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Melvin Benn: ‘I’m very optimistic about 2021’

After staging digital editions of Download and Wireless this summer, the FR chief says he expects European festivals to be "back in full force" next year

By IQ on 16 Jul 2020

Festival Republic MD Melvin Benn

image © Marc Sethi/Festival Republic

Amid a challenging summer 2020, Festival Republic is feeling “incredibly optimistic” about next year’s European festival season, managing director Melvin Benn has said.

Speaking to IQ, Benn says Festival Republic (FR) – whose festival portfolio includes the UK’s Download, Wireless and Reading/Leeds Festivals, Germany’s Lollapalooza Berlin and the Republic of Ireland’s Electric Picnic – is working to the assumption that its open-air events will “be back in full force next summer”, most likely after the release of a vaccine against Covid-19.

With UK scientists now said to be 80% sure a vaccine will be ready by September, Benn (pictured) says festivalgoers being immunised against the coronavirus is currently FR’s “plan A” for 2021, with some sort of test-and-trace system also a possibility should the vaccine not be ready in time.

“I take great confidence in the fact that test and trace is a plan B for me,” he explains. “I don’t think we could have imagined the unity the scientific community has showed in working together to find a vaccine against this disease.”

Underscoring his optimism that a vaccine for Covid-19 is close, Benn adds: “If you look back at all the incredible inventions and creations – aeroplanes, cars, medicines; everything we take for granted in our normal lives – and then you think that, cumulatively, there are more scientists alive and working now than ever existed before… Are we going to solve this? Of course we are!”

“I’m already getting companies contacting me and offering tests”

IQ caught up with Benn the week after Wireless Connect, one of two virtual festivals the Festival Republic team has staged this summer (three if you include parent company Live Nation UK’s Isle of Wight Festival) in lieu of the physical events.

“The learnings” from all three, says Benn, are “immense”, and allowed FR to “discover what people respond to” in a digital event.

Download TV was very much more a linear TV broadcast, just using YouTube rather than a terrestrial channel, and we learnt a huge amount,” he continues. “It was really the first time we’d done an as-live broadcast like that.

“With MelodyVR [for Wireless Connect], that was even more complicated, as we did a 360° virtual-reality broadcast, with artists going into a studios in London and the US. Whereas people were performing in their kitchens for Download…”  (The virtual Isle of Wight Festival, meanwhile, was a simpler affair, broadcasting past performances on Sky television.)

While Benn says the definition of a successful year for him is having “fans in a field”, he says the FR team has done “extraordinary things with the three outings we’ve had so far”. “I hope we can build on that in future,” he adds.

By charging for online events, IQ wonders? Benn is tight-lipped, though he concedes that, “as an add-on, [virtual festivals] have potential”. “There’s a lot of discussion going round, but it’s really too early to say,” he continues. “What we do know is that there’s an appetite for live – in all its forms – that can’t be replaced.”

“We’re feeling very optimistic about next year. I think the pent-up demand is absolutely there”

On that topic, Benn notes that of the three 2021 festivals Live Nation/Festival Republic has on sale – IoW, Download and Creamfields – all are “selling really well, so we’re feeling very optimistic about next year. I think the pent-up demand is absolutely there.”

Even in the event of a vaccine not being available by next summer, Benn is adamant that FR, and the wider UK/European festival market, is “in a really good position”.

“I’m already getting companies contacting me and offering tests that are incredibly reliable, and can be done in a short amount of time,” he explains. “At the moment [in July] they’re too expensive – but given that they didn’t even exist in March, I assure you that by the time April or May comes around next year, there’ll be a testing company on every street corner and it will be relatively inexpensive.”

As for how fans might respond to mandatory testing, which has mooted as a requirement for entering festivals in the absence of a vaccine, Benn adds: “I’m very optimistic about human beings. We’re incredibly versatile creatures and we’ll change and do what we need to do in order to participate in the things we enjoy.

“So if that’s the only way, so be it. You can’t beat the experience of a festival.”

Isle of Wight Festival, Download and Creamfields 2021 are on sale now.


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