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European festivals in limbo as crisis continues

As Britain’s large summer events continue to fall away (with Goldenvoice UK’s All Points East and Live Nation’s Lovebox and Parklife the latest to cancel due to coronavirus concerns), members of several European festival associations are taking a different approach – biding their time while urging governments to provide greater clarity about the months ahead.

“The cancellation of Glastonbury was a surprise to a lot of people [in continental Europe] and, media-wise, a big pressure on everybody,” says Christof Huber, festival director of Switzerland’s OpenAir St Gallen and Summer Days Festival, and general secretary of Yourope, the European Festival Association.

Last week, two of the association’s members, Roskilde Festival (Denmark) and Open’er Festival (Poland), spearheaded the #FestivalsStandUnited campaign, which saw some of Europe’s biggest music festivals state that they intend to go ahead with their events this summer, and that in doing so they will “be a crucial part of the survival of this industry”.

More than 60 festivals – including events taking place in early June – put their names to an open letter entitled ‘Festivals Stand United Across Europe’, which was also signed by Yourope.

Paul Reed, CEO of the UK’s Association of Independent Festivals (AIF), says it’s widely expected the lockdown in Britain will go on beyond the current three-week period, with many festivals assuming 12 weeks of no public gatherings – a period that extends well into June (without even taking into account a two-week build).

“It’s impossible to build a festival when all the workers are in lockdown”

Reed says the views of AIF’s 65-strong membership are as diverse as the festivals themselves: “We have some members with events in August contemplating what they should do, but on the other hand we have festivals in July thinking they’re going to go ahead,” he explains, noting that there are “myriad considerations” around deciding to cancel or postpone.

Also weighing up his options is Patrick de Groote, artistic director of Belgian world music festival Sfinks Mixed (23–26 July) and secretary of the Forum of Worldwide Music Festivals (FWMW), who tells IQ: “We’re hearing that all April festivals [in Belgium] will be cancelled; in May, some yes, some no… We’re still waiting to be told, and everybody is preparing so we can be ready when we have more information.”

De Groote says one Dutch FWMW member has already made the decision to cancel, after concluding it could not be ready in time for June. “It’s impossible to build a festival when all the workers are in lockdown,” he says.

According to Reed, there are advantages in being ordered to cancel by authorities, as opposed to organisers pulling the plug themselves, particularly around artist fees (although he adds, encouragingly, that “most festivals are already working positively with agents” on that front).

“A lot of things are on hold right now,” adds de Groote, “including artist contracts. It’s hard to sign something when you don’t know if you’re going to be able to honour the contract.”

“Festivals can’t just pull the plug without knowing the situation in three months”

An additional issue for world music festivals like Sfinks, he continues, is that different parts of the world are at different stages with regards to coronavirus. “At Sfinks, we always have a lot of African and South American bands, and their countries are much earlier in this pandemic than Europe and North America,” he explains. “This year, we’ve booked [Malian duo] Amadou and Mariam and [US act] the Blind Boys of Alabama – the Blind Boys should be OK, but where will Mali be in a few months’ time?”

Huber says Yourope’s members are “all [still] working on our festivals”, and need “a few more weeks to monitor the situation” before deciding whether to go ahead as planned.

“We need a certain clarity about the policy of our governments and about any restrictions,” he adds. “Festivals can’t just decide to pull the plug without knowing what the situation will be in three months.”

Whatever the outcome of summer 2020, Reed emphasises than both fans and festivals must remain positive about the future. “It’s difficult to think about the recovery when people are in survival mode, but’s important to remember we will come out of this,” he concludes. “And when we do, people will need live music more than ever.”


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European festivals, associations report 2019 slowdown

Mainland Europe’s music festivals are experiencing a similarly slow season to their counterparts in Britain, hurt by repetitive line-ups, rising ticket prices and – potentially – wider societal changes in entertainment consumption, according to festival associations and operators.

IQ revealed last month that many UK festivals are bracing for a quieter-than-normal summer, with sell-outs down amid economic uncertainty and difficulty in differentiating themselves from the competition.

That’s also the case on the continent, says Christof Huber, festival director of Switzerland’s OpenAir St Gallen and general secretary of Yourope, the European Festival Association. “It’s definitely slower than in previous festival seasons,” says Huber, who says he thinks there are fewer sell-outs compared to previous years.

“I am afraid this is a real trend,” says Jean-Paul Roland, festival director of Eurockéennes, one of the biggest rock festivals in France. Roland – who is also co-president of festival association De Concert! with Les Nuits Botanique’s Paul-Henri Wauters – explains that, in France, the success of metal festival Hellfest (which sold 55,000 tickets in two hours) is an exception, playing “the role of the tree that hides the forest”.

