By Dr David White, Lecturer in Political Science
School of Government, University of Birmingham.
“The UK’s music festival industry not only fosters artistic talent, provides opportunities for people to gain experience in a range of roles, and creates a much-needed sense of wellbeing for those that attend, it also makes significant contributions to the British economy, both locally and nationally.”
Over the last weekend in June, in what has become a tradition of the British summer, BBC TV offered nostalgic coverage of the Glastonbury Festival. Instead of watching headline sets from Paul McCartney, Kendrick Lamar and Taylor Swift, viewers were treated to classic performances from past festivals including Stormzy’s ground-breaking set from 2019, David Bowie’s triumphant return in 2000 and Oasis’s debut festival performance in 1994.
Whilst Glastonbury has been able to ride out the cancellation of what would have been its 50th birthday, the prospects for festivals throughout the UK are bleak. Even Glastonbury is not immune. Michael Eavis, the festival’s founder, suggests that another cancellation in 2021 may mean the end of the festival.
The financial implications of cancelling a festival are huge. As Fiona Stewart, the Director of the Green Man Festival in the Black Mountains of Wales, points out, festivals are not run on a year-by-year basis. Festival planning including the booking of artists is an ongoing process. The updating and improving of infrastructure where the right deals at the right time can save thousands of pounds, is something that happens throughout the year irrespective of the festival being cancelled. ‘Evolving and developing the festival experience is constant’ says Stewart adding that ‘this all costs money to support and a great deal has been lost in this year’s festival’.
Like other festivals, Green Man was insured for cancellation, however policies did not cover the eventuality of a global pandemic. Moreover, whilst the festival directly and indirectly employs in the region of 5,000 people around the time of the festival, it only has a full-time staff of six. As such, Green Man was classed as a ‘micro company’ and received just £10,000 towards staff wages. Nevertheless, work continues on the planning of next year’s festival with the organisers hoping that most of this year’s visitors will take up the option of rolling over their tickets to 2021.
Festivals come in all shapes and sizes and in Wakefield, Dean Freeman has run the Long Division Festival single-handedly since 2011. Designed to foster local talent and attract artists who would not normally include the West Yorkshire city on their tours, the festival puts on bands in a variety of venues from pubs to abandoned libraries. The cancellation of this year’s festival could not have come at a worse time for Freeman who had attracted Arts Council and local authority support for a substantial two-year package to sustain and develop the festival. Without further funding, Freeman was forced to furlough himself as the festival’s sole employee.
The financial contributions and support to the wider community made by many festivals should not be overlooked. Through its charitable trust, Green Man supports a range of activities including: providing training opportunities for students from Merthyr Tydfil College; fundraising for local community projects and charities; a partnership with the Salvation Army and support for refugees. Moreover, festival-goers are encouraged to extend their stay at the festival, allowing them to spend time (and money) in the local area, particularly in the nearby village of Crickhowell. Fiona Stewart’s team has been able to support all the agreed Green Man Trust commitments including the support of local people affected by the devastating floods earlier in the year. She acknowledged that ‘It’s worrying to know that so many local businesses will be affected – we’re all trying to put one foot in front of the other and get through this year’.
Festival organisers and the wider live music industry feel that government has largely ignored the pandemic’s impact on their sector. On 2nd July a coalition of live music businesses including artists, venues, festivals and production companies launched a campaign, ‘Let The Music Play’, to highlight the importance of the sector to the UK’s economy. Noting that the music industry contributes over £5 billion annually to the UK economy and sustains over 200,000 jobs, the campaign is lobbying Government to follow the lead of Germany and Australia to provide sufficient support to sustain the industry. On 6th July a £1.5bn package to keep the art’s sector afloat was announced but, at the time of writing, it was unclear whether this would extend to festivals. Many in the industry remain skeptical , as Dean Freeman says, ‘I think the government is happy to use live music as an example of ‘Great’ Britain, but at the same times thinks it shouldn’t have to pay for or support it. Compared to other countries in Europe we are embarrassingly bad at supporting music’.
The UK’s music festival industry not only fosters artistic talent, provides opportunities for people to gain experience in a range of roles, and creates a much-needed sense of wellbeing for those that attend, it also makes significant contributions to the British economy, both locally and nationally. If the government does not provide support for festivals and the live music scene more broadly it runs the risk of undermining an increasingly important part of the economy and depleting the country’s much-heralded cultural capital.