Should I stay or should I go: how coronavirus is jeopardising music festivals

The 2020 festival season is over – or is it? Some events are trying to postpone until autumn, but the odds aren’t looking good

For many in the live music industry, 2020 is over. Big festivals in the UK such as Glastonbury and Download are cancelled. London’s month-long Meltdown festival has shifted to 2021 and the entire lineup – featuring hard-to-obtain stars such as Solange and also its curator Grace Jones – has shifted with it. Arena tours are being moved, repurposing some: David Gray’s 20th anniversary play-through of White Ladder will become a 21st birthday tour next year instead.

But other large events, keen not to lose a year’s worth of planning, are applying a best-case reading of the crisis. They hope to reschedule for after the pandemic has passed its peak in summer, but before a potential second wave of infection in winter.

In the UK, the large-scale Newcastle indie festival This Is Tomorrow has been moved from May to August. In the US, August’s desert gathering Burning Man has been scrapped, but in September and October there are revised dates for Detroit’s Movement, Tennessee’s Bonnaroo, EDC in Las Vegas and both legs of Coachella in California – all important income for touring musicians and the local economy alike. In Ibiza, a marketing blitz is under way to move spring events to autumn, beseeching islanders and would-be tourists alike “to celebrate the end of this bad dream”.

Festivalgoers at Coachella, which has been postponed to October.
Festivalgoers at Coachella, which has been postponed to October. Photograph: Chris Pizzello/AP

One problem is that postponements, rather than cancellations, are leaving ticketholders out of pocket. Ticketmaster quietly changed its terms last week so that it would only deem cancelled events eligible for refunds. And even if rearranged festivals take place, there will be logistical difficulties for artists, vendors and fans. New dates in late August and early September for Primavera Sound in Barcelona, NOS Primavera in Porto and Kala in Albania are now wedged into the same time already occupied by – in the UK alone – End of the Road, Reading and Leeds, Lost Village and Notting Hill carnival, not to mention countless smaller promoters who hope to juice whatever they can from a summer in suspension.

For Judy Miller Silverman, owner of US publicity firm Motormouth Media, whose roster of electronic artists includes Caribou, Thundercat and Floating Points, this makeshift approach seems untenable. “My glass is half empty,” Silverman says of salvaging the festival season, adding that any in-person promotion by artists is almost impossible: “We have no idea what individual territories will do with travel restrictions.”

Mat Schulz, the artistic director of Kraków’s Unsound, says the experimental arts festival is still set to run in October, but will take a hybrid form. “We can’t simply plough ahead as per usual,” Schulz says. “We’re trying to consider what form Unsound could take in practical terms, as well as consider how we can respond to the current crisis conceptually.”

The role of live music at this year’s festival will be diminished, he says, supplanted by an edition that probes existential quandaries generated by the pandemic, via talks and other ideas in development: “What does local mean now? Globalisation? Closeness? Isolation? These are the questions that we are asking ourselves.” He is in contact with other independent promoters through EU-funded platforms such as Shape, looking for ways to mitigate the effects of the crisis.

Unsound festival in Kraków.
Unsound festival in Kraków. Photograph: Anna Spsyz/Unsound festival

Barcelona’s wide-ranging Primavera Sound, which begins each year at the end of May, is the starting gun for the European festival season. It has been postponed until the end of August, with an announcement that generated anger for its lack of refund options. Comparisons were made by fans to the troubled All Tomorrow’s Parties, the 2000s festival that became a byword for opacity and incompetence after numerous events were cancelled and refunds became difficult to secure – admittedly in less grave circumstances to the ones Primavera find themselves in.

Primavera initially wouldn’t comment beyond their official statement – “Until the state of alarm is over we won’t reactivate the ticket sales, nor are we allowed to give more information about the ticket policy”– but have now stated to the Guardian that they do intend to make refunds.

Organisers said they were “contemplating various solutions for this edition’s ticketholders, which will be announced after the state of alarm decreed by the Spanish government. One of these solutions, among others, will be the refund. We have never said that we wouldn’t offer them.” They said they were “waiting for the legal framework on this matter to be defined” across Spanish, Catalonian and European law before announcing details, adding: “We must be patient and wait for these new extraordinary measures to be fully defined. If we were to do so before, we would not be guaranteeing legal certainty either for our festival or for our ticketholders. We want to inform our buyers on the basis of certainties, not speculations.”

Last week, the Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, prolonged the country’s state of emergency – which prohibits events, as well as restricting business activity and people travelling to work in non-essential sectors such as entertainment – until 26 April. Sánchez suggested that he seek a further extension until 10 May (the head of the regional government in Catalonia said he would not comply with any premature easing of the lockdown anyway).

Dice, a ticketing partner, confirmed in emails that “emergency regulations have been introduced in Spain to help promoters through this crisis”, with the government suspending the need for festivals to process refunds until the state of alarm is over. This could be another month, or more. In previous Spanish cases, a clause has sometimes been invoked that has allowed insurers to modify contracts rather than see them cancelled – though as Primavera address in their statement, Spanish legislation is newly in flux during Covid-19 and it is not clear if they could find themselves in a similar situation. Either way, international ticketholders, who make up a substantial proportion of its audience, have been low on empathy.

In the past few days, Dr Zeke Emanuel, a prominent US health policy expert, created fresh jitters with his prediction that autumn 2021 is the soonest large gatherings are likely to be permitted. The psychology of how we interact in communal spaces is another hurdle – a poll held by Metal Injection, a website catering to a particularly hardy subset of rockers, revealed that less than 50% would feel comfortable returning to concerts even if restrictions were lifted and fast testing was available.

Nuit Sonores in Lyon.
Nuit Sonores in Lyon. Photograph: Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images

There is a real risk of reputational damage for those tripped up by overly optimistic reshuffles. Lyon’s Nuits Sonores festival organisers will have watched Emmanuel Macron’s speech on Monday night with distress – the premier extended France’s lockdown until 11 May, but added that public events would be the last to return as the country “progressively opened”, and that this could be later than July. The festival, which had already moved from May to July, is thus back in the red zone. A similar case befell Copenhagen’s Distortion, which was rescheduled from June to August but is now cancelled because Denmark has extended until September its ban on events involving more than 1,000 people.

These cases speak to the wider predicament facing live events: a global industry has been broken into national components and absorbed into mechanisms of the state. When musicians and audiences are penned in by land borders, infrastructure based around interlocking tour schedules and interchangeable headliners collapses.

Some of the events industry’s more pernicious restrictions, such as the radius clause that dictates booked artists can’t play within a certain distance of the festival or event within a certain time period, might be abandoned. The bubble of sky-high DJ fees is sure to burst, and local music scenes could wind up flourishing. One Hong Kong club told me that it was preparing to reopen by mid-May, but initially with a “regionalisation” of its programming.

“There’s going to be a huge craving for live music after this,” reckons Schulz. “The experience of collectively listening or dancing together – how that need is met will change in ways we can’t yet predict.” The reckoning with coronavirus’s impact seems to be moving from the bargaining stage to something approaching acceptance. Whether or not 2020 is a total write-off, music communities will need to meet these new challenges with creativity, says Schulz. “If ever there was a time to think outside the box, this is it.”

• This article was updated on Thursday 16 April after Primavera made a statement to say they do intend to make refunds. It was also updated to clarify their position regarding insurance and Spanish law.


Gabriel Szatan

The GuardianTramp

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