The future of UK festivals: 5 critical challenges facing the industry after Covid

Art & Culture

There is an awkward moment on any form of comms, whether it’s social media, email marketing, or website advertising, where an upcoming festival crops up with their line up announcement for 2021.

We all know the feeling – a spark of excitement, followed by a nervous pulling of the collar.. A passing thought of should I or shouldn’t I forward this on to the usual suspects? And then we finally settle for ‘I’ll see how things are in a couple of months’. It’s all very confusing.

There were some recent in-depth debates on and Junction 2’s ‘Speaker’s Corner’, where key figures in the dance music and festival industries, including The Warehouse Project and Parklife Festival co-founder Sacha Lord, Boomtown Director Anna Wade and Chief Executive of Notting Hill Carnival Matthew Phillip, broke down the real life challenges they are met with when tackling this predicament. 

Obviously mass gatherings are not yet safe, so this is by far the biggest factor at play in the wider conversation. Nonetheless, how we choose to protect festivals during the pandemic, empower them to plan and survive, and preserve the industry for years to come, depends on the actions we take now during these critical months.

Here are 5 common themes and challenges that organisers face:

1. Covid cancellation insurance

Festival organisers and industry bodies argue that government-backed covid cancellation insurance is the most vital component for the sector to have any fighting chance of coming to life in 2021. With countries like Germany, Austria, and Switzerland leading the way with these schemes, organisers are hopeful that the UK will also follow suit. Unsurprisingly, the government disagrees with the approach. While festival organisers have defended insurance as the ‘key that unlocks the door’ for the likes of planning, supply chain confidence, and artist deposits, the government has framed it as the ‘last piece of the puzzle’ – an inherently flawed and contradictory stance that offers no assurances and a lot of upfront investment from organisers. 

What’s even more infuriating is that an insurance scheme for TV and Film was lobbied for and succeeded. This covered liability of up to £500m and not a penny of it was spent. In turn, it generated a significant amount more than that in tax revenue.

‘So how are insurance discussions progressing?’ I hear you ask. Well… they’re not. At least not right now. The latest statement from the digital and culture minister Caroline Dineage was that the government was “not yet convinced by the evidence presented to date that insurance intervention is the right form of support”. I mean, if they’re not convinced, they’re not convinced. You can’t really argue with that… right?

Ironically, the UK is the country in Europe with the best chance of a festival season due to the pace of vaccination. Germany on the other hand is going at a fraction of the pace, and still has the decency to protect and preserve its festivals. This year it set aside a €2.5billion cancellation fund despite being at risk of not meeting their covid-secure deadline of 1st July.

What about commercial insurance? Paul Reed, CEO at Association of Independent Festivals, powerfully sums up that: “commercial insurance for covid cancellation does not currently exist. If the public health situation drastically improves over the spring and there is a certain level of confidence in festivals happening in some shape or form, there is a market failure in terms of insurance.” In other words the government is our only hope.

2. Consumer confidence

Organisers are hesitant to make any kind of announcements in 2021. Last year, the comical lockdown/open for business on and off switch approach made it difficult but not impossible for some small socially distanced events to go ahead. As promoters are a resilient breed, quite a few venues and parties pulled it off; most notably The Cause’s Costa del Tottenham, and Venue MOT (although Batu delivered a set at MOT that sent the crowd into lunacy during Carnival weekend and consequently led to cripplingly stricter measures from local authorities for the venue – curse that talent!).

What promoters found though was that for the few events that went ahead, there were unfortunately countless cancellations, creating more uncertainty for consumers. So when we are talking about large scale, live music spectacles that can take months to organise, ‘on or off’ is not a strategy, and the long term relationship with the punters could be irreparable if handled in the wrong way.

So is social distancing a viable solution? Possibly the most contentious subject amongst festival organisers has been whether a socially distanced festival is a festival at all. Whilst Sacha Lord and Matthew Phillip were of the view that large scale events simply cannot go ahead with social distancing, Rowan Cannon of Wild Rumpus has said some could be “Safer than Sainsbury’s” and was in disagreement with the narrative that festivals are “somehow binary, that either there is a summer of no festivals or there is carte blanche and festivals of up to 80,000 people can go ahead”.

Michael Kill, CEO of Night Time Industries Association also backed social distancing when speaking to Junction 2, highlighting “whether we start with covid secure environments with a limited cap, we need to get consumer confidence back.”

I personally am not a fan of the idea of festivals attempting social distancing. The close moments we pay hundreds of pounds for are the moments we shouldn’t pay hundreds of pounds for; Dan reuniting with the group 48 hours after going missing in the crowd, pints of piss flying through the air at the main stage, climbing on your mate’s shoulders and getting shouted at by the people behind you. God I miss it.

Whatever the answer is, certainty and industry-wide agreement on guidelines will be key.

