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The big return to the fields

In this in-depth feature from the European Festival Report, we look back at some of the themes that dominated summer 2022

By IQ on 28 Feb 2023

The Netherlands' marquee festival, Lowlands

Last year saw the return of festivals across Europe after the pandemic break. And it was a comeback full of excitement and joy – but also many challenges in what some are describing as the toughest year to date. In this feature from the European Festival Report, we look back at some of the themes that dominated summer 2022.

When live concerts returned after the lockdowns, there were predictions of “the roaring twenties,” as music-starved fans flocked to see their favourite artists once more. But by the beginning of the festival season this year, that bullishness was being tempered by loud notes of caution.

At May’s ILMC in London, DF Concerts CEO Geoff Ellis, whose company runs Scotland’s TRNSMT festival, correctly predicted some of the themes that would come to dominate the summer: increasing costs, exacerbated by supply chain and staffing issues.

“In the UK, costs are going up at least 25% from 2019 prices, which is really difficult,” he said. “And it’s the scarcity of kit as well, so stages, barriers – we’re having to beg, borrow, and steal barriers from different arenas because there are so many shows on. There are shows that have moved from 2020 and didn’t happen in ’21, all happening, plus the festivals, plus the outdoor business that would have taken place in ’22.

“Also, staff – lots of stewards left the industry during the pandemic. Lots of sporting events are taking certainly the high-end toilets, maybe not the actual Portaloos but the flushable toilets and trailers, so that’s a real challenge.”

And he noted that simply putting up prices to cover these additional costs this year wasn’t an option, coming off the back of the loyalty of people who held their tickets for years and with a cost-of-living crisis already biting.

So, here’s a round-up of how things worked out this year.

High production costs, low staff availability
One of the most significant challenges of 2022 was the massive increase in costs for production. Issues associated with Covid and Brexit and longstanding problems of low pay and long hours, finally came home to roost. There just weren’t enough crew, security, drivers, trucks, staging, toilets, and everything else needed to fulfil all the concerts that were held over during the lockdowns as well as fulfil the festival season.

One of the earliest casualties was Belgium’s 25,000-capacity Rock Werchter Encore, which was called off just a month after being launched, due to “high production costs, staff shortages, and low consumer confidence.”

Typically, festival companies reacted with pragmatism. As an example, Mojo Concerts in the Netherlands launched a new website to advertise the hundreds of festival jobs available, in a collaboration with partner companies operating within the sector. The platform included full-time, part-time, and flexible posts in roles such as security, medical services, production, office, hospitality, cleaning, and tech.

Many of the employers listed on the website worked with festivals including Lowlands, Pinkpop, NN North Sea Jazz, Down The Rabbit Hole, and WOO HAH! x Rolling Loud.

“We’ve all been hit with price increases, with logistical problems, with lack of security, lack of stagehands, lack of riggers, lack of materials”

The severity of the crisis was seen across Europe, including at one French festival where it was reported that a headliner almost pulled out because the staging equipment was delivered so late that it almost wasn’t complete by the time the event was due to open.

As the season drew to a close, Detlef Kornett of Germany-based, Europe-wide promoter DEAG, reflected: “We’ve all been hit with price increases, with logistical problems, with lack of security, lack of stagehands, lack of riggers, lack of materials,” he told the International Festival Forum conference in September. “But I found this year particularly challenging, hearing and experiencing all the stories of our long-term suppliers being in the dark.

“For some of the festivals, the price increases could not be captured because we’d already sold the tickets [in 2020]. So, our results have not been as we wanted them to be, but generally, we felt lucky because we could stage our events. We were not hit by weather; we didn’t have to shut down because we couldn’t get security. Our long-term suppliers across the group worked with us. So, we somehow got there but how, at times, you can only talk about at night when nobody’s listening.”

The problems were Europe-wide, as Federico Rasetti from Italian live music industry association KeepOn Live explains: “As well as the staff shortages, we saw a significant growth in the number of festivals – there were a lot of independent festivals in Italy, some of them less than 50 kilometres away from each other, which increased competition for artists on line-ups.

“We saw a great return to live events as people wanted to go out again, but there were too many events.”

He adds that worries about inflation meant that spend at festivals was down this summer.

The spectre of Covid
While 2022 was the first year back for most festivals, any notion of the world being “post-Covid” was quickly disavowed as many festivals saw artists being forced to pull out due to illness. Spain’s Primavera is one of the first major events of the season, and although it was a resounding success – seeing more than 400 artists perform across two weekends in June and attracting nearly half a million people – The Strokes, Bleachers, Bikini Kill, Clairo, Holly Humberstone, Pink Pantheress, and Massive Attack were among the acts forced to pull out due to health issues. Covid also hit a significant number of the event’s hospitality team, leading to problems in the first weekend, including large queues for bars. However, as the company’s Marta Pallarès reflected afterwards:

“I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed so much love from the artists – everyone was thrilled [to be back]. Everyone was saying this was the best show they’ve played.”

