Chain reaction: Promoters weigh up Covid-19's impact on festivals

Chain reaction: Promoters weigh up Covid-19's impact on festivals

The date of March 6, 2020 is destined to live in infamy in music circles.

It was late that Friday evening when, amid the escalating coronavirus outbreak, the city of Austin, Texas pulled the plug on the imminent South By Southwest (SXSW), firing the starting pistol on a period that threatens to change the live business forever.

Digesting the news at home, Paul Reed, CEO of the UK’s Association Of Independent Festivals (AIF), was already pondering the ramifications.

“I just thought, ‘The fallout is going to be huge’ – and so it proved,” he tells Music Week. “That was a bit of a turning point for the industry as to the impact coronavirus could have on large scale events, globally. It absolutely felt like a flashpoint.”

Ben Ray, promoter of the twin site Slam Dunk Festival in Leeds and Hatfield, originally set for May but since postponed to September, admits to initially underestimating the scale of the threat.

“We thought, ‘We won’t have to reschedule, we won’t have to cancel, it will never get that bad’ and many promoters probably thought the same,” concedes Ray. “But, of course, things changed very quickly. We would go from, ‘We’re definitely going ahead’ to making plans to reschedule literally two days later, it was crazy.”

When Glastonbury succumbed to the inevitable in the wake of the government’s social distancing clampdown, the domestic industry’s worst fears began to be realised.

“That one was a little more expected,” reflects Reed. “Glastonbury has a longer build period than the majority of festivals and the build, in itself, would have been a large gathering. That was approaching, which I think is a major factor in when it was announced. Up to that point it was business as usual to an extent – people were announcing line-ups and were still on sale, and the government was saying there was no rationale to cancel events. Glastonbury felt like the big one that – again – would have a ripple effect throughout the industry.”

“That was a big turning point for everybody,” agrees Ray. “People were saying, ‘If festivals in June are cancelling, what chances have festivals in May got?’”

As anticipated, spcctaculars set for May/June followed suit, among them AEG’s All Points East and Live Nation’s Parklife, Lovebox, Download and Isle Of Wight.

“The government said it wasn’t going to allow emergency services to mass gatherings, so what can you say?” offers Isle Of Wight Festival promoter John Giddings. “We’ve announced our new dates for 2021 and had a very positive response – a lot of people have transferred their tickets without knowing what the line-up is going to be.

“It’s just sad times and we don’t know when it’s going to end. Who knows when we’re going to be allowed out again?”

Jon Drape, director of event production company Engine No.4, is pessimistic as to how the rest of the summer will unfold.

“All the focus has been about dealing with the emerging numbers of cases, and rightly so, but it’s very difficult,” confides Drape, whose clients include Parklife, Bluedot and Kendal Calling. “There has been very little talk about what the exit strategy or recovery phase will look like. Most shows in May and June have now been cancelled and everybody’s scratching their heads about July and August. What we really need is a little bit more guidance from the government, but clearly they don’t know until they see what the impact is on the NHS.

“Even if there was a relaxation of the ruling around mass gatherings, you’ve got to question whether it is appropriate to be running a festival. You need the support of the authorities and I don’t think anyone could countenance trying to run a festival if their local hospital is on its knees.”

The consequences of a lost season – or even a severely reduced one – would stretch far and wide. “Festivals are a way of artists earning the best money they have all year,” affirms Giddings, agent for the likes of Little Mix, Iggy Pop, James and Westlife. “With all these shows being cancelled, a lot of artists are losing their income.”

“Four months account for about 60-70% of the year’s income,” elaborates Paradigm agent Alex Hardee. “When you’re running a business such as ours, with a large overhead, you make your profit during the summer because that’s where all the money is nowadays. Festivals are essential for non-stadium acts, that is the most vital part of the year – and the most vital part of the year is being ripped apart.”

