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The festival season's big chill

Although the festival season started with a bang last weekend, the recession has impacted hard on many summer music events. But cutbacks could be good for festival-goers, argues Nick Hasted

f you were at the Isle of Wight, Download or Rockness as the major festival season kicked off last weekend, it must have seemed business as usual. Huge crowds felt the sun on their backs as they watched the Pixies, Neil Young, Basement Jaxx, ZZ Top and dozens more. Glastonbury, Leeds, Reading, T in the Park are sold out, too. But further down the festival food-chain, the recession is starting to bite.

The recent proliferation of new festivals in seemingly any spare field and hedgerow has stopped. Even established events are feeling the chill, and some may not survive the summer. Beneath the pictures you'll soon see of city-size crowds roaring on Blur and Bruce Springsteen at Glastonbury, the festival circuit is in crisis.

"Festivals are a luxury to some people, and they're being more cautious. The casual crowd are maybe binning it this year," explains Rob da Bank, promoter of Bestival and Camp Bestival, and co-founder of the Association of Independent Festivals. "Last year was Year Zero, anyway. Three or four festivals came on to the market then, booked good headline acts but were a shambles, and tens of thousands of people got their fingers burned buying tickets for something that didn't happen. And this year, the recession's rooting out those festivals that don't have a loyal fan-base, or finance to back it up. Last year was a cull, and next year will be even more so. Only the strong will survive."

"I know of festivals which may go to the wall," says Melvin Benn of Festival Republic, promoter of Glastonbury, Reading, Leeds and Latitude. "And two or three are in such trouble, even if they don't pull out, the people running them will be in financial trouble afterwards. A lot of people got into the market thinking it was an easy license to print money. And things have come home to roost now."

The mega-festivals remain immune from such gloom, of course. "The recession hasn't had any effect on me," says Benn. "Glastonbury, Reading and Leeds all sold out immediately. They're the blue-chip events. For the bands, they're important events to play. Therefore, they ought to have the cream of the music world there. There's no slowness at all on the selling of all those. Glastonbury sold out before the bill was announced."

Cornbury, the established Oxfordshire festival dubbed "Poshstock" for its upmarket tone, is a case-study in how tough things have got elsewhere. "Our sales are down about 20 per cent, and selling very late," says its promoter, Hugh Phillimore. "We anticipated that we'd be hit, so we cut our cloth accordingly. That has affected our sales. We cut our artist spend [Sugababes and Sharleen Spiteri headline this year], and therefore we're selling less tickets. It's tough out there. Last year we had 12,500 payers. If we get 8,000 this year, that would be good. Anyone who remains in business by the end of the year has got a huge result."

"The recession's hitting smaller festivals to a tune of 15 or 20 per cent," agrees Guilfest's Tony Scott. "We have to challenge that by cutting infrastructure costs." Phillimore has had to take bizarre steps. "We've cut back on our professional recycling organisation, which cost £46,000. We've hired the Scouts and the Brownies to do some of it instead."

Look deeper, and the recession seems a smoke-screen for more profound ills. "With the state of the record industry, live music is supposed to be the place to be," Phillimore sighs. "But there's no monitor for when the market is saturated. There can't be enough people to go to these things. There are too many festivals, a lot of them run by people who thought it was a license to print money. We've had two festivals within 10 miles of us collapse - the Indie Music Guitar Festival and the Festival for Heroes. I manage Imelda May, who did the Acoustic Festival in Lichfield a month ago. A lot of artists had pulled out because deposits weren't paid. I wasn't sure what the point of it was. It's just another festival."

"Redfest and Lodestar have been cancelled because it was just a bunch of indie bands in a field," says Simon Taffe, the co-promoter of the excellent Americana-based Dorset festival End of the Road. "You can do that at Clapham Common these days. No one wants to see the Pigeon Detectives five times in a row. Festivals have to be an escape for people, something special and worth going to."

Even the veteran promoter Vince Power, who ran Reading and Leeds when he was with Mean Fiddler, has found this out to his cost. He founded the Hop Farm Festival as a profitable one-day event in Kent last year, with Neil Young as headliner. The Fratellis and, inevitably, the Pigeon Detectives top the weaker of two loss-making days this year. "Because it took a long time to sort out the license, a lot of big acts slipped through my fingers," he says ruefully. "Young people are bombarded with a huge amount of music now, and don't stay with acts the way they did. One bad album and you've had it now, and they might already have been booked. You hope for the best. But in the back of your mind, you know you're not going to produce a miracle. It's a long weekend when you're losing money. Every act seems like it's been on for hours. I'm riding this year out. You need deep pockets, to just stay with it."

"There aren't enough good bands to go round," says Benn. "There's lots of middle-rankers, and when there's a lot of money around, they'll sell at a lot of festivals. But when the country isn't flush, those are the ones where people say: maybe not."

Surprisingly, though, most of the promoters I spoke to saw the recession, and the brutal "cull" it's causing, as a blessing in disguise. Guilfest is selling slightly more this year by putting together one of its strongest bills, with Motörhead and Brian Wilson. While some creatively strong festivals such as Scotland's Connect have cancelled because of the recession, others such as Rob da Bank's Bestival, with Kraftwerk and Massive Attack, and End of the Road will sell out. "Festivals going to the wall are the ones not offering anything different," says Taffe. "We've got as many exclusives as possible - Explosions in the Sky, Steve Earle, Okkervil River. It's trying to be as on the ball as possible with music. We got Bon Iver last year before his album came out. People who come have faith in us, that they'll see bands they've never heard of and enjoy them. I was also once told good festivals are ones that spend money they don't need to, to make it more special. That's why the Big Chill and Green Man are successes, and we do decoration and art-installations. Even if the line-ups aren't amazing, you know you'll have a good time."

This crisis has brought into focus what festivals are for. The credit crunch is crushing those who are out to make a quick buck, while events with creative musical visions are thriving. Others provide art and pleasure at the heart of their community, with money a desired but secondary aim. When the promoter Howard Monk adds a one-day music bill topped by the Bluetones to Rochdale's council-sponsored Feel Good Festival next month, his similarly idealistic hopes will be the opposite of the fly-by-night local festivals dying elsewhere.

"This is about regenerating and bringing people back into the town centre," he says. "Providing that is an end in itself. Recession is a time when councils can spend for their communities. In five years, the indication we've been successful will be three or four thriving places in Rochdale where you can watch live music, and a couple of Rochdale bands that are touring. And to strengthen links between Rochdale and itself, so people there stop operating in isolation."

As less scrupulous festivals implode under pressure from the recession and their own incompetence, 2009 will be brutal. But, Tony Scott believes, that will only make the future for its survivors brighter. "When we started Guilfest in 1992," he says, "there were 10 festivals in the UK. Now there are a couple of hundred. There are at least a couple of million festival-goers today, and in the last three years it's gone up exponentially. It's a new industry, it mushroomed, and now we've hit entropy. It's much harder for festivals to happen in 2009, and Zoo, Wild in the Country and Blissfields being cancelled last year is a bigger factor than the recession. Infrastructure people and bands' agents want their money up-front, banks won't lend money and the general public have been burnt.

"But 2009 is better than 2008, because competition from events that weren't ever going to happen is gone. Good, well-run events in nice places will pull through. The festival industry will be healthier at the end of it."