Music festivals plan for phased return in 2021 after Covid wipeout

In the UK and across Europe flexibility key as organisers put safety precautions in place

Thermo scanners, interactive wristbands that vibrate to mark a lack of social distancing, and rapid on-site testing are all being considered by music festivals to ensure the 2021 season goes ahead despite the Covid-19 crisis.

The 2020 season was decimated by the pandemic, which forced nearly all major European festivals to cancel or shift to virtual models that acted as stopgaps while the industry came to terms with coronavirus.

As organisers plan for next year they are navigating the complications created by the virus, with a focus on safety for staff and ticket holders, flexibility as Covid-19 restrictions change with little notice and complicated insurance policies.

Lisa Meyer, the founder of Supersonic festival in Birmingham, predicts next summer will see a “phased return” for events with hybrid models that feature some digital elements bridging the gap between 2020’s virtual season and a return to normal in 2022 or 2023.

“Not delivering in some form isn’t an option for us,” she said. “As a small festival we have the ability to be fleet of foot and opportunistic, so we will reshape the festival within whatever boundaries we have to work with.”

Revellers at the Supersonic festival in 2019
Revellers at the Supersonic festival in 2019. Photograph: Mark Rhodes

Meyer added that without a return to its pre-pandemic capacity of about 1,500 attendees within two years, it “would definitely be the end of Supersonic”, which is entering its 16th year and has recently hosted Moor Mother, Richard Dawson and Melt Banana.

Gordon Masson, the editor of IQ magazine, which produces an annual report on European music festivals, said the biggest challenge for festival organisers heading into 2021 was uncertainty.

He said that with doubt hanging over when restrictions would lift, many festivals were embracing technology to make them safer, including interactive wristbands for crew members that vibrated if they moved too close to each other. “Festivals could be utilised by governments to trial certain safety products or procedures, as they are, in effect, temporary cities,” said Masson.

Supersonic will not begin booking acts until March, only five months before the traditional start of the event, in order to adapt to whatever restrictions are in place at the time. Other festivals have taken a different approach.

Mad Cool festival in Madrid, which has about 60,000 attendees, is one of the few to have already announced the majority of its lineup for 2021, with the Killers playing alongside Deftones and Red Hot Chili Peppers among others.

Cindy Castillo, the festival’s booker, said they opted to announce some of the lineup in July to let customers who had decided to keep their 2020 ticket, rather than get a refund, know what they could expect: “We wanted to give as much information as possible to people, so they could decide what to do on a fair basis.”

So far just over a quarter of ticket holders have asked for a refund, while about 11% of Mad Cool’s attendees come from the UK. Masson predicts many European festivals face a drop in foreign ticket buyers and more local acts for the 2021 season, with international touring jeopardised by Covid restrictions.

“Many event organisers might have to rely on domestic talent on next year’s lineups if international touring remains in question,” he said. “That could deter Brits from travelling to countries where they aren’t familiar with the local acts.”

Mad Cool is considering several safety measures, including a test-and-trace system using information provided when booking tickets, plus temperature scanners and rapid on-site testing before entry.

Spanish singer Rosalía performs at last year’s Mad Cool festival
Spanish singer Rosalía performs at last year’s Mad Cool festival, which might have to book more locally based acts in 2021 because of travel problems caused by Covid. Photograph: Kiko Huesca/EPA

Green Man festival, which usually takes place in the Brecon Beacons in late August and has about 15,000 attendees, is also considering temperature scanners for 2021. The festival’s director, Fiona Stewart, said the measure was among many being considered as rural-based UK events came to terms with the biggest crisis since the foot and mouth outbreak.

Meyer and Stewart are both pushing for some form of government-backed insurance scheme for events, as the rapidly changing restrictions could mean many are financially exposed if events are cancelled without sufficient notice.

“Insurance is still going to be much more expensive than it would be normally,” said Stewart. “I think [the government] is going to help, but they’re not going to subsidise it or underwrite it.”

Stewart, who ran the Big Chill during foot and mouth, said as with that crisis, those going to Green Man 2021 could face longer wait times as checks and tests are carried out on arrival. But she said the 2021 season was very likely to go ahead.

“We were able to put on a festival in the foot-and-mouth era, so it is possible to do these things,” she said. “You can’t run an event in exactly the same way but our audience is bright, and as long as the things we ask of them are common sense then they’ll work with us.”


Lanre Bakare Arts and culture correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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