The great rock'n'roll swindle: Have music festivals become too expensive?
Glastonbury is the worst offender, but many other supposedly family-friendly events are charging sky-high prices
For me a summer without festivals is like winter without Christmas – in other words, entirely unthinkable. But casting around several months ago for a festival to which I could take my husband and young daughter the choices on offer began to look alarmingly thin. Naturally, my first thought was Glastonbury, a festival with which I have a long and not altogether distinguished history dating back to 1992 when, having arrived ticketless, I paid a man a fiver to hurl me over the fence.
You might say it's karma, then, that looking at this year's tickets I found Glastonbury to be well out of my price range. At £195 per adult including the inevitable booking and transaction fees, along with £75 for the privilege of sleeping in our own camper van, I realised that for that kind of money the three of us could spend a long and infinitely more pleasant weekend in the south of France. True, there would be no Stevie Wonder, no Gorillaz and, most devastating of all, no naked morris dancers. But at least we could guarantee decent sanitation and a cloudless sky.
Our next choice was Latitude, the Radio 4 listeners' festival of choice with its programme of comedy, theatre, film, poetry recitals and children's events alongside the usual pop suspects. At £155 per ticket, plus the camper van tax, this also seemed steep, a total that would buy us, if not a weekend in the Côte d'Azur, at the very least a self-catering holiday in Cornwall. It was a similar story at the Secret Garden Party (£149.50 per adult) and the Big Chill (£155 per adult), both of them out of our financial league and a long way from being value for money.
Clearly, festivals aren't what they used to be. Over the past 20 years, they have undergone a startling transformation, moving from chaotic and frequently unsanitary events comprising two or three stages and hordes of inebriates making merry in a field of crushed paper cups to expertly policed, conspicuously middle-class affairs awash with cash machines, phone-charging booths and organic food and with all the rebellious spirit of the Proms.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining about their new-found poshness. I'm as partial as anyone to a rocket-strewn organic burger, and at my age the last thing I want is to find myself knee-deep in mud and vomit while watching the speck on the horizon that is my latest favourite band. But you have to wonder how the addition of 15-foot perimeter fences, security staff and some fancy food stalls can add up to such exorbitant ticket prices. Festivals such as Latitude and the Big Chill pride themselves on being family-friendly events though any couple wanting to bring teenage children will face a weekend bill nudging a thousand pounds.
According to Rob da Bank, founder of Bestival and Camp Bestival and co-founder of the Association of Independent Festivals, these high prices are simply a sign of the new festival-going times. "There's no denying that in a recession anything from £100 upwards is a lot of money for anyone to spend on one weekend," he concedes. "Glastonbury is more expensive than most but no other festival can match the capacity and line-up, and there's the fact that they give £2m to charity. In my experience, and given that the days of jumping fences are over, a lot of people now look at a festival as their summer holiday. If you look at the price of a weekend at Centre Parcs, you add it all up and it's going to get close to what you'd spend going to a festival."
He adds that the first five years of Bestival ran at a loss, and just about broke even in the sixth. "People have joked over the years, 'We've been robbed by Rob da Bank', but I have a clear conscience," he says. "Putting on a festival costs a lot of money, and it's never been about profit in my mind. Vince Power, who does the Hop Farm festival, says that it costs around £5m to put on a 40,000 capacity show and I think he's about right. When you do the arithmetic the profit margin comes with the last few thousand ticket-buyers."
So where on earth does all the money go? Apparently among the biggest outlays is policing, fire brigade, health and safety and sanitation services, closely followed by staging, lighting and fencing. Then, of course, there are the artists. Ben Turner, another AIF co-founder last week observed the huge fees now commanded by top-name acts to play major music festivals, noting that some acts were paid in excess of a £1m for a headline slot.
A million quid for a couple of hours' work? Surely the bands and booking agents might just as well don balaclavas and mug the fans instead. Rob da Bank doesn't agree: "Though they account for a large part of a festivals' costs, I do feel that artists fees are proportionate," he says. "The year we had Amy Winehouse (at Bestival) we sold 16,000 tickets in a day. You pay the money for the talent, you sell tickets. The UK is the best festival market in the world. We have a great reputation abroad and we get the best artists coming over here to perform."
Any festival organiser might also argue that when it comes to festival finances it's a case of supply and demand. Festivals now come with cross-generational appeal and have never been more popular. But you can have too much of a good thing. Last year, with last-minute cancellations and assorted events operating under capacity, it was clear that the market had reached saturation point. But clearly there's still money to be made. New figures out this month show that the UK festival market is contributing more than £130m a year to the economy.
For punters, there are ways to avoid the gentrification and corporate robbery that is the multi-stage mega-festival while still getting your festival fix. There were some dewy-eyed reports from some of my friends last month regarding Oxfordshire's Wood Festival, the three-year-old sibling of Truck, which has two stages, good bands and a capacity of 800 people. Tickets could only be bought upon arrival, thereby cutting out the wretched transaction charges, and were priced at £35 a day. Loopallu Festival in Ullapool, Scotland, is another small event that has attracted some starry names in the past including Franz Ferdinand, The Stranglers and The Undertones, and where a weekend ticket costs a perfectly reasonable £50.
Failing that, you could go for the really cheap option, one which ensures maximum comfort, warmth, good food, clean toilets and the perfect vantage point from which to see some of the world's greatest bands in glorious close-up. You could just stay at home and watch it all on telly.
For further reading: 'Glastonbury – Another Stage' by Venetia Dearden (Kehrer Verlag , £29.99). Order for £26.99 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
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