Does Glastonbury Festival stand a chance this year? Behind the scenes with the people working to save our summer music festivals

As uncertainty reigns over the state of summer festival season 2021, Roisin O'Connor speaks to festival organisers, officials and artists about what needs to be done to bring back live music 

Friday 08 January 2021 10:23
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<p>Festivals like Glastonbury require months of planning</p>

Festivals like Glastonbury require months of planning

One of the last people you’d expect to inform you of Glastonbury Festival’s apparent cancellation is Mel B. The Spice Girl caused a brief moment of chaos this week after an interview on BBC Radio 5 Live, in which she claimed that the event was officially off for this year. Headlines screaming “CANCELLED” sent music fans into a spin. A presumably frazzled Emily Eavis then replied on Twitter to state that the fight for Glastonbury 2021 was, in fact, not over yet.

The nail-biting uncertainty about the UK’s festival industry, however, continues. Amid a third national lockdown, the prospect of fans being able to enjoy live music through summer is looking more and more tenuous. Festival organisers are becoming increasingly anxious – because what does or doesn’t take place could mean the difference between long-term survival or ruin. “If we have another year like 2020, we’ve got serious problems,” says Sacha Lord, co-founder of Manchester’s Parklife Festival.

Few sectors have been hit quite as hard by coronavirus in this country as live music. The ban on large public events last year along with the national lockdown meant that 2020’s festival season, a staple of British culture, was essentially wiped out. Festivals suffered a 90.2 per cent drop in revenue; 50 per cent of its workforce were threatened with redundancy by the end of the year. UK Music, the umbrella organisation that represents both the recorded and live music industry, issued a report this week that said the prospect of holding live events in 2021 hangs in the balance.

However, the same report also said that the best way to support and protect the live music sector is to start running events again, so that it can begin generating income. To do this requires overcoming a number of challenges and a lot of that depends on how the government handles the pandemic over the next 10 weeks. Festivals require months of planning – the construction of Glastonbury’s mammoth site traditionally begins in March. With a new national lockdown predicted to last until at least late February, that leaves the timescale looking tight.

One of the biggest issues is whether organisers will be able to put proper Covid-19 safety measures in place to prevent festivals turning into superspreader events. Lord told a parliamentary inquiry held this week that he hoped most festivalgoers would be vaccinated by the time his event takes place in September. According to a new target announced by the government, around 13.9 million people are to be vaccinated by mid-February, most of them key workers, the elderly or vulnerable. However, it will take a lot longer to vaccinate the entire UK population, and Parklife’s key demographic – 18-23-year-olds, as Lord pointed out – are right near the bottom of the priorities list. Lord was told by an MP during the inquest that the idea of festivalgoers being vaccinated by September was “highly unlikely”.

The alternative, then, would be to make sure Covid-19 safety measures are in place by the time fans arrive at festivals this summer. Zach Sabban, CEO of event-discovery site Festicket, recently told The Guardian he was confident that this was achievable. “As we know, the evidence shows that being outdoors massively reduces any risk of transmission, so when it comes to live music, it follows that outdoor festivals will be in a good position to return,” he said.

“It’s highly likely,” he continued, “that we will see requests for negative Covid tests and/or proof that you have received a vaccine before access to some events, and we’ve been working closely with our partners in evaluating potential methods for observing that,” later adding: “the more we collectively have things under control in the coming weeks and months, the easier things will be further down the line.”

In the United States, one of the entertainment giants already said to be working on a system like this is Ticketmaster, which wants to use smartphones to verify fans’ vaccination status, or whether they’ve tested negative for the coronavirus, within a 24- to 72-hour window. This sounds promising for the major venues, sports leagues and other enterprises partnered with Ticketmaster, but it could be out of reach for independent and grassroots event companies.

In any case, strategies like these feel wildly optimistic given the current state of chaos in the UK. The government is grappling to regain control of the virus amid huge spikes in cases, with the NHS dangerously close to being completely overwhelmed. Making long-term plans when we’re not even sure what the situation will be next week, let alone in six months, seems precarious at best.

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That risk is what is preventing most events from making concrete announcements about whether they will take place this year. Paul Reed, chief executive at the Association of Independent Festivals, told parliament that a government-backed insurance scheme was essential, as organisers are currently operating with the assumption that commercial insurance for Covid-19-related cancellations will not exist until 2022. The live music industry and the insurance business are still fighting over who should foot the bill over events cancelled due to Covid, which means that if a festival decided to go ahead, only for the government to place another ban on large public gatherings at short notice, the financial loss would be huge and solely on their heads.