Hardee’s client list includes Liam Gallagher, due to headline Trnsmt and Latitude in July and Reading & Leeds in August (a one-off June date at Manchester’s Heaton Park has been pulled), and fellow Trnsmt headliner Lewis Capaldi, who was also booked to top the bill at Isle Of Wight.

“The PA, lights and production are provided by the festival in general so the cost is less,” explains Hardee. “So you can make more money out of festivals unless you get to a certain level and can do stadiums and your own outside events. But generally, doing a run of festivals would be where you could make your real money in the year.”

Ric Salmon, director of ATC, which manages artists including Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Johnny Marr and PJ Harvey, says festivals are the lifeblood of many artists.

“The cancellation of festivals around the world is going to resonate for many months to come – and impacts every aspect of the music industry’s workforce,” he warns.

“It’s so easy to let an unprecedented challenge like this get the better of us. But we all owe every artist, every person that works in the industry, and every fan our complete dedication to ensure we come out of it firing on all cylinders. That means continuing to create and release music whenever it feels appropriate, and to ensure we’re mobilised and ready to get back out on the road as soon as it’s safe to do so.”

Further down the pyramid, developing acts are losing an invaluable platform for their talents. Cannibal Management’s Tim Hampson reps the likes of Dream Wife and Dry Cleaning, who had slots lined up at showcases such as Liverpool Sound City and Primavera Porto. Both events have now been pushed back to September, creating additional complications.

“We have tried to be organised, booking travel well in advance, confirming crew and forecasting finances for the year ahead based on some strong fees,” says Hampson. “But with some airlines and travel agents behaving in the way they are, we are now set to lose considerable sums of money and are looking at all options as we move forward to try and recoup some of the losses.

“Many of the festivals my artists were booked for are rescheduling for later in the year. However, we are finding it difficult to re-confirm them as new dates clash with existing tour plans based around album campaigns.

“Festivals are essential for the acts I represent to reach larger audiences and more casual fans, plus build personal relationships with other artists. It will be hard to keep this momentum going if we can’t reschedule. The closer the festival moves to autumn, the less likely it is that we will be able to appear. The revenue loss is considerable.”

Research commissioned by the Music Managers Forum and Featured Artists Coalition indicates the pandemic has already cost the music economy tens of millions of pounds.

“The livelihoods of so many artists come from live music, and the vast majority will have scheduled their campaigns around festival appearances,” says MMF CEO Annabella Coldrick. “That prospect has now been yanked from under their feet and the impact of mass cancellations will be deep and profound.

“Our survey indicates that more than £70m has already been lost from artists’ live and other income, pushing businesses – including management – to breaking point and derailing releases and promotion.

“Going forward, we hope that the shutdown doesn’t roll on late into summer, and at least some events can be salvaged, but the situation has left a lot of artists and managers exposed. Many are left reliant on PRS and PPL payments and support from charities and emergency funds. That’s not a sustainable situation for most, and it’s why the MMF continues to appeal for extra assistance from government and the industry to help bridge this crisis. If this becomes a full-blown catastrophe, then the ramifications will be significant and long-lasting for our entire sector.”

With the ripples of the crisis permeating every corner of the business, Giddings fears it is inevitable that certain parties will be left exposed. “I think sadly smaller companies, smaller suppliers are going to go to the wall because their income has been taken away,” he sighs. “I think the landscape is going to change.”

“There is a complex, vast and quite fragile supply chain surrounding festivals,” asserts the AIF’s Reed. “Many of those businesses can be quite small, and they’re absolutely dependent on festivals, from production companies to catering, staging and other infrastructure. Frankly, if festival businesses go under then so will some of those businesses. It will have that domino effect should that come to pass.”

Reed accepts that the nature of independent businesses leaves them in an especially precarious position.

“Precarious is the word,” he says, with a grimace. ”Even at the beginning of March, our members had sunk costs that varied greatly – some of them had spent £20,000 at that point, others £1.7m – and those are non-recoupable costs given the insurance situation. In short, no one is covered on this, with the exception, from what I understand, of some of the larger touring promoters.

