03 September 2018

Have we reached “peak festival”?

Since the uptick in festival numbers during the early 10’s, the sector has continued to grow: every year it seems that more and more, smaller festivals crop up around the country, and with Glastonbury taking a year off in 2018, there’s even more room for the larger ones to thrive. Though festivals undoubtedly provide a much-needed public service as a necessary outlet for hedonism and debauchery, supporting the live music economy and creating thousands of jobs in the process, there surely has to be a limit on how many can survive before the market becomes oversaturated – this begs the question, how many is too many, and what’s next for the industry?

The live music industry is thriving across the UK, and festivals are still taking in a huge chunk of that cash. Live music audiences grew by 12% over 2016, contributing £4 billion to the UK economy – and last year, 3.9 million people attended music festivals in the UK. The number of festivals listed on eFestivals.com has risen from 496 in 2007 to 1,070 last year. Despite their origins as a celebration of anti-establishment values and a counter-cultural hotbed of revelry and riot (think Woodstock and Burning Man) festivals have become diluted by mainstream economic concerns, diversifying their line-ups to appeal to as large an audience as possible while ratcheting up ticket prices year on year. This has given rise to an unappealing sense of uniformity across the festival scene: they’re all becoming increasingly similar, and there’s too many to choose from. The same big-name artists are getting booked at the same big-money festivals, and there’s a lack of individuality among the larger, more generic festivals that are leading many towards smaller, more “boutique” events.

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These smaller festivals that take place nearer cities, offering one or two-day experiences without the hassle of camping and travel, seem to be gaining an edge over the larger events and taking over the market. Rob Da Bank, the founder of Bestival, notes that “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 that we will ever on Bestival. The toilets, security — you just get to halve those costs.” These smaller events are easier and cheaper to run, and they offer an alternative to punters that aren’t excited by the thought of five nights spent in a tent without a shower. (Who can blame them?)

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Festivals have become a staple of the musical economy in Britain. An estimated 1,000 of them took place in 2016 (not only music but beer, food, and literary festivals) and that’s a staggering 600% increase on figures from 12 years ago. What’s the problem, you might ask? The festival surplus undoubtedly means more choice for the consumer and more opportunities for artists. But a surfeit of the events also creates more competition in the market, and that means that festivals themselves make less money, and are forced into making sacrifices to compensate. As a result, all the things that people hate about festivals –homogenous line-ups, astronomical ticket prices, inadequate facilities, conspicuous corporate sponsorship – are likely to get worse. This may lead some to abandon them altogether, or at least to favour smaller events that offer a more unique and affordable experience.

Though festival attendance is showing no signs of decreasing, the costs of operation are becoming increasingly insurmountable, threatening the viability of larger events that require a huge investment to even go ahead in the first place. The over-saturation of the market has generated an abundance of opportunity for big-name artists, and this combined with declining revenue from record sales, has persuaded artists to charge higher fees and leverage the competition against each other. And that’s not all: it’s the stratospheric costs involved in arranging security, staging, facilities, and site preparation that take the deepest cut out of a festival’s profitability. John Giddings, the agent and promoter behind the Isle of Wight Festival, has said that it costs £10m each year to run the event, with £1m alone on security and policing: “Everybody thinks we are walking away with millions of pounds, but it is really, really hard to make money on these events. It’s a long-term game. In the first two years, we lost half a million pounds each year.” Many festivals run on a financial knife-edge, with the amount of eventual profit paling in comparison to the overall budget.

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These considerable costs and infrastructural demands, combined with the growing numbers of new festivals, will inevitably lead to an increase in festival closures, with few of the newer ones ever getting off the ground and making it past their first couple years. Throwing a festival is an inherently unpredictable endeavour, with so many variables (weather, artists, ticket sales) to prepare for: it’s not surprising that one in ten festivals fold each year. This might seem like cause for concern, but for every festival closing, there’s another new venture to take its place. Despite the unavoidable risks involved and the instability of the market, it looks as if the festival scene across the globe is set to continue growing.

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