“There’s a huge risk for organisers that they’ll spend an awful lot of money and then see their events being cancelled for reasons completely out of their control,” Glastonbury’s Emily Eavis told the BBC last month. “And when those events go down, a huge number of jobs and livelihoods will disappear again too.” She revealed that she has asked the government to underwrite the insurance with direct financial support, in the event that festivals are forced to cancel. This would allow them to move on with planning their events, safe in the knowledge that they are protected if things go wrong.

“UK music festivals are world famous and an iconic part of our culture,” Stuart Galbraith, vice chairman of the Music CPA and a founding member of music industry body LIVE, tells The Independent. “As festival organisers we want to get back as soon as it is safe to do so but this will be impossible without a government supported insurance scheme that gives our industry the ability to unlock and to start making decisions now.” Noting that it takes “between six to eight months” to prepare for a festival, Galbraith warns that without government support, the UK faces another year of empty fields, along with billions lost to the UK economy and tens of thousands of job losses.

Becky Ayres, managing director of multi-venue festival Sound City in Liverpool, had been hoping to run the event in May this year, and felt things were looking positive until the third lockdown. “There’s a lot of uncertainty,” she tells The Independent. “We’ve been planning various scenarios that would keep people safe and allow us to go ahead.”

England fans cheer as they watch England’s victory over Norway in the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup quarter-finals, on day two of Glastonbury Festival 

Under Tiers 1 and 2, she believes that Sound City could work, with social distancing in place across the event’s small-capacity venues. But she worries that many of the components that comprise a festival may not be available by that time, as freelance workers have been forced to seek work elsewhere. “There are all these parts that make up a whole, the things you don’t think about – food vendors, toilets, cleaners,” she says. “You can’t run a festival without those. All these parts make up a whole, and [workers] are going through massive trauma right now.” And she adds that for many artists, regardless of how well-known they are, live music forms a significant proportion of their earnings. “It has been so tough for artists, they rely so heavily on live performances, as income and as a means to reach fans.”

London-based artist Greentea Peng, a neo-soul/R&B singer who made the shortlist on the BBC’s Sound of 2021 poll, says performing live is the thing she misses the most. “That energy and that connection, are a big reason why we do this,” she tells The Independent. “There’s nothing like it.”

It was pointed out during the parliamentary inquiry that festival headliners don’t appear out of thin air – artists often start by playing smaller, grassroots festivals and work their way up to the top. Greentea Peng, real name Aria Wells, is following that path and was booked to play her first Glastonbury performance this year.

‘There’s nothing like it’ – Greentea Peng during a live show in 2019

“I’m trying to be hopeful,” she says. “But it’s difficult. All the government gives a f*** about is giving money to the military and the police. They told us how they feel [about the arts] with that Rethink/Retrain campaign. They’ll throw some money to national theatres, but nothing to live music.”

Industry experts are understandably perplexed by the lack of action being taken. UK Music CEO Jamie Njoku-Goodwin describes live music as the “beating heart” of the UK music industry. “It generates billions of pounds for the economy every year, supports thousands of jobs across the country, and draws millions of music tourists to all four corners of the UK,” he says. “In addition to the economic impact, it also has huge social and cultural benefits. The UK’s vibrant live music scene has given us a global reputation, and the music industry as a whole was set to be one of the British success stories of the 2020s.” Pre-pandemic, festival attendance was on the up, from 4.9 million in 2018 to 5.2 million the following year (up 6 per cent), according to UK Music figures.

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Several industry figures have pointed out that the damage “does not have to be permanent”. Anna Wade, communications and strategy director for Boomtown Festival in Hampshire, told MPs during the enquiry that an extended furlough scheme this year would aid freelance workers and avoid forcing them to redeploy their skills in other industries. Parklife’s Sacha Lord backed this idea and called for an extension of business rates relief, as well as a three-year extension of the reduced 5 per cent VAT rate on admission charges, which would help festivals recover their losses from 2020. “While [the VAT reduction has] been reasonably helpful, organisers are not currently selling tickets so the present benefits are limited,“ Lord says.  

In response to the inquiry, more than 100 music industry professionals signed an open letter calling on the government to take action. “The government is telling us that life should be getting back to normal by the summer but unless it can provide a safety net, it will be a summer without festivals,” wrote DCMS committee chair and MP Julian Knight.

If the government finally comes through, the industry could regain some confidence about its future. “We were a growing and thriving industry before the pandemic hit, and with the right support we can be that successful and self-reliant industry again,” says Njoku-Goodwin. “With the right support, the live music industry can be at the forefront of the post-pandemic recovery and play a key role in our country’s economic and cultural revival – but there will need to be a concerted effort from industry and the government together if we are to let the music play and save our summer.”

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