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Credit: Khris Cowley

Fields of dreams: how do we save the UK festival sector?

The UK festival landscape is in crisis, with over 40 events cancelled ahead of this year’s season according to recent figures from the Association of Independent Festivals. Amidst the insurmountable rise in the price of production, and the ongoing cost of living crisis, how are organisers and punters feeling about the current situation? What has caused it? And what solutions are being considered that will help us save the sector?

“We went as far as three weeks before the gig, then made the decision [to cancel],” says Dave Clarke, co-director of Glasgow’s Riverside Festival. “We were trying to get things moving a little faster, but in reality, it was too big a gamble. There was too much at stake.”

Clarke – not to be confused with the DJ of the same name – has been promoting events for 35 years, including the decade-spanning Return to Mono alongside local legends Slam. With Mark McKechnie, he’s spent the past decade upholding Riverside’s status as a key event in Scotland’s dance music calendar. At the end of May, the likes of TSHA, Eliza Rose, Josey Rebelle, Reinier Zonneveld, TAAHLIAH and LF System were all scheduled to play the two-dayer. In the end, nobody did. 

On 3rd May, the festival’s organisers announced that this year’s edition would not go ahead as planned, citing “lower-than-expected sales and increased infrastructure, staff, transport, and artist costs”. “In an over-saturated event landscape, we could not deliver the festival to our usual high standards,” their statement continued.

Riverside is just one example among many in what is a rapidly escalating crisis in the UK festival sector. According to a recent report from the Association of Independent Festivals, since 2019, the UK has lost 177 such events — one-fifth of the total number. 36 ceased operating last year. By mid-June 2024, another 45 had cancelled, postponed or permanently dissolved ahead of the summer season. More are expected to follow in the coming months, and with that, the threat of jobs lost, livelihoods jeopardised, debt, anxiety and disbanded communities looms. 

This week, DJ Mag will celebrate the global festival scene with its annual, publicly voted Top 100 Festivals poll. But while  it’s never felt more important or timely to shine a light on all that festivals both large and small bring to our lives through their celebration of music, dancing and togetherness, it’s equally crucial that we pay heed to the warnings around us: the festival bubble is, in many places, on the verge of bursting. As we head into the UK’s summer festival season, how are organisers and punters feeling about the current situation? What has caused it? And what solutions are being considered that will help us save the sector?

On the left, a photo of Dave clarke from Riverside festival. On the right, a photo of the festival's main stage
Credit: Tim Craig

“It was a tough decision to cancel,” says Clarke. “Not only does it affect so many other people, but you’ve put your heart and soul into it, and lots of time and effort, probably from the end of the last festival... We were 10-years-old the previous year, so we’ve had lots of different experiences. Generally, apart from Covid, each time we’ve done two days, one sold out, one’s been more of a struggle.” 

When Riverside’s postponement was announced, around 80% of its 10,000 tickets had sold, just under a month in advance. A significant proportion of what remained would have gone before gates opened, but even these small percentages equate to more money than most promoters can risk or front. “I get the idea of me working hard and basically coming out with nothing, but when it’s people you’ve known for years and they’ve trusted you, it’s a nasty thing to come close to,” says Clarke of how such risks can ultimately leave whole festival teams out of pocket after the work is done. “We’ve had to let people down by saying, ‘we don’t have any work for you now’, but at least we didn’t have people do the work and then it all go wrong.” 

Clarke says his crew are “still standing”, but undoing a festival is “almost as much work” as doing one. Limited reserves have been exhausted in settling up, even with some partners and suppliers carrying deposits over for the event’s planned return in 2025, and a few artists reducing fees. Ticket holders were reimbursed upon Riverside’s postponement too, an ethical imperative for a guy who doesn’t want to “be indebted to the people who are the lifeblood of the scene.”

While Clarke explains that he and the Riverside team have received plenty of support and encouragement from their community of punters, some have been less understanding of their decision to cancel. “We’ve had a lot of people saying some nasty stuff,” he says. “‘Your line-up was shady’; ‘I’m glad it’s cancelled’; ‘Coward’. Coward for cancelling – what does that even mean?”

