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27 June 2019

Cancellations, controversies and refunds: how to programme a music festival

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

This weekend, more than 200,000 people will fill the fields of Somerset’s Worthy Farm for Glastonbury, the world’s largest greenfield festival.

For attendees, there’s a lot to think about – have you packed enough socks? How early should you arrive to find the best tent pitch? But it’s festival organisers who are under increasing pressure to get things right, faced with the unique challenges of offering a diverse, eye-catching and concrete line-up.

Less than 14 hours before Glastonbury’s gates opened on Wednesday morning, Snow Patrol cancelled their performance on the festival’s Other Stage, after band members Johnny McDaid and Nathan Connolly’s both recently sustained significant physical injuries. “We have hardly ever cancelled shows in 25 years together and we don’t do it lightly,” the band said.

Snow Patrol are far from the only band to cancel a festival appearance at such short notice. Earlier this month, Jess Glynne pulled out of her headline slot at the Isle of Wight Festival just ten minutes before she was due on stage. The musician, who holds the record for the most number-one singles by a female artist in the UK, wrote on Twitter: “I am so so gutted, sorry and upset that I couldn’t perform yesterday. I came all the way I got ready and was about to head to stage but I just couldn’t do it. I was incredibly weak and full of anxiety.”

Glynne made headlines when the festival announced that they’d banned her from ever performing at future editions of their event. Mental health awareness campaigners have criticised this approach, stating that anxiety is a real problem that can prevent people from working, be that in an office or on a public stage.

In an already saturated market, festival programmers have their work cut out booking a large number of acts that will distinguish them from their competitors – making cancellations more detrimental than ever.

“When we started out 15 years ago, we booked artists four months prior to the festival,” says Emma Zillmann, the programme director of Kendal Calling, a music and arts festival held annually in the Lake District. “Now we’re talking anywhere from 12 to 24 months in advance.”

Iain Game, the event manager for Derbyshire’s Y Not Festival also notes this recent change in his team’s forward-planning schedules: “We start discussion with agents around June-time for the following year. A few years ago, conversations didn’t really start until September.”

When first deciding which acts to book, there’s a lot for festival organisers to consider. “We want to make sure that we stand out from a lot of cookie-cutter line-ups, so one thing to take into account is whether an artist is overplayed. But at the end of the day, we’re putting on a party for people to enjoy themselves, so you can’t let personal taste sway you too much – the audience are the tastemakers for Kendal Calling,” explains Zillman.

At Boomtown Fair, a makeshift city on the South Downs showcasing a diverse array of reggae, jazz, hip-hop and ska, the organisers consider another factor. “We always start with a mixture of who’s most exciting to us at the time, which of our favourites haven’t yet played, and who might be doing a special tour that year. I also have to think about our ongoing storyline. If there are big themes that we will be exploring then we try and reflect that in the music,” says Kaptin Barrett, the festival’s programmer.

Simon Taffe, co-founder of Wiltshire’s End of the Road, which has a focus on independent folk and rock music and won the UK Festival Award for Line-Up of the Year in 2016, relies much more on his own instincts to serve his punters: “I do try and have as diverse a mix as possible, though the line-up is dictated by what records I’m loving at that point or who excites me live. It’s fun to discover bands that are not on the industry’s radar. It gives me the feeling of crate-digging in a record shop and finding that hidden gem.”

At first glance, it would seem that once a favoured line-up is secured and tickets start selling, the hardest work is done. But, as recent events have shown, there is still always time for cancellations – even once the festival gates are open. These regular chops and changes leave festival-goers disappointed and festival organisers in the sticky situation of having to find acts with which to fill cancelled slots – and fast.

When the organisers of Boomtown heard, on the Friday before his Sunday performance, that the renowned Jamaican reggae and dancehall artist Barrington Levy had had his visa refused, they didn’t have long to sort out a replacement. “We immediately looked for a similar artist that could fill the slot,” explains Barrett. “In this case, the problem with bringing in another Jamaican headliner that late in the day is that they would also have visa issues, so I started by exploring the options for artists who might be in the UK already. Finally, the Skints rushed from another gig they had on. They have such a good following and a few attendees were disappointed that they were not on the line-up already that year, so in the end we made lots of people really happy.”

Iain Game of Y Not Festival remembers a time, “eight or so years ago”, when two headliners cancelled due to illness. “At the time, the audience, while upset, didn’t complain and were happy with the replacements. I’m not sure how that would go down today, in the world of social media, when people are very quick to show their frustrations. On the whole, most people understand that some things are out of our control, but the few that don’t can cause a lot of noise online which can snowball.”

On the whole, the organisers who spoke to the New Statesman were understanding of the reasons bands cancel sets. Kendal Calling’s Zillmann listed “health reasons, a close bereavement and unavoidable travel issues” as fair excuses for having to pull out. “They are just going to work, and not all of us are well enough to work every single day.”

For an independent festival such as Green Man, which showcases the best in alternative rock and folk in Wales’s picturesque Brecon Beacons, issues such as cancellations can be difficult to negotiate. Most of the time, the reason for a cancellation isn’t specifically worded in a contract.

“In reality it would be difficult for us to take on a large media corporation that represented an act. It’s an agreement based on trust, relationships and reputation on both sides,” says Fiona Stewart, Green Man’s managing director.

Opting to fill the slot with a similar-sounding or equally popular act seems to be the best bet, but many fans who were drawn to buy tickets for that one band may also expect a refund for the cost of their ticket. When Cardi B pulled out of her headline slot at Barcelona’s Primavera earlier this year, the festival offered customers who had bought a single-day ticket a full refund, as well as filling her slot with Miley Cyrus.

For festivals that only sell weekend-long tickets, this isn’t quite so straightforward. End of the Road’s Taffe points out that his punters are “buying into the whole weekend.” But he’s confident that individual cancellations don’t have an impact on End of the Road’s overall success: “We sell out every year, so re-selling a ticket won’t be a problem.”

Other organisers highlighted the wide array of other activities their festivals offer. “Music matters a great deal to our audience, but it’s part of a multitude of festival experiences,” says Stewart. “4,000 people purchased our early-bird tickets in less than an hour without knowing who was performing. From the 3,000 responses from annual feedback forms it’s ‘the Green Man vibe,’ that tops why people attend, not the music on offer.”

Zillmann offered much the same sentiment: “For a festival like Kendal Calling, I’d hope that people weren’t making a decision to attend or not based on one musical artist. We offer so much more – art, atmosphere, community, a weekend away from real life.”

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