The State Of Play In The UK: ‘No Silver Bullet, No Overnight Solution’

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GLASTONBURY, ENGLAND – JUNE 26: Festival-goers enjoy the evening sun as they watch Years and Years perform on the Other Stage during day five of Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm, Pilton on June 26, 2022 in Glastonbury, England. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

The UK event industry is back at work. Like neighboring Europe, the country’s live professionals face a slew of challenges, from staff shortages to price hikes to slowing ticket sales to post-Brexit bureaucracy. Almost 10% of UK festivals larger than 5,000 capacity had to cancel this year, which is a big improvement to last year’s 53% but still a lot. There are success stories, too, from independent and major events alike. Noisily, 2000Trees, End Of The Road and Beat Herder, members of the UK’s Association of Independent Festivals, all sold out their 2022 events. On the major front, BST Hyde Park just completed its biggest edition yet, expanding to three weekends, and selling out Hyde Park’s 65,000 capacity on almost every night. Glastonbury reportedly attracted more than 200,000 people to its long-awaited return June 22-26. In Europe, that same weekend, TW Classic welcomed 60,000 at the Festivalpark in Werchter, Belgium. The team of Openair St. Gallen in Switzerland celebrated a “fulminant return,” June 30-July 3, with a sold-out crowd of 110,000 across the entire weekend. Open’er in Poland (June 29-July 2) sold out both main festival days, welcoming 75,000; Roskilde in Denmark (June 25-July 2), which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, maxed out at 130,000, including 80,000 full festival tickets, 5,000 one-day tickets for June 29– July 2, and around 30,000 volunteers.

These numbers are impressive. On paper, it almost reads like the business is back to normal, which is obviously not the case. Worldwide inflation has raised costs for festival infrastructure in the UK by 25% to 35%, Paul Reed, CEO of the country’s Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) told Pollstar. He also pointed out “serious supply chain pressures,” some a result of “increased hard costs such as labor, materials and staffing being passed along, but there is also increasing profiteering along the supply chain. Of course, all of this is now being compounded by a cost-of-living crisis in which audiences are having to make very difficult choices.”

Add post-Brexit friction and uncertainty, with some issues around movement of artists, crew, and equipment, and you get the perfect storm AIF has been warning about all pandemic long.

Ticket sales offered a very mixed picture, irrespective of the size of the event, said Reed, keen to dispel the idea that it was only the independent festival sector that was struggling. 

The majors may have a large enough audience to sell out irrespective of the wider economic climate, but, as Reed emphasized, “all are experiencing broadly the same challenges this year. We have small- and mid-sized members, which have all sold out, alongside larger capacity festivals such as Boomtown Fair – though some of them have tickets rolled over that were purchased in 2019 and 2020, and that also brings challenges.”  

Christina Bilde, deputy comms, partnerships, and philanthropy director for Roskilde, told Pollstar that, “though it was three years since the last festival and a lot had changed both physically on the festival site and in our teams with new people and few recruiting issues, we made Roskilde Festival 2022 a success.” 

Staff as well as contractors moved or pivoted out of the industry during the pandemic, some forever, Reed continued, “the loss of a skilled workforce is an issue, as are the ongoing challenges due to Brexit. I think that there are parallels between festivals and the hospitality sector in that respect. Festivals support 85,000 jobs and are clearly dependent on a huge temporary yet experienced workforce, and there is no silver bullet or overnight solution to this. It will take some time to rebuild as new professionals and contractors enter the market. We are in a recovery phase.” Aside from creating a huge number of jobs, festivals contribute £1.76 billion ($2.1 billion) gross value added to the UK economy through entertaining some 5 million people each year across an incredible range of different events. But festivals are far more than money-makers. Their cultural significance cannot be overstated.  So, a return under challenging circumstances was “far preferable to not being operational and the full or partial shutdown of the last two years,” Reed said. 

The live business has proved to be remarkably resilient when faced with real existential challenges many times in the past. But the last two years have been particularly relentless in terms of the economic pressure, which is only increasing. 

Reed concluded, “To be fully operational this summer is reason enough to celebrate and we are fully confident in the long-term health of the UK independent festival sector. Ultimately, audiences need these events. I’ve talked about economic impact and jobs, but the mental health, social and well-being aspects of festivals are enormous and can’t be quantified, really. As an industry, we’re aligned and hugely focused on climate action, audience welfare, creating safer spaces and improving diversity – all the important work we had to press pause on during COVID. Getting back to this is also a very welcome shift.”