Figures from the UK independent festival scene have spoken to NME about why so many grassroots events have seen cancellations recently or are taking a fallow year in 2024.
While a number of the UK’s mid-to-large capacity festivals have shared their line-ups over recent weeks, a number of grassroots events have broken news to fans that they would no longer be going ahead. Last month saw Herefordshire’s Nozstock Hidden Valley announce that 2024 would be their final incarnation after 26 years due to “soaring costs” and financial risk”, while the fan favourite Shepton Mallet skating and music festival NASS announced that they wouldn’t be putting on an event this summer either as it was “just not economically feasible to continue”.
Elsewhere, rising costs also cancelled Dumfries’ Doonhame Festival for 2024, Bluedot announced a year off for the land to “desperately” recover after being struck by heavy rain and cancellations last summer, Nottingham’s Splendour has been canned for this year due to planning delays from a financially-struggling city council, and Barn On The Farm shared that it would be taking a fallow year due to financial constraints.
Last year Barn On The Farm hosted headline performances from Gang Of Youths, Bleachers and Holly Humberstone, as well as sets from the likes of Sigrid, Sam Ryder and Mahalia. In the past, the award-winning Gloucester event has had the likes of Ed Sheeran, Wolf Alice, James Bay, Hozier, Lewis Capaldi, and Bastille all grace its bill. Beloved by fans, the festival made the decision to year out through financial necessity – as co-manager Oscar Matthews told NME.
“From our perspective, the festival in 2023 itself was brilliant – it was a really successful year – but we were hit majorly on a financial level by a mix of increased production costs and a very big reduction in ticket sales,” he said. “That hit us from both angles and meant we suffered quite substantial losses, despite the actual running of the festival going so well.”
Matthews said that they weren’t alone in the issues they were facing, and that a lot of festivals and events out there were “struggling” – arguing that the industry needed to “find a way” to survive the ongoing cost of living crisis and a cash-strapped public. However, he argued that this wasn’t the main cause of the problems.
“COVID had a severe impact on so many different sectors on so many different ways, and there needs to be a short-to-mid-term support package in place for festivals and events in terms of a reduction in the VAT rate on ticket sales,” he said.
“That gives all of us the opportunity to realign and readjust to how the market has changed over the last two years since COVID.”
Looking to the shifting landscape of live music, he pointed to a change in audience habits causing complications for booking line-ups.
“The popularity of different genres of music changes all the time, but the two or three years where the young generation who grew up through COVID and weren’t able to access live music in the way that they were before has had this knock-on effect,” he said.
“For us who put on these events, it’s very hard to suddenly adapt in the space of six months to a year to the way that they want to attend gigs and the music they want to see. We need more time to get us to that point.”
Just as has been argued with the continued loss of grassroots music venues throughout the UK, smaller music festivals are needed to produce the headliners of major events in the future.
“It’s inevitable and it’s already started, but when you start to lose smaller festivals, events, gig spaces and venues, the opportunities disappear for new and emerging talent to get on stage and get their music heard,” he said. “They’ll suffer and that will inevitably have a knock-on effect further up the chain.
“You’re very rarely going to have a new up and coming artist go straight to headlining Reading & Leeds. They’re going to start in the smaller grassroots venues and festivals. The talent is there, but festivals need to be given the support to survive or the talent won’t have the opportunities that they need.”
Asked about what the festival landscape could look like in years to come without urgent help and investment, Matthews replied: “It’s hard to say. Festivals like Reading & Leeds and Glastonbury that have big support behind them will get through times like this, and that’s great, but for the smaller festivals a lot will either postpone or disappear.”
Matthews added: “There will always be space for music, but a lot of festivals are really going to struggle without additional support.”
John Rostron is the CEO of the Association Of Independent Festivals. Speaking to NME, he explained how Barn On The Farm was a sign of a growing problem around the UK and proof of the importance of events like this as part of the talent pipeline.
