Show Hide image

The summer without festivals

The cancellation of events this year is not just a blow to the festival circuit, but to the music industry’s whole ecosystem.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman’s Morning Call email.

Over the last decade, music festivals have become a staple of the British summer. In the 12 months from May 2018, 26 per cent of adults in the UK went to a music festival – even though Glastonbury, the world’s largest greenfields festival, was on its fallow year. Last year the market research company Mintel estimated the UK concert and festival industry to be worth £2.6 billion, while the FT reported that over 1,000 festival events took place in the UK in 2016. This year is a very different story: as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, this will be a summer without festivals.

This follows, of course, a period of several months without any live music at all, the economic damage of which has led to calls from the Music Venues Trust for £50 million of government support to help the sector while venues cannot sensibly re-open during the coronavirus crisis. 

Festivals have become such a crucial part of the fabric of many people’s social and cultural lives that a British summer without them seems almost unimaginable. But here we are. In their place are virtual events and live streams: to attend, you don’t have to worry about having the right tent poles or remembering to pack your wellies. About 210,000 festival-goers who would have been sweating in a field to celebrate Glastonbury’s fiftieth year this weekend will instead have to settle for coverage of previous years’ performances across BBC television and radio

But digital replacements do not make up for a lack of income. The Association of Independent Festivals has reported that 92 per cent of its members say cancellations have led them to face costs that could ruin their businesses, including potential refund costs of up to £800 million across the industry. Glastonbury founder Michael Eavis told the Guardian his festival has “to run next year, otherwise we would seriously go bankrupt”.

[See more: Finger on the App: the dystopian competition that sums up everything that’s wrong with the internet]

At the beginning of the coronavirus crisis in the UK, Simon Taffe, co-founder of End of the Road, a “medium-sized” festival in Dorset which takes place at the beginning of September each year, was crossing his fingers.

“When the crisis first came about, we hoped it’d be OK by July or so,” he says over the phone, “but then it kept on rolling. We were constantly gambling a little bit more money, thinking: do we pull the plug and cancel it? Because the government went about it in quite a cloak and dagger way at the beginning, we had to spend a huge amount of money before we really knew we had to cancel.”

End of the Road 2020 tickets remain valid for 2021, when Taffe hopes the festival will go ahead. He tells me that 90 per cent of his audience have held onto their tickets, bolstered by confirmation that a number of artists on this summer’s line-up, including Pixies, King Krule, Bright Eyes and Little Simz, will appear next year.

Taffe is grateful that the festival is now in its fifteenth year. “We’ve lost a lot of money, but we had quite a bit of money to lose,” he says, “whereas if we were three or four years in, I don’t think we’d survive to next year. We were still paying debts then, still getting the business to break even.” He has faith that even if festivals weren’t given the green light for 2021, End of the Road would just about still survive. “But I know there would be a lot of casualties. I think there’ll be a lot of casualties even this year.”

2,000 Trees, an independent rock festival held annually in Cheltenham, is also in its fifteenth year, but has not been so secure. “A festival is much more than one weekend a year,” says James Scarlett, the festival’s founder. It’s something he thinks the government has forgotten in its economic assistance for businesses. “The financial situation for us was pretty dire, because suddenly our income dropped to zero and there were still costs going out.”

His five staff members are not covered under the furlough scheme. Having taken a 60 per cent pay cut himself, Scarlett turned to his fanbase to ensure he did not have to give out redundancies. A crowdfunder campaign to support 2,000 Trees into next year has raised almost £120,000.

“The government is asking businesses to take out loans,” Scarlett says. “But that is betting against your future; it’s very risky. Without the money from this crowdfunder, we would very much have been hanging in the balance.”

Johnny Lynch, a musician, label owner and festival organiser, gladly didn’t have an edition of his Howlin’ Fling micro-festival, held on the Hebridean isle of Eigg, planned for this year. He was, however, expecting to play up to 20 festivals under his experimental folk moniker Pictish Trail. Lynch tells me that due to festival cancellations, he’s missing out on at least £20,000. With his booking agent on furlough, he’s not even sure how many of those dates remain confirmed for 2021.

For an independent musician with a small but loyal following, who has long given up on expecting to receive any decent profits from streaming, losing touring revenue is the latest, most bitter, hardship. “I’ve been a full-time musician for the last 18 years,” he says, “and it’s always been a bit hand to mouth. You just take the work when it comes in and a lot of it is last minute. This year has been disastrous, but at the same time, I’m used to living month to month.”

“For the most part, music fans recognise that everyone’s getting hit by this crisis really hard, so they want to show their support,” he tells me. Fans bought up all the merch he should have been taking out on a March–April tour in support of his new album, and then sold out another order he placed, of t-shirts, mugs and stickers. This support, he says, “has been a total lifesaver – it’ll sort me out until the end of the year.”

Like Taffe, he is grateful to fans who have kept hold of tickets. He has had only two or three people ask for refunds on a ten-date tour, now rescheduled to 2021, and suggests that for the most part, festival-goers will be happy to hold onto tickets for what are very coveted events. Missing out on Glastonbury this year will be a big disappointment to many; on the upside, ticket-holders are guaranteed a spot at next year’s festival without having to again endure the stress of trying to buy tickets online up against hundreds of thousands of other people.

[See more: Why is the New York Times threatening to reveal blogger Scott Alexander’s true identity?]