Determined to press on, Riverside are in a lucky position to host a smaller scale, one-day event on Saturday 31st August featuring the likes of Skin on Skin, KETTAMA, La La, Hayley Zalassi and Dija, planned before the cancellation, and intend on returning in full next year. “Without our experience, it could have been a lot worse,” says Clarke. “We kind of knew the point of no return... A lot of promoters get to a point where they’ve already spent the ticket money.”

Hugo Kibasi, director of Eye Of the Storm Events

“For some businesses, it makes life very difficult. For others, it’s catastrophic. By not going ahead, entire business models collapse for many.” – Hugo Kibasi

Like Clarke, Hugo Kibasi understands this fraught landscape. The co-founder of Nottingham’s Detonate festival, which postponed its 2023 edition due to rising costs, is also the director of Eye Of the Storm Events, an “event production company specialising in festivals, outdoor events and large performance venues”. 

Established in 2012, the firm works on all aspects of production with major festivals across the UK and internationally. As he sees it, the “roaring boom” in events that occurred immediately after the pandemic “was quite hollow”. Why? Festivals returned to a new economic era, and after an initial burst of excitement, came a whole new world of challenges and price hikes.

Hard infrastructure and equipment suppliers, having shouldered vast amounts of capital with zero income for two years, became stricter with their terms. What would have once been a 20% deposit for infrastructure became 60% or, in certain cases, 100%, with all balances requiring settlement faster than tickets can be sold. Add to that the fact that punters are increasingly likely to decide what events to attend just weeks before they take place — a trend that industry analysis shows has become particularly common in electronic music – and the process of putting on a festival can feel like throwing cash into the wind and praying it comes back.

Contracts for essentials like toilets and fencing have become especially unforgiving. “If some companies aren’t renting to you, they’re renting to rail projects like HS2, construction sites, film productions, whatever,” Kibasi explains. “Nobody’s sticking a 60-metre video screen on the motorway, but they might want 30 portacabins... From my perspective, I’ve had several clients cancel or postpone festivals, and that puts pressure on me and my business to replace revenue to support the people I employ.” 

And while the rising costs of putting on a festival in the first place are one thing, the cost of cancelling is, inevitably, greater still.“For some businesses, it makes life very difficult. For others, it’s catastrophic,” says Kibasi. “By not going ahead, entire business models collapse for many.” 

Sarah Spurgeon, freelance operations and events manager

Staffing and associated costs are also becoming a major strain in the festival sector. Kibasi explains the pandemic catalysed many career changes, including his former business partner, who’s now a town planner. He says the UK’s events workforce – “universally lauded as being the best in the world in terms of health, safety, crowd management” – is yet to fully recover. Many who left the industry during Covid are unlikely to return given current conditions, he says.

Sarah Spurgeon, a freelance operations and event manager who has worked with Balter Festival, Noisily and Boomtown during her 15 year career, recognises this too. She's heard of “big festivals that lost most of their management team” to retraining and rising costs, and says some parts of the sector are relying more on untrained or unpaid workers; teams have downsized or been cut altogether. Among those who remain, pressure is intensifying.

“A lot of people are not OK,” she says. “Subjects like suicide aren’t really talked about; mental health awareness is becoming better but I don’t think some organisations are doing a good job at addressing it. Mental health among festival workers is an issue, especially when a lot are transient, so they’re quite isolated. Loads of people that work festivals don't have a home, they live in caravans, they live in vans.

“There are guidelines for pay in the industry, but I think more are not getting those rates than are. You can say £250 a day for a mid-level position is reasonable, but if that’s 14 - 16 hour shifts, taking on risk, it’s not enough,” she continues. “If people aren’t paid properly, is it a viable model? Should you be running the event in the first place? I’m super passionate about independent festivals, but it’s really difficult. If you’re having a really bad year, potentially making no money – some don’t – are you asking people to work for less? Can you justify that? At what cost?”

Film photos captured at Above Below festival
Credit: Izzy Wylie, Jack Maltby

In 2018, Dan Peplow and some friends threw a 300-capacity outdoor party on private land in the Chiltern Hills. Building on that idea, they launched Above Below in 2021. This month, the electronic music festival’s third edition was a three-day, triple-stage throwdown for around 700 people, set in a picturesque valley with chalk streams and art installations. Selling out one month in advance, its survival relies on 35 friends donating their time and energy, and 90 volunteers drafted in exchange for tickets. 

