Mixed News From UK/Europe: Live Is Back, But At What Cost?

Royal Blood KC 23 TomMartin 13
Royal Blood at a sold-out Kendal Calling 2023. Even a capacity crowd isn’t enough to quarantee promoters a profit these days. (Photo by Tom Martin)

When looking at the concert at festival sector in UK and Europe, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of business that’s being done at the top end. Indeed, blockbuster events and artists seem to have never sold more tickets. But even they are having to deal with cost increases on all fronts, making it hard to end up in the black, no matter how many tickets are being sold. The challenges are exacerbated if you’re a small to medium-sized event or act, of course.

The good news first: many of the most recent events, including festivals, have been selling out, or almost selling out. The Weekend broke an attendance record (for an end-stage configuration) at Wembley Stadium, London, selling 87,000 tickets. Burna Boy sold out London Stadium this summer, as part of his “Love Damini” tour, making him the first African artist to headline a stadium show in the UK.

See: Taking Stock Of The First Fully Open Festival Season In UK & Europe

Festival success stories include Kendal Calling in England, selling all available 40,000 tickets, and already selling around half the tickets available for 2024 at press time; Openair St.Gallen in Switzerland welcomed 110,000 visitors across four days (averaging at 27,500 guests per day on the 30,000-capacity site); Highfield Festival in Germany, a co-promotion between FKP Scorpio and Semmel Concerts welcomed 35,000 per day; EXIT in Serbia celebrated its second-best year yet in terms of ticket sales (over 200,000 people across four days, averaging at 50,000 per day), as well as its best year yet in terms of revenues, but not in terms of profit, which already gives you an idea of the current economics.

Luke Mitchell, co-founder and creative director of Boomtown Fair, one of the UK’s largest independently run festivals, said in a recent “AAA Backstage” podcast that even though their 2023 edition had all but sold out, they’d struggle to make money. Increased costs across the supply chain are the the reason even established events may not be profitable this year – especially festivals, most of which went on sale last year, before the massive price hikes.

It was therefore a bit odd to receive a recent press release from UK trade body LIVE, which made no mention of this precarious economic situation. It merely stated, “the UK’s live music sector has burst back to life after the pandemic,” and while mentioning that “we saw fewer fans purchasing tickets and attending live music events following the pandemic, compounded by the cost-of-living crisis, we are now witnessing an upward trajectory in the number of tickets being sold and fans attending events.”

The crucial issue, however, is that even a sell out doesn’t guarantee good financial results. John Rostron, CEO of the country’s Association of Independent Festivals (AIF), told Pollstar, “We know, there is a large number of festivals that planned to happen this year that then cancelled in advance. More than 30 festivals so far [including one AIF member], that we’re aware of across the UK, didn’t make it to opening their gates. That’s a very large number.” He confirmed, that “the biggest reason is supply chain costs and the cost of living crisis. If I was issuing a statement about the live sector, I would be very careful to focus on the big successes, which has been stadium tours and big, major headline concerts. But but from a festival sector’s standpoint, that’s not been the case. It’s been a very challenging year. And that’s true of all our members, whether they sold out or not.”

What is more, as Rostron explained, a major touring artists like Taylor Swift was so involved in her touring plans, that conversations about potentially reducing her fee in order to offset costs without having to raise ticket prices could actually be held with the artist directly. Festivals, dealing with hundreds of artists and suppliers at the same time, just weren’t that flexible.

AIF members also observed shifts in customer behavior. “A lot of people, because of the cost of living crisis, were moving to payment plans. We think somewhere over 20% of sales last year [were done via] payment plans, and it was as low as about 4% before that.” While it’s great to see that people love these events so much, that they consider paying for a ticket in monthly increments, it also raises questions about maintaining access to culture for everyone. Already, as Rostron pointed out, “we’ve seen a decline in younger people picking up festival tickets.” The dip in young audiences has been felt by festivals that have been “consistently strong with their audiences,” he explained.

The reason could be a combination of not being able to afford a ticket, with or without payment plan, as the cost-of-living crisis affects the youth much worse, and the fact that there’s an entire generation of youngsters that never got into the habit of going to festivals with their mates during lockdown. The solution to the latter problem was educating the future generations on what they’re missing out on if they never attend a festival with their best friends. A solution to the price hikes would be a reduction of the VAT on concert tickets from 20% to 5%. As Rostron. explained, “that would give us the space to cope with fluctuating supply chain costs, but not pass on too much the customer, whilst the sector recovers, and finds its feet again.”

Subscribe to Pollstar HERE