Entertainment

The Best and Worst Case Scenarios for Music Festivals in 2021

"Will they be the same? We don’t really know. I hope to god they will be. If we have a vaccine, we’ll all be laughing our tits off!”
Ryan Bassil
London, GB
June 19, 2020, 8:00am
Two people hugging at a festival
Photo by Sian Bradley

Packing onto a crowded, muddied festival field, squatting over a petri dish-like Portaloo while your pal protects the door, sharing a key of drugs with a stranger you met five minutes earlier – these extremely close contact activities are all part of the UK festival experience. Which is exactly why, when coronavirus struck, UK fests were some of the first events to be cancelled or postponed.

But with much of the UK coming out from lockdown, it begs the question: what will happen 12 months down the line, in summer 2021, when these events return? I spoke to experts from across the festival industry, to get a flavour of what we can expect to see from UK bashes next year.

EVERYONE IS HOPING NOTHING WILL CHANGE

“I think people are nervous to cast too much doubt over next year,” says Marina Blake, Creative Director at Brainchild, an award-winning three day UK festival covering music, film, theatre and art.

While UK music venues will be looking to open their doors as quickly as possible, UK festivals have time on their side. That’s both a burden – in that it’s going to take another year until losses for this year can be recouped – but also a blessing, because it will have been a year since the pandemic began. For many people in festival land, this is an overwhelming positive.

Chris Macmeikan MBE (a.k.a DJ Chris Tofu) was awarded an MBE in 2017 for his services to the music festival and live events industry, and is music director/chief vibes master at Glastonbury’s Shangri-La area. He says that people across the industry are looking forward and planning ahead.

“I’m talking to bands who say they’re now full for next summer. Every single day we’re reviewing how festivals are going to come back – and it probably won’t be exactly the same, but there’s not a person in the events industry who isn’t putting all their money on coming back in say, February or March. But it’s also in the hands of the gods.”

Many UK festivals are hoping they can go ahead like normal. The thinking is that some kind of social distancing or reduced capacity will completely erode the very essence of what UK festivals are all about.

“Most festivals will go ahead next year. My guess is there will be regulations by beginning of summer [2021]. But festivals cannot go ahead if regulations are too tight,” says Simon Taffe, founder of End Of The Road. He says that looking at how music venues and pubs fare in the coming weeks might be a good marker for gauging the outlook for next year’s festivals. “If all indoor pubs are open… indoor pubs create more possibility of a spread than an outdoor festival.”

THERE PROBABLY WILL BE SOME KIND OF SHAKE-UP – IT'S INEVITABLE

Everyone is looking for some kind of release from being in lockdown. Macmeikan’s production event company Continental Drifts has several community-led bashes under its belt, like Lewisham People's Day and Hackney Carnival. He says festival season will probably begin with local art-based events.

“The public realm will need to open with something – and that’s probably going to be amazing acoustic brass bands doing heavy metal covers. Bizarre beat box people. Or Frank Turner playing to 100 people on a square," he says. "There’s going to be a flowering of community arts. We’re already planning stuff like that now.”

If airlines can’t schedule cheap flights in 2021, the number of small underground bands and DJs flying over to play tiny festival tents could dwindle. Plus, if regulations are brought in, it’s likely to be the small indoor festival tents that go, with larger outdoor stages allowed to stay.

Eric Schönemeier is one of the founders of techno and trance festival Monticule, which is still planned to go ahead in September – albeit with the indoor venues moved outside. He believes that the combination of potentially more expensive flights and more regulated festival sites will mean we could see an end to acts jumping on a plane and playing several festivals in the same day. “It’s going to hit the middle segment of small DJs hard.”

Macmeikan is in agreement. “The biology of underground music moving around is going to become much less, certainly next year. I can’t imagine little underground bands from Mexico coming to do [small shows].”

But there are positives. Debate raged last year about whether musicians should be touring during a climate emergency. Less people moving around will help reduce the global emissions generated from bands and DJs moving around the globe. Territories might start to look locally and develop their own talent too, rather than bringing in bigger names.

“I think those shake ups would be welcomed,” says Macmeikan. This year he’s bringing Glastonbury’s Shangri-La area into your living room with Lost Horizon, a virtual festival in July that boasts performances from Peggy Gou, Seth Troxler, Carl Cox, Eats Everything and hundreds more.

Using VR technology, Lost Horizon will map some of Shangri-La’s massive outdoor art gallery space and various venues onto your phone or laptop with venues livestreaming everything from performances, theatre, documentaries, comedy, animation and live talks – basically, everything you normally see when knee deep in Shangri-La, but from the comfort of your own home.

“The moment the world went into lockdown, digital culture exploded into a zeitgeist moment,” Macmeikan says, likening the impact to the fact no one gave a shit about steam, until steam trains were invented. Could this be the future?

IN REALITY... NO ONE KNOWS!

“It’s too early to tell. My guess is we all need to think on our feet and plan really well for [what comes next],” says Taffe.

No one wants festivals to massively overhaul how they look and feel. Blake has heard bubblings of some festivals looking to plan events where capacity can be monitored, such as seated performances. But like social distanced festival grounds, seated performances will change the fabric of what UK festivals are about. Reducing the crowd size isn’t something anyone running a festival wants to currently consider. It will mean less punters handing over cash, meaning fests will find it hard to break even as they usually make profit from the last tickets sold.

“We'll be doing a risk assessment to think about how we would mitigate it, if there’s social distancing, how much it might cost us,” says Blake. “The best case is if we find a bloody vaccine.”

Melvin Benn, managing director of Festival Republic, who heads up Reading and Leeds, Latitude and Download, says compulsory coronavirus testing might be the way forward. In an interview with Radio 1 Newsbeat, he said social distancing wouldn’t work at a festival as it wouldn’t make the event economically viable. Under his plan, everybody attending an event will have been tested for COVID-19, within “whichever length of time ... the government determines is safe."

“We’ve got a bit of time,” says Taffe. “There are precautions we can do. As long as everyone is realistic and the government is as well, we’ll work out a way of doing it. But who knows what the future holds.”

Macmeikan echoes this. “Is Glastonbury going to have 170,000 people next year? That’s a big question. Everyone expects to come back. Almost all those line-ups for festivals that have been cancelled haven’t been cancelled, they’ve just been postponed to next year. It will be like this year never happened. But will it be the same? We don’t really know. I hope to god it will be. We might have a vaccine by then. If we have a vaccine, we’ll all be laughing our tits off!”

@ryanbassil