“Everyone’s involvement is different at different points in the year. We are essentially all a group of friends who grew up in the area,” Peplow says, explaining that, between them, the festival’s crew have the skills to cover most roles, including site build and design, which all helps in saving costs. All well and good, but are wages possible with a set-up like this? “It would be a huge struggle,” Peplow admits. “I think viability would start to be questioned at that point. We want to keep ticket prices low, but still have amazing production. I think unless you start scaling up and increasing prices, it becomes very difficult.” 

Peplow works for Brixton Brewery, a former independent now owned by Heineken. Traditionally, alcohol brands are an essential revenue stream for festivals, paying for exclusivity and product placements on site. However, as Peplow explains, “there’s nowhere near as much money to work with festivals” post-pandemic. In response, he’s established a fund for independent festivals at the company. “It’s not huge amounts of money, more an initiative to support small festivals with organisation,” he says, confirming they’ve now collaborated with several 500 capacity events. 

“It’s about prioritising the price of beer, having honest conversations with organisers about what they're prepared to pay, what they could get elsewhere,” he explains. “Can we help with tech services and setting up some lines? Is there anything you want to focus on from a sustainability angle? A workshop angle? Helping them do things they perhaps wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.”

Field Maneuvers

“Post-pandemic, the most challenging aspect for us has been maintaining an accessible ticket price in the face of a cost of living crisis and stagnating wages across many sectors. Since the pandemic, we’ve been running an access ticket scheme for those facing hardships.” – Leon Cole, co-founder of Field Maneuvers

Around a decade ago, Leon Cole and friends were at a similar level to Above Below. Today, Field Maneuvers is one of the UK’s most respected and beloved boutique electronic music festivals. After more than ten years, 2024 will be the last edition in its current format. Several factors have contributed to this, including economics. 

“While it’s always hard moving away from things you love, it feels like a total no-brainer to work to make the event more sustainable and fun for the future, so we can be confident in continuing to throw this party that we care so much about,” says Cole. “We’re still going through planning for 2025 onwards, so I can’t say in any concrete way what changes we will make. But being a small event that operates with many of the costs of a larger event isn’t a market position that’s sensible. 

“Having grown organically from 300 capacity, edging a little bigger every year, we’ve got a lot of things about us that are essentially scaled-up from a totally different event. This re-think is going to give us an opportunity to create an updated event that reflects what we’ve learned since 2013,” he continues. “Post-pandemic, the most challenging aspect for us has been maintaining an accessible ticket price in the face of a cost of living crisis and stagnating wages across many sectors. Since the pandemic, we’ve been running an access ticket scheme for those facing hardships.”

Although admirable, this has “cost a fair amount of revenue”, and Cole suggests that shifting trends have created a very different landscape for festivals, particularly electronic music events. Broadly speaking, line-ups are “less bound to specific genres”, which he welcomes. With dance music returning to mainstream prominence, many people want a weekender “which deviates from the traditional format” by emphasising community, rather than commercialism. Moving forward, events both large and small will need to consider what added incentives and unique experiences they can offer beyond headliners to ensure the repeat attendance needed for viability and sustained success.

We Out Here

"We have a very loyal audience.... However, like many festivals, the success of hitting your ticket target or selling out is rewarded with financial survival not profitability. We recognise the importance of offering our audience as special an experience as possible." – Joe Barnett, co-founder of We Out Here

We Out Here is an 18,000 capacity example of just that. Programming runs from headsy 2AM club stuff to live jazz, funk and soul. Event co-founder Joe Barnett, who was also pivotal in establishing Outlook and Dimensions, says the team have “doubled down” on their commitment to making the gathering unique. “We have a very loyal audience.... However, like many festivals, the success of hitting your ticket target or selling out is rewarded with financial survival not profitability,” he says. "We recognise the importance of offering our audience as special an experience as possible, trying to include as much as we can for people to engage with while at the event, within the ticket price.” 

