only culturally, but also financially. The leading music festivals in Europe, such as Rock am Ring in Germany, which opens on Friday, or Roskilde in Denmark, are sponsored by beer companies. Open'er, the largest outdoor festival in Poland, only recently changed its name from "Heineken Open'er."

However, while beer may be also beloved in Denmark, Germany and Poland, Lithuania has a serious drinking problem.

Rock am Ring 2016 (picture alliance/dpa/T. Frey)

Rammstein and Die Toten Hosen are headlining Germany's Rock am Ring, where alcohol is unrestricted, from June 2-4

World's heaviest drinkers

According to the latest figures from the World Health Organization (WHO), an average Lithuanian drinks 18.2 liters of pure alcohol per year - twice as much as an average person from Sweden or Spain. This makes Lithuanians the heaviest drinkers not only in Europe, but in the world.

OECD data from 2013 showed similar results. Although alcohol consumption in Europe is slowly decreasing, Lithuania's drinking rates rose faster than any other EU country over the last decade.

The newly elected government, led by the Farmers and Greens Union - whose leader, Ramūnas Karbauskis, famously stated that he has never drunk alcohol in his life - aims to completely reset the country's alcohol policy.

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New bill passed by Parliament

According a bill passed on Thursday by the Lithuanian Parliament, all alcohol ads will be banned, the legal drinking age will be raised from 18 to 20, and the sale of alcohol to under-20-year-olds will be prohibited at public events. Additionally, alcohol sales will be restricted to 10:00 am to 8:00 pm Monday through Saturday and 10:00 to 3:00 pm on Sundays, rather than 8:00 to 10:00 pm every day. 

Iceland is the only other European country with a legal drinking age of 20. In much of Europe it is 18 and in Germany and a few other countries, beer and wine are allowed at age 16. Only Norway, France and Russia have similarly banned alcohol ads, making Lithuania's approach one of the strictest in Europe.

The approved bill is a slightly weaker version of the original draft, which foresaw a blanket ban on alcohol at public events - regardless of age.

Over 40 local music promoters and artists had signed a public letter asking Parliament not to pass the draft. On May 16, some of Lithuania's biggest artists played a free concert next to Parliament called Freedom for Rock 'n' Roll, claiming that people should be at liberty to choose how they want to party - whether with or without alcohol.

It was the first anti-government concert of this scale in Lithuania since protest concerts against the Soviet Union.

"Twenty-seven years ago, rock music was the biggest weapon for freedom fighters," Rimvydas Valatka, an influential columnist and one of the signatories of Lithuania's Act of Independence in 1990, wrote on Facebook. "I wouldn't have believed that we would need a similar concert against our own government."

President Dalia Grybauskaitė will need to sign the bill before it can go into effect, though she is not expected to overturn it.

Young man drinking alcohol (picture-alliance/dpa/R. Weihrauch)

Germans drink an average of 11.4 liters of pure alcohol per person per year

Fun without alcohol?

While drinks will still be sold to over-20-year-olds, music festivals will be hit hard by the law. Not only do younger fans make up a huge portion of audiences, the ads ban will cost festivals their sponsors. But the heated debate leading up to the parliamentary decision has also raised the question of whether alcohol is really necessary for concerts and festivals at all. 

Alcohol-free music events have increased in popularity in recent years. Butserfest, billing itself as the UK's biggest drug-free and alcohol-free festival, has been around since 2007 and has managed to feature such established bands as You Me At Six and Young Guns.

Another British festival, Buddhafield, established back in 1992 and inspired by Buddhist values, asks attendees to "get into the spirit, but leave the spirits at home." The festival attracts over 1,500 people each year.

'Drunk people don't care about music'

Major festivals have also started to pay more attention to sober partying. Bonnaroo in the US, headlined this year by U2, The Weeknd and Lorde, hosts "Soberoo" meetings for those who want to experience the festival without being under the influence. Each of the four daily meetings are attended by more than 50 people, from recovering alcoholics and drug addicts to those who are there for the music and nothing else.

"Believe me, music sounds different when you are sober," claims Simonas Dailidė, organizer of the alcohol-free music festival Varom! in Lithuania. "I've been to all of the biggest festivals in Lithuania, and many festivals abroad. It's impossible to find a sober person there, especially at night. And drunk people don't care about music."

Fed up with boozing at music festivals, Dailidė, a former heavy drinker himself, launched Varom! to show that it is possible to have a different kind of party. Since early 2013, the festival has managed to host most of the biggest artists in Lithuania. None of them declined an invitation.

Each year Varom! attracts around 1,000 sober music fans who pay up to 50 euros ($55) for a ticket. That is enough money to pay the artists, but insufficient for a profitable business model - the festival would need corporate sponsorship for that. "We do it as a hobby," admits the organizer.

Dailidė supports the new government regulations on alcohol. "No country drinks as much as we do. That is why we cannot look to other countries for solutions; we have to find them ourselves. It's clear that Lithuania needs a drastic change. If we succeed, we will set an example for the world."

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Party (Fotolia/pressmaster)

Does alcohol overshadow the music?

Education vs. restrictions

The promoters of bigger music events in Lithuania aren't that optimistic. They think that instead of teaching other countries how to party responsibly, Lithuania will shoot itself in the foot.

"The budget plan of every concert involves money earned from selling beer and other alcoholic drinks. If the alcohol sales are heavily restricted, organizers will be forced to raise ticket prices," explains Aleksandras Karablikovas, director of Live Nation Lithuania, the company responsible for Lady Gaga, Depeche Mode and Elton John concerts in Vilnius.

"I don't think the restrictions will solve alcohol problem in Lithuania, but they will definitely affect the live music market. Over the last five to eight years, Lithuanians have changed their lifestyle. Running has become a massive trend, and more people have started to care about their health. This is the way to go - educating people to care more about themselves," says Karablikovas.

"I remember when I went to my first concert - it was AC/DC in 1991. There were ultra-religious people who handed out flyers saying that if you go to this concert, you'll burn in hell, because the band had songs titled 'Highway to Hell' or 'Hells Bells.' Now, I feel the same attitude against alcohol in Lithuania," adds Diawara from music club Loftas.

"Lithuania really has a problem with drinking and we have to do something about it. But I don't believe that such radical policies can work. I grew up in Germany where you can drink beer when you are 16 and do it publicly on the street. But if someone said to me that the Germans are a nation of alcoholics, I would never agree with that."

The promoter says that he is already looking for new concert sponsors to replace alcoholic beverage companies.

 

 

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