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Special report: Festivals in crisis?

Festival season is upon us, but, in the UK at least, there are already signs that the post-Covid boom is on the wane. Kevin Hilton looks at why there have been so many cancellations, what this means for the audio hire and manufacturing sectors and if festivals will survive when they return next year

Optimism can sometimes be misguided. Last year’s special feature ahead of the festival season (Installation May 2023) was headlined “Returning to the fields on a sound footing”. This highlighted the key role pro audio plays in outdoor music events, but also acknowledged that the live performance scene had come back in force in 2022 and 2023 after disappearing from the event schedules almost completely at the height of the pandemic.

A year on, and that hopefulness has been shaken by a rash of cancellations on the festival schedule, primarily in the two main centres for big open-air concerts, the US and the UK. According to a Bloomberg Research report published on 12 March, “at least” ten American shows had been cancelled, including the Riverbend Festival, which had been running since 1982, and the more recent Firefly Music Festival, founded in 2012.

The situation in the UK is even more severe, with the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) reporting that, as of 25 April, 34 events had been cancelled. This compares to 2023 when there were 36 cancellations for the entire 12 months. Among those taking a year off are Connect in Scotland, 110 Above, Bluedot (although the main reason given is to allow the festival site to recover from last year’s heavy rain), Standon Calling and Neighbourhood Weekender. The 26-year old Nozstock: The Hidden Valley will go ahead, but for the last time, with organisers stating that the financial risks of staging it had “become too great”. Shindig will also close this year, although this may have more to do with venue owners, Dillington Estate, in Somerset UK, than revenue issues; Installation was unable to clarify as we went to press. 

Things were already looking somewhat pessimistic in February when the chief executive of the AIF, John Rostron, told the Guardian newspaper that “festivals are falling over.” He is no more hopeful now and feels matters could deteriorate further. “We had a benchmark from last year and it is about to be worse than that because it’s only April [at the time of interview],” he says. “That would be worrying but it is more so if you put it alongside the fact that there aren’t any new festivals or new people emerging. There is now a net loss, with 161 festivals that have gone since 2019.”

Shindig 2023. This year is to be the last event

To an extent, Rostron explains, the bounce-back of 2022 and 2023 papered over problems that were already there, with promoters dealing with financial difficulties caused by the enforced cancellation of events during the pandemic. “You see that there were lots of festivals last year, attendances were strong and there was broadly a good summer but you don’t see what was going on underneath,” he comments. 

“Things looked good but the reality was quite different, which explains why festivals are falling now even before they start to happen. That’s because either their sales have dropped and they’re not on target, or the supply chain costs that they budgeted for are coming in above what they expected – or a combination of the two.”

As a result, Rostron continues, many promoters and organisers do not have the credit that would enable them to push ahead with their events. “Prior to Covid, sales might have been a bit down, a supplier might say that something would now cost more than had been budgeted for, but festivals had lots of credit and knew they could roll through it,” he says. 

“Festivals always had liquidity, whether that was cash in the bank from previous events, or money from investors. Then Covid came and they had no way of generating income but were still running core costs and trying to market their event. They never knew when things would come back and they used up their liquidity and reserves. Some got through, others didn’t, and those that did survive took on extra debt through bounce-back loans.”

In an attempt to help independent operators survive this year and cope with these various problems, the AIF launched the 5% for Festivals campaign in February. This calls on the UK government to reduce VAT (value added tax) on ticket prices to 20 percent for three years, which it hopes will enable the sector to rebuild and find new income streams.

The cost of living crisis in the UK has also been cited as a reason why ticket sales have fallen, but Rostron points to the world’s biggest concert promoter, Live Nation Entertainment (LNE) announcing that 2023 was its most successful year in terms of ticket sales and attendance. The company reported that attendance numbers at concerts and events had increased by 20 percent compared to 2022, with over 145 million people going to more than 50,000 events.

This has given a different complexion to the perceived crisis in the festivals market, as does the general opinion that the UK experience is not replicated in mainland Europe. The picture is further distorted by a major international supplier of sound systems for festivals, concerts and other events, Solotech, stating that it is building up to one of its busiest festival seasons.

