Announcing music festivals for 2021 is absolutely absurd – here’s why

A sense of unease hangs over the announcement that Reading and Leeds organisers plan to hold the festival in August. Roisin O’Connor explains why she thinks it’s still too soon to get our hopes up

Thursday 25 February 2021 15:37
Reading festival is one of the biggest of the summer festival events
Reading festival is one of the biggest of the summer festival events

Fans and Liam Gallagher are rejoicing over the news that Reading and Leeds organisers plan to hold the twin festivals this summer. It’s the biggest music event so far to announce its plan to return this year, with festivals including Creamfields, Parklife and Field Day also stating their intentions to go ahead. Given festival season has been the highlight of my year for almost a decade, you’d think I would also be thrilled. The problem is, I don’t believe a word of it.

The live music industry has been among the worst-hit by the pandemic, suffering an estimated 90 per cent loss in revenue last year. It’s no wonder they’re eager to get going again, following the government’s roadmap for getting England out of lockdown – supposedly by 21 June. And Reading’s announcement was as swaggering as you’d expect from a festival still dominated by lad rock, the words “LET’S GO” appearing alongside a video montage of packed fields in summer, full of revellers enjoying drinks and music in blazing sunshine. But only one word comes to mind when I look at those images: “superspreader”.

At the time of writing, more than 18.2 million people in the UK had received their first vaccine dose – equivalent to one in three adults – while around 670,000 have received their second. However, England’s deputy chief medical officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, has acknowledged there are “supply fluctuations” and it could take “a few months” for manufacturers to develop a steady production routine. The vaccine rollout will also still be taking place as the government begins to relax its lockdown restrictions, allowing more people to meet outdoors. Beer gardens and outdoor dining will begin again from 12 April, while just over a month later, indoor dining and drinking will be permitted.

However, the DCMS (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) hasn’t actually given the all-clear for large-scale music events to take place in 2021. What it has said is that it’s been working with representatives from industries and civil societies to explore when and how events with larger crowd sizes and less social distancing will be able to return safely. This includes music festivals, plus sports events, large weddings and conferences. From April, the government will run a number of pilot events using various safety measures, to see what the outcome is of holding larger events. These findings from different sectors will be used to determine whether it will be safe to lift restrictions. To cap that off, Boris Johnson issued a warning earlier this week that there is no guarantee that the UK will be fully out of lockdown and “back to normal” by 21 June.

With all this in mind, along with the issue that festivals still don’t have insurance coverage for cancellations due to Covid, it seems downright irresponsible that events are getting fans’ hopes up so soon. Festival Republic’s Melvin Benn said he was “hopeful” the government would announce support for festivals in its Budget next week (3 March), but again, there is no guarantee. And given its dire lack of support towards the creative industries during this crisis, I’m not expecting any such news this time round. Instead, the Reading and Leeds announcement seems intended to put pressure on the government to offer more support for music events. If they’re forced to cancel and suffer losses due to their lack of insurance, the government are the bad guys. In the meantime, fans buying tickets mean they’re at least more secure than they were last year – if only temporarily.

Industry bodies are among those to urge caution, even as their peers fail to heed it. Greg Parmley, CEO of the umbrella orgnisation LIVE, tells me that it will be at least four months before there is any certainty on a reopening date for live music. “A government-backed insurance scheme is still vital to reduce the risk the industry faces,” he says. “These events take months to plan with large upfront costs and access to insurance will help provide greater confidence to organisers. It is going to be a long road to recovery and even if restrictions can lift in the summer it will be a long way from the normality of 2019 for our industry. It is vital the government understands this and provides us with continued financial support in the Budget to reflect this.”

Even the fan reactions to the latest festival announcements have been somewhat muted, with plenty of criticism mixed in. On Twitter, young people suffering the effects of long Covid pointed out they were still having trouble breathing normally. I know from personal experience – more than one person in my family has suffered serious effects of coronavirus, along with the loved ones of close friends – that we need to continue taking this virus very seriously. Being young does not make you immune, and the thought of thousands of young people crowded together in a field fills me with dread. Believe me, I want nothing more than to be standing in a crowded field with my mates, drinking and singing along to our favourite artists. I just don’t think it’s worth dying for. 

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