Are UK Festivals Suffering A Slow Death?

…people have seen it all before.” Even Michael Eavis (Glastonbury Organiser) admits UK festivals are going to face hardship in the near future. Soundhall takes a look at the issues they face, and why no one’s done anything about it yet.

It’s fair to say the summer of 2012 has been above average. Despite the typical July drizzle and August downpours, the whole of the United Kingdom was brought together as one by the influence of great sporting achievement – and it’s very rare that we’re able to even suggest that. New stars were born, Greg Rutherford, Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis, and an ongoing list of talented athletes who surpassed expectations to bring a waterproof blanket of success and joy over this little island.

Normally, a UK summer would be dominated by music. However, the 2012 Olympics meant even the biggest festivals had to take the backseat – some even had to be left at the motorway service stations. Fears had been growing over the state of festivals in recent years, but had always seemed to remain relatively unspoken. All really until the announcement surrounding Glastonbury 2012. The announcement was that there was no Glastonbury 2012. It’s not unheard of for Glasto to take a year off, to have a break, but when you look at the bigger picture, with developments leading up to this summer, which will be detailed later, it really is the cherry on top of a disintegrating cake. Apparently reasons involving lack of Police presence, and of portaloos, meant Michael Eavis chose to suspend the historic festival for this summer. Which I guess is fair enough, you obviously need both those to keep up the high, expected standards, but this is Glastonbury – arguably the biggest event of a normal summer, and they can’t get enough portaloos?

Other than Glasto, The Big Chill and Sonisphere also were cancelled for this year. It might be understandable if these were two relatively small festivals, but with Sonisphere set to host Queen and Kiss, and The Big Chill last year having Kanye West along, there just not. Yes, there not as massive as Glastonbury, but they are certainly significant – remember that disintegrating cake.

Soon after the cancellation of Sonisphere in April, NME put together a report of the public views, concerns and fears about festivals. There didn’t really seem to be a range of reasons for less people choosing to attend festivals this summer though. People who weren’t going seemed to either be unimpressed with the line-ups, or just simply couldn’t afford a ticket. Two of the big festival coordinators agree that the economy troubles are playing a big part here. Melvin Benn (Reading & Leeds) stated that, “there’s no doubt the economy is really tough, and the people who predominately go to festivals, young people, are being hit hard. It’s a challenge all festivals are facing.” Similarly, Rob Da Bank (Camp Bestival) admitted, “people just don’t have the disposable income to go to one, let alone two festivals this summer.”

It just makes so much sense though, doesn’t it? In times of hardship, luxuries have to be cut, and let’s face it, festivals are that now. Faced with this problem, you’d expect lowered ticket prices, surely? And with youth unemployment hitting the 1 million mark in back in last November, and fears of continued economic hardship, how can 18-24 year olds especially be expected to pay to attend festivals? But most organisers banked on the hope that they’d sell out their tickets – maybe due to lack of a Glastonbury, maybe because they just always somehow sell out, I don’t know? But with these kinds of prices, people who may have gone to two or three festivals in previous years, are now restricted to one, if that.

The line-up issue was one that I did not expect at all, mainly due to the deletion of Glastonbury this summer. They usually get the bug guns in, the bands and artists that could basically sell out any location. So without them, the big bands would spread across the festival scene this year? And to an extent they were. The return of The Stone Roses at T In The Park and V Festival, The Killers making a comeback at V, Foo Fighters retuning to Reading & Leeds for their ninth time! Big bands and artists headlining the big UK festivals just like old times, bringing in large numbers, and performing like they used to. But there’s the snag. Each one of those examples were ‘comebacks‘ or ‘returns‘. Not detailing a rise through the festivals over previous years, to make their first headline appearance. As far as I know, every headliner at the big festivals in the UK has done it all before, which is absolutely fine. I guess it means they know what works, which songs get the best reactions, what set list order they should use. But eventually people will get bored. For example, The Stone Roses have had a triumphant comeback, touring at festivals across Europe to performing small, surprise gigs in London. So triumphant, that Michael Eavis is suggesting they will headline Glastonbury 2013. They are a legendary band, there’s no doubt, but can they really string along a comeback over two seasons of festivals? I’m sorry Michael, but it would be a backwards move.

