Field work: Festivals facing up to 'difficult market' as artists explore live options

Field work: Festivals facing up to 'difficult market' as artists explore live options

Agents and promoters have spoken about the UK’s summer of live music, including a mixed picture for festivals and a growing trend for artists to play their own curated outdoor shows.

The build-up to the festival season has seen a wave of independent events postponing, cancelling or shutting down completely. Casualties so far in 2024 include Barn On The Farm, Bluedot, Splendour and Standon Calling (pictured with Self Esteem at last year's festival). In the past week, Towersy Festival became the 43rd to announce a postponement, cancellation or complete closure in 2024.

The Association Of Independent Festivals (AIF) said that 100 events could ultimately disappear as a result of rising production costs.

“Since the pandemic, the costs for putting on a festival have soared, ticket prices are going up to cover it,” said Matt Bates, managing partner and CEO of Primary Talent International. “The artist wants more money because their crew, tour bus and production are costing more. It’s a vicious circle and at some point something will always have to give.”

Emma Banks, music agent and co-head of CAA’s London office/co-head of international touring, said she had “a lot of respect” for festivals that are taking a year off in 2024.

“What’s bad for the business is events that announce [dates], sell some tickets and then pull it,” she told Music Week. “That’s not positive for anything because it destabilises the market.”

The AIF is campaigning for a VAT reduction to 5% on festival tickets that could help prevent such closures.

“The situation for festivals has got worse,” said AIF CEO John Rostron. “The problem isn’t going to be fixed unless there’s government intervention.”

Across the festival and outdoor live market, agents and promoters are generally positive about ticket sales in 2024, but there were questions about the volume of events taking place across the UK and the wider economic situation.

“We have to accept that the audience only has so much disposable income, we’re probably seeing the effect of the interest rate rises from last year,” said Steve Tilley, promoter and director at Kilimanjaro Live. 

“The UK has so much live activity in the summer,” said Bates. “As well as multi-act festivals, there’s definitely a rise in stadium shows, and in standalone outdoor or greenfield shows for artists – there’s a lot more of them than there were [pre-pandemic] – and that’s all going to take away from each other.” 

“I think the top end of the market – Taylor Swift [stadium shows] or Robbie Williams in Hyde Park [BST] – is fine,” said Tilley. “It’s the squeezed middle where there are problems. Ultimately, the live music market just behaves in the classic economic way based on supply and demand, and there’s probably too much supply. So it’s not anyone’s fault, because you can’t blame an artist for wanting to play live.”

Tilley highlighted the “proliferation of small to medium-sized, one-day outdoor concert series” that can impact grassroots festivals and small venues.

“If you look at the growth in ticket prices and fees, maybe the more nostalgia-based artists are seeing it as their time to come and actually earn some money [playing those outdoor concert series],” he suggested. 

In the upper and top end of the market, artists playing their own outdoor events this summer include Catfish And The Bottlemen, Jamie Webster, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, Take That and CAA client Hozier. 

“A lot of the bigger artists now can sell stadia or very big greenfield site parks,” said Emma Banks. “They’re sometimes looking to have more control over what they’re doing, and they get that by doing a headline show of their own where they control the ticketing, the VIP [area], who’s on the bill, and they don’t have to be broadcast.”

Skepta is staging his own Big Smoke Festival in Crystal Palace Park (July 6), while Yungblud is curating Bludfest at Milton Keynes Bowl (August 11). 

There’s a huge place for festivals in expanding your fanbase

Emma Banks

Communion ONE’s Daniel Ealam and Scott O’Neill are promoting The Reytons’ 20,000-capacity homecoming gig at Clifton Park, Rotherham in July.

“We’ve had quite a few conversations with acts who want to do the same thing,” said Communion ONE managing director and promoter Mazin Tappuni of the outdoor shows. “I think more of those conversations are happening because promoters are up for working with the artists to deliver those shows and create something new and exciting. 

“Some promoters will have multiple festivals within their company and block book artists, but then you start losing a bit of identity. So some artists are thinking, ‘I’d rather try and curate something myself and understand my audience better.’”

But Banks stressed the role of festivals in bringing in a fresh audience.

“There’s a huge place for festivals in expanding your fanbase,” she told Music Week. “If you’re only selling tickets to people that liked you already, and nobody else gets to discover you, that might mean that in two or three tours’ time when people’s circumstances have changed, you haven’t brought any new people in. I think festivals are really important for that.”

Promoters who spoke to Music Week suggested that while touring was generally healthy, the festival sector was more mixed this summer.

“We’re feeling pretty positive, especially across headline touring – it shows that people want to go and watch live music,” said Communion ONE’s Tappuni. “It’s just a little bit more rocky in terms of the festival news. It is a really difficult market and it’s obviously quite concentrated – there’s a lot happening across the summer.”

Kilimanjaro Live operates Scotland’s biggest camping festival, Belladrum Tartan Heart (July 25-27), the 2023 edition of which was nominated at the Music Week Awards in the Festival Of The Year category.

“It’s going really well,” said Tilley. “But we are slightly behind where we were this time last year, so we’re reflecting the market overall.”

Even at the busy end of the festival market, Emma Banks suggested that operators shouldn’t always go for growth in terms of capacity.

“At some point, you can’t keep making them bigger and bigger,” she said. “There are people that like to go to a more boutique event.” 

It now remains to be seen how many more small and independent events are lost this summer, with the AIF closely monitoring the situation.

“There will always be things which don’t sell, unfortunately, and there will always be certain events that have to be cancelled – and nobody wants that to happen,” said Primary Talent’s Matt Bates. “But we’ve also got to celebrate the ones that are very strong and are selling out. Punters are returning year after year to these events and there’s still a great appetite for live music and festivals.”


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