UK festival industry warns of ‘wipeout’ at DCMS inquiry
Key stakeholders in the UK’s festival industry today gave evidence at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee’s inquiry into safeguarding the future of the sector, which has been ‘decimated’ due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The inquiry heard from Sacha Lord, co-founder, Parklife and The Warehouse Project and nighttime economy advisor for Greater Manchester; Anna Wade, communications and strategy director, Boomtown Fair; Steve Heap, general secretary, Association of Festival Organisers (AOF); Jamie Njoku-Goodwin, chief executive, UK Music and Paul Reed, chief executive, Association of Independent Festivals (AIF).
The witnesses gave evidence on a number of challenges facing the sector and conveyed the urgent need for further government support to avoid a ‘total wipeout’ of the festival ecosystem.
Among the participants’ key demands was an indicative date for a full return to live; a government-backed coronavirus cancellation scheme; a three-year extension of the VAT reduction and an extension for business rates relief.
“If organisers don’t have certainty, confidence and some sense of financial security, there’ll be major cancellations within weeks”
Indicative date for full return to live
Participants unanimously agreed that one of the most pressing requirements from the government is an indicative date for festivals to return to full scale and without social distancing, which would allow organisers to either proceed with their events or cancel.
AIF’s Reed said: “Right now is when organisers have to make key decisions. If they don’t have certainty, confidence and some sense of financial security for summer events, then there’ll be major cancellations within weeks.”
UK Music’s Njoku-Goodwin said: “We have a vaccine on the way. It’s being rolled out and there’s a timetable for that. The public target for ministers has been two million vaccines every week and if we know our testing capacity and the testing situation is going to be at a certain point by a certain time, we should be able to have some sort of roadmap for live. If you’ve got that sort of data and information, there should be a way to calculate or make some sort of political determination or judgement for an indicative date for a return.”
Boomtown’s Wade said: “There’s a challenging road in front of us but not impossible. We need the government to understand our timeline because we can’t roll something out quickly – it’s a very very complex operation to put on festivals. Normality might resume but that doesn’t necessarily give us a green light.”
“Insurance is the first key in the door that will unlock everything else”
Government-backed insurance scheme
Citing insurance schemes rolled out in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, UK Music’s Njoku-Goodwin expressed concerns that the UK would be at a competitive disadvantage if the government doesn’t prevail with our own scheme: “I think the real danger here is that if we see a lot of countries – particularly in Europe or close to home – protecting their festival seasons, you could have a sort of a talent transfer. We don’t want to have a situation where musicians, crews, technicians and people who should be working in and supporting the UK festival scene are looking to the continent thinking ‘actually if there’s going to be live music happening there in 2021, that’s where we are going to be’.”
AIF’s Reed reiterated the need for a government-backed insurance scheme, adding that none of AIF’s member festivals will be able to go ahead in 2021 without it: “Without government intervention, festivals will simply cancel early and on mass. It’s still too early to tell in a binary sense whether the season is on or off, but for the larger festivals, [the decision of whether or not to cancel] will come by the end of this month and for some of the smaller ones it’s March but they are all reaching a point at which they will need to commit that upfront capital and make a determination on the event for this year.”
Addressing the government’s claims that an insurance plan should be the final hurdle for event organisers, Boomtown’s Wade said: “Insurance is the first key in the door that will unlock everything else. Then we can commit to things and start getting a bit more confidence back in the industry.”
“If festivals don’t take place in 2021, the vast majority of the ecosystem could disappear”
Consequences of a cancelled 2021 festival season
Boomtown’s Wade said: “It’s unlikely that we’ll be able to weather the storm of no events happening in 2021. Most festival organisers only hold one event and that is the one opportunity in the year. Without that, we don’t have a company essentially.”
AIF’s Reed said the loss for the taxpayer will be ‘significant’ in the 2021 festival season is cancelled: “If you look at the overall contribution of festivals to the UK economy, you’re looking at £1.7 bn GVA and 85,000 jobs. The live music industry in general, I believe, generates about £1.6 bn in VAT receipts and a significant portion of that will be generated by festivals.”
Sacha Lord, co-founder, Parklife and The Warehouse Project reinforced that point, adding: “The UK has got one of the biggest festival markets, globally, and we’re proud that music is one of our biggest exports. If festivals don’t take place in 2021, I think the vast majority of the ecosystem could disappear.”
“If events like [Boomtown Fair] can’t run, there’s going to be this big knock-on effect”
The wider economic impact of a disappearing festival sector
Lord said: “Let’s not forget everything that happens on the outside of the perimeter. When Parklife takes place on that one weekend it brings £16 million into the local economy. Every single year we have the Parklife Foundation, which raises on average about 100–120,000 pounds for local community causes. So there’s a bigger picture here and we need to look at the whole ecology. The supply chain will be wiped out if we have another year like 2020.”
Boomtown’s Wade said: “If events like ours can’t run, there’s going to be this big knock-on effect because we then can’t invest in local services people and skills. Festivals are like mini-cities so the supply chains, infrastructure and the services that we use are vast and countless.”
“Testing and pilots are two of the pillars. The other pillar would be industry mitigations”
Testing and safety precautions
AIF’s Reed said: “It’s difficult at this stage to see testing as the only solution to facilitate festivals. I think testing and pilots are two of the pillars, alongside vaccine development and rollout and of course treatment. But the other pillar would be industry mitigations, which is why we have a festivals working group which is cross-industry and that is working with the DCMS and Public Health England, to look at specific guidance and planning assumptions. [Those aspects] will contribute to a proposition for how festivals can safely return and instil that confidence in customers.”
UK Music’s Njoku-Goodwin said: “We don’t want to come back before it’s safe. It’s why we’re engaging in testing to make sure that we can find ways to make sure that no infections are brought into events spaces. And it’s one of the reasons we’re asking for an indicative date from the government because having government be clear on a date when we believe it’s safe to be able to hold events without social distancing and at scale will help with the public confidence.”
Steve Heap, general secretary, AOF, said: “The customer confidence, I think, is one of the biggest hurdles we have to overcome. Our ticket sales are virtually at zero. There are one or two festivals are managing okay to sell, but the customers are no longer prepared to release the funds for the tickets because they’re just not sure the event will go ahead until we get to such a point that we can say they will.”
To coincide with today’s hearing, UK Music today published a new report, titled Let The Music Play: Save Our Summer 2021 report, which outlines a strategy to restart the live music industry when it is safe.
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