'Not written off yet': music festivals determined to go ahead amid Covid-19

The cancellation of Glastonbury festival for a second year running has cast doubt on the summer’s live music season. But organisers say they are still optimistic – especially if the government helps out

The UK’s £1.1bn live music scene is nervously eyeing the summer months, after this week’s Glastonbury cancellation cast doubt on the viability of the festival season.

Boris Johnson and home secretary Priti Patel have each refused to be drawn on when coronavirus restrictions might lift, with a Johnson spokesperson not ruling out lockdown still being in place by summer. That would make festivals – where avoiding social distancing is very much the point – an impossibility for the second year in a row.

Glastonbury organisers Michael and Emily Eavis said that “in spite of our efforts to move heaven and earth, it has become clear that we simply will not be able to make the festival happen this year”. It was due to begin on 23 June. Earlier this month, pop-rock band the 1975 also cancelled their one-day festival in Finsbury Park, London, in July alongside the rest of their year’s touring, citing fan and crew safety.

The rest of the summer’s events are still scheduled, with some due to take place even before Glastonbury’s intended date: Slam Dunk festival intends to bring pop-punk, emo and other mosh-friendly music to Leeds and Hatfield in late May. “We remain optimistic,” says festival director Ben Ray, who sighs and adjusts his answer. “We’ve still got some optimism. But if social distancing is still in place, we cannot go ahead … and it’s a very slim chance that social distancing is going to stop before the summer.”

The Isle of Wight festival is still scheduled from 17 June, though organisers declined to be interviewed and tweeted: “We’re continuing to work behind the scenes … and hope to have more news for you soon.”

The UK’s biggest rock festival, Download, is looking to host 80,000 fans from 4 June – owner Festival Republic, which also runs Wireless festival (2 to 4 July) and the Reading and Leeds festivals on the August bank holiday weekend, also declined an interview, saying it hoped to have updates by 1 March.

Chemical Brothers perform at Glastonbury festival 2019.
Chemical Brothers perform at Glastonbury festival 2019. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

With over 200,000 people spread across a vast site built over many weeks in advance, Glastonbury is “a different, massive beast to many of the 975 festivals that are out there,” according to Anna Wade, strategy director of the 66,000-capacity Boomtown festival, planned for August. She admits it that “the gap Glastonbury leaves in the festival industry is really significant,” but adds: “It’s completely understandable why they’d make the call so early, because they’re so huge and there’s so many moving parts. The smaller, more localised events – there’s still a lot more things that can change between now and June. They’re definitely not written off yet.”

Geoff Ellis is festival director of Trnsmt, one of Scotland’s biggest events, which aims to bring in 50,000 people a day to central Glasgow for Lewis Capaldi, Liam Gallagher and others on the weekend of 9 July. “It takes us days rather than months to build,” he says, comparing his event with Glastonbury. “It’s sad to see such a pillar of the festival scene cancel, and it will have a big effect on the wider events industry supply chain. However, all other festivals are on a very different scale.”

The majority of the young audience that attend Slam Dunk won’t be vaccinated in time, but Ray is hoping that enough other people across the UK will have been vaccinated to make events viable. “The government are going to stop social distancing before the whole population of the UK is vaccinated,” he argues, but can’t be sure of when. “Is it when a certain point is reached that people have stopped dying and filling up hospitals? And are they then still going to have some restrictions: you can go to the pub and mix with people, but there are no events over a certain capacity?”

Organisers are pressing on amid this constant flux and unpredictability. Wade says Boomtown has a “sizeable Covid budget” ringfenced for improved hygiene and other measures, and is mooting the possibility of testing before the event along with “event passports” for Covid-free ticketholders. Ellis says such passports “could well come into play” and potentially be linked to mobile tickets. No one is planning social distancing at their events: “Even if we queued everyone socially distanced to get in, they’ll all cram in front of the stage even if we ask them not to,” May says.

If festivals are cancelled, it means another year without revenue in an industry where profit margins are already tight. The government’s culture recovery fund (CRF) buoyed festivals during 2020, but insurers aren’t covering for cancellations made because of the pandemic, spurring calls from organisers for the government to underwrite them and allow preparations to continue.

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden stated this week: “We continue to help the arts on recovery, including problems around getting insurance”, hinting at a possible turnaround from earlier in the month when the idea of government-backed insurance was dismissed by culture minister Caroline Dinenage.

“It is getting very drastic now in terms of decision-making processes,” Wade says. “We do need to know about this [insurance scheme] very soon, and a government decision in the next month would be a great help to the entire industry … especially for independent festivals where we don’t have any additional financial backing, or large funds in the bank.”

Rachael Greenfield organises Bloodstock, a festival for 20,000 metalheads in Derbyshire, and credits the CRF as “a lifeline” – but says the insurance scheme is something the government “need to take very seriously and act on very quickly. When you start paying deposits to suppliers and suchlike, that’s when you get into a very high risk area if you don’t have anything backing you up. For larger events, time is ticking, and if they don’t get an answer off the government soon, they’re not going to happen.”

The crowd at Trnsmt festival 2019.
The crowd at Trnsmt festival 2019. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Slam Dunk received “about £200,000” from the CRF and Ray says that they wouldn’t have survived a second cancelled year without it, reassuring ticketholders “we’re not using their ticket money in any way to keep the company afloat” – refunds will be available for all events if they have to cancel or move to later in the summer. He laments the knock-on effect for their suppliers if that happens, though: “If the festival doesn’t go ahead, we don’t have to hire the PA system, all the lights – it’s those companies that are suffering worse.”

But as the summer progresses and vaccination levels rise, events will become more viable. “The vaccine’s rolling out at an incredibly good speed – we’re quite confident that we’re going ahead,” Greenfield says of Bloodstock, which is due to begin 11 August. “We can adapt so quickly, and we’re so small in comparison [with Glastonbury], we do have the best chance.”

Might punters still be wary of getting sweaty together in the pit for Judas Priest et al, even if they’re allowed to go? “I’d go to the opening of a car wash at the moment if I could,” she replies. “You’ve got a serious mental health crisis in the UK: people are utterly desperate to reconnect with likeminded people, and that’s what the festival industry does. If we get the green light, festivalgoers will flock – for their mental health, people need to get out and start living again.”

But for Ray and Slam Dunk, late May might be too soon for such catharsis. “We were thinking, if everything goes to plan, and we’re the first festival of the summer, it’s going to go crazy,” he says. “Now we’ve got the disadvantage of maybe being a bit too early for things to work.”


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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