“Barn On The Farm was an amazing festival with a great reputation that’s always done well for 12 years,” he said. “It’s had 12 years where – not due to the audience interest or organisers’ great curation – it’s had to call it off due to financial pressures.”
He continued: “Barn On The Farm was Ed Sheeran’s first good-sized festival headline appearance when he played to 5,000 people. That’s how artists develop. You don’t arrive as a Reading headliner – you need to develop your catalogue, your performance and your set. That comes through these opportunities.
“Holly Humberstone headlined last year, and it’s clear what happens from there. We know that, the artists, the agents, the managers – they all know that. Reading & Leeds and Latitude need grassroots music venues and independent festivals that are nurturing acts, but also the backstage skills. You don’t just become a stage manager at Reading; you have to work your way through and develop your talent.”
According to the AIF, summer 2023 saw a large number of festival casualties. Rostron said that “one in six festivals that were around in 2019 were no longer around in 2023″ and they found 36 that had cancelled in advance.
Among the events to have been cancelled last summer were Essex’s Hideaway Festival, No Bounds in Sheffield, Detonate in Nottingham, Chagstock Festival in Devon, Plymouth’s 1 Big Summer, Isle Of Wight’s RhythmTree, Keswick Mountain Festival, and Ulverston’s Coast Road’s festival – all citing spiralling costs and crippling financial issues.
Another reason for 2023 cancellations for bad weather – which a large number of events including Eastbourne’s Beach Life festival, Electric Bay in Torquay, and Maidstone’s Revival in The Park put off – but this could still have an impact of the future finances of events.
“The number one was reason was economic and financial pressures,” said Rostron of last summer’s cancellations. “It comes from a mixture of rising supply chain costs, and if they weren’t selling as many tickets – even by a small percentage – the difference on the increase in prices and difficulty in terms now in place meant they had to cancel.
“A number of festivals happened where everything looked good on the surface. The customers came, had a good time, the bands played, but the festivals actually lost money. Some of them are in difficulty or might be in difficulty if there isn’t a good wind. That’s very worrying. These festivals are around and don’t appear to be on fire, but maybe they are.”
Explaining the “unstable state” of many festivals, Rostron said that there was much more to it than just the cost of living crisis.
“Previously, about 90 per cent of the ticket price went on the event, and 10 per cent was there for the profit,” he said. “Those supply chain costs shot up by about 30 per cent because of Brexit, because of COVID, the energy crisis, businesses disappearing as a result. A few big ones like Glastonbury can afford to significantly increase their ticket prices, most of them can’t go up too much because of the cost of living crisis and being affordable.
“The other thing is that festivals would have set their ticket prices for 2019 but then the event wasn’t delivered until 2022 because of COVID. In that time, all of those costs went up but no one put their ticket prices up because they’d pretty much sold out. It’s unprecedented to say, ‘Actually that £100 you’ve already bought now needs to be £130’. They didn’t and they went ahead, which is incredibly admirable of them. Loads of them went ahead, were sold out and lost loads of money.
He continued: “They thought they’d come back a year later to bounce back, but they used up all their reserves during COVID, and they now also have to repay their loans and debts taken out over that period on top of rising costs.”
“That’s the incredible COVID legacy. If we’d have come out of COVID and there hadn’t been Brexit, an energy crisis, a war and other things then we could have re-emerged into something more like 2019. That’s what everyone was thinking would happen, but the world looked so different in 2022 and that long tail is squeezing everything.
Rostron went on to compare the plight of festivals with that of the UK’s grassroots music venues – which saw the country experience its “worst year” in 2023 and saw 125 close at a rate of about two per week. While he said festivals weren’t in quite as dire straits, it still had issues that needed tending to.
“Music venues get a lot of attention, and that’s because they are in crisis – they are fighting fires from all directions,” he said. “When there’s a fire, everyone runs to try and put it out – but that can be distracting because elsewhere there as many independent festivals as there are grassroots music venues in the UK. We don’t have the issues of ownership and noise abatement that grassroots venues do. We’re not on fire, but we do have a problem.”
