Music festivals get a chance every year to make money. That’s what makes them so vulnerable

The financial health of the UK’s festival circuit is, in many cases, uncertain. The success of Glastonbury, by far the most significant outdoor event in the British music calendar, is not a reliable indicator of the health of the country’s wider festival scene.

The nearest festival circuit has a trade association – the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) – lists 50 festivals as cancelled, postponed or closed this year. It expects the final total for the year to be 100. This is part of a wider, and worrying, British trend.

The year 2023, for example Music Venue Trust noted a sharp decline in the number of grassroots venues supporting live music. Membership in the foundation dropped from 960 to 835because the venues had either stopped playing music or had closed completely.

The reasons for this sharp decline are relatively simple, but cumulatively devastating. They include the impact of the covid pandemic, inflation, business rates, delivery costs, staff costs and food and beverage pricing. That’s all before you factor in the stress of having to maintain facilities and equipment and the need to keep ticket prices competitive during a cost of living crisis.

Festivals face the same pressures, but they cannot spread the financial burden over the financial year. Everything is focused on the event.

Before the pandemic, festival organizers could rely on advances from ticket companies. In the wake of covid, these advances have been made dried. Organizers now cover the entire cost of the festival, which means they have to raise ticket prices.

All of this is already squeezing marginal profits. And if something happens, for example, other festivals crowding into the time slot, changes in the weather, a headliner dropping out or a sharp increase in the cost of putting on the show, it can prove fatal for the event.

The bigger festivals can and will survive. Glastonbury is global. Other festivals are run by large entertainment organizations. Latitude, Wireless and Reading and Leeds are operated by Live Nation, a multinational entertainment company based in the United States.

The closing festivals have neither the external commercial backing nor the cultural influence of Glastonbury, but that doesn’t mean their loss won’t be felt. Smaller festivals feed larger festivals. Lewis Capaldi’s first headlining slot was at Barn on the Farm in Gloucester in 2019; In 2023, the singer played Glastonbury.

Smaller festivals are an important part of the touring network in the UK. They are a training ground for stage crews and light and sound technicians. And they increase the economy in the areas where they are was held.

But the danger is that smaller festivals, like smaller venues, will disappear. And when they do, a crucial part of the UK’s live music ecosystem will be eroded.

Change of government

The festival sector is live music’s canary in the coal mine. Right now, in difficult times, festivals are uniquely vulnerable. In the music industry, they have been hardest hit.

A music venue can struggle against tough trading conditions for a while – even if it eventually buckles – as venue managers can vary their programmes. Festivals have one chance per year and as such any changes in the cultural and economic weather affect them first and foremost.

A festival’s business model is inflexible, and the sector has already taken all the steps it can to survive. Sponsorship agreements do not cover all the costs of a festival. Linking with other festivals risks the event’s autonomy and uniqueness – and a festival’s independence and ethos is often an important part of its brand.

Throw away tons of talent (and some profanity).

If help comes, it will have to come from outside the sector.

It would be reassuring to think that the new government will turn its attention to the yawning gap between a decaying small- and medium-sized festival circuit and burgeoning large-scale events like Latitude. The new government, to be fair, has identified music and the creative industries, who need support.

Other solutions have been proposed – to levy a tax on the sale of arena tickets. There is the possibility of an agreement on British musicians’ access to the EU – and EU musicians’ access to Great Britain. The AIF itself is running a campaign to persuade the government to lower the VAT on festival ticket sales for the next one three years.

However, these solutions would need either legislation or at least government Support.

But help needs to come soon. A music venue can bend to economic and cultural storms, even if those storms cause damage. Many music festivals, in the same storm, will simply blow away.

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