Console manufacturer DiGiCo kicked off its festival year with Coachella in California. Managing director Austin Freshwater says it is too early to assess how this year is shaping up, but early signs are encouraging. “It is difficult for us to compare to last year since we have only one completed major festival so far,” he comments, “but the festivals we are working on have strong line-ups and we are optimistic about the coming year.”

The Pretenders wow Glastonbury’s The park stage

Similarly, Sennheiser is anticipating a busy run of events this summer. “Festival season this year is looking healthy, with plenty of festivals scheduled, sold out and ready to go,” observes relationship manager Peter Craig. “There is a huge proportion of festivals going ahead, as well as plenty of new festivals and, especially, day events popping up in the past two to three years since Covid, which have grown significantly.”

Craig acknowledges that the 2022 and 2023 seasons were “unusual” due to the number of tickets that had already been sold for events scheduled before Covid. Another factor was what he describes as “soaring” production costs: “I was told by more than one festival organiser at the time that these were around 40 percent higher in 2023,” he says. “This is due to the availability of kit and consoles, exacerbated by the heightened demand from festivals trying to resume as soon as possible after Covid. However, some festivals benefit from long-term fixed pricing, so we won’t see the effect of these increases on some of them until those deals come to an end.”

This is not to say there are not severe problems being faced by festival organisers, particularly at the smaller and mid-range level. Craig puts some of the difficulties down to “the extreme financial hardship being suffered by many in the UK”, which has affected ticket sales, but says that the market being flooded with “new brands and events” is also taking its toll. “In London alone, I’ve seen many new events with large capacity popping up and thriving over the past couple of years,” he says. 

“There’s also a rise in ‘indoor festivals’, smaller events held in large warehouses. The number of these is bound to compete and clash with the festival roster. The event landscape is a very saturated game and as much as there are many cancelled events, there are also many new additions to the calendar.”

Festivals have always had an identity through the style of music and types of artists they present, but as Andy Dockerty, founder and director of Adlib, the UK’s biggest independent sound system rental company, observes, that is no longer enough: “The festivals that work well have an additional theme, like CarFest, which is as much about the cars as it is the bands.”

CarFest was founded in 2012 by radio presenter Chris Evans to raise money for UK charities. In effect it is two festivals, one held in Cheshire in July and the other in Hampshire in August – CarFest South – which will this year feature several stages presenting musical acts – Richard Ashcroft, Johnny Marr, Beverley Knight – along with celebrity appearances, a spa and a food festival.

Smaller UK festivals are really struggling

The trick, comments Dockerty, is finding the right match between different interests that will have something for almost everyone, particularly where families are concerned. Adlib works primarily with biggest festivals, including Leeds, Reading, TRNSMT and Creamfields. And while the company has not seen too many changes at its end of the market, Dockerty is aware that smaller events are facing difficulties. “It’s more the very small festivals that seem to be going,” he says. “To me, it’s almost identical to the situation with the huge arena promoters and the big gigs versus the small venues. The big events are fine and doing well. Maybe the ticket sales are not going quite as quickly as they would have done in the past, but these festivals are still working. But for the really small festivals it doesn’t add up or work any more.”

The number of festivals in the UK increased substantially post-pandemic due to people’s need to see live acts and be out of the house. “People were desperate for entertainment and those that had never been to festivals before went to them,” Dockerty agrees. “Many festivals appeared and 2022 was the boom year – the amount of stuff happening then was ridiculous. There was still a bit of a bounce from that in 2023, but now we’re seeing more levels of realism because there were too many festivals and people have only got so much money and they’re more likely to follow the big names than go to a more intermediate festival that might only have a famous name from ten years ago.”

Higher production costs are certainly a problem for festival organisers and Dockerty acknowledges these have risen “significantly”, but he points out that suppliers such as PA companies are working at lower margins than ever before. “Even though the cost of production has gone up for the promoter, the actual margin has still gone down for the production supplier,” he explains. 

“We realise that in the middle of the picture we are the ones going to get crushed. Our expenditure has gone up, partly because technicians are now demanding higher day rates, going up from £250 in 2020 to between £350 to £600. Tracking and transportation have also gone up and the cost of equipment has gone up 40 to 50 percent on average over the last two years with the cost of finance significantly higher as well.”

