With each passing year, the condition of music festivals in the UK inches closer to breaking point. A modern plague of VIP packages, pulled pork sandwiches, and “boutique camping” experiences may have already spelled the end of the golden age of festivals for hedonists who like their headliners without a side of aggressive branding, but at the same time, the UK festival industry is now valued at around £2.3bn and rakes in £3.1 billion in tourism combined with live music events in general. So at least the people putting them on must have a pretty healthy-looking bank balance, right?
Unfortunately not. According to research published earlier this week, hiking security and infrastructure costs could mean that one in ten of this year’s events won’t make it another twelve months. Despite ticket prices averaging £200 and big events attracting hundreds of thousands, the amount of money many British festivals scrape back is so little that even the most seemingly-stable ones struggle to stay afloat. To put things bluntly: UK music festivals are fucked, unless something drastically changes.
The new report (which you can view here) has broken down the hidden cost of festivals, and it’s a sobering read. Amid statistics about our impressive eating and drinking habits – an average of 1.2 million pints are pounded at Download Festival, in case you’re wondering – there are overheads beyond comprehension. Aside from the obvious costs of renting the site, building the stages, and hiring security, there are the less-considered problems like supplying water and electricity, and dealing with waste management. “For a 10,000-capacity festival, your power will cost you between £60,000 and £100,000,” says Gareth Cooper, co-founder of Festival No 6. “We would spend up to £30,000 taking the waste away.”
The bigger the audience, the greater all those costs are. Security at the Isle of Wight festival, for example, costs £1m, and event head John Giddings told The Guardian last year that he spent £250,000 just building roads to the site’s car park. This week's report details how the five stages that house all of the bands at Download Festival weigh a combined 278 tons, requiring 57 articulated trucks to transport them. It then takes 5,500 man-hours to put up 5 miles of scaffolding and 1.5 miles of trusses to create the 30,000 square foot of stage floor, which is covered with 160 tons of lights, sound and video equipment, with 150 speakers set up on the main stage alone – a sentence which is tiring just to read.
After paying all its artists, running costs, upkeep, donations to charity, and everything else that goes into making it the wonderland that it is, Glastonbury – the largest festival in the UK – had a turnover of £37m in 2014 but saw profits of just £86,000 (down from £764,000 in 2013). That’s less than 50p per ticket. Compare that to Coachella – which pulled in $84 million in revenue last year, making it the most profitable music festival in the world – and it’s seems to be a unique problem for Britain's festivals.
Obviously, although not dissimilar in crowd-size, Glastonbury is a sprawling metropolis compared to Coachella, which has more branded charging stations than it does stages. If you want a post-apocalyptic mini-city overseen by a giant metal spider, that’s going to set you back. So how do you recoup that at a time when ticket costs are already towards the top end of what an average punter would ever be willing to pay?
The growing demand for glamping – that’s your fancy toilets and showers and yurt fields patrolled by their own private security – may stand for everything you could consider boring or overly-sanitary about the modern festival experience, but it’s also one of the few areas anybody is making their money back. If you have between £2,150 and £2,750 to drop on an Airstream caravan at Latitude, then a chunk of that will go back to the promoter. Similarly, the other lucrative aspect of festivals is obviously branding. Sponsorship deals for festivals and touring alone is, according to this week's report, a $1.3bn industry, with around 450 major brands chasing the main 3000 festivals worldwide. But most festivals aren’t run by business people – they’re run by music fans. As such, this often means balancing your books with your ethics. There would be no point of a Glastonbury sponsored by British Petroleum, or Womad sponsored by Honda. “If festival promoters were better business people, they wouldn’t be in festivals,” Gareth Cooper told The Guardian last year.
In the last five years, The Big Chill and Oxegen both have packed in. Sonisphere is back in 2016 after it’s second financially-motivated gap year, Forgotten Fields was cancelled due to “rising costs of producing a quality event of this size”, Bloc said goodbye for the last time ever, and the less said about ATP the better. Smaller festivals that rely on people attending for one day, on a whim, can go bankrupt in a year if bad weather affects walk-up sales. In 2013, Cornbury sold 1,200 day tickets during the event itself, but the year before, because of rain, it only sold 200 – equivalent to a shortfall of around £80,000. In 2012 – the wettest summer in the UK for 100 years – 57 festivals went out of business as the costs of addressing flooding or dealing with cancellations were beyond them financially. If you are lucky enough to bag a heatwave weekend then unfortunately it also costs to give away water for free.
The festival industry is vital, and UK Music – the umbrella organisation for the industry – recently highlighted the contribution of live bands and music tourism to the British economy. But as the abundance of British festivals compete with eachother for ticket sales, and festival organisers continue to haemorrhage increased costs on infrastructure, security and production, it feels like our biggest and most joyous celebrations of music and experience are under serious threat.
Despite their cultural presence – which feels integral at this moment in time as people turn to them to make up for the void that club closures up and down the country have left – music festivals are one of the highest-risk businesses in the UK. It’s worrying to think that, as you nurse a hangover with a falafel bowl in a field somewhere this summer, it’s not guaranteed to be there next year.
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