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Has the UK’s festival scene reached saturation point?

Has the UK’s festival scene reached saturation point?

Has the UK’s festival scene reached saturation point?
April 09
16:15 2017

Last year, more than a thousand festival events took place across Britain, a figure that has doubled over the past decade. In 2015, UK Music, the industry campaigning organisation, calculated that 3.5m people attended a festival, with the market estimated to be worth £2bn to the economy.

But has the festival scene reached saturation point? Organisers are certainly feeling the pressure. Putting on a weekend of music in a field may look like easy money, with tickets sold for three-figure sums and a captive audience obliged to spend as much on food and drink on site. But the costs of securing headline acts, along with security and infrastructure, mean that each year some festivals have fallen by the wayside.

The result this year is a shift in the festival ecosystem, with a marked rise in the number of city-based and one-day events and a decline in traditional camping weekends. Day-long events are being held in locations ranging from underneath a motorway flyover (Junction 2 Festival in west London) to a seaside amusement park (Margate’s Demon Dayz, Damon Albarn’s inaugural festival with his band Gorillaz).

Established festivals are being squeezed out. T in the Park, Scotland’s answer to Glastonbury, which has run since 1994, attracting nearly a quarter of a million visitors a year, has been cancelled. The organisers are switching their energies to (the fashionably vowel-free) TRNSMT, a three-day non-camping affair headlined by Radiohead, to be held on Glasgow Green over the same weekend at the beginning of July that T in the Park formerly occupied.

At the same time, two of the summer’s long-established, mid-sized events, Cornbury Festival in Oxfordshire and the Secret Garden Party in Cambridgeshire, have both announced that this will be their last year.

Cornbury’s founder, music promoter Hugh Phillimore, set up his festival on Lord and Lady Rotherwick’s Oxfordshire estate in 2003. Cornbury’s audience was about 15,000, and its popularity with the well-heeled local set earned it the nickname “Poshstock”. Yet Phillimore says the festival barely made any money. “With my production company, I would put on parties around the world for everyone from royals to oligarchs and make a nice amount of money. But running Cornbury, it was as if we took the profits and set fire to them.”

Romance, he says, has kept him in the game. “It’s a labour of love. Festivals are addictive. Even if you lose money, you think, ‘Oh, just one more year.’ ” Now, he says, the finances have just become too scary: “The market is saturated. Everyone’s got a festival within 25 miles now.”

He points to the growing dominance of multinational promoters such as Live Nation (Reading, Latitude and this year a majority stake in the Isle of Wight) and AEG (Hyde Park’s British Summertime), which can pay high fees for the relatively small pool of headline names, while locking them into exclusive deals.

Other factors are even harder to manage. “Last year, it rained every weekend in June,” Phillimore recalls. “So we didn’t sell a thousand tickets we thought we would sell. That’s £200,000 we just lost there. People have lots of choice but they are also being more careful. Basing your mental and emotional wellbeing on the vagaries of the British summer is insane.”

Secret Garden Party started the year after Cornbury, part of a generation of festivals that sprang up after Glastonbury erected a perimeter fence in 2002. The barrier fuelled a surge in demand for other events, promoting their own blends of music, camping and revelry.

Established by Fred Fellowes on his father’s Cambridgeshire estate Abbots Ripton Hall, SGP, like Cornbury, was associated with this new middle-class festival crowd, albeit one that was younger and more hedonistic. “We tried to not define ourselves as a festival,” Fellowes says. “We saw ourselves much more like an experiential party, or an immersive theatre experience.”

SGP attracted 26,000 campers at its peak in 2011, but Fellowes says that during the past few years he has struggled with a shift in the audience’s expectations. “We have always tried to not repeat the same band or art pieces. But we noticed that increasingly our audience wanted the same thing that they had seen on their friend’s Instagram or Facebook feed the year before. With social media, you can’t control any more what you want your festival to be.”

His former partners in SGP went on to create Cornbury rival Wilderness, while also having a hand in east London park event Lovebox. Fellowes thinks the proliferation of outdoor gigs, particularly the rise of metropolitan festivals, has made festival-going more mainstream — perhaps overly so.

“When day festivals arrived, that’s when the term ‘festival’ started to become debased. On one hand you can see it as a sanitisation of a culture that was wild or, on the other, you could argue that they are making festivals more accessible.”

Lost Woods at the Secret Garden Party festival 2016 © Max Miechowski

The number of these non-camping music festivals in cities and towns has mushroomed. In 2013, AEG set up the biggest metropolitan festival in the UK, British Summertime in Hyde Park, which has had the Rolling Stones and Taylor Swift as headliners.

While in a smaller league, Bestival, founded by DJ Rob da Bank (real name Robert Gorham), has tried to move with the times. Originally based on the Isle of Wight, it has this year relocated to mainland Dorset for the sake of accessibility, taking place at Lulworth Castle, where da Bank also runs the popular family festival, Camp Bestival. In 2015 he also set up Common People, a city festival that has expanded to take place over two days in Oxford and Southampton at the end of May.

While da Bank admits that last year Bestival struggled with poor headliners and bad weather, he says the biggest competition now comes from the day festival market. “By setting up Common People, we have cannibalised the audience for Bestival, but if we hadn’t done it, someone would have. These city shows are not really festivals as I see them but people are going to them instead of going to camping festivals. They like being able to go and then sleep in their beds at night.”

Cash-strapped local authorities welcome shows with open arms. “We get a lot of support from the council,” da Bank says. “If you can land 30,000 people in a city centre for two days, spending money on food and drink and using taxis, it is great for their revenues and reputation.” He admits that while they may be less fun to experience, day festivals are less hassle and more profitable for their organisers. “It is so much easier to put on a day festival than a four-day camping show. We make more money on the day shows than we will ever on Bestival. The toilets, security — you just get to halve those costs.

“But I don’t think camping festivals are going to go away. Festival culture is too ingrained now.” Da Bank adds, laughing. “I’m an optimist. You have to be in this game.”

Photographs: Andrew Whitton; Max Miechowski

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