3. An agreed safety level

On the 12th December 2020 an extraordinary event took place in Barcelona. 463 people gathered together, watched live music, legally, without social distancing. The free event was to trial whether live audiences were possible in a covid-struck world, and it was a resounding success. Of the control group, two people tested positive and were denied access, whilst 463 music fans attended the show. Primavera Sound’s groundbreaking initiative showed a 0% infection rate in follow up tests and achieved the first step in proving that these events can take place.

While there is cause for optimism here, organisers in the UK are still crying out for clarity on what ‘safe’ looks like. Testing is a huge consideration in the discussion of opening festivals up again with Boris Johson now alluding to rapid testing being a route to reopening nightlife, but the concern is that there are a lot of important questions being asked around the science, and none being answered.

‘How can we engage with the government to mitigate health risks through testing?’, ‘What percentage of the population needs to be vaccinated before we can go ahead?’, ‘What date is that likely to be?’, ‘Is the licensing going to be rolled out gradually and locally? Or a blanket decision at national level?’

Time is running out though. Of the Association of Festival Organisers’ members, 30% need to know a date by March and 27% by April.

4. Supply chain health

Now here is where the implications of no festivals this year becomes sticky and far-reaching. The festival industry is 85,000 workers strong, and employment opportunities range from main headliner, to lead litter picker – these workers are largely made up of contracted businesses and individuals. Beyond that there are thousands of volunteers dedicating hundreds of hours to help the events whilst gaining vital life experience for future careers. And beyond that, local businesses within the geographical landscape of festivals benefit from the economic booster that comes with thousands of new neighbours over a few days – it is estimated that for every £10 spent on the festival site, £17 is generated for the local economy.

It’s not just the local businesses that reap the benefits of festival season, food vendors are a huge part of the festival experience. Where else can you find dozens of local and national outlets, showcasing a selection that ranges from vegan crab tacos, to ‘Lincolnshire’s finest hog roast’?

But these eloquent sprints of hospitality do not happen overnight. In a recent news segment, Boxpark’s Poptata, a huge supplier of fries to festivals across the UK, reported they would incur significant losses from the currently non-existent market, but also pointed out that it doesn’t just affect them, they have to order from their suppliers, and their suppliers from other suppliers. On top of that, months of planning are required for the service to run smoothly on that long weekend, so the supply chain is also reliant on the festival’s financial guarantees.

As you can probably gather, the festival ecosystem is extremely complex and fragile. Once you take one area of the supply chain away, whole infrastructures are in danger of collapsing. This is exactly what industry heads are fearful of – if the invisible armies of suppliers are not offered financial security through insurance or other means, we are in danger of losing them to other industries where they may not return from.

There is hope in the form of loyalty though, as Duncan Bell of We Make Events points out, “There are people who have gone, skilled engineers who have gone into the IT world, because their skills are transferable, but that is not where they want to work. They will earn more money, potentially, but they will still hopefully come back when they have the certainty because they love the industry.”

5. Financial support

The Arts Council’s Culture Recovery Fund has been one of the biggest lifelines to those in music this year. With grants starting at £50k, it offered immense support to the cultural fabric of the UK. The initiative deserves huge kudos, but there were also some challenges when translating the grants to festival operating models. 

There are 975 festivals in the UK, of those only 81 applied and 51 were successful. My biggest question here is why did only 81 apply? Alarm bells immediately ring. Apparently this was down to two things: firstly, festivals only operate once a year, and therefore they have not been legally forced to close down as a business, and secondly, some festivals cannot justify that amount of money, and therefore they are priced out. We need smaller, seasonal grants also on offer as this would make a huge difference across the spectrum.

Other proposals include the current VAT reduction (at 5%) to be extended, and a covid contingency budget that includes cost of testing.

As covid test prices range from £10-£200 depending on the speed of the result, if festivals require testing facilities on-site, you can see how quickly the costs could become crippling if we do not have a government approved process and financial backing.

Overall, whilst financial backing is always helpful, there is an obvious concoction of uncertainty, lack of security, and inability to plan that is paralysing the festival landscape. The lack of science behind the topic of mass gatherings, and unwillingness from the government to make informed data-driven recommendations and predictions is extremely frustrating. The most glaringly obvious solution though is in the form of an insurance scheme for government-backed planning, so events can work towards a festival season alongside the vaccine being rolled out, risk-free. This, I believe, is our best hope of keeping the industry intact, securing jobs, and protecting moments that mean so much to so many.

All we can do now is push the agenda and call for action to be prioritised. You can start by completing this survey to help the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport with their inquiry into the future of UK Music Festivals. The deadline is Monday 22nd February at 6pm and answers will help them illustrate to Ministers why festivals are so valuable to the UK’s cultural landscape, and why getting them back up and running is important to so many people.