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In an extended excerpt from IQ's European Festival Report, the Festival Republic MD opens up on the travails of the last three years
By James Drury on 25 Jan 2023
Melvin Benn is often regarded as one of the founding fathers of the UK festival industry. Now, as managing director of Live Nation-owned Festival Republic, he is responsible for festivals including Latitude, Wireless, Download, and Ireland’s Electric Picnic. During Covid, he was central to securing the return of live music, through a concerted campaign of lobbying and planning, and by funding test events. In an extended excerpt from IQ‘s recently published European Festival Report, he opens up on the travails of the last three years and explains why festivals remain integral to cultural life…
What did it take for you and the team to get through the pandemic?
“In truth, Covid was one of the most stressful and traumatic periods of my life. Like many people, I had people close to me personally die because of Covid. And the numbers of people getting infected was so high. But what was particularly challenging for all of our industry is that the creative industries are made up of people that are doers. There wouldn’t be a Leeds festival if I hadn’t got off my arse to create it; there wouldn’t be a Latitude and so on. We’re all made up of people that just want to do things and create things and create excitement for the public to enjoy. So the frustration of not being able to do so was immense. So in June 2020, I came up with something called the Full Capacity Plan because it became apparent that transmission was airborne. This plan was based on people wearing masks, and people gathering together that had been tested and proven to be clear, so the rise of Covid would be not substantially greater than the rise in general society.
“I trotted off to every government department that you could imagine, with the industry behind me, and made a lot of effort to try and get us back working. Eventually, when it fitted government plans to get events back on the road, particularly because of the desire to hold Wimbledon and the European Football Championship, they started listening. Initially though, they didn’t accept the music industry as being a test environment – they wanted to put us in the same environment as football fans in a stadium. I felt that left us vulnerable – I could imagine the government’s scientists saying ‘this is great, we can open the football, but we should have done some research around music and we didn’t so music can’t open’. So I spent an intense three weeks hammering on government, for us to be allowed to do that, which resulted in the Sefton Park trial in Liverpool and the Download trial.
“One of the people that was most significant helping me at that time was Sir Nicholas Hytner. He’d been appointed to the government intelligence squad of people that would advise on getting it all back together. And he understood the need for it, and saw the government didn’t want to do one because they didn’t want to pay for it. It was more complicated than that, but it was only my insistence and willingness to pay for the events myself, through Festival Republic and Live Nation that really allowed it to go ahead. The frustration around that was immense.
“I felt a great responsibility in order to help the industry”
“There were lots of people involved in many aspects trying to get us on the back, such as the LIVE group. I felt a great responsibility in order to help the industry. What I found interesting was how much the visibility of the music industry – myself and others constantly being in the press, on the radio, TV, and so on, pushing to get us open – how much that gave encouragement to my team and the general industry. The amount of people that contacted me to say, ‘this is amazing, Melvin’. And even now, I bump into people that I haven’t seen since Covid, and they say ‘listening to you on the radio is one of the things that kept me going – it kept us believing that we would reopen’. There are a number of leaders in this industry and I think they all allowed the wider industry to feel an element of hope that we would get back.
“March 2020 through to May ’21 when we had the first test were probably the worst 16 months of my adult life because of the frustration of being someone that wants to do things been prevented from doing them. Especially when the plan that I’d created in 2020 was the plan that the government rolled out for the whole of the test programme for football and sport around.
“When I did the test events in Sefton Park and at Download in early June, I had a constant belief that I would have been able to do Glastonbury too. But the government didn’t have the appetite for that. And I’m not criticising them for that. What they were dealing with was much bigger than anything that we were dealing with. But what we were dealing with was pretty big in our lives.”
“Audiences are interested in ever-improving standards. And that can only be good for our industry”
So what did it mean to you when your events came back properly for the first time?
“It can’t be described anything other than absolute joy. You know, everybody associated with getting gates open feels joy every time we open a date, every time we open the doors of a venue – it’s because we live to create and invent. So there’s joy all the time, but the feeling when you realised that you could do it after the pandemic was immeasurable. But
“We had huge Covid protocols for the staff. You have to build a significant element of resilience for very large events in order to feel confident that it would happen. At Glastonbury last year, for instance, we had a whole work environment where people could continue working if they caught Covid and felt well enough to be able to continue. And it was pretty busy.”
What trends are you seeing?
“Audiences are interested in ever-improving standards. And that can only be good for our industry. The public forum of TikTok, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media can be hard to deal with it, because it’s quite a challenge because everyone can see someone complaining about an overflowing bin, for example. But what it also does, is it helps inform my team about what festival-goers are thinking. My social media teams start talking to the person who’s posted the picture of the bin, asking them where it is, and we can get it rectified in real time. So that direct interactivity between the festival producers and festival-goers, is quite new. The more that you interact with them, the more they’ll come back. They’ll say ‘I saw a problem. I reported a problem, they fixed it.’ I’m okay with that. That level of interaction also informs issues such as sustainability and diversity, which is very important.”
“In 1989 there were only two festivals in this country: Reading and Glastonbury. It’s how much people’s lives have changed. Festivals are a cultural gathering”
What challenges does the industry face?
“The obvious thing is the supply chain and the labour shortage. I would say in the main we overcame those issues because the industry is made up of people that do things. To give you an example, we produce the Electric Picnic in Ireland. It’s the biggest event in Ireland. It takes place in September, and in late May the people we had contracted to provide power told us they couldn’t do it. In any year that hadn’t been preceded by two years of difficulty of Covid that would have been a catastrophe, but after two years of Covid we were just like ‘OK, thanks for telling us’. That we were able to overcome it was with the help of people like Sunbelt. It’s a massive company that owns trackway and all that stuff but they never had a power division. But they said, ‘OK, we’ll create one.'”
What’s the importance of festivals to cultural life?
“Festivals have been around for hundreds of years. We’re bringing, light and enjoyment to people’s lives. People are able to gather among like-minded people at festivals. And that’s a great feeling – it’s a cultural uplift. They make you feel relaxed when society is constantly putting immense pressure on communities and individuals every day. The ability for doctors or nurses, or accountants or office workers to be able to come out and let themselves go gives them a release from the daily pressures that they live under.
“There were lots of people including my staff who would come to me in tears with the emotion of what they’d helped to get back on the road. You just have to look at forums or social media and you’ll see people talking about where they’re going to camp – and it can be almost a year before the next festival – some haven’t even bought their ticket yet. That’s how important it is.
“If you think that in 1989 there were only two festivals in this country: Reading and Glastonbury. It’s how much people’s lives have changed. Festivals are a cultural gathering.”
Benn is one of the confirmed speakers for the Festival Forum session at ILMC on Wednesday 1 March from 2pm. Read the European Festival Report in full below.
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