IFF 2023: Festival heads grapple with fresh issues
Major agents and festival promoters at this week’s International Festival Forum (IFF) in London agreed that 2023 has given them much cause for optimism but have warned there are issues to overcome.
Last-minute artist cancellations, rising ticket and production costs, decreasing numbers of Generation Z attendees, and severe weather conditions remain huge hurdles to clear, as the industry looks ahead to 2024 and beyond.
The conversation went underway at IFF (International Festival Forum) during the event’s opening panel ‘The Festival Season’, which featured Alex Bruford (ATC Live, UK), Pavla Slivova (Colours of Ostrava, Czech Republic), and Stephan Thanscheidt (FKP Scorpio, Germany), with Yourope’s Christof Huber (Switzerland) moderating the discussion.
“Though 2022 brought about a lot of excitement with everything coming back to a semblance of normality, I’d say that there’s been a gap where we’ve seen a generation not accustomed to attending festivals due to the pandemic,” Slivova said, who has seen two out of the four headliners for this year’s Colours of Ostrava cancel their performances at the last minute. “In my opinion, there needs to be a change in marketing. What worked in 2019 or 2022 isn’t working this year, so we need to refocus our attention on what Gen Z finds attractive these days.”
While Bruford cited the consistent turnouts at the Reading & Leeds Festivals as examples of younger audiences still flocking towards such extravaganzas, he agreed with Slivova when it comes to thinking about what would appeal more to that particular demographic. “There were a number of festivals that struggled with attracting the Gen Z crowd, who aren’t gravitating towards more hedonistic activities than previous generations,” he said. “We need to have a collective think about what an actual festival means to them, and what’s appealing and appropriate to today’s young people.”
“What worked in 2019 or 2022 isn’t working this year, so we need to refocus our attention on what Gen Z finds attractive”
One big issue this year was the inevitable increase in production costs, causing a knock-on effect through the rise of ticket prices. Despite overseeing a successful year, Thanscheidt pointed out that festivals aren’t finding it easy these days to make any profit. “Costs are a major problem at the moment,” he explained. “There’s a limit that a lot of fans would pay to attend festivals nowadays, so we’ve had to advertise better camping and VIP experiences to entice more people into coming,” also adding that sponsorship backing isn’t the same as it was before the pandemic. “Keeping ticket prices under control while maintaining profit margins at the same time is proving extremely difficult right now.”
Despite the panel’s unanimous agreement that festivals need a more accessible approach when pricing tickets, Mojo Concerts’ Eric van Eerdenberg (Netherlands) — who was among today’s panel attendees — pointed out a potential issue that could arise from such measures. “I think that when you have a low ticket price, there will always be secondary markets pushing prices up again and making a profit,” he said. “It’s very difficult to get a grip on it.”
A major topic of discussion today was how severe weather has negatively impacted festivals across Europe, with Wacken Open Air suffering major losses after being forced to send nearly 20,000 fans home due to inhospitable surroundings. “The whole ground looked like Mordor from the Lord of the Rings movies,” said Wacken’s head booker Jan Quiel. “It was heartbreaking having to send so many people home. That was even worse than having to cancel due to COVID. We also incurred a heavy financial loss due to the additional costs we paid to have an extra campground to host more shows.”
While the panel agreed that more measures were needed to ensure safety in preparation for extreme weather conditions, Slivova added that festivals in the Czech Republic aren’t covered for such situations. “We have liability insurance for things like steady rain, for example, so it can cover some costs. But by and large, we aren’t insured for bad weather, unfortunately.”
Such concerns will always be in the back of agents and festival bookers’ minds, but 2023 has already proven to be a mostly successful post-COVID year in a lot of aspects. “Compared to last year, 2023 has seen more experienced crew and staff, logistics are a lot easier now than they were last year, and global headliners are combining their tours with festival performances,” Bruford said, with Thanscheidt adding that he’s relieved that people are having fun again after a hellacious 2022. “Nobody had fun last year, so seeing that people are having fun organising such immense projects has been great.”
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