The State of Our Music Festivals

By on Wednesday, 17th August 2011 at 11:00 am

Photo by Tom Curtis, of the Victoria Park crowd at Field Day 2011 (a festival that I have been advised by Coco sold out at the very last minute. Maybe its future is rosier because it’s only a 1-day festival? – Ed.)

Given the wall-to-wall BBC coverage of Glastonbury this year, plus Steve Lamacq’s roving festival reporters checking in every Monday from all corners of the UK, you would be forgiven for thinking that all is milk and honey in festival land. But dig a little deeper, and a less rosy picture emerges. Reportedly 31 festivals have been either cancelled or postponed in the UK this year, in sharp contrast to 2010, which was a record year for festival revenue. To hear that tiny beacons of light such as Festinho and Out to Graze dropped off the calendar this year, and to think of the fun simply not being had is sad indeed. The north of England was hit with a particularly disappointing double-whammy when Newcastle’s first ever camping festival, Ignition, was ignominiously cancelled at the last minute over a dispute with the venue, then just a couple of weeks later Beacons festival, due to be held in North Yorkshire with a perfectly-judged lineup including Mercury nominee Ghostpoet, was cancelled on the opening day due to flooding after torrential rain.

Of course the dreadful British summer weather is simply out of the control of man (although Beacons are looking for a new site for 2012: a tacit admission that this year’s venue was a poor choice). But all too often there’s an element of avoidable incompetence somewhere, whether it’s a last-minute dispute with the licencing authorities, over-optimistic estimates of ticket sales, or simply spending too much on the festival itself. Understandably, discretionary purchases like festival tickets are under pressure as confidence in the economy remains flat, but this is hardly news. The danger is that acts will become warier of agreeing to play smaller or younger festivals as they see so many cancelling at the last minute, which can only make it harder and more expensive for the genuinely well-run festivals to book a strong bill, damaging the sector as a whole.

A case in point is Truck Festival, held in South Oxfordshire. Despite being 14 years old, this year there is a sizeable hole in the finances, exacerbated by an unfortunate habit of selling heavily discounted tickets at the last minute – no surprise the punters don’t buy at full price anymore. There are rumours of bands not being paid for their performances – surely the death knell for a once-successful festival. The UK festival curse has now crossed the pond: Truck America was cancelled a month before it was due to be held – maybe the acts didn’t fancy giving their time for free. Previously big players Rothbury (who hosted Bob Dylan in 2009), Monolith and All Points West have been “postponed” since 2009, and show no signs of being resurrected.

The oddly-named Music to Know festival, to be held in the millionaires’ paradise of the Hamptons, New York, was cancelled the week before. In an astonishingly self-regarding press release, the organisers claimed that despite their “unique vision” and “world-class line-up” (note: bands starting before midday and headliners on at 8.30pm is not world-class, it’s junior-class), the event had to be cancelled because of a lack of interest. So despite achieving nothing other than wasting a lot of people’s time and grossly misjudging the size of their market (and this quote is so mind-boggling it deserves to be quoted in full), “We pledge to endure during this difficult time with the same integrity and professionalism displayed throughout the creation of this event [sic].” (Read more on Brooklyn Vegan here.)

Such vanity is undoubtedly commonplace in the fashion-conscious music world, but thankfully some promoters are more pragmatic. When the superb, independent Big Chill festival ran into financial difficulties a couple of years ago, mega-promoters Festival Republic were brought in to stabilise things. Despite a backlash from hardcore fans, and an undeniable lurch towards the mainstream, the underlying ethos of the festival remains, along with its superb location. The pattern of consolidation is a familiar one – in times of economic turbulence, smaller enterprises need to find support, either by huddling together or joining a larger player. This inevitably means some of their original character and independence is lost, but the event lives to fight another year. Fans have to ask themselves, would they rather their favourite mini-fest disappeared completely, or survived at the price of a few more mainstream fizzy lager stalls? All is not lost of course, and there are still plenty of events to choose from; the market was probably near saturation-point this year. However, after a long and exciting upward trend, 2011 may prove to be a turning-point for the festival industry: even with a decent lineup, success isn’t guaranteed. Neither is the weather.

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