You better, you bet: Why the wider biz needs to back the high-risk festival business


Fancy a flutter? We have reached that stage in the Hyundai Mercury Prize campaign where everyone in the biz has a hot tip as to who’s going to win the gong come September.

The field still seems pretty open, so it’s almost as if the industry needs an outlet for a gamble these days, with recorded music looking like an increasingly safe bet. Indeed, with last week’s half-year ERA figures showing a near-10% increase in music’s retail value, and streaming lessening the sector’s reliance on big new releases, there’s a predictability around music business finances that hasn’t existed since the days of the CD boom.

With one exception: the festival circuit. The cancellation of Boardmasters (pictured), due to adverse weather forecasts, shows just how much of a punt anyone brave enough to put on an outdoor, multi-day event is taking.

Glastonbury aside – which would surely sell out even if I was its Saturday night headliner (I am available for 2020, should Emily Eavis be reading this) – every modern festival promoter is at the mercy of so many unpredictable elements that anyone taking on the task in 2019 must have nerves of titanium.

Competition for headliners is fiercer than ever and, even when they’re booked, accidents, illness and ill-advised social media outbursts can remove them at one fell swoop. With so many events happening over the summer, brand loyalty is scarce, and even well-established festivals can be just one slightly-iffy line-up away from failure. And even if you book the best bill in festival history, Carol Kirkwood/God could still come along and wreck everything anyway.

So, with the end of the traditional festival season – Reading & Leeds – in sight, everyone in the biz should pay tribute to the brave people still prepared to roll the dice. Reading has long-since sold out and such payouts should be celebrated by all, while other sectors of the biz might consider helping out those less fortunate where possible.

Because, with live music in general feeling the squeeze – top execs from Live Nation's Phil Bowdery to Paradigm's Alex Hardee have admitted 2019 has not been a vintage year for the sector – the temptation for everyone, from artists and managers to promoters and agents, may be to hedge their bets in the coming months and years.

But let’s not. Recorded music may have got what Rob Stringer likes to refer to as its jackpot economy back but, with the right support, there’s still room to win big in live music as well. And with festivals still a vital part of the wider music ecosystem, it's time for everyone to put their money where their mouth is…

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