“Like many other businesses in our industry, due to Covid our landscape has changed, and to stay ahead we have had to adapt and be agile. It’s been a very tough few years”

Issues caused by Covid continued to have an impact on many company finances. The UK’s largest independent festival, Boomtown (76,999-cap), sold a 45% stake to Live Nation, Gaiety, and SJM Concerts. “Like many other businesses in our industry, due to Covid our landscape has changed, and to stay ahead we have had to adapt and be agile. It’s been a very tough few years,” said the festival founders in a statement. “One of the decisions we came to in the last few months, as a direct result of the rising costs in staging such an epic and complex show, was to seek investment.”

There was also consolidation across Europe.

Live Nation GSA acquired a majority stake in Berlin-headquartered festival, booking, and services agency Goodlive, which runs festivals including Melt!, Splash!, Full Force, Heroes, and Superbloom. Backed by venture capital money, live giant Superstruct Entertainment bought stakes in professional action sport and music festival Nass (30,000-cap), run by Vision Nine, and Blue Dot (25,000-cap), both in the UK. And Warner Music Poland bought a minority stake in Big Idea, one of Poland’s leading concert and festival promoters.

Event discovery and booking platform Festicket collapsed in September, owing more than £22.5m. Many festivals were among the creditors, some of whom were owed millions. While the assets were bought by ticket exchange Lyte, so the businesses continued, many events remain uncertain about the cash they’re owed.

UK-based music, travel, and experiences start-up Pollen also went into administration, citing “turbulent trading conditions of the company’s subsidiaries as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.” It owed £75m to investors.

The European music industry stood in solidarity with the people of Ukraine when Putin’s Russia invaded in February 2022

War in Ukraine
The European music industry stood in solidarity with the people of Ukraine when Putin’s Russia invaded in February 2022.
Among the support from festival organisers was Czech Republic’s Rock for People, which built a small village for refugees on its site, aided by donations. And the festival site where Dutch festivals Lowlands and Defqon. 1 are held each year was turned into a shelter for more than 1,000 refugees.

Many other events helped by raising money for Music Saves UA, a fundraising initiative created by the Ukrainian Association of Music Events to provide humanitarian help in the country. The European Metal Festival Alliance, made up of 13 festivals from across the continent, created a “Metal United” charity shirt, with all proceeds bring donated to the non-profit organisation. Contributing events were Bloodstock (UK), Alcatraz (Belgium), Art Mania (Romania), Brutal Assault (Czech Republic), Dynamo (Netherlands), Into The Grave (Netherlands), Leyendas del Rock (Spain), Metal Days (Slovenia), Midgardsblot (Norway), Motocultor (France), Party.San (Germany), Resurrection (Spain), and Summer Breeze (Germany).

Barracuda Music, the organiser of Austrian festivals Frequency and Nova Rock, ran a 40,000-capacity charity concert in Vienna, raising €1m, which was matched by the Austrian government. The money was donated to charities Volkshilfe and Nachbar in Not.
Romanian festivals Electric Castle, Jazz in the Park, and Untold supported the humanitarian movement Un Singur Cluj to raise funds for Ukrainian refugees by selling solidarity tickets.

Having a border with Ukraine, Slovakian festival Pohoda organised a charity concert on Bratislava’s main square, which was streamed on YouTube, with recommendations for charities to support. Festival CEO Michal Kaščák also called for a Ukrainian music quota in Slovakia, to support musicians.

And YOUROPE members including Finland’s Ilosaarirock and Flow festivals, OpenAir St. Gallen (Switzerland), Off Festival (Poland) and Way Out West (Sweden) supported a variety of charities working in Ukraine by donating a share of their ticket sales.

The weather (of course!)
Taking place mainly outdoors, a key talking point is always the weather. As Europe saw record-breaking heatwaves and severe weather incidents, our events are among those at the sharp end of climate change.

In June, 40,000 people were evacuated from French festival We Love Green after violent storms forced organisers to cancel its Saturday evening programme. The same month, Eurockéennes de Belfort cancelled its Thursday and Friday evenings following a major storm, which saw seven people injured, according to French daily Le Figaro. The following two days went ahead as planned, with 60,000 people in total.

The heatwave across Europe led to local government officials in France banning outdoor events over one particularly hot weekend. Among those affected was the 10,000-capacity Freemusic Festival, which was forced to cancel at the last minute.

“We are so happy to be back doing what we love and seeing music fans experiencing these great shows”

It’s not all doom and gloom
Despite the issues above, there was also much to smile about this summer. Anyone attending a festival this year couldn’t have failed to notice the sheer joy and exuberance of everyone involved. Performers enthused from stages across Europe at how happy they were to be back, and audiences roared their agreement. Plenty of festivals sold out, including BST Hyde Park in London, from where AEG European Festivals CEO Jim King said: “Like everyone in the festival business and across live music, we are so happy to be back doing what we love and seeing music fans experiencing these great shows. The calibre of artists we have had in Hyde Park was incredible, with so many outstanding performances. The demand for tickets was huge, and we are very proud to have sold out the series.”