“Paleo in Switzerland and Vieilles Charrues in France are usually sold out very quickly always. Biarritz En Été [also in France] threw in the towel for lack of sufficient reservations. Indeed, the season seems more subdued than last year: later sales, more difficulties to reach a point of profitability…”

This was illustrated earlier this week by the surprise cancellation of the revived Doctor Music Festival, with promoter Doctor Music pulling the plug due to low ticket sales after the event was forced to move by Catalonia’s environment agency.

“The market has been quite saturated for a few years”

Doctor Music head Neo Sala described the cancellation as “the toughest decision of my promoter career”, but said the number of fans who had returned the tickets for refunds – coupled with slower-than-expected sales for its new location at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya racetrack – meant the headliner-heavy festival (the Strokes, the Smashing Pumpkins, the Chemical Brothers, the Prodigy and Christine and the Queens were all booked to perform) “won’t be able to offer the experience we were striving for”.

While independent, non-corporate events are believed to have been hardest hit by the slowdown – a senior exec at one of the multinationals tells IQ it has a “couple” of festivals underperforming, “but no more than usual” – Folkert Koopmans, CEO of European festival powerhouse FKP Scorpio, says, to his knowledge, “it’s the same everywhere. There are a few that are sold out, but it’s not like it used to be before.”

Roland says rising artist fees (what the AIF’s Paul Reed recently described as the headliner “arms race”) are making major international stars “more inaccessible” to many European events.

“The summer circuit in North and South America is becoming more structured and competitive, and that captures the international headliners in the summer, which results in less and less differentiated line-ups,” he explains. In France especially, this means “often the same Francophone artists are [headlining lots of] different festivals”, with festival ticket sales increasing “shifting to major theme parks”.

“My personal view is that the market has been quite saturated for a few years,” says Huber. “Also, the same headliners return too often and sometimes play multiple festival seasons.”

“We need to see what is happening, what people want, and adapt to those changes”

This, combined with more expensive tickets, has “led to the point that sales got slower”, he adds.

Koopmans suggests the soft summer is a symptom of wider demographic changes that will have an impact on the business for years to come. “It’s changing and we have to adapt,” he says. “When we were young, we were fans of music – we’d buy the records, spend hours looking at the sleeves – but young people now are more into gaming and other things. They’ll hear a song they like, then swap to another song – they’re not willing to spend so much money on music anymore.

“For example, they’ll go to an EDM festival because they can dance to the music, and they don’t mind going to smaller, one-day events that are €49. But not €200…”

The perception of a general slowdown isn’t being felt in other areas, with the world music genre faring better, suggests Patrick de Groote, the artistic director of the Sfinks Mixed arts festival in Boechout, Belgium, and secretary of the Forum of Worldwide Music Festivals (FWMW).

FWMW’s members, including Kriol Jazz Festival in Cape Verde, Gardens of Sounds in Poland and Barcelona’s Ciutat Flamenco, largely report improved or static sales, with only a few exceptions.

Roland agrees with Huber that the popular music market is saturated, saying De Concert!’s events are being negatively affected by increased competition, especially the “multiplication of small regional festivals, often at low prices or free, which offer more conviviality, more proximity and less security than the big festivals”.

“Small regional festivals, often at low prices or free, offer more conviviality, more proximity and less security…”

He adds that, in addition to competition from smaller festivals and theme parks, stadium events are taking away marketshare: the likes of Metallica, Muse and French-Canadian star Mylène Farmer all play stadium shows throughout this summer, which “makes festivals’ programmes less exceptional”.

Koopmans says festival operators are being forced to accept that traditional camping festivals – with a few honourable exceptions – “aren’t the hip thing anymore”, with people preferring to go to headline shows and one-day events.

“The festival market is still there, and it will continue to exist – Hurricane and Southside, for example, have great line-ups, and they’ll work this year – but in general it’s a challenge,” he explains. “Over the next few years we need to see what is happening, what people want, and adapt to those changes.

“Touring is stronger than ever before – people love to go to shows. But there’s been a change across the whole society, about what you do when you’re young and how you spend your money. We’re an entertainment company, and we need to entertain people in the way they want to be entertained.”

IQ’s own analysis of Europe’s festival market, the annual European Festival Report, will return in the end-of-year issue #87, providing an in-depth look at capacity and attendance, ticketing and pricing, VIP sales, challenges and concerns, new technology and more.

Read the 2018 European Festival Report here.


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