The UK has long had a vibrant independent festival sector, and this year is set to see numerous new offerings launched across the country, but with operators facing unprecedented challenges, Access explores how this season is likely to pan out. 

Since Michael Eavis gave away free milk at the first Glastonbury Festival back in 1970, the UK festival market has evolved into a burgeoning industry that annually contributes around £1.76bn to the economy, supports 85,000 jobs, and is regularly described as “world leading”.

Around 1,000 festivals take place across the UK each year but the vast majority, around 80%, are community-based greenfield events with capacities below 5,000 that often are run on a voluntary basis. The remaining 20%, regarded as the commercial market, is where the money is made.

That 20% consists of around 200 events that range in size from 5,000-capacity shows to giant operations such as the 66,000-capacity Boomtown, 147,000-capacity Glastonbury, Parklife (80,000), Reading (105,000) and Download (85,000).

Despite the UK already boasting so many major festivals and their operators facing no shortage of post-pandemic problems including soaring production costs and crew shortages, it hasn’t stopped a flurry of new festivals being launched this summer (see map on p18).

Among the many newcomers are independents including the 8,000-capacity “music and ideas” festival Kite, while AEG Presents is working with Bristol’s Team Love on the launch of the 60,000-capacity Forwards, and Live Nation is extending its reach by expanding festival brands such as Wireless and Camp Bestival to additional sites this year.

 “I am aware the supply chain was profoundly impacted by the pandemic, as were festival organisers, but there’s a creeping sense of opportunism.” AIF CEO Paul Reed

It’s a hugely competitive sector and one that continues to support well-established and much-loved independent events, not least Glastonbury, End of The Road (15,000), Green Man (25,000) and Boomtown – which all sold out way in advance this year. However, some festival operators have struggled. Among those to have failed to get off the ground in 2022 are the 30,000-capacity Breakout festival in Fife and This is Tomorrow in Newcastle. Promoter Kilimanjaro Live blamed the latter’s demise on rising costs and an oversaturated market.

 Associated benefits

The Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) membership grew significantly during the pandemic to 94 festivals, meaning it currently represents around 45% of all UK festivals with capacities of 5,000 and over.

“I think the pandemic helped a lot of festival organisers realise why associations exist, the support and representation, and how important a collective voice is,” says AIF CEO Paul Reed (pictured).

Throughout the pandemic, Reed was among the key executives lobbying the Government hard for support and initiatives such as reduced VAT on tickets, the inclusion of festivals in the Cultural Recovery Fund distributions, and Government-backed cancellation insurance.

“In terms of Government, media and wider industry, there has never been greater awareness of the festival industry and the independent festival sector,” says Reed. “Our dialogue with Government has continued beyond Covid, they are very interested in what we are working on. It feels like we have a stronger dialogue than ever and if there are specific asks of Government, I think we are in a better position to make them than we were before.”

Counting the cost

Awareness of the importance of the independent festival sector may be at unprecedented heights, but so are running costs. Across the sector, organisers are having to cope with costs being up as much as 40% on previous years, coupled with crew and equipment shortages.

While some independent festival operators were fortunate enough to be able to go ahead last year and raise the ticket prices for this year, 53% of festivals in the commercial market did not go ahead in 2021. For them it means having to budget for 2022 production costs with tickets sold at 2019 prices.

According to an AIF survey, the average cost of staging a festival is more than £6m. It is a high-risk business model at the best of times.

Given the challenges, Reed is understandably concerned by reports that some supply chain operators are looking to take advantage of the situation: “There are hard costs such as transport, materials and people and those costs have to be passed along, but the sense I am getting from members is that there is increased profiteering in the supply chain, and certain parts of the supply chain are taking a short term view of the situation and ramping up prices because they know they can go elsewhere. I am aware the supply chain was profoundly impacted by the pandemic, as were festival organisers, but there’s a creeping sense of opportunism.”

End of the Road managing director Lauren Down (pictured) says the trauma of staging the event with so many supply chain issues last year led to the festival team completely revising the usual workflow pattern for this year’s event.

“Independent festivals have more heart and soul, the people who started them are usually still involved in the decision making.” End of The Road MD Lauren Down.

“We would not normally start working on production elements until the January of the year the festival takes place, but we started working on this year’s festival back in October,” she says.  “Our workflow has changed completely because of supply chain issues.”

Independent festival operators are a resilient bunch, known for their creativity and entrepreneurial spirit. A lot of them staged events within the Covid-19 restrictions to keep the cash flow going during the pandemic. Among them was the 17,000-capacity festival Standon Calling, which took place on 22-25 July last year, just three days after the planned Step 4 of the prime minister’s conditional reopening roadmap on 19 July. Unlike Festival Republic’s Latitude (40,000) and Superstruct Entertainment’s Tramlines (40,000), which took place over the same weekend, Standon Calling did not have the protection of being part of the Government’s Events Research Programme.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, 92% of our members said they feared their business would collapse and thankfully that hasn’t come to pass,” says Reed. “The sector has proven to be incredibly resilient – some had support through the Cultural Recovery Fund, with more than £11m allotted to our members alone.”

