Future Of UK Festivals: Highlights From Parliamentary Hearing

Aerial view of The Boomtown Fair in Winchester, England.
Chris Gorman/Getty Images
– Aerial view of The Boomtown Fair in Winchester, England.
The picture was taken, Aug. 8, 2019.

Festival organizers spoke at a June 5 parliamentary hearing of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee in the UK, to explain the dire situation professionals working in this sector will be in, if they weren’t given a reopening date soon.
Witnesses included Sacha Lord, co-founder of Parklife festival and The Warehouse Project, and also the night time economy advisor to the mayor of Manchester, and Anna Wade, communications & strategy director at Boomtown Fair.
Lord explained the long turnaround times festivals require to plan ahead. Parklife may only take place in September, but already booked 250-plus artists and suppliers.
Parklife 2019.
Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage
– Parklife 2019.
Mike Skinner of The Streets celebrating with the audience at Heaton Park in Manchester, England, June 9, 2019.

When Parklife 2020 was forced to cancel, it had already moved 78,000 tickets. Lord explained how the government restrictions in reaction to COVID absolutely decimated his business, the festival as well as The Warehouse Project, a club night series in Manchester. 

Wade echoed what Lord had said: when Boomtown was in preparation mode in February, shortly before the UK went into its first lockdown, the company employed 40 full-time staff. Additionally, there are usually some 17,000 crew, staff, artists, suppliers and traders on site during the event, who’ve all been affected by the 2020 cancellations. “It’s been a huge hit,” Wade explained, for freelancers in particular.
While the road ahead might be challenging, a return of festivals in summer wasn’t impossible, she continued, as long as everyone involved collaborated in creating a safe event. That included government departments dealing with culture, health and transport.
When asked what would help the festival sector get back on its feet, Wade listed several things: a dedicated furlough scheme for the festival sector, which works with completely different timelines than most other sectors, and an understanding among politicians of the complexities involved in planning an event.
One of the most helpful thing for festival organizers would be a government-backed insurance scheme, in case a festival gets cancelled.
According to Lord, the most important thing remains a target date this sector can work towards, “and that target date needs to come sooner rather than later.”
And he listed four more vital points for a return to normalcy: “A government-backed Coronavirus cancellation insurance scheme, an extension of the VAT [reduction] to five percent for the coming three years as well as the business rates relief. Finally furlough support until our events are fully up and running at 100% capacity.
Brexit was addressed as well: Lord said that while headliners wouldn’t have trouble paying for their Visa fees, newcomers would, which might lead to stagnation in terms of new talent coming through.
Wade explained how there’s a danger of professionals Boomtown has been working with in the past being forced to move into a different industry in order to sustain their livelihoods, which was worrying, seeing that not all of them would return.
She described the situation at the moment as a “stand off.” Nobody was able to make a move, given the surrounding uncertainties. The longer this continued, the more people would find different jobs.
Lord found clear words: “One thing I can confidently say is, the freelancers, the supply chain, they would be wiped out if another year happened like 2020.”
No insurance is covering contagious diseases, said Wade, adding that “a government-backed insurance would allow promoters to confidently put down deposits and “commit.”
Mass testing would be a “key element,” as well, she continued, especially once quick-tests  became available to test people as they were arriving on site. However, the cost of mass-testing was substantial, especially at large-scale events.
Testing on site also bore the challenge of potentially turning people away at the gate, which is why Lord was hoping for a system where people could be tested a few days in advance.
Lord pointed out that reducing capacity wasn’t economically viable in the case of Parklife. “We have to run at 80,000 capacity. Social distancing doesn’t work at any of these events, it’s a festival,” he explained.
“Time is absolutely of the essence for all of us right now, speed is incredibly important,” Wade emphasized, which holds true for everything from accessing financial support for freelancers to receiving a definite opening date as promoters.
The full parliamentary hearing can be rewatched here.