‘I’d Welcome Research Into Young Audiences’: Q’s With AIF CEO John Rostron

John Rostron credit Jody Hartley
AIF CEO John Rostron. (Picture by Jody Hartley)

40 UK festivals have already canceled in 2024. Not all of them are gone for good, with some planning a return in 2025. But the reasons for their cancellation is usually the same: a dramatic rise in costs across the board. The current cost of living across Europe also affects people’s leisure budgets. It particularly affects the independent festival sector and community, where maintaining a reasonable ticket price is usually part of the festival’s philosophy.

But there are more reasons why these events are struggling. One is a changed audience: an entire generation has missed out on their first festival experience due to the lockdowns imposed during COVID, and the effects – while noticed by many promoters – have yet been properly analysed. Pollstar reached out to John Rostron, CEO of the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) for our inaugural UK Focus, to talk about the current struggle of an entire sector.

See: 40 UK Festivals Cancelled In 2024

Pollstar: Is it correct to say that festival promoters are having an even harder time than tour promoters in the current economy, because it is such a massive (cost) effort to basically erect an entire city in a field every year?
John Rostron: Short answer – yes. Concert promoters are dealing with supply chain increases across all areas of production, transport and artist costs, but they have some comfort that they are working in fixed venues and infrastructure, which mitigates many of the other rising costs that comes from building – and then removing – a temporary site. The the other key difference with touring is that if costs rise rapidly between budgeting and delivery of the event, then the fee structure means the artist is involved in deciding whether to take on those costs, and take home less money, or cancel the show. Almost always, they press on and deliver the show. With festivals, the artists are paid fixed fees, so there’s no opportunity to go back and renegotiate, so the festival promoter bears all the burden.

What are ways for independent festivals to increase their margins without raising their ticket prices, and without factoring in government help?
Supply chain costs have gone up, and continue to go up, by over 30%-50% on average. They don’t want to pass that all on to customers, so they’ve raised ticket prices by 20% or so since COVID, and then looked at what can be cut to cover the rest. The rise in artist fees has added to the need to cut too, so often the first thing to go is a stage, and all the artists with it. Festivals always have way more on offer than people can see, and they often over-deliver, so the customer doesn’t notice any difference, but it’s interesting how hard the independents find it to do this. They are creative people who really want to go above and beyond.

The UK is way over other markets in Europe when it comes to their cultural VAT on tickets. At the same time, it’s been years since the industry started shouting about this issue, and asking for a VAT reduction, particularly post-COVID. Why hasn’t this happened yet?
I’ve only been in post 18 months. I’m not sure why the call hadn’t started before, but I started calling for a VAT reduction very quickly after I arrived. It was direct to government at first, and then we widened the call to the public in January of this year, partly in response to people asking how they could help, and partly because the message needed to reach MPs and politicians to amplify the conversation. The context is that we need lower VAT in order to mitigate closures, but it’s also true that the UK rate of VAT for culture is higher than so many other countries.

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What other ways are there to help independently run festivals?
I’d welcome research into young audiences. Young people missed their first festivals because of the pandemic, and went through a very strange time at a key point of their lives – as they’d usually be breaking away from families and stepping out as adults. We really don’t know how that has effected them, but there are so many pointers that they have been changed in a way we don’t understand – truancy in schools, for example, has risen year on year since the pandemic, when previously it was at record lows. Knowing what it’s like to be them would really help festivals engage them again.

Government support for the supply chain through rates relief could also ease the situation a little, and government support to help production switch to more sustainable schemes would also make a huge difference for events, who are trying to reach net-zero targets but at cost. Audiences that buy tickets early, or commit to payment plans for tickets is a huge help – it reduces marketing spend but crucially it allows festivals to better plan to meet audience needs. The longer the run-in, the more efficient the cost is. All these things help.

What’s on AIF’s agenda this year?
AIF has just absorbed member festivals from AFO as that organisation came to an end. We now have over 200 festivals in our membership, and are the only organisation in the UK representing independent music festivals. That makes for a very strong network, and provides huge opportunities for us to advance things for the independent sector. We have some on-the-ground initiatives to improve opportunities, access and knowledge sharing with volunteers. We’re working to level up best practice with planet-friendly merch. We have some new events, including a festival debrief day in October where our festivals can come together for a whole day to debrief, share and learn from each other once the summer season is done. We’re also at the start of conversations with PRS for Music to review the LP Tariff. Making a change there will be of enormous benefit to festivals and to the songwriters who benefit from royalties.

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