Eavis himself stated back in July last year that his festival only had “probably got another 3 or 4 more years,” and that it was, “on its way out.” In 2008, when tickets were even available on the opening day, Eavis has said they nearly went bankrupt, with costs of £22million that year. However, what was most intriguing about what he said involved no financial disasters, no Olympic fears, but this, “there is a feeling people have seen it all before.” With other fairly big bands and artists not being given chances to prove themselves high up the bill, let alone headlining, how can they be expected to break through to festival headline level? This means that there’s a relatively small selection of acts to book as headliners. All of whom, as stated before, have done it before. Look ahead 10, even 5 years, and you can kind of envisage Coldplay making a comeback headline gig at Glastonbury 2017 – if it’s still going then. Of course it would pull people in, but what about if there’s a year when there’s literally no one making a comeback, and there’s not enough big acts to fill 3 days of Glasto? Other acts need to be given the chance, and soon.

If there’s one thing that can always been assured over a Bank Holiday Weekend in August is that the weather may not be ideal. But the one just gone went especially out of it’s way to dampen the high spirits of festivalgoers – I say dampen, flood the spirits may be a better choice. This particular weekend is always host to Reading & Leeds Festival, and also Creamfields, making sure what ever kind of music you’re into, you’re basically covered. News emerged from Cheshire, on the Sunday morning of the turning away of people with Creamfields day tickets – a day host to big acts such as Deadmau5, Tietso and Groove Armada, all because of the sheer extent of rain and flooding in the area. But it didn’t stop there, as with more predicted heavy rain, the Creamfields officials were forced to actually end the festival early for health and safety reasons. You may be wondering what this has to do with the decline in UK festivals. Yes, it was a wash out, but it’s hardly the organisers fault, it was the typical British weather. However conditions like these are meaning foreign competition is becoming a growing problem.

The idea of mud, rain, and expensive bad tasting larger is something they’d rather move on from. Highest numbers of festivalgoers to Europe are expected this summer, and it fits in to what Michael Eavis said earlier, “…people have seen it all before.” They’re looking to find something new, and with economical hardship facing them, why not combine a holiday and a festival into one? It seems like a perfect idea: Sun, music, and cheaper food and alcohol, and not to mention the actual cost of ticket being a lot lower. European festivals, such as Benicassim in Spain, are being heavily promoted to British people now, and it’s partly the big festival organisers own fault. People will always try and find something different, and with Eavis facing problems like this in 2008, surely he and the rest of them would have considered changes?

Yes, they won’t lose everybody. TV pictures showing highlights of V, of T In The Park, of Reading & Leeds showed this. British people having the time of their lives, witnessing some of the best acts available to them. To my knowledge, basically all tickets had sold out by the time of opening. Us British people are some of the most dedicated to festivals, not really caring about the UK’s harsher elements.  So maybe there’s no problem? Thing is, it’s that kind of thinking that has meant there is a problem developing. Just because UK festivals have always largely sold out, it doesn’t mean the future will hold delights for festival organisers. So there’s no real immediate problems facing UK festivals, but with the growth of Benicassim and others, people may eventually slide away to foreign festivals. Without ticket prices being lowered, or line-ups capturing people’s attention, hardship may fall on other festivals. Who’ll be the next Sonisphere?

Maybe smaller festivals are the way forward then? Recent years  have seen big rises is attention being shifted onto these kind of festivals, like Latitude and RockNess (pictured), with line-ups improving with the more people attending. But here again lies another problem. It’s great that smaller festivals are being given a chance of success, but eventually overcrowding will become an issue. With more and more small festivals being started due to their success, people will end up being spoilt for choice, leading to sparse tickets sales individually for certain festivals.

It just seems like there’s no middle ground for festivals to succeed in the short term, but to also assure a future, let alone a bright one – there’s no sustainability. “Those people haven’t fallen out of love with festivals, it’s just they can’t afford to go to one,” said Michael Benn, and we have to face it, he’s perfectly right. You can blame to Olympics, foreign festivals and the weather all you want, but if no-one’s got any money, festival numbers are going to continue dwindling, unless things change.

(Words: Will Ackrill)

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