“Most festivals announce their line-ups no later than February, so this hit at a point when festivals had invested significantly in talent, invested to an extent in infrastructure deposits and obviously staffing and marketing. Most festivals hadn’t done the majority of their sales because that period would be from April to June. To use a retail example, it’s like you’ve bought all of your stock in for Christmas, and now Christmas is cancelled.”

A survey of AIF members produced some alarming findings, which have been presented to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) and HM Treasury.

“Ninety-two per cent of members surveyed said their firms are at risk, predominantly down to the cash flow and refund scenarios, so it’s very serious and there is no safety net,” says Reed. “We’ve been liaising with the government and hoping it will endorse extending some refund periods and alternatives to cash refunds. That’s something the industry is pretty aligned on and we see happening in other parts of Europe.”

Although a number of festivals have cancelled until 2021, others have rescheduled for the late summer of 2020. Ray has shifted Slam Dunk Festival from May 23-24 to September 5-6, retaining the majority of the line-up including headliners Sum-41 and Don Broco.

“We’ve only lost a few acts and that is mostly due to the US touring period changing,” he says. “The agents involved have been absolutely amazing. Everybody’s trying to make things work and there’s a really good spirit, which is rarely seen to be honest. It has united a lot of people and shows what the industry can do when everybody works together.”

While the date change has bought him some time, Ray concedes there is no guarantee the country will have returned to normality by early September.

“Of course, no one knows for certain,” he says. “We all watch the news every night and things keep on changing. Some of the things look positive so you get a bit of confidence but then, with other news you see, you get a bit worried. Obviously we look at what’s happening around the world and different countries being at different stages. But we’ve got to be confident about it and we’ve got to move ahead like everything’s going to happen. I’m just really hopeful that it will.”

At time of going to press, the majority of UK events from July onwards were still slated to go ahead. So what are the odds of the sector avoiding a complete write-off?

“There are certainly disparate views within the membership on that,” smiles Reed. “If you’re taking place later in the season then you do have a bit more time. But I think we need to consider that, even once the lockdown is lifted, we don’t know when the gatherings ban is going to be lifted and whether it will be phased.

“I’m sure the government wants to get back to a sense of normality and have everything open back up as soon as is safely possible. However, are they just going to push the button and have football stadiums and mass gatherings open at the same time as smaller venues and restaurants? We don’t know.

“Also, it’s no big secret that sales have flatlined. No one’s buying a ticket to a festival right now and ticketing companies are not advancing money in general. So how you actually cash flow and get up to that point will be a challenge.”

Giddings shares similar concerns. “The problem is you can’t just come back out of your house and a festival occurs the next day, there has to be a period for people to sell tickets again, because all ticket sales have stopped,” he says. “Who wants to buy a ticket to a show when they don’t know if it’s going to happen?”

“It would be amazing if some shows got away this year in September, but I’d be surprised,” admits Engine No.4’s Drape. “For everybody’s sake, we just need to hope we’re back to business as usual in ’21.

“When social distancing laws and venues start reopening, people will have been living a very different life for a period. I’ve been looking with interest at what has been going on in China and people are still reluctant to go into bars and cafés, so I think it’s going to take a while for people to get back to socialising.

“There is talk about how at the end of this there will be the most incredible parties and raves, but I think there’ll also be an awful lot of people who will be very wary until there is a long-term solution for Covid-19.”

He adds: “The other concern is one of the tools they’ve got in the box is to turn some of these measures on and off. They might see another spike of cases and then everything gets closed again. The period of uncertainty appears to be considerable.”

Hardee takes an equally pragmatic view.

“In my heart, I’d like to be saying I’ll be dancing around a tent in Standon Calling in July,” he concludes. “But in my head, I know that won’t be until next year.

“The only thing I know about this crisis so far is that, every day, things get worse, not better. I’m hoping that at some point there will come a day when that turns, but we haven’t turned the corner yet unfortunately. I would say August is very unlikely, but I hope that it will happen.”

Now that would really be a date to remember...

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