Is this year the death of the British Festival? Michael Eavis, the Glastonbury owner and organiser (and substantial millionaire), back in 2011 said that within 3 years there will be no more festivals in Britain as we know them. Citing various reasons, including youth unemployment, high tuition fees, a crowded marketplace and cheaper international festivals, he said that mainly people’s attitudes are changing. 

The Death of the Festival?

Festivals in the UK have steadily increased in numbers up to a peak of around 500 over a summer. These are not just your typical attention-grabbing cross-genre festivals, and if you were really going to analyse the numbers you’d find a significant number are particularly small appealing to very small subsets of music classification, if music related at all of course. However the focus has historically always been on the larger festivals, none more so than Glastonbury, and to a lesser extent festivals such as Reading & Leeds, V festival, Creamfields, Global Gathering, Isle of Wight and Bestival. 

Turning the clocks back towards the end of the summer 2011, a lot of event organisers and company figure heads were rolled out to quote statistics by which they could justify their continuance as the biggest festivals in the UK and drum up enthusiasm for the oncoming year. Melvin Benn, managing director of Festival Republic, was then quoted as saying ‘the concept that the UK has fallen out of love with festivals is just wrong’, and cited a figure of around a quarter of a million people were at festivals over the bank holiday weekend that included Creamfields, Reading and Leeds. However, perhaps Festival Republic had counted their chickens a little too early, as they have recently had to pull the plug on the Big Chill 2012. 

You may recall that we covered the Big Chill in 2011, and our observation, as was shared by many others, was that it was gearing itself up for something bigger in 2012. A thought, perhaps, to the Glastonbury fallow year, where a large number of festival goers would be starved of their annual fix of fun and freedom, and could possibly look to another festival to supplement their loss in 2012.Tickets hadn’t sold out for that year either, and it is quite likely that the company made a loss on that specific festival, especially given that it was bought for a knock down price in 2009 from a faltering Chillfest, who later filed for bankruptcy. The gamble appears not to have paid off, but is potentially more telling of a wider issue.

It is impossible to think of festivals anymore without thinking of finance, not simply because of the economic downturn we are faced with, but by the fact that ticket prices have not adjusted themselves accordingly. Eavis’ daughter commented that their prices had not dropped as they would otherwise fail to break even. This year, ticket sales for Reading/Leeds looks like £205 without optional extras, V festival pushing up towards the £200 mark, Isle of Wight over £200, and so on. Comparing these prices to last year, there is an above inflation average rise of over 10%. When considering that the real average disposable income of most families fell over the past year for the first time in 30 years, is it likely that festivals can continue to be profit making and continue in the same fashion as before? The new tuition fees system will be firmly hitting home a classic target market for festivals, as student wastrel have a whole summer to while away. Rob Da Bank, organiser of Bestival, noticed this on-coming trend last year as, thanks to social media, he was made very aware of the plight of many regular attendees being unable to afford tickets that year. He said that, with regards to the finances, they ‘just about got away with it’. 

Sonisphere, a previously successful festival, had to announce its cancellation after having sold a large number of tickets at the end of March. In fact this also left a substantial financial hole in the pockets of Knebworth house, the host of the previously annual festival. How this affects the future of Sonisphere remains to be seen, yet slow ticket sales were undoubtedly an important prompt to cancel the show before things got too far. Last year, big festivals like the Big Chill, as previously mentioned, as well as Latitude, went right to the wire with their ticket sales. They didn’t sell out, and tickets didn’t sell at a staggering pace. This was what called for Eavis to make his bold, if somewhat factually inaccurate statement about the ‘death’ of British festivals. However, during the same summer, V festival sold out in a matter of hours for every single ticket release – I know as I was one of those poor people trying to get a hold of a number of tickets. Comparing that to this year, and tickets are selling at a glacial rate. Whilst it looks likely that it may well sell out at some point, we are weeks into their sale, and comparing this to their figure of 5 hours last year, and it is staggering. 

Perhaps slow sales are not just down to the finances of families and regular festival goers, but 2012 is merely just a blip in what will be a much longer tale. This summer in England sees the 2012 Olympics, a very expensive and highly publicised event – something that Great Britain should be proud of as a whole. My personal opinion aside, this will be the focus of many people throughout the summer and the build up to its launch as well. There are a whole host of participants, ticket holders, and volunteers making their way to the capital for the festivities and competition. In addition to the Olympics, there is the 2012 European Cup to consider, with many football fans unwilling to separate themselves from their screens for the 23 days its on. And for when all of that is finished, a lot of people are looking to escape the UK for a holiday – and after all of that, who would blame them? 

