Festival Organisers Reveal What Needs to Happen for Events to Go Ahead in 2021

A government select committee met today to discuss the future of festivals in the UK.
JG
London, GB
People at Glastonbury
Photo: Everynight Images / Alamy Stock Photo

With the coronavirus situation changing so rapidly, it’s hard to predict where we’ll be in six months’ time. For industries dependent on the end – or at least the reduction – of social distancing measures, planning ahead has been difficult. This is especially true for UK music festivals.

The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee hosted a discussion earlier today about the future of festivals in the UK, featuring Sacha Lord, co-founder of Parklife Festival and Warehouse Project, and nightlife advisor to the mayor of Manchester, and Anna Wade, the communications and strategy director for Boomtown, along with a panel of expert witnesses. The idea behind the inquiry is for MPs to hear from members of the industry on whether or not this summer’s events are viable.

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Here’s what we learned, good and bad, about the how much fun you can expect to be having this year.

THE CURRENT OUTLOOK

Unsurprisingly, the situation for festivals is currently pretty bleak. The committee reports that revenues were down 90 percent in 2019, with the live music industry suffering staggering job losses. Last year it was predicted that as many as 170,000 jobs might vanish, with only a slim chance of their return.

Lord said that his business has been “absolutely decimated” this year. The consequences of the pandemic are felt beyond the industry itself, with auxiliary suppliers and freelancers losing out, as well as knock-on effects on the local economies in areas where festivals are held. (Think of shop owners or the taxi drivers who ferry punters to the festival site.) “When Parklife takes place,” says Sasha, “over that single weekend it brings in £60m to the local economy.”

It could effectively be game over for the industry if festivals aren’t able to go ahead this year. According to Wade, lots of industry workers, like scaffolders and sound engineers, have already had to retrain in different industries, leaving a worrying gap in the labour market.

If this year doesn’t see a comeback, “the consequences would be pretty grave,” says Wade. “Most festivals would be unlikely to be able to weather the storm of no festivals happening in 2021.”

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“The UK’s got the biggest festival market globally,” Lord said. “We’re proud of that. Music is one of our biggest exports. But if we don’t take place in 2021, I think the vast majority could disappear.”

WHAT THE GOVERNMENT NEEDS TO DO TO SAVE FESTIVALS

The panellists all agreed that the government could take decisive action to stop this catastrophe from happening. According to Lord, there needs to be a target date that the industry can work towards for when it will be safe to hold events. There should be lowered VAT rates, an extension of business rates relief and continued furlough support.

One of the biggest themes of the panel was the need for a government-backed insurance policy. Currently, commercial insurance companies are unwilling to go near this. “I have to be honest, the initial response from insurers were disappointing,” Lord said. “They ran away, there was no conversation regarding COVID, and then they did come back with astronomical premiums which wouldn’t make the festivals viable.”

Germany, Austria and Switzerland have already government-backed insurance policies, and everyone agreed that it was vital that the UK government introduced a similar scheme here.

TESTING NEEDS TO BE INTRODUCED

The panel also agreed that social distancing measures just aren’t really a viable option for the industry; by the time you ensure a festival is socially distanced, it isn’t really a festival anymore. This means that mass testing is one of the key approaches that could help the industry get back on its feet.

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According to Wade, there needs to be “mass testing within the population but then also advancement in technology in terms of rapid testing, so there can be pre-event testing and testing at the gates”. Lord suggested that testing attendees three days prior to the event could reduce the number of people turning up infected with COVID-19 and being turned away at the gates.

Current estimates put this at a cost of about £10 per head – a pretty big strain on an industry with already low profit margins. Potential solutions would include government support or customers fronting the cost by paying more for their ticket. None of these measures, however, is a definite at this stage.

THE GOOD NEWS FOR FESTIVALS

This might all sound a bit bleak but there are some causes for optimism. For a start, the panel agreed that audience demand shouldn’t be a problem. “I’m confident that the bounce back will be incredible,” said Lord. “The appetite is out there.”

Wade said she wanted to “bring a bit of hope back to the country that some kind of semblance of normality, in terms of summer of events, can actually take place in 2021”.

The biggest cause of hope is the vaccine programme, which will hopefully have make significant progress protecting the most vulnerable in society. “All our hopes now are on this vaccine,” said Lord. “We must roll it out as quick as possible, whatever it takes.”

@jamesdgreig