Everyone who's ever been to a festival has probably been regaled with tales from old-timers about how good it used to be "back in the day". The sun was always shining, tickets were 30p and you could subsist exclusively off the nutrients provided by good vibes rather than a cold £16 gourmet hot dog. Some may have even felt themselves joining the good old days brigade after Glastonbury general admission tickets went on sale on Sunday at a near 20 percent increase from £280 to £335 – or £340, once you factor in booking fees.
The price hike understandably raised eyebrows when it was first announced in October, with fears that the significant increase could easily render festivals completely unaffordable and make them less diverse and accessible – particularly as it comes alongside the biggest economic shitstorm in a generation.
The reality is that festivals are massive undertakings and they cost money. Lots and lots of money. In a statement after the announced price increases, Glastonbury co-organiser Emily Eavis said that the festival had “tried very hard to minimise the increase in price – but we’re facing enormous rises in the costs of running this vast show whilst still recovering from the huge financial impact of two years without a festival".
Glastonbury aren’t the only ones upping their entrance fees, though it's important to caveat that previous ticket prices – including Glasto – are based on the last general sale price before the pandemic where original tickets were carried over until the event.
Boomtown have increased the price of their first-tier weekend tickets by 21 percent from £219 to £265 – with the most expensive tier reaching £295. Secret Garden Party has implemented a close to 14 percent increase, with general admission tickets rising from £220, which included a refundable Leave No Trace deposit, to £250 – and that’s excluding the compulsory £15 booking fee. Reading and Leeds have bucked the trend and haven’t raised their prices from last year – a weekend ticket is going for just under £260 pre-booking fees.
With no end to the economic turmoil in sight, we spoke to various festival organisers about just how expensive running festivals is becoming and what impact this might have on the festival goer.
“There certainly is a lot of nervousness about next year because things can’t continue the way they have," says Fox Valentine, an area manager, stage and production director at Glastonbury’s Acoustic Stage and many other festivals across the UK and Europe. “Many festivals were forced into putting on shows this year because they had tickets held over from before the pandemic – but infrastructure costs are up so much that the price of the ticket didn’t cover the event, let alone the payment of permanent staff and the storage costs from lockdown.”
Valentine considers 2022 the most difficult year for festivals to date. “Most of the experienced crew moved on over the pandemic and there’s now a real shortage of skilled and semi-skilled crew working on events, because they can earn more elsewhere and festivals are paying more just to get people on site.”
“For example, before COVID the starting day rate for a semi-skilled worker – who might have a forklift licence or rope access training – was around £80. This year Latitude were hiring people with no experience for £145 a day.”
To put that into perspective: Valentine manages a staff of around 200 people. If they all received the same increase as mentioned above, that would add £13,000 to the budget of that crew alone.
“Fuel is another major cost,” he adds. “We’re no longer allowed to use red diesel [due to a ban], which doubled fuel prices overnight.” The production manager was not able to provide exact figures but says that Glastonbury’s fuel bill will have gone from a six to a seven-figure sum. “The industry makes big efforts to reduce its carbon footprint, but the fact is that biofuel just doesn’t work in some equipment and we need reliability because we’re powering the biggest city in Somerset with maternity wards, MRI scanners and police stations as well as the stages.”
“I’ve been involved with Glastonbury for 33 years and you would think that it should get easier every year but it actually gets harder – there’s always more legislation, more guidelines and more restrictions. I’m in charge of 200 people on one of the main stages and I’m having to cut stationery to keep running costs down – it's ridiculous.”
The events industry took a big collective punch in the gut over the pandemic. Many staff didn’t qualify for furlough and many smaller equipment hire companies folded – contributing to the estimated 126,000 events industry jobs lost between 2020 and 2021 and increasing demand on the remaining ones.
“Many festivals rely on demo equipment deals to get cheap or free equipment for the weekend – it works for smaller festivals because the hire company gets a new customer and for larger events it’s good publicity," Valentine explains. “If two rental companies go under, then the ones that are left don’t have any demo gear to give out. This year I was doing an event where pre-pandemic I would get a PA and a couple of free crew for £2,000 – this year it cost £12,000.”
Industry specifics aside – unless the festival industry all chip in for one of the government’s North Sea oil contracts, they’re no more immune to general price increases than any other business. The unpredictable situation makes planning a year in advance is tricky.
“The price increase is indicative of the times and everyone will be aware of the volatility that might occur between now and the festival," says Joe Barnett, the managing director of New Bohemia Music, the company behind We Out Here, Outlook and Dimensions. “Most contracts have to be worked out between going on sale and the festival and we have to somehow try and account for any fluctuation in prices that could happen between now and then.”
We Out Here are a relatively new festival, having held their first in-person event back in 2019. They have a capacity of around 10,000 and are relatively affordable compared with other festivals. Last year, though, WOH saw their running costs jump by an average of 20 percent. At a certain point, Barnett says, you run out of options.
“When you add 20 percent to a budget the size of a festival’s, it is really hard to absorb. At some point some of that cost has to be passed on to the customer, because there are only so many cuts to the running cost you can make.” This year, We Out Here raised their first-tier ticket price by almost 19 percent from £160 to £190 before booking fees.
While this still keeps that particular festival at a relatively modest price, there are broader concerns about whether continued increases could shut the door on everyday punters and effectively buy UK festivals a ticket down the Coachella sponcon highway.
“The one thing we always want to be able to do is keep the festival open to as many people as possible – both to come to and to work," explains Tom Paine, festival director at Team Love, the company behind Love Saves the Day, Glastonbury’s Silver Hayes area, Love International and more. “We always want to pay people properly because it’s the right thing to do and it helps keep festivals diverse – you want people to attract everyone, not just people who can afford to take two weeks off work and fancy a jolly.”
Barnett echoes the sentiment: “When people have less money to spend and the ticket prices are increasing - we really need to deliver something special for audiences. There is always pressure on promoters but it definitely makes it harder to cover costs and we need to make sure that we are still accessibly and diverse. For example, we run a ticket seeding scheme within lower socio-economic demographics to ensure that our festival remains open to some who simply cannot afford a ticket.”
2021 saw festivals like Outlook launch a pay-what-you-can ticketing scheme to keep them open to as many people as possible. Shambala is offering some free tickets through a pay it forward scheme, though this doesn’t offer a sustainable business model for festivals. Many would like to see some more government assistance for an industry that supports thousands of jobs and contributes an estimated £1.75bn to the economy.
“VAT for cultural events was cut from 20 percent to 5 percent as part of the pandemic recovery and it would be great to see that again,” says Paine. “Many festivals took out loans over the last few years that they will be struggling to repay and we know that people have less money in their pockets than before, so continually raising prices can’t always be the answer.”
“It’s scary looking ahead because it’s not clear how long some events will survive if things carry on the way they are. We’re far from thinking about quitting at the moment, but some we’ve spoken to are putting plans on hold or thinking about giving up completely.”