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How is the industry grappling with artist boycotts?

The last couple of months have seen artist boycotts ripple through the showcase festival season, with hundreds of acts pulling out of SXSW in Austin, and others from new music showcase festival The Great Escape (TGE) due to their sponsors’ ties to Israel.

More than 100 speakers and acts pulled out of March’s SXSW in protest of the Texas event’s sponsorship by the US Army and its support for Israel during the Gaza war. A similar number of acts were reported to have dropped out of the UK’s TGE due to its sponsorship by Barclays and its ties to Israel.

Now, attention is turning to other events, with campaign group Bands Boycott Barclays listing Isle of Wight and Latitude festivals – both of which are presented by Barclaycard – and Download as their “next festival targets”.

Last week, Pillow Queens became the first act to boycott this year’s Latitude. Posting on social media, the Irish rock band said: “As a band, we believe that artistic spaces should be able to exist without being funded by morally corrupt investors.”

A handful of acts that boycotted TGE – Picture Parlour, King Alessi, Nieve Ella, Mui Zyu – are also billed to perform at Latitude Festival. IQ reached out to the acts but none have commented.

“The impacts are going to be different for each and every artist, depending on their circumstances”

Like other acts before them, Pillow Queens referenced a May 2024 report by Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) which details Barclay’s financial ties to companies producing weapons and military technology used in Israel’s attacks on Palestinians.

In response to the boycotts, Barclays have repeatedly pointed to their online Q&A which states: “We have been asked why we invest in nine defence companies supplying Israel, but this mistakes what we do. We trade in shares of listed companies in response to client instruction or demand and that may result in us holding shares. We are not making investments for Barclays and Barclays is not a ‘shareholder’ or ‘investor’ in that sense in relation to these companies.”

Annabella Coldrick, CEO of Music Managers Forum (MMF) says it is not straightforward for an artist to pull out of a festival. “The impacts are going to be different for each and every artist, depending on their circumstances, she says. “With SXSW, there may have been funding agreements and contractual obligations to consider. There’s also the cost of getting to Austin and visas, which for an upcoming act can be considerable.”

Northern Irish artist Conchúr White, who boycotted SXSW, revealed that he “accepted a significant amount of money from PRS [for Music]” to perform at the festival.

“The financial implications for me, however, pale in comparison to the tragedies occurring in Gaza,” he continued. “I don’t want to align myself with weapon manufacturers.”
White added he will “try to be more mindful moving forward”.

“We would caution against people pressuring and making assumptions about the views of others”

Belfast band Kneecap also canceled their sets at SXSW “in solidarity with the people of Palestine” even though pulling out “would have a significant financial impact on the band”. But they said it wasn’t comparable to the “unimaginable suffering” in Gaza.

While there are a number of possible ramifications for bands boycotting festivals, artists choosing to stay on festival bills are also facing difficulties.

“There’s a lot of pressure coming from social media,” says Coldrick. “Plus you’ve got fans who may have paid to see you. Not every artist is political or feels confident enough or informed enough to express an opinion about what might be a complex global issue. Alternatively, artists may decide to play and use their platform to express their views in other ways.”

David Martin, CEO at Featured Artists Coalition (FAC), seconds that point, adding: “Music is an artistic expression, a vehicle through which to challenge political, social and financial structures. We support each artist’s freedom to take decisions about using their platform. It is up to individual artists to decide how they choose to demonstrate their views. The circumstances of such decisions will vary from artist to artist and show to show, and only those involved will be in a position to judge the best course of action. We would caution against people pressuring and making assumptions about the views of others.”

Pressure has also been directed towards the festivals to cut ties with sponsors linked to Israel. Massive Attack, Idles and Eno were among dozens of artists who were not booked to play at TGE but signed an open letter launched in April calling for it to drop Barclays as a partner.

The letter said the artists were “drawing inspiration” from Artists Against Apartheid. “A Barclays boycott was a key part of ending apartheid in South Africa, after thousands of people closed their accounts with Barclays to pressure them to withdraw investments from South Africa,” it reads.

“We are now looking closely at a festival’s sponsors in advance of confirming any appearance”

It’s yet to be seen how upcoming Barclays-sponsored festivals, which include the UK’s Camp Bestival and Summertime Ball, will respond to – or be impacted by – artists’ political interest in the Gaza-Israel war. Isle of Wight Festival declined to comment for this IQ story and Latitude Festival did not respond.

Denmark’s ENGAGE Festival is a recent example of an event that has dropped its sponsor amid controversy. The Copenhagen festival, organised by the Veterans Foundation, has asked its defence industry partners to withdraw as a sponsor following criticism and confusion from some.

“Some cannot distinguish between Danish veterans and current international conflicts,” a spokesperson for the festival said. “The Veterans Foundation does not support war and will never take a stance on international conflicts that does not align with the Danish government. We do not collaborate with organisations or companies that oppose this.”

Pressure on festivals to remove controversial sponsors is not limited to music; Hay literary festival last week dropped its principal sponsor – investment firm Baillie Gifford – after boycotts from speakers and performers over the firm’s links to Israel and fossil fuel companies.

Whether festivals change tact with sponsorships or not, one agent suggested to IQ that the recent furore may prompt more caution with booking.

“We support our artists in whatever choice they make,” they told IQ. “But we are now looking closely at a festival’s sponsors in advance of confirming any appearance.”

MMF’s Coldrick says such vigilance is business as usual in the record industry: “Clearly, if any artist is passionate about a particular cause or issue and that might have implications on the shows they play, then they need to make this known to their manager and agent. Those kinds of conversations are quite standard when it comes to sync or brand deals. Going forward, maybe they need to be standard in live music too.”


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