However, holiday plans are potentially more likely now to include festivals overseas. Coachella has been and gone, and grabbed all the headlines and twitter trends given Tupac’s digital resurrection, and although for many UK travellers that would have proven a huge expense, there are festivals much closer to our fair shores that could prove more tempting. The likes of Ibiza Rocks, SONAR, Heineken Open’er, Benicassim, Outlook, Optimus Alive and Sziget are proving almost irresistible to the UK crowds, with their cheaper prices and the promise of an incorporated holiday. Having had a look at the comparison in prices, some festivals are even less than half the price of their UK competition, and if you factor in the flights to these locations, they are potentially still even cheaper given the relatively low cost of no-frills travel. From conversing with British people who have ventured overseas in the past for festivals, it appears that an overwhelmingly large number of the other revellers are indeed from the UK too. Perhaps the only real elements that would be different to their UK counter-parts are simply the higher chance of better weather and the quick and easy food on offer at the stalls (replace fish & chip vans with Paella vans, etc). This is somewhat appeals to the very psyche of the stereotypical British holiday goer – something different, yet comfortingly similar.

There is an element of psychology behind festival choice and their decline in the UK that stretches back to Eavis’ diagnosis of doom for British festivals. He said last year that ‘Womad and Lattitude are not selling out. Partly it’s economics, but there is a feeling that people have seen it all before.’ There is very much an element of truth in this that requires further thought. In previous years I have possibly dipped my toe into the festival scene, attending one or, at most, two a season. Last year, however, I went to dozen festivals in the UK alone. This year I am a little more pensive before looking to buy tickets, reviewing the line-ups, assessing other areas of entertainment, or seeing if there is anything else that weekend that supercedes the need to go to a festival. 

As previously mentioned, last year the Big Chill didn’t sell out and it attempted a new direction, a gamble many will consider that has not paid off. This was a Festival Republic event. Out of the events I went to last year, including the Big Chill, 3 were run by the festival giants. Whilst the atmosphere was wholly dependant upon the people there and the subtle variances in the line-ups, the actual set-up of the arenas, the traders, and the extra entertainment were all very much the same. Of particular note, whilst I was quite impressed by the Electric Hotel performances at Lattitude earlier in the year, seeing it again at the Big Chill, and hearing it had also been at Glastonbury, one questions the unique nature of each bigger festival. This is wholly understandable from a business point of view, using some classic buzz words such as synergy and cost streamlining one can easily explain the advantages to the company running the event. However, in producing a homogeneous style has begun to sap away the very element that kept people interest in the first place. Perhaps this is why the larger festivals are the ones suffering greatly and smaller festivals are still surviving in the way they always have?

Small festivals, in the past, never stayed that way for long. They grew up to become mammoths in the marketplace to capitalise on revenues and generate significant profit, whilst attempting to stay true to their humble roots – often a need for something special locally, or something with a twist that fits a niche. Bestival is the prime example for something that has spiralled with demand, to the point where its reached a critical mass of demand which Rob Da Bank is desperate to satisfy, yet costs have become unsustainable. Having spoken with the organisers of some smaller festivals across the UK, their ticket sales sound very much to be on the same track as last year, and where they have increase capacity, this will be a telling year. Kendal Calling, the best small festival of 2010 and 2011, has steadily increased its capacity since its inception in 2006, yet ticket sales have remained strong to the point where, unlike a lot of comparable events, they are warning potential festival goers to expedite their purchases as there are not many remaining. So smaller festivals with a strong local support base look likely to continue to flourish and the casualties and compromises will be felt at the national level only.

Ultimately 2012 looks like it could prove to be a blip. On the surface Eavis looks like he may have been quite accurate in his foretelling the demise of the British festival. However, like so many other critics, I believe he was premature in his summation. The economy is squeezing the typical festival going crowds to the point of exhaustion, whilst the cost of running the events has failed to drop, resulting in unsustainably high expenditure, thereby homogenising many festivals so that attitudes of customers become indifferent, perhaps forcing them into looking further afield for something different. In addition to this, the UK is facing an unprecedented number of summer events that will distract the populace from their usual musical festivities. As a result of this, attendances this year in the UK will undoubtedly be down and more festivals will be cancelled. The real test remains to be seen, and that is which organisers and events will survive the tough times ahead to see themselves through to potential green shoots of recovery in 2013 or 2014? Glastonbury will be back and much rests on the UK’s response to the international threat, just please don’t hold your breath that long.

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