Other hire companies, such as Britannia Row Productions, have moved away from being a main contractor on festivals to concentrate on touring and other types of events. Brit Row, which is part of the Clair Global group, still provides systems for the Womad festival, largely because the crew enjoys the eclectic variety of acts. Other than this, the company supplies control and monitor systems with crew to artists touring festivals through the summer season.

WOMAD main stage with L-Acoustics L2 loudspeaker system

Bryan Grant, a non-executive director of Brit Row, observes that audio, along with lighting, is a “relatively minor” proportion of the overall budget for a major festival, coming below other infrastructure costs such as toilets, trackway, fencing and staging. “Those infrastructure and production costs and the fees for talent become a bigger charge against revenue the smaller the festival,” he says. “And opportunities for other revenue streams aren’t there, so margins become very tight for these promoters.”

Grant draws a comparison between smaller festivals and smaller audio hire companies, both of which often run as cost-effectively as possible with the people involved often doing it primarily for the love of it: “They can probably survive because their overheads and the cost of infrastructure and production are lower.”

“They can make a living, but as supply companies grow to being mid-size, they have to have more state-of-the-art equipment, borrow more money, move into a bigger warehouse and employ more people. Festivals of a few thousand people can survive because their infrastructure and overhead is low. The mid-sized festivals have to compete with the bigger ones, with the costs of the artists and infrastructure being a bigger part of the budget. And if the revenue isn’t there to support it, they will struggle to survive.”

Even with low overheads, very small, community festivals run by volunteers are now starting to find the going much tougher. Tetfest in the Gloucestershire town of Tetbury started out as a free festival but, as one of the organisers, Sue Sillitoe, explains, it had to start charging for tickets two years ago to cover costs. 

“Things like fencing, Portaloos, diesel for the generators and so on have gone up in price dramatically this year and that’s why a lot of festivals are suffering,” she says. “Plus, people are leaving it later and later to buy a ticket because they are hedging their bets and presumably want to keep an eye on the weather nearer the time. We survive because we keep our costs to a minimum. We don’t have to pay for our festival site – a local farmer lets us use it for free. And we have an entirely volunteer staff. The only people who get paid for working are the sound engineers, the security staff and the first aiders.”

Mucky Weekender, which takes place in Winchester, UK, in September, is still going strong

Pennfest, in the Buckinghamshire village of Penn, started out at a similar level to Tetfest, but grew considerably since starting 12 years ago. This year it was due to have Paul Weller as a headliner, but in April the festival was postponed for this year, although the intention is to return in 2025. Martin Audio is based nearby and its systems have been used at Pennfest. Managing director Dominic Harter observes that although people were saying they were looking forward to it, there is doubt over how many had actually bought tickets.

“The situation is indicative of rising costs across the board, which inevitably have an impact on ticket pricing if the festival is going to be viable,” he comments. “But if this then is too high a cost, some events will struggle to sell enough tickets. It’s particularly acute in the small to medium festival sector, where the returns are also naturally that much tighter. Arguably you also had over-saturation of the festival market in the last decade, so this is possibly also a natural rebalancing of that equation, where those festivals offering a distinctive perspective and experience can still win out.”

Harry Bishop, sound engineer and managing director of hire company H Pro Audio (HPA), which works on a variety of productions including the Chai Wallahs touring venue, comments that the UK has “always had a very healthy boutique/local/small-scale festivals market”. However, he says, it is no surprise that people cut back on such events when there is a squeeze on household budgets. “I’m sure the vast majority will bounce back, though,” he says. “We’ve only been affected by two events that have had to downsize, but so far none have actually cancelled. This is a correction more than a crisis. I see it as a short-term blip that will repair in a year or two.”

Sound engineer and tour manager Tim Boardman agrees, saying what is going on is “an adjustment” for the industry. “A lot of smaller independent festivals came up that didn’t necessarily have the backing of some of the large and more established festivals and it seems these are the ones that are failing,” he says. “Established independents like Truck, Kendall Calling and Y Not seem to be doing OK, but smaller festivals that don’t have relationships with suppliers will automatically be charged more by vendors and will struggle or disappear.”

Even though this is a reasonable, pragmatic view of the situation, it still sounds somewhat bleak. But festivals have come and gone over the years, with very few running for long periods of time in their original form. Optimism is on hold for this year, but there does seem to be the belief that the outdoor music sector, along with the supporting pro audio market, will survive this dip.