Here stands “the elephant in the room”, Barnett continues. “The reality is, while many people are choosing to attend one festival, they used to go to two. We are also seeing more and more sections of society that can no longer afford one event, when they previously could. No matter how much promoters try to keep it affordable, increases in costs will be passed on to the customer to a degree.”

“We are facing a growing crisis of culture, specifically festivals, becoming inaccessible and unaffordable to those on lower incomes. This, of course, is not a novel challenge, but it’s one that’s becoming more and more severe,” he continues. “The last three years have been very difficult for a number of sections of society, but the financial impact on 18-22-year-olds has been felt strongly within festivals.” 

We Out Here has taken a number of steps to try and overcome this — more ticketing through social enterprises, a scheme for people on government Cost of Living Payments, discounted on-site meals. Box office sales for the festival remain strong, thanks in part to its diverse audience: “18 years, 25 years, 35-year-olds with newborns, 50-year-olds with teens in tow”.

We Out Here
Credit: Amy Fern

Each story is as unique as the voices telling them, but everyone in this sector is united in working to find new ways of overcoming the challenges. For Clarke, more transparent conversations with artist agents and suppliers, and finding a fairer middle ground on costs, is a priority. Kibasi believes more honesty with the public about profit margins will also help, asking, rhetorically, what people would say about pricing if they could see where their money actually went. 

Sturgeon suggests more collaboration, sharing equipment, learnings, and creative elements. Secret Garden Party, an event she’s worked with extensively, wants to facilitate this, inviting smaller events to use its site following extensive infrastructure investment. Taking place at a location in which roots can take hold, it’s another revenue stream for one of Britain's leading independent events. 

SGP’s bookers are also swerving huge acts in favour of grassroots talent. Spearheaded by the Chai Wallahs stage team, the Drop A Headliner initiative dares to ask punters if they’d rather see a small number of big names – at a cost of up to £150,000, roughly £2,500 per minute – or have that money redistributed to let them see up 222 acts at the same price, providing a combined 266 hours of entertainment. We’ll know next month how the risk pays off. 

Elsewhere, Peplow is part of the Independent Festival Network, where promoters can source, or offer out, equipment, knowledge and more. Everyone we speak to agrees that a three-year VAT reduction on tickets, from 20 to 5%, could be a lifeline. Most emphasise this must be a limited offer, targeted where it’s most needed. Giants like Live Nation — involved in 30% of all UK festivals with an annual global turnover of $3.8 billion — need not apply. 

Whether the Association of Independent Festivals can succeed with its tax break campaign is anyone’s guess, but CEO John Rostron says the government is listening, and understands an industry worth close to £5 billion, employing tens of thousands of people, cannot function when the average event cancellation comes down to ticket sales falling by just 5%. 

"The speed of festival casualties in 2024 shows no sign of slowing,” he said in a recent statement. “We are witnessing the steady erosion of one of the UK’s most successful and culturally significant industries not because of a lack of demand from the public but because of unpredictable, unsustainable supply chain costs and market fluctuations. In asking for a temporary reduction in VAT related to ticket sales, we have provided the Government with a considered, targeted and sensible solution, which would save this important sector. We need action now.”

When we speak to him, he points to the Supporting Grassroots Music fund as an early fruit of ongoing conversations with the UK government. The scheme remains open for events in 2025, but demand outstrips supply, and if Covid-19 taught us anything, it’s that navigating the box-ticking and paperwork required to evidence eligibility and legitimacy for such things can present its own challenges.

Faced with all this, we need to ask what it is we want to see: a festival culture with room for diversity, creativity and uniqueness that encourages varied participation? Or one that undervalues individuality, and out-prices many of its most integral individuals – promoters and punters alike? Tragically, the question reflects wider issues beyond parties and music. Today, society’s haves really have, and the have-nots increasingly do not. As we consider how enormous the gap between these worlds has become, Clarke’s words echo in our mind: “The way football’s gone [with money], I could see that happening to electronic music festivals.” 

It may seem like a bleak vision for the future of festivals, but organisers and attendees alike still have a chance of averting this through bold new ideas, collectivism and support for these events and all they contribute to our lives.

Find out more information and donate to the 5% For Festivals campaign here