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HomeMusic40+ UK festivals cancelled: What's going on? | IQ Magazine

40+ UK festivals cancelled: What's going on? | IQ Magazine

Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) CEO John Rostron has unpicked the key issues facing the beleaguered UK sector this summer, with more than 40 festivals already postponed, cancelled or shut down in 2024.

The family-run Towersey Festival – the UK’s longest-running independent, having launched in 1965 – became the latest casualty earlier this month, announcing that its upcoming August edition would be its last, citing “increasing financial and economic challenges since the pandemic”.

It joined a list of losses from this year’s calendar that already includes NASS Festival, Bradford’s Challenge Festival, El Dorado, PennfestConnect Music Festival110 Above Festival, Leopollooza, Long Division, Bluedot and Barn On The Farm, with the majority of organisers blaming significant increases in operational costs.

Rostron tells IQ that promoters have described the current climate as “the most challenging time it’s ever been”.

“It’s an incredibly challenging environment, because they’ve got multiple things that have all come together at the same time – some of which is long wind from Covid and Brexit impacting,” he explains. “There are a couple of wise people who saw this coming out of the pandemic, but obviously it is very different seeing it to now feeling it.”

While the supporting data is limited up to this point, Rostron says the indications are that the cost of living crisis “has definitely come to bear” ahead of this summer’s season.

“What we feared would happen, is happening – and it will get worse before it gets better”

“One thing we have picked up on is that the overall sales pattern is changing,” he points out. “A lot of people might want, or intend, to go to a festival, but cost of living means they won’t buy their tickets as early as they used to. They’re waiting a lot later – and that ‘later’ adds to the problem.

“Somebody saying, ‘I’m going to go, but I haven’t bought a ticket yet’ is no good to a festival organiser who’s got to pay a bill for a stage upfront. But it’s understandable, because we know what cost of living feels like. We’re all in it, so we’re probably all making similar kinds of decisions.”

Former Welsh Music Foundation chief Rostron, who co-founded Cardiff’s Sŵn Festival, says he was first alerted to the unfolding situation within a month of taking the AIF helm in November 2022.

“I had an individual say to me, ‘There is a cultural crisis coming; I can see a real problem coming down the tracks,’” recalls Rostron. “At the time, it was the only voice saying that, because a lot of the festivals were feeling incredibly energised because they’d finally put Covid to bed. But what I hadn’t realised is how many of them had made a loss on the events they’d delivered in 2022. They’d sold out, but they’d still made a loss.

“This one voice said, ‘I think there’s a cultural crisis’ and then as some festivals began to fall in the spring of 2023, that voice became loud in my head. What we feared would happen, is happening – and it will get worse before it gets better.”

Rostron suggests that headlines about record-setting A-list global tours and more than one million people attending live music events in London in a single week had distracted from the growing concerns lower down the food chain. But there has since been a reality check.

“We talk to the supply chain a lot, and they need two or three years of relative calm in order to be able to build back and relax their terms”

“There were a lot of people in the ecosystem doing well and feeling very optimistic, so the voices of errors and problems felt like they were on the fringes,” he says. “But that is coming home and you can see it in two big areas: grassroots music venues and festivals. And it’s not just our voices anymore – you hear it from other people in the talent development pipeline: artists, managers and agents, because they’re not getting as many bookings this year.

“The number of stages and events has gone down and they’re like, ‘Oh, this is a problem, because we’re not getting the opportunities we used to get; what does that mean for the future?’ Those voices are beginning to join with us now.”

Regarding escalating supply chain costs, from fencing to toilets, Rostron says there is no simple solution for either side.

“Within their world, there’s been a lot of upheaval,” he says. “A lot of it is Brexit and the pandemic, but they have other issues – their ability to buy new gear is challenging when there’s high interest rates, and it’s challenging to store them. Those things add pressure to their ability to settle prices, alongside that foundation of Brexit, which has caused huge problems for the supply chain in terms of locations and costs.

“We talk to the supply chain a lot, and they need two or three years of relative calm in order to be able to build back and relax their terms. Everybody’s under pressure, so the prices have not just gone up, but they want their money upfront and that is incredibly difficult. That’s not the environment that existed in 2019 where if you had a loss one year, you could cover it the next year. That’s all gone.

“There are lots of great people in the sector working very hard to try and come to deals and help people through – from generator and audio companies to agents and artists – but they can’t always make it, and that’s why you’re seeing so many fall.”

“It’s clearly already too late for 43 festivals, and it’s going to be too late for four more that I know are going to go”

In response to the developing crisis, the trade association has launched a campaign called Five Percent For Festivals to encourage festivalgoers to contact their MPs to lobby for a VAT reduction on tickets. AIF states that a reduced VAT from 20% to 5% on ticket sales for the next three years will give festival promoters the space they need to rebuild, and will resume its campaigning in the wake of next month’s UK general election.

“I’m very optimistic that we will get something,” says Rostron. “I’m very confident. Naively confident? I don’t know. We’ve had regular conversations and we haven’t had a ‘No’. The sad bit is, the more festivals cancel – and what we said might happen begins to happen – the stronger those conversations are.

“The CMS inquiry into grassroots music venues made a recommendation to look at modelling of VAT in the grassroots, and the conversation has widened to say that should include festivals. All of that will take time. It takes time to model, it takes time to implement, and there’s still obviously a chance that it won’t happen – they can make the recommendation and then say, ‘No’.”

He continues: “I think there will be intervention. My concern is that by the time something does happen, how many [festivals] will have gone? We’re going to see more independent festivals go because they’re not going to be able to make it to that point of intervention, whatever that intervention looks like. It’s clearly already too late for 43 festivals, and it’s going to be too late for four more that I know are going to go.

“What’s good for us is there is an election about to happen, so we’ll have a new group of politicians with a five-year mandate, and that is stronger to work with than where we were, which was with a group of MPs that didn’t know how long their futures would be.”

“We’ve had a lack of new energy and blood and ideas because of Covid, and we’ll begin to see that trickle back”

Indeed, sounding an optimistic note, Rostron can already picture a brighter tomorrow for the industry – with Generation Z leading the charge.

“What will the festival sector do creatively? Well, they’re already planning it,” he observes. “You’ve got people going, ‘There’s a headliner issue? We’re going to change the way that we book.’ A lot of festivals sell the majority of their tickets without announcing any artists. People go because they love Shambala, or Mighty Hoopla, or Green Man, or End Of The Road. And as long as those artists are of good quality and fit with the audience’s expectations, they’re not really looking at who’s playing, so I think festivals will double down on that.

“For some of them, you’re going to see degrowth. You’re going to say, ‘As we expanded, we got to the point where we needed those [big] headliners. If we shrink down a bit, we don’t need that anymore.’”

He concludes: “You had this big gap with young people that couldn’t go to festivals because of Covid, and that’s impacted us in ways that we can’t understand. But some of them went to festivals in 2022 and 2023, and they’ll go again this year. And guess what? They’ll now start to leave their footprint creatively in the festival sector.

“You will see some of those individuals be inspired to create their own events, or pockets within existing events. You’ll see that magic start to sprout up because that’s where innovation always comes from. We’ve had a lack of new energy and blood and ideas because of Covid, and we’ll begin to see that trickle back.

“Next year, I think you’ll see the seeds of some future great festivals and some others change quite dramatically. That will be quite Gen Z-driven, and I’m really excited to see what they do.”


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