For artists, a lost festival season means a loss of opportunities beyond direct revenue. A band which gets its name on festival line-ups can use that as leverage for further gig bookings; an artist who impresses a crowd during a festival slot might see their records and merchandise sell out in the on-site shop, and have punters buy tickets to their upcoming tour; radio stations with particular links to festivals (such as BBC Radio 1 with Reading and Leeds or BBC 6 Music with Glastonbury or Green Man), are more likely to play the songs of artists who will appear at those festivals.

The damning effect this crisis has had on independent music venues will go on to affect the festival circuit too, as these spaces nurture up and coming artists before they appear at festivals and gradually rise through the ranks of line-ups. Festivals are an imperative part of the music industry’s ecosystem. The knock-on effect of event cancellations on seasonal workers and those who work behind the scenes ­– live agents, promoters, sound engineers, lighting technicians, tour managers, staging contractors, health and safety officials, caterers – cannot be overstated.

Spanish guitar band Hinds released their third album in early June, after pushing it back because of the crisis. Following a 35-date UK, Europe and US tour (which has now been cancelled), the band was booked to play approximately 20 festivals this summer, including dates in Japan and Australia (there is a reason Hinds are known within the industry as one of the hardest-working bands around).

Ana Perrote, Hinds’ vocalist and guitarist, tells me she is “frustrated” about missing out on festival season. After a rare year off touring, spent writing and recording The Prettiest Curse, the band was ready to play shows to promote it.

“You’re meant to go on tour and play festivals after you release an album,” she says. “Now it feels like we’ve done the first part, but someone is not letting us do the other part of the job. I feel like we’re only halfway there.” She tells me the band has only been paid once since the start of the crisis, for a brand-sponsored online performance, and some of her bandmates have had to borrow money to get through the next few months. 

Perrote says more than half the festivals Hinds were scheduled to play have already confirmed they are being kept on for next year. But that doesn’t make up for the vast hole that this festival-less summer puts into their schedule when they have an album to promote. Playing festival shows in particular is a great way to expose a band’s music to new listeners and grow a fanbase.

They also serve an important social and artistic purpose for the band: “Festivals are where we meet all our friends we only see once a year,” Perrote says. “We love having this menu of all the artists on offer. Sometimes we get to hear artists we would never think we’d be into, but their stage presence is amazing, and we get so inspired.”

The social effects of a lack of festivals for a whole season are numerous. Taffe knows people who go to festivals as a form of “therapy – it’s what lifts them out of themselves”. Jeffrey Johns, fondly known as “Big Jeff” to bands and gig-goers who recognise his long blond hair in mosh pits in Bristol and beyond, tells me he finds the prospect of a summer without festivals “really weird. I’ll miss not having these events to look forward to, being able to run around leafy green fields, bumping into a bunch of random friends, and making new friends too.”

When we speak over Zoom, I notice his wrists are full of festival wristbands from years gone by. This summer he was hoping to attend ten festivals, his average for the season.

“For me it’s about more than just the bands”, Johns says. “It’s about the people who surround them. It’s about going into a space and feeling really safe. I find some social situations very difficult, so having something like a festival, where everyone is focused on the bands, helps to break the ice with people. And there’s something really exciting about hearing something live for the first time that completely blows your mind.”

No one can yet be sure that festivals will be given the green light to go ahead next summer, particularly if there is a second wave of coronavirus in the UK, as some have predicted. Many of the people I spoke to for this article made the point that since festivals are held outside, and evidence suggests there is a lower chance of transmitting coronavirus outdoors, they are likely safer to attend than pubs, which are due to re-open on 4 July this year.

Johnny Lynch is sceptical: “Anyone who’s used a festival toilet will know that it’s intimate. You’re exposing yourself to a barrage of live bacteria when you enter the festival gates: that’s part of the contract that you enter into, and there’s no escaping that, no matter how stringent the social distancing recommendations are.” 

If people are still reluctant to use public transport or car shares next summer, festivals would need many more fields for car parking space and the climate impact would ruin efforts to “go green” in recent years. Enforced social distancing would substantially change the atmosphere in front of stages, and, practically, would result in even longer queues for bars and food stalls – not to mention the toilets. It would also necessitate a reduction in capacity, resulting in lower profit margins for organisers – if they still profit at all. Jeffrey Johns says he would still go to a festival if social distancing measures were in place, “but it wouldn’t feel the same. I think I’d feel anxious”. 

The implementation of any new health and safety features, such as an NHS-linked tracing app suggested by Melvin Benn (who runs Reading and Leeds, Latitude, Download and Wireless) would require extra staff and technology, putting further financial pressure on organisers. “Any extra regulations would absolutely cost us money, and I’m sure the government won’t provide support,” says 2000 Trees’ James Scarlett. Simon Taffe of End of the Road thinks the live music industry’s best bet is to be loaded into the same category as the sporting economy.

“The government must think festivals are a nuisance,” he laughs. “But if they put the music industry in with football matches and live sports, as a whole, that might save us. If they are looked after, we’ll be looked after.”

Whatever the compromises, after the long, festival-less summer of 2020, music-lovers are going to be desperate to get back out there. “We’re a nation of people who want to go out and party,” says Lynch.

Hinds' Ana Perrote agrees: “I can't wait to go to festivals next summer. Obviously we need to design a safe way of doing it because there is a more important thing than music, which is life itself. It's going to be a learning process, but you can totally have fun within your own perimeter, dancing with your arms instead of your legs.”

Ellen Peirson-Hagger is the New Statesman’s culture assistant.