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A range of factors, from Brexit to overstretched bookers and changing buying habits, have been blamed for the slower-than-expected start to the UK's festival summer
By Jon Chapple on 22 May 2019
Festival bosses have identified economic uncertainty, homogenisation and difficulty booking talent as the likely factors behind Britain’s slow festival season, as the UK festival business braces for a quieter-than-normal summer.
At a time of year when most summer events expect to be approaching capacity, of the major May–June festivals only Glastonbury Festival and Manchester’s Parklife have sold out – with tickets still available for heavy hitters like All Points East (24 May–2 June), Field Day (7–8 June), Isle of Wight Festival (13–16 June) and Download (14–16 June).
A number of events are also appearing on discount sites such as Groupon, while several festivals are currently advertising two-for-one ticket offers on social platforms.
While the majority of festival professionals quizzed by IQ say their 2019 ticket sales are softer than previous years, opinions are divided as to why, and the broader implications for the UK’s mature festival market.
“We’re OK – we’re probably going to end up 10 to 15% on last year, which is where we wanted to be,” says Oliver Jones, who – alongside his wife, Kate Webster – runs Yorkshire’s Deer Shed Festival (11,500-cap.), which this year celebrates its tenth anniversary. “But there are plenty of events on our radar who aren’t doing so well.”
Jones says the festivals “that are selling out, and will continue to, are independent, and the owners really care about the experience. Look at Green Man, for example – they put hospitality right at the top of the things their festival should offer, and look after people.”
“There does seem to be a general slowdown on ticket sales”
Another festival boss laments that too many events share a booker, with the result that festival line-ups are becoming increasingly samey. “You can make a Venn diagram,” they say, “with a handful of bands. One festival will have Elbow and Doves and Franz Ferdinand, another will have Doves and Franz Ferdinand but no Elbow, and so on… Too many festivals now are just homogenised.”
Gill Tee, co-founder with Debs Shelling of Kent’s Black Deer Festival, says the Americana event, now in its second year, is “going great guns”: “Fortunately for us we are currently on track, and do not seem to be too affected by the challenges other festivals are experiencing this year.”
“With [her] supplier head on”, as co-founder and director of Entertee Hire, Tee says “there does seem to be a general slowdown on ticket sales. I have heard many opinions as to the reasons why, but in reality nobody really knows. There have been years in the past that have shown a general slowdown on the appetite for attending festivals, which has then lifted the year after.”
Conversely, for Paul Reed, CEO of the 65-strong Association of Independent Festivals (AIF), while some members are “a bit slower than usual”, the 2019 season is largely “a mixed bag, as always”.
“I’m not seeing any dramatic changes, but there might be a cloud of Brexit uncertainty affecting people’s buying habits,” Reed explains. “And, as always, festivals are at the mercy of who’s out and touring – ultimately, line-ups are dictated by who’s available.”
Tee largely attributes 2019’s slowdown to “the amount of choice [in festivals] people now have, and they probably just buy later because they can.”
“It’s mad to spend all your budget on one or two bands, when no act is liked by everyone”
Meanwhile, Reed notes that, with artist fees still spiralling, many of AIF’s members have given up on the headliner “arms race” altogether, with several events having “stepped out of playing that game completely”.
That’s true of Deer Shed, adds Jones, who says he’s “not prepared to play that game with headliners anymore”. Topping the family friendly festival’s line-up for its tenth year are Ezra Furman, Anna Calvi and Australian indie-rockers Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, with money that would have gone on booking a single huge musical headliner instead invested in hospitality, facilities and comedians such as Reginald D. Hunter, Milton Jones and Nina Conti.
Outside the big corporate events, the UK festivals that succeed in future – even in slow years – are the focused, niche events with a strong identity and loyal fanbase, suggests one industry insider.
“Look at 5,000-or-so-capacity festivals like [experimental rock event] ArcTanGent or [Herefordshire music and arts festival] Nozstock,” they say. “Nozstock in particular is doing really well now. I think the penny has dropped that it’s not all about the headliners, and if you go to these kind of events you feel valued and you’re going to have a unique experience.”
“It’s mad to spend all your budget on one or two bands, when no act is liked by everyone,” they conclude. “So you’ve got to adapt. Of course, you can have a great festival if you’re prepared to lose a million pounds – but most of us don’t have that luxury.”
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