Q’s With AIF CEO Paul Reed: ‘Festivals Aren’t Just Fun – They Are Vital’
The world is experiencing live events again, but challenges for promoters remain. Pollstar reached out to Paul Reed, CEO of the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF), to get a feel for the status quo of the U.K. sector, where almost 10% of festivals above a capacity of 5,000 people had to cancel this year. It’s a significant improvement to 2021, when more than half of the country’s festivals had to cancel, but that won’t matter to the ones that had to scrap yet another edition.
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Pollstar: Of all the challenges faced by the UK festival sector right now, which needs to be addressed first in AIF’s view?
Paul Reed: We’re facing some incredibly difficult trading conditions as we emerge from the shadow of COVID. We have increases of between 25-35% in infrastructure costs across the board, which is way above the extraordinary rises in inflation we’re experiencing across the wider economy in the U.K. There are also serious supply chain pressures. Some of this is due to 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 alongside post Brexit friction and uncertainty, with some issues around movement of artists, crew, and equipment. It is extremely challenging and I’m not sure that one issue is more significant than others. It is more a case of a perfect storm due to all of those factors – as AIF warned there likely would be at the start of this year.
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You hear of slower ticket sales across the board for any event that hasn’t got blockbuster status like Glastonbury or Rock am Ring. Do AIF members confirm this? And what’s the most-cited reason for this?
It is a very mixed picture of sales out there, but I’m keen to dispel the idea that all small to medium size U.K. independent festivals are struggling while major events flourish. Of course, the festivals you mention will have an audience and sell irrespective of the wider economic climate, and are exceptions to any rule, but all are experiencing broadly the same challenges this year. We have small and mid-sized members such as Noisily, 2000Trees, End Of The Road and Beat Herder, 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.
What do AIF member say about staff shortages? Is it an issue? How do we a) get them back or b) train new ones?
Yes, staff and contractors moved or pivoted out of the industry during the pandemic, some forever, so 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.”
AIF has been tirelessly campaigning on behalf of festivals, ever since COVID restrictions put this business out of work. Do you feel like the U.K. government is aware – truly aware – of a) the cultural and economic importance of live events and b) how difficult it is to operate an independent festival in July 2022?
U.K. government awareness of how festivals operate and the challenges they face has greatly improved since the outset of the pandemic. We’ve maintained a close dialogue throughout and illustrated clearly why festivals needed to be eligible for the Culture Recovery Fund, subsequently unlocking millions of pounds in vital survival funds. AIF also led on lobbying efforts and interventions around insurance and the DCMS Select Committee enquiry into the future of U.K. festivals. We established a festivals and outdoor events working group with government that is still meeting regularly now to discuss pertinent issues and challenges. So, it has improved but we’ve had to fight very hard to make many in government realize that festivals aren’t simply fun parties – they are a vital part of British culture, generating £1.76 billion ($2.1 billion) GVA for the U.K. economy, supporting 85,000 jobs and collectively entertaining over 5 million people a year across an incredible range of different events and audiences.
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Are there reasons to be optimistic, maybe even get into in a celebratory mood?
Yes. Festivals are ultimately a microcosm of wider society and the economy so what we are experiencing now is not surprising and far, far preferable to not being operational and the full or partial shutdown of the last two years. Members are generally ecstatic to be back in the fields delivering amazing shows for audiences. As outlined above, some independent festivals of all shapes and sizes are selling out.
The sector has faced some real existential challenges in the last two years and has proved to be remarkably resilient. 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.
What’ll be most important in these coming months, if the U.K. doesn’t want to lose more festivals than it already has?
We’re at the point where almost 10% of UK festivals of 5,000 cap and over are cancelled for this year (in comparison to 53% last year). From government, we need a cultural VAT rate, preferably of 5% on tickets to bring us in line with many other countries across Europe. They could also help by incentivizing and encouraging people to get back out there to festivals and other events. I see campaigns such as ‘Let’s Do London’ aimed at boosting tourism in the capital but nothing has been done on a national scale for festivals. And for those who are continuing to struggle financially, we need access to targeted financial support.