Tuesday, 15 July 2008

The Future Of UK Festivals

With this summers festival season now well and truly underway, Breaking More Waves asks “What sort of health is the UK Festival market in, and what will the future hold for this market ?”

There is no doubt that smaller capacity, specialist festivals that offer a more relaxed vibe have grown significantly in their numbers over the last few years. Fed up with trawling miles through the squelching sticky mud of Glastonbury, the stifling corporate feel of V, or the chaos and anarchy of Reading, many punters have looked for alternatives. The growth in the live music industry has lead to the birth and development of the Boutique festival. Smaller and intimate, often with a specialist slant to either the music or other attractions, many commentators have said that these festivals are the festivals of the future.

Some of these festivals such as my own personal favourite, Bestival, have grown from strength to strength. Based on the desire to have as much fun as possible in one weekend, Bestival can be described as a cheeky upstart of a festival, with possibly the coolest line up besides the inside of your fridge. It has gone from a poorly attended windswept party which I was lucky enough to attend in the Isle Of Wight back in 2004 to a record sell out 30,000 event this year. It now even has its own 10,000 capacity little sister festival Camp Bestival in the grounds of Lulworth Castle. The interviews here with Bestival head honcho Rob Da Bank gives just a small feel of what Bestival is all about.

Rob Da Bank Interview

Other smaller Festivals are also excelling. Secret Garden Party sells out nearly every year, the 5,000 capacity End Of The Road Festival is winning many plaudits for its laid back vibe and quality of lesser known music, and this year 2,000 Trees Festival sold all 2,000 tickets with very little publicity and no big name headliners.

Yet for all these winners there have been quite a few losers. 2008 has not been kind to every Boutique Festival. Over 20 Festivals have been cancelled, including the well established Blissfields together with the newer Redfest and Wild In The Country. All have been cancelled due to poor ticket sales. There have also been several festivals that have failed to deliver what they promised, most notably a new festival in Kent called Zoo8, which was labelled shambolic by those who attended, with many bands pulling out, woefully inadequate toilet and camping facilities and massive queues even to get in to the festival. One suspects that this one will not return next year.

So the question is, what is the reason for all of these cancellations ? Has the UK festival market reached saturation point ? Are there simply too many festivals out there ? Is the economic slowdown affecting peoples spending power ? Are people being put off by the wet and muddy conditions that so many of last years festivals seemed to suffer from? The answer I guess is probably all of these, but for each festival it’s a different combination.

Whilst some Boutique festivals go from strength to strength, some will fall by the wayside. Over the next few years it is likely that we will see less new festivals enter the market and there will be a stabilisation of existing events. Punters will develop brand affiliation preferring to return to the same festival year after year once they have found one that suits them, until their demographic status changes, through getting older or having children for example.

However one thing that seems to guarantee ticket sales is the musical safety of big name headliners that the public are familiar with. The buying power of the big corporates such as Reading, V and T in the Park can bring in the big guns such as Muse, Metallica and The Killers, and through financial clout persuade these bands to sign exclusivity contracts, not allowing them to play any other festivals in the UK that year. Even Glastonbury this year found it difficult to sell out, and much of this was attributed to the booking of the 3 headliners Kings Of Leon, Jay-Z and The Verve which were not deemed in many circles to be big enough to headline.

It is highly unlikely that in the near future any of the big 4 of Glastonbury, Reading, V and T in the Park will go under. They are too well established and have significant power. But the future for many other smaller festivals remains uncertain. It is for this reason that The Association of Independent Music have announced the launch of the Association of Independent Festivals - a non-profit trade organisation created to represent UK music festivals including Womad, Creamfields, Summer Sundae Weekender, Bestival, Electric Picnic, and Big Chill. Also involved are the organisers of Beautiful Days, Bloom, Glade, The Secret Garden Party, and Field Day.

The festival organisers have joined forces to strengthen their position and to take on their bigger rivals. Their objective is to work together to help make events better for fans, greener and more cost-effective. The association launched with twelve festival organisers on the Board, with a second wave of festivals to be invited as members over the summer.

One of the biggest festivals in the association is Creamfields. Their owner James Barton said, "There is a real opportunity to combine our spending power to deliver exciting business ideas. The smaller festivals are also often overlooked, and it's important we now have a voice to influence decisions being made that impact on our business."

It is hoped that the new trade body will empower the indie festival community with a collective strength, and establish a forum for the exchange of knowledge and ideas. AIF will also enter into dialogue across the music business and government, and will consult on factors affecting the business, such as ticket touts, or organised crime. Plans are also in the works for collective marketing initiatives for its members.

It is my hope that through the work of the AIF and their initiatives that good, quality Boutique Festivals will be given a fairer chance of competing against the big boys, and that the UK Festival scene will continue to flourish.

Now, come with me on a journey as over the next few weeks I get my wellies and sunblock and journey out to report on some of these Festivals....

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