How coronavirus silenced the music festival industry

Jun 08, 2020

6 mins

How coronavirus silenced the music festival industry
Lenka Hudáková

Multilingual journalist

“Dear party animals, we won’t dance together in 2020.” This is how several festival cancellation statements opened. The coronavirus has wiped hundreds of music festivals off the calendar across Europe, upending the lives of permanent and seasonal workers in a fragile industry. From Britain to Slovakia, via France and the Netherlands, we ask professionals in the festival industry how they are coping—and how they see the future of the live music sector.

Had it not been for the coronavirus, preparations for the 50th anniversary year of Glastonbury festival would have been moving to the final sprint, with Pauline Bourdon at the heart of the action, overseeing more than 200 shows. For the past six years, Bourdon, a freelancer based in Bristol, has managed artist logistics for Glastonbury’s Silver Hayes area, where she oversees more than 200 shows, from booking to stage, at the famous Somerset festival that traditionally runs at the end of June.

The pandemic has obliterated the 2020 festival season—it’s predicted that 90% of independent festivals in the UK won’t take place this year. This comes as a crushing blow after such a successful 2019, when more than a quarter (26%) of UK adults went to a festival, and attendance levels were at their highest in four years.

“I lost four months of work within three hours”

Glastonbury is Bourdon’s most important full-time contract, starting in March and ending in June. “It was a very sad moment, when it got canceled I cried,” she said.

Glastonbury was one of the first major UK summer festivals to cancel its 2020 event, disappointing 135,000 ticket holders on March 18. Losses are expected to run as high as £100million. The decision came only four days after the festival announced Paul McCartney and Taylor Swift among its 2020 acts.

“First Glastonbury canceled, then two other festivals in May. Within three hours on the same day, I lost four months of full-time work,” said Bourdon. “I’ve now lost my other contracts all the way until September. Ultimately, I have gone from being full-time employed to unemployed.”

A long string of cancellations followed, including the week-long festivals of Roskilde in Denmark and Sziget in Hungary. As European nations went into lockdown, reality dawned on the festival industry: even if large-scale events were allowed from September onwards, spending several weeks with crew on site would be impossible in the months to come.

An existential threat for invisible workers

“It was abrupt to see our industry and way of life disappear overnight,” said Bourdon, who felt the loss intensely alongside thousands of behind-the-scenes workers who are essential for organizing large-scale live music events.

Freelancers and small companies that specialize in the festival business are among the hardest hit. All their income has disappeared, which leaves them dependent on financial aid. Bourdon is eligible for the UK Self-employed Income Support Scheme, but she doesn’t believe that the system reflects how freelancers in this particular industry earn a living. “The grant is based on my average income over the past three years excluding expenses—which are a big part of a freelancer’s income. There is a huge gap between the reality of our situation and the government help put in place,” she said.

“All the companies that festival organizations have long-term relationships with might collapse, from toilet providers to electrical contractors. I wonder who is going to be left in 2021 and how are they going to price their services? It’s going to take years for the festival industry to fully recover.”

The Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) echoes her concern. Without decisive government action, the AIF has warned that the UK could become an “independent festival wasteland” and lose over half of its workforce between September 2020 and February 2021.

There’s no manual on how to handle a Covid cancellation

In the Netherlands, the pandemic forced the last-minute cancellation of Paaspop, which usually takes place in Schijndel at Easter. Dominique Versteegen is marketing director at Event Warehouse, which organizes Paaspop. She said, “Paaspop was the first big outdoor festival in the Netherlands that had to be canceled. Because of the unique situation, there was no manual or example of how to handle the cancellation. The media, industry colleagues, and festival-goers were watching us closely. Luckily, we have a fantastic PR agent—we were keeping each other posted 24/7, and decided together on statements and press releases.”

