The vast majority of British music festivals will disappear if faced with a second consecutive barren year, according to evidence given at a parliamentary inquiry into their post-pandemic survival.
Following a live music action plan published on Tuesday by industry body UK Music, the cross-party Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee inquiry heard a plea from the sector for the government to offer its own insurance scheme to protect festivals from bankruptcy, as the new pandemic lockdown harms consumer confidence ahead of the summer season.
Industry witnesses also asked the government to confirm an indicative date when it anticipated mass gatherings would be possible, to help assess viability for 2021 festivals. “The public target from ministers is 2m vaccines a week,” said Jamie Njoku-Goodwin, chief executive at UK Music. “If you have that information you should be able to calculate some kind of roadmap.”
A smaller festival season was “inevitable” in 2021, said Anna Wade, director of communications and strategy for Hampshire’s Boomtown, but possible with government support along with vaccination and continued mass testing.
A government-backed insurance scheme was the “most critical factor” regarding the planning of festivals, said Paul Reed, chief executive at the Association of Independent Festivals. Event organisers are operating on the understanding that commercial insurance for Covid 19-related cancellations is unlikely to exist until 2022, he said.
Reed outlined to MPs a potential scenario this year whereby festivals cancel “early and en masse” owing to a lack of insurance, yet public health “drastically improves” over the spring, generating “a certain level of confidence” in festivals taking place – resulting in demand without supply.
A government-backed insurance scheme would benefit supply chains, local economies, and British taxpayers, MPs were told. Festivals bring £1.76bn in value to the British economy each year, supporting 85,000 jobs.
“The UK has the biggest festival market globally,” said Sacha Lord, co-creator of Parklife and the Warehouse Project, and night-time economy adviser for Greater Manchester. “We’re proud of that. Music’s one of our biggest exports. If we don’t take place in 2021, I think the vast majority will disappear.”
In 2019, music tourism generated £4.7bn of spending nationwide, a future total that might be threatened if the UK government does not introduce insurance schemes equivalent to those implemented in Germany and Austria, said Njoku-Goodwin. “We really don’t want to be putting our festival circuit at a competitive disadvantage.”
An extended furlough scheme would also aid the freelance workers essential to the festival industry, the inquiry was told. Out-of-work contractors forced to redeploy their skills in different industries could have a “catastrophic” effect on the festival sector, said Wade.
Lord called for an extension of business rates relief and an industry-specific extension to the furlough scheme, as well as a three-year extension of the reduced 5% VAT rate on admission charges.
Already narrow financial margins mean it is not viable for most festivals to run at reduced capacity in order to facilitate social distancing, the meeting heard. Wade called for the government to support technological advancement in mass testing to enable pre-entry checks on festivalgoers, and said the cost of such testing would need to be split between the festival, the consumer and government.
It was down to festivals to plan for potential future pandemics, said Njoku-Goodwin. “Locking down the whole sector again is not really tenable. We want to be clear that we have capacities and systems in place so we can operate safely but also viably through it.”
The panel also addressed the impact of Brexit and government inability to procure an agreement for culture workers moving between the UK and the EU. Heightened visa fees would be unlikely to affect headline acts, said Lord. “But that headliner has not become a star overnight,” he continued, describing the new costs for touring artists as “a big, big red tape that might stagnate new talent coming through”.
Njoku-Goodwin questioned why so much of the debate around the UK’s Brexit deal had concerned fishing, a £1.4bn industry, and not the £5.8bn music industry. UK Music had urged the government to make the matter of touring a priority in supplementary agreements with the EU, he said, describing it as a “critical” issue for the British music industry and the future of the festival sector, “which depends so much not just on European talent but also on UK musicians being able to go to Europe and bring back that experience and fanbase”.
The inquiry concluded that the low rate of application from festivals to the government’s £1.57bn culture recovery fund was a result of the £50,000 threshold excluding smaller events that did not require such sums, and pledged to raise the issue of lowering it. Supporting smaller UK festivals was key to ensuring a competitive sector, consumer affordability and cultural diversity, the committee said.
“Once we get beyond this, there is going to be an incredible appetite for these festivals,” said Reed.