And Live Nation Belgium CEO and Rock Werchter founder Herman Schueremans said this summer was a “happy rebirth of festivals after two years of Covid,” describing this year as “even better than 2019,” with his flagship event selling all 66,000 combi-tickets and 80,000 one-day tickets by early February – months earlier than usual. Fellow festivals Werchter Boutique and TW Classic also sold out at 60,000-capacity each, and after increasing capacity by 2,000 to 52,000, Graspop Metal Meeting in Dessel also was fully booked.

Selling 20,000 tickets, Latvian festival Positivus saw its largest audience “in years,” after relocating from a small beach town to the capital Riga, said CEO Girts Majors.

And the positive experience this year has led to record-breaking sales for 2023 at events such as Wacken Open Air (Germany), Glastonbury (UK), and others.

“Independent festivals are a key part of the music landscape. The economic sustainability of these kinds of events is really important because they bring culture and freedom of expression”

Independent festivals also were delighted to be back. As Rasetti from KeepOn Live notes: “Independent festivals are a key part of the music landscape because they not only are an opportunity for the local area, as many people don’t travel far to see artists, but the economic sustainability of these kinds of events is really important because they bring culture and freedom of expression across Italy. It means they bring music to rural areas not just the big cities. They’re also key for artist development.”

New festivals launched, too – demonstrating a level of confidence in this dynamic sector. Among them was Superbloom in Munich, Tempelhof Sounds in Berlin , and dance music brand Ultra Worldwide, which opened an edition in Spain – Ultra Beach Costa del Sol. Tomorrowland and Rock Werchter partnered for Core – a two-day boutique event in Brussels, while House of Fun and Last Tour – the company behind events such as Bilbao BBK Live, Azkena Rock Festival, Cala Mijas, and BIME Live – launched MEO Kalorama (cap. 40,000) in Lisbon.

Farewell to a godfather of the festival industry
Just before headliner Pearl Jam took to the stage at Pinkpop – one of the longest-running festivals in the world – 60,000 fans witnessed a historic moment. Jan Smeets, godfather of the European festival scene and founder of Pinkpop in 1970, said goodbye – or, more accurately for this Dutch stalwart – tot ziens. His team arranged a heart-warming farewell on the main stage of the festival, and the crowd waved “Mr Pinkpop” off into retirement with cheers after he’d spent more than five decades as head of the festival.

The work of the 77-year-old is undisputedly trendsetting, has inspired countless festivals, and was celebrated with numerous awards, including the first Lifetime Achievement Award at the European Festival Awards 2009 and the Dutch Order of Orange- Nassau. His legacy will undoubtedly remain in the future, while Smeets lives up to his long-time motto: “Keep on rocking in the free world.”

“Why shouldn’t we use this crisis as an opportunity to fix systemic issues – that are more deep-rooted and insidious than a virus – instead of as an excuse?”

Diversity
The enforced hiatus could have seen a slowdown in progress being made on diversifying line-ups. And it remains a mixed picture. While some festivals are achieving gender balance on their bills, the European Festival Survey (see pages 15-22) indicates that the average proportion of female artists performing at festivals this year was 32%. However, addressing this remains a high priority – coming in as the third most important pressing issue in our survey. As Primavera’s Marta Pallarès wrote in IQ last year: “Why shouldn’t we use this crisis as an opportunity to fix systemic issues – that are more deep-rooted and insidious than a virus – instead of as an excuse?”

Ensuring the future of festivals – and the planet
In other good news, the challenges of 2022 didn’t dampen festivals’ resolve to become climate neutral. As we see from the European Festival Survey 2022, 86% of events who responded said they plan to reach this goal. Many have made significant reductions in their fuel usage, shifted to environmentally friendly power options, or are using energy-efficient technologies, plus there have been big changes to food and drink offers, leaning towards plant-based produce and locally sourced ingredients.

So, how did it end up?
The first ‘proper’ year back after Covid-19 was a story of stormy challenges and bright, shining joy. Many teams will be left feeling exhausted but delighted to be back doing what they love after the enforced break.

Many will share the sentiments of Martin Wacker, managing director of KME, which produces DAS FEST in Germany, who summed up the experience this year: “We are proud and grateful that we were able to break even despite the adverse circumstances. DAS FEST 2022 cost around €4m. That’s a good 30% more than before Corona. We could only break even with great efforts and savings from everyone. The great solidarity of the DAS FEST family and the good beverage sales also played a part in this. A big thank you also goes to our long-standing sponsors, service providers, and partners, who have supported beyond the usual and made some things possible at short notice.”

 


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