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Nick Morgan, founder and CEO of The Fair and CEO of Big Cat Group, says the odds are stacking up against festivals.

(Interview by Tom Hall)

What can be done about the challenges Borough Councils and government cause for festivals and events?

Good data is crucial. That’s why we at The Fair are working with organisations including Mash Media and the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA) to enter the process of sourcing data for local councils, authorities and borough councils to champion the sector.

The issue we are having at the moment when talking to councils is the lack of specific data to help us demonstrate the value of  the sector.

We have festivals where 50,000+ people use London’s parks and provide huge benefits for the local economy such as shops, transport infrastucture, local suppliers, hotels and the entire supply chain. Economic impact needs to be demonstrated.

This comes at a time when nearly all local authorities in England are set to raise council tax and service charges amid concerns for their financial stability. Meanwhile, the industry is here with part of the solution in the form of a new and culturally vibrant revenue stream.

There is far too much red tape for festival and event organisers. Britain leads the world for festivals and they are a vital part of our cultural heritage.

The UK festival scene and in particular London, is suffering at the hands of local residents who are continually mounting pressure on councils to prevent these events going ahead. Meanwhile, Councils are in dire need of additional revenues which we as an industry pay through millions of pounds in hire agreements. These hire fees have a direct correlation to supporting parks and leisure services which benefit the local community, however we are still met with negativity from local residents who are often misinformed about where those funds are redistributed. This is amplified by some media who run negative stories without actually investigating what has really happened and as a result further perpetuate the problem. 

Our panel at EPS (28 February, 3.30pm) will address this issue directly with panellists from smaller festivals as well as Alan Miller of the NTIA and we hope James Heappey MP, chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for events.

 

There is already research into events, what makes this plan different?

There is already research out there on the events industry but it’s not tailored to our messaging for festivals and live events. Research by Britain for Events backed by Nick de Bois MP is a valuable route, but it is more aimed at the exhibition industry and supporting bids for centres like ExCeL and NEC in an ever-competing international exhibition market. 

You once said ‘festivals are dead’. What is going wrong for mass marketed festivals, and what can save the sector?

Larger festivals by the likes of AEG and Live Nation are under huge pressure and are in need of a wake up call. Festival prices have doubled since 1990 and many festivals are suffering from being mass-market products that are not providing a good customer service. Large shows are heavily driven on talent and with talent demanding larger fees there is a greater pressure on these organisers to accept the largest commercial deals on sponsorship. Whilst these larger sponsorship deals allow budget for the talent there is little regard for the overall impact on the customer. This often results in poor customer experience.

Another change is that these bigger shows no longer hold social equity. Society is obsessed with social equity and being seen as pioneers of experiences amongst their peer groups. It’s no longer ‘cool’ to advocate big shows to your social network, current festival audiences are thriving to discover the next new intimate show and it’s not based purely on talent but also experience.

The mass-market model must evolve or more people will move on. When I say that festivals are dead it is with some hyperbole, but brands are pulling away from festivals as they used to pay promoters large sums of money to effectively piggy back on their data and get access to their consumers. With the advent of social media, brands now have that direct relationship with customers. We are seeing more and more briefs direct from brands to curate and produce their own branded shows.

Many smaller festivals are adapting their models. Wilderness, for example, offers ‘staycations’ and unique price points to suit a range of markets. The experience and offer is evolving, and festivals have to realise they’re competing with family holidays to Cornwall.

People are seeking out new experiences, so companies want to be early adopters of a new trend. When a festival line-up is announced, the impact is decreasing. People know that, for example, Kings of Leon will be there, but all too often they would rather see the band playing at their own show – perhaps at an arena.

Festivals are huge commitment the camping and the travel can put many off. Meanwhile, the AIF produced research that demonstrated that there is a huge demand to see new talent, and going to a festival based on headliner alone is becoming outdated. In fact, only 8.3% of respondents to the AIF’s 2014 Audience Survey cited individual artists or headliners as the main reason they purchased a ticket for an independent festival.

Events and festivals that consider demographics and offer a great customer service will also reap the rewards on social media. One of the best events we’ve seen has been Houghton Festival which has considered the customer, and offers a higher level of production. Everything is now under review and customers are much more savvy. They are very well educated in the festival experience and are knowledgeable on sound through to stage design

How can brands adapt?

Brands are changing to smaller shows, which are more aligned to their brand values. Great brand activations that give an extra or exclusive experience like The Strongbow Tree really enhance an event.

Some brands however, have failed to capture festival audiences. Intel, the chip manufacturer, for example mistakenly assumed that festivalgoers would be interested in their product. Brands have a huge opportunity at festivals but need to design experiences more fitting to the audience.

Innocent’s Un-plugged festival is a good example of an event that is carefully considered from a brand perspective, and breaks new ground. The event encourages attendees to switch off from technology for the duration of the festival.

Are there synergies with what’s happening in the venue sector, where there’s a movement to protect the cultural status of venues? The Agent of Change principle, for example.

You will have read about Ministry of Sound (MOS) vs Oakmayne where there where huge concerns that residents moving in would then complain about noise nuisance and potentially lead to getting MOS’s license brought under review. MOS were successful in fighting back against residents and retaining their licence without additional conditions that would put commercials at risk.

There’s a case to be made for festivals having protected status. Although we have shows that have been a staple for 15+ years, there is a good argument for consistent protective conditions for festivals in parks. Noise nuisance is subjective, but residents should realise that some disruption is part of London’s life and soul. Residents can’t expect complete peace. People choose to live by a park because of all the benefits, but that park has to create revenue too and also be enjoyed by the many. The festival activity that takes place in these parks is vital to our culture.

There is a powerful resident movement pushing hard to restrict events. As neighbourhoods gentrify, more people stand up and add their voices. There have been recent cases across two different boroughs where the local residents have enlisted their own QC to fight against festivals going ahead in their neighbouring parks. These residents groups are now joining forces across boroughs to prevent any such events going ahead.

This backlash is partly due to the Internet making it easier to create a groundswell.

The revenue generated through these festivals can be used to beautify areas, create jobs, and it has great benefits to the nearby pubs, off licenses and local businesses. Also, as we are well aware already in the events industry, there are a huge number of highly skilled and creative livelihoods at risk when events and festivals are cancelled.

Ultimately, hard facts are needed and we can utilise these to persuade councils of the power of festivals and events.

The revenue generated through festivals like Lovebox can be used to beautify areas, create jobs it has great benefits on the nearby pubs, off licenses and local businesses. Also, as we are well aware already in the events industry, there are a huge number of highly skilled and creative livelihoods at risk when events and festivals are cancelled.

Ultimately, hard facts are needed and we can utilise these to persuade councils of the power of festivals and events. AAA