Versteegen is just as busy as normal, but her tasks are completely different. “Normally we start building Paaspop around six weeks before Easter. Those weeks are extremely busy, we are doing everything we can to sell those last tickets—a sold-out festival is awesome for everybody. This year, we were working hard to create a smooth cancellation and aftermath, for visitors but also for our partners and suppliers,” said Versteegen.

Loss of a creative community

Festival organizations employ thousands of seasonal workers for whom festivals might represent a temporary income with perks. Juraj Petrik, a Ph.D. student, first took a summer job at Slovakia’s biggest summer festival, Pohoda, in 2011. He then created ECOmenius, a scheme that recruits volunteers for separating waste, and now also manages seasonal workers responsible for cleaning sanitary facilities.

“Cleaning toilets is kind of a legendary summer job at Pohoda. Lots of students—whether they’re studying law, architecture, dentistry—come back several years in a row. I saw many sad and nostalgic messages on social media on the day Pohoda got canceled,” said Petrik.

Petrik won’t be looking elsewhere for work. “What I have noticed about Pohoda is the strong emotional bond that it has managed to create with both staff members and contractors. The majority of people involved don’t look at the financial side—they would sacrifice the money if only the festival could take place,” he says of the creative community behind the festival.

The way forward

Coronavirus restrictions as a boost to creativity

In a bid to cushion the blow, several festivals, such as Amsterdam’s electro festival DGTL, quickly converted themselves into living-room weekenders, with live sets streamed from rooftops, beaches, and the homes of DJs.

Sarah Chayantz is creative director at We Love Art, which co-produces the French We Love Green festival. She is working on a digital version of the Paris event, which was due to take place in early June with a line-up including Lana Del Rey, London Grammar, and Four Tet. Chayantz is keeping positive: she believes crises can inspire creativity.

“The crisis has pushed me to go out of my area of expertise, which is design and scenography, to try to reinvent digital experiences alongside our communications team,” she said. “We don’t know when we’ll be able to organize large-scale events again. But I have always believed that constraints boost creativity—only if you work under a constraint can you surpass your expectations.”

“This has allowed us to take a step back from our work, re-evaluate what’s really important and see how we’ll be able to respond to all the challenges that the future will bring.”

Towards a more sustainable festival industry?

Festival organizations have been grappling with their environmental impact for years. According to a report in 2018, UK festivals are responsible for 100,000 tonnes of carbon emissions and 23,500 tonnes of waste a year.

Najma Souroque, sustainability project manager at We Love Green, says the crisis has finally kick-started the Green Europe Experience. “The fact that this project has come to see the light of day proves just how important ecology and sustainable development are, since biodiversity is at the core of what’s happening,” said Souroque.

This three-year project brings together four European festivals and two NGOs to “build tomorrow’s festival” by testing new production methods that can minimize ecological impact in scenography and food production. “The idea is to use salvaged materials to create artwork and decor. We also want to work with modulable artworks, which can be transformed from one year to another,” said Souroque.

“The second year will be dedicated to food. The idea is to work with unsold food and groceries and put compost in place—food waste is also a resource.”

Festivals make incredible laboratories

Back in Bristol, Bourdon is thinking along the same lines. “Festivals are incredible labs to test new ideas,” she said. “If you can make things work at a festival, ultimately it can work in a city on a bigger scale. It would be great to see the music industry change and rethink the system.”

Bourdon has been using her unusually quiet time at home to complete her Greener Festival Assessor training. She is particularly interested in artists’ logistics.“Even if the live music industry reopens, tours will have to be local. Artists won’t be able to tour the globe because all the flights won’t be available or the borders won’t be open everywhere—and we can’t put artists in quarantine for two weeks.”

If the crisis brought a fast-paced, global industry to a standstill, it certainly hasn’t stifled our craving for live music. In a recent study, 82% of 110,000 festival-goers surveyed said they were ready to buy tickets to next year’s festivals within the next two months. Uncertain as these times are, revelers seem adamant that they’re not going to miss out in 2021.

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