He continued: “When a venue like Bath Moles closes, that’s obviously awful. Everyone asks, ‘Where’s the next Coldplay or Radiohead going to come from?’ Well, they came about 20 or 30 years ago. Back then, Green Man and all these boutique festivals were not around or just barely starting.
“We should be talking about where the next Wet Leg will be coming from because they emerged from a very different environment across grassroots festivals and venues – as well as some of these things that a lot of the live music sector seems to hate, like TikTok. Don’t dismiss the things you don’t like, they work and they’re important.”
Asked what needed to be done to prevent said “fire” devastating UK grassroots festivals, Rostron replied: “To the audience, just buy your tickets early. Most people are buying on payment plans these days too, which is great. The sooner you buy, the less money they have to spend on marketing to entice you. It can go into the content of the event.
“The government, we need a lower rate of VAT on ticket sales for three years. Then eventually, it can stabilise.”
Alex Lee Thomson is Director of Green House Group, which coordinates strategic digital marketing campaigns for artists and festivals including Barn on the Farm, Rockaway Beach and 2000Trees. Speaking to NME, Thomson admitted that the UK “probably had too many summer festivals to be honest” – with events “all competing for the same real estate artist and customer wise”.
“It’s beyond highly competitive,” he argued. “The economic challenges over the last few years has made hosting festivals a more risky business endeavour than ever before. The cost of putting on festivals has gone up by so much, from fencing and security to staging and loos. Having based their production costs on 2019 prices, a lot of organisers were caught off guard coming out of lockdown with sold out events that just about broke even or actually lost money. That knocked on to last year until breaking point.
“Most independent festivals have a very delicate cash-flow, so lockdown followed by the general economic state of the UK right now has made what was already very difficult, just impossible.”
Thomson said that what makes festivals stand out in such a competitive environment is “how they’re curated, decorated, and programmed” – which can have its downsides.
“A lot of love goes into them, because they’re so personal to the organisers who set out with a vision,” he said. “That can often lead to overspending to get things just right. Which is amazing for the audience, as they’re getting something they probably won’t get at a major festival, but it’s crippling financially for the promoters.
“Smaller, independent festivals are up against the major offerings in terms of pitching for artists to play. Artists may have exclusivity with a bigger festival that blocks them performing at grassroots festivals. Or those smaller festivals have to wait longer to confirm or announce the same artists, missing valuable time in selling tickets. Plus smaller events may not have the same access to enough resources or advertising budgets necessary to compete. It takes a lot of ingenuity to compete.”
Thomson agreed that COVID had prevented a new generation of music fans from getting indoctrinated into festivals, and that organisers might need new ideas to bring them in.
“The festival culture, especially among younger people, has declined,” he said. “In part that’s down to 17 to 20-year-olds losing their swing into the festival experience over lockdown, which used to be inherited culturally from their older friends or family.
“There just weren’t any festivals for a few years, and so the automatic regeneration of audiences stalled. The same is felt in nightclubs and pubs too, with younger audience numbers lower now than pre-COVID levels. It all needs more gas.”
While suggesting that the traditional festival model might need modernising with “more mavericks and weirdos coming through with new ideas for what festivals can be and to excite the next generation”, Thomson added that it “wasn’t all doom and gloom” for the scene.
“While many independent festivals have folded over the last couple of years, I have to say that others have really thrived,” he said. “It’s not all doom and gloom at all. It’s just harder to have a success now, with far less room for error.”
Thomson added: “Customer loyalty has never been more important. That’s on the festivals to be offering the right thing to their audience, and having a good relationship and sense of community with them. It’s also on the public to continue supporting independent festivals by investing in tickets, if they want to continue having more curated, intimate experiences and seeing the next generation of artists first in unique settings.”
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