Festivals deserve state support to help us all enjoy British summertime


At the end of July I plan to be in a field with 15,000 other people, watching my first live band in more than a year as the sun goes down behind the Hertfordshire hills.

What I don’t know yet is whether I will need to be standing two metres from my nearest festival goer; if we will be wearing masks; and whether the hand sanitiser, normally a must given the state of the loos, will need to be used much more liberally.

But the biggest uncertainty is whether the event will go ahead at all, as the UK eases its way out of lockdown still hampered by health fears such as the threat of new covid variants.

This is the risk that could mean financial ruin for event organisers. While rightly keeping tight reins on any premature rush for a roaring ’20s post-pandemic return to normal life, officials have also left British businesses not knowing whether they can safely book music festivals or host large events such as weddings.

There is a wider problem of course. Many businesses are flying blind as summer approaches, be it in the travel industry, where no one is sure whether they can offer overseas holidays, or office employers, facing the prospect that by the end of May they still might not know whether their staff can return.

But events bookers are facing a particularly sharp cliff edge in coming weeks as the need to cover upfront costs for artists and infrastructure approaches. 

Already many events are being forced to cancel for the second year. Last week organisers said the Royal International Air Tattoo would not go ahead as the threat of having to cancel nearer the time was “too big a risk to take”.

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More are expected to follow in the coming weeks. According to the Association of Independent Festivals, close to a tenth of costs of a summer event need to covered by the end of March — rising to a fifth by April.

About 40 per cent of costs will typically need to be paid by June 14, the date for step four of the government’s reopening road map that will decide whether events can go ahead.

A festival of 20,000 people — a midsized event for the UK — costs a total of more than £2.3m to host. The biggest expense is booking the talent — typically up to £600,000, depending on the artist — with about a quarter of that needing to be paid in deposits by June. But many festival organisers are small teams of people who live on thin margins and have little cash in the bank, which means that they cannot shoulder lost costs. 

The demand is certainly there — some festivals are sold out — but organisers cannot draw down ticketing revenue set aside to refund customers if necessary.

The loss of British summer festivals would not be without economic cost. Festivals generate about £1.8bn in gross economic value, according to an industry report last year, while live entertainment and theatre as a whole makes £11.2bn. The live events sector supports more than 600,000 jobs, ranging from the artists on stage to temporary bar staff.

Given this uncertainty, insurance has become the key battle for organisers. Having been stung into large payouts linked to covid business interruption, insurers are simply not offering industry cancellation cover in case the government forbids large gatherings of people.

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But more than 90 per cent of AIF members said that they would not stage events without insurance.

The industry needs the government to step in as the insurer of last resort. Similar schemes have been launched in Germany, Austria, Norway and the Netherlands, while there is precedent for the UK government in a similar £500m ‘restart’ scheme for film and TV productions. 

Industry figures say that officials at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport are sympathetic but also defer to the Treasury for such spending decisions. The Treasury, meanwhile, is loath to spend more money on covid help.

But if health issues can be resolved, a government backstop feels like value for money, saving jobs and generating revenues for an important part of the summer economy. Moreover, it will help kick off what should be a much needed chance to enjoy some freedoms after a year spent in and out of lockdowns.

Festivals need to be made safe. There is a good argument for covid testing and vaccination — guests should show certification alongside their wristbands. But without government cover, this may not even be an option for those willing to stand shoulder to shoulder again with other music lovers.

daniel.thomas@ft.com



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