In at the deep end 

Despite the pandemic restrictions being behind us, it is an incredibly tough time for new festival operators to enter the market.

“Anyone launching a new festival that thinks there’s a real opportunity there is in for a challenge,” says Reed. “The margins for most of our members are usually less than 10%, and this year you’re looking at costs increasing by between 20% and 30%.”

At the Association of Festival Organisers, which primarily represents the smaller local festivals, its general secretary Steve Heap has decades of experience as an independent festival promoter having been the director of Towersey Festival (5,000) for 45 years.

Heap says he is not surprised to see so many new festivals launch this year: “There has always been that desire to have a crack at running a festival – some of them come and go in one year, and others announce and never get off the ground. For every one that drops out or cancels, another two pop up.”

Neapolitan Music MD Ciro Romano (pictured) says ticket sales for the inaugural Kite festival are as predicted, considering it is a first-time event. He expects the Oxfordshire event to mirror what the promoter has achieved with its 23,000-capacity Love Supreme Jazz Festival in East Sussex. Launched in 2013 with a capacity of 5,000, the event is on track to sell out this year.

“Love Supreme’s sales are very strong. Festivals with a loyal fanbase are doing well but anything new is struggling a little bit,” says Romano. “Kite’s sales are as expected but we have definitely pushed the tickets uphill. Anything new is tough.”

He believes that Kite’s unusual blend of music and a strong focus on discussions and debate will stand it in good stead: “You need a strong focus and an event that is distinct from the rest of the market.”

According to Heap, selling the first 50% of a festival’s tickets is the easy bit, it is the remainder that can prove challenging: “The next 25% tend to sell steadily to a loyal audience and followers of whoever’s is due to be on stage but the real hard sell is the last 25%, for that you have to be different and special.”

Romano says that while recent years have seen the Love Supreme Jazz Festival sells an increasing number of “super early bird” tickets each year before the line-up is announced, the bill is as important as ever and being an independent presents its own challenges: “You have to be a lot more creative because you have a limited budget. It is a combination of driving hard bargains and making sure all the genre elements of the festival are taken care of.”

Down says that the market is being driven by major players that can afford to pay “massively” over the odds for artists, which prices artists out of the reach of many independents.

Exclusivity deals and radius clauses also limit the availability of artists to independent festivals. While those contractual clauses make sense to prevent nearby festivals booking the same headliners, Reed is concerned that the deals are increasingly involving artists who are low down on festival line-ups.

“The problem is when those deals are at the level where they impact smaller artists who are not getting large fees,” he says. “That’s stifling competition for the festivals and the talent. Some pretty small, community-focused, independent festivals are having exclusivity slapped on them.

“I’ve also seen examples where a deal has been done with an independent festival and they are getting ready to announce the line-up when the agent has come back and reneged on it. That’s incredibly unhelpful, not least given the challenges that we have all faced over the past couple of years.”

Independent spirit 

For all the challenges of running an independent festival, not least during the past couple of years, Down says she wouldn’t have it any other way: “As an independent festival, End of the Road is not replicable by the majors because it is all driven by a fan-first attitude. It is a cottage industry, there are small teams creating a unique feel. Many people want to come to the event because of the look and feel, the atmosphere – that’s why we can sell tickets before the line-up is announced.

“Independents have more heart and soul, the people who started them are usually still involved in the decision-making. There are loads of passionate and skilled people involved in larger events but there is less red tape and a smaller chain of command with independents, which does mean we can be nimbler and freer to make changes.”

While independent festival operators focus on their individual events this summer, the AIF has three sector-spanning priorities: audience welfare, climate action and DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion).

The organisation is involved in the development of a cross-industry green code, and is appealing to Government to reconsider the removal of rebates on biofuel.

It also recently launched a revived Safer Spaces campaign, which has seen more than 100 festivals sign up. It is designed to tackle sexual violence at festivals, and involves an updated charter of best practice alongside a new awareness and education campaign.

On diversity, Reed says, “We are hugely focused on it across the organisation itself and its membership.”

Looking ahead, the AIF CEO says that while 2022 is not quite proving to be the bounce-back year that many people hoped and expected it would be, the long-term outlook for the independent festival sector is extremely positive.

He says, “The sector is in a really strong place but people are looking towards next year as the reset year.”

This article was published in the latest edition of Access All Areas magazine  – subscribe for free here