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European Festival Focus – Keeping The Dream Alive

Landmark European festivals such as Belgium’s Tomorrowland (cap. 70,000), Holland’s Lowlands (65,000) and the UK’s Glastonbury (210,000) may have sold out in minutes but for the sector as a whole 2024 has come with multiple challenges.

In the UK, the impact of soaring inflation on the public’s spending power coupled with a steep rise in the cost of everything from personnel to infrastructure means many festivals are struggling.

It is not all doom and gloom. There are new, significant, events being launched this year, but the trend has very much been falling festival numbers. This year has already seen the cancelation of nine sizeable UK festivals – following the closure of 36 in 2023 – a figure the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) is convinced will grow substantially unless the government makes a significant cut to the VAT rate on festival tickets. Among the major events that will not take place this year are NASS (cap. 30,000), Bluedot (21,000), Splendour (25,000), Standon Calling (17,000) and Nozstock The Hidden Valley (5,000).

In an effort to help support the sector, the AIF launched a 5% For Festivals campaign, designed to inform festivalgoers about the problems festival promoters are facing. The aim is to encourage them to contact their MPs to lobby for VAT on tickets to be cut from 20% to 5% for three years.

AIF CEO John Rostron says, “We’ve been lobbying the government since last March, and I recently made a submission to the Treasury, now we need to get the public involved. We need them to make MPs aware there’s a problem.”

Another initiative the AIF is working on is a First Festival campaign, created to encourage young people who may be put off attending festivals by raised ticket prices at a time when they have less disposable income, and who may have missed out on their first festival experience due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The aim is to provide 18-year-olds with access to tickets for just £18.

Rostron would like to see the UK government follow in the footsteps of its counterparts in a growing number of European countries, such as Italy, France, Spain and Germany, where young people are given a voucher worth hundreds of Euros to spend on cultural products and activities including festivals.

“[In the UK] that would mean three quarters of a million people every year would have an opportunity to go to a festival.”

“Denmark is in a good place because it seems to be one of the few countries in Europe controlling inflation.” ­– Roskilde’s Lars Liliengren

Cause and effect

Should any government need convincing of the huge contribution that festivals make, not only culturally but also financially, they should look to Denmark’s stalwart success story Roskilde.

In 2022, the 50th anniversary edition of the 130,000-capacity festival generated a €2 million profit that was channelled into supporting cultural and charitable causes. Since its launch in 1971 as a not-for-profit event, Roskilde has generated more than €58m for charitable causes.

“The Danish festival market is actually in quite a good place,” says the festival’s head of production Lars Liliengren. “We have more than 100 festivals, which is a lot for a small country with a population of 5.6m people.

“We were afraid of what might happen after Covid-19 but the government support was really strong during the pandemic, so almost all festivals and suppliers survived.”

While Roskilde sold out in 2022, and organisers benefited from all pre-pandemic supply chain costs having been locked in before Covid forced its postponement, Liliengren says the Ukraine war and other factors did make for a tougher economic environment in 2023. However, he is optimistic about the year ahead.

“Denmark is in a good place because it seems to be one of the few countries in Europe controlling inflation; it’s less than 2% right now,” he says. “Most of our suppliers are based within the region, so prices will not increase on the supply side that much for 2024. The biggest change will happen in 2025 when we hope to deploy a new mainstage and change one or two other stages.”

With Roskilde’s financial situation being relatively stable, Liliengren says the festival ‘s ticket price will remain unchanged this year to ensure young people are not priced out.

The event famously engages a huge number of volunteers each year, with some 29,000 expected to work at this summer’s event. However, Liliengren is adamant that Roskilde’s organisers never considered having volunteers to save money on staff.

“I’m not sure that there’s necessarily a better business case for having volunteers than having a purely professionally run festival,” he says. “We do have professionals coming in, the volunteers are not taking jobs away; they are enhancing the overall audience experience.”

Remote contact

Part of the Kingdom of Denmark but self-governing, 18-island archipelago The Faroes is also home to a long established, if slightly more diminutive, festival.

With only one record store, one record label, and a population of only 56,000, the rocky string of North Atlantic islands is not the most obvious location for a festival.

Launched in 2002, the 5,000-capacity G! Festival is held in the seaside village Syðrugöta, on the island of Eysturoy, which has a population of just 400.

“There are no hotels. If we have really fancy guests, we can ship them to the hotel in the capital but for the most part we use local houses. People will lend us a room or their house, we also use schools and kindergartens for people to stay in,” says the festival’s music director Høgni Lisberg.

Despite its remoteness and lack of urban luxuries, or perhaps because of it, G! Festival regularly attracts overseas artists from far and wide. Among the acts scheduled to play the event this year are Iceland’s Of Monsters And Men, The Longest Johns from the UK and Norway’s Ash Olsen.

Says Lisberg, “Our budgets are humble compared to a big European festival, so we have a hard time competing but what we can offer is an experience – we encourage people to stay a few extra days to take in the beautiful surroundings and nature.  But, if you’re in a hurry, no problem, you can fly in on the Friday do the gig and fly away the next day. We pay artists’ local travel, food and accommodation expenses.”

With limited festival infrastructure available locally, much of the equipment is hired from abroad, including the main stage that is assembled on the beach after being imported from Iceland each year. Lisberg says production costs have risen recently but the event has the backing of local authorities and sponsors such as fisheries.

Despite it coming with logistical challenges, Lisberg says the G! Festival is a hugely rewarding endeavour, not least because of the impact it has on local artists: “It is a real achievement to play at the G! Festival, it is a chance for them to make things happen, and things do happen. There are many stories of artists successfully using the event as a springboard, because it is a showcase opportunity to play in front of the media and booking agents from Europe. Artists often land a new gig in another country at shows such as Iceland Airwaves. That’s one of the festival’s important roles.”

“We prefer not to run after artists, because if your festival’s value is based heavily on the line-up it’s success is really reliant on that.” ­­­– Paléo Festival Nyon’s Pascal Viot

Swiss watch

A festival with a similarly diminutive capacity and beautiful waterside setting but one that is able to attract the biggest stars in the international live music industry firmament, Switzerland’s Montreux Jazz Festival is set to be transformed this year.

With the Convention Centre, which has hosted the festival’s main performances for many years, undergoing construction work, the event’s organisers have partnered with Stageco to create a new main stage positioned on Lake Geneva.

Along with its new 5,000-capcity main stage, the festival will also host music in the Casino where the event first staged music back in 1967. The new Casino Stage will consist of a half-seated and half-standing configuration with a capacity of 1,300.

Held from 5-20 July, Montreux Jazz Festival will involve other new lakeside stages, many of them free-to-attend. With an attendance of 250,000 across the entire event, it is expected to contribute €80m to the local economy this year.

Montreux Jazz Festival CEO Mathieu Jaton says festival operators in Switzerland have proven far from immune to the widespread challenges such as production cost increases, a fall in the number of artists touring, and a sharp hike in the cost of booking acts.

“Many festival organisers are facing challenges booking top artists due to the costs involved,” he says. “In 2024 there are far less artists touring than the past two years, and we are seeing a big gap between the impact on very big capacity festivals and the smaller events.

“Some major artists are not touring festival anymore because the production costs are so high. There are some exceptions, such as Ed Sheeran, playing festivals able to pay the very high fees because of their huge capacities, but in Switzerland festivals with capacities between 15,000 and 20,000 are in the most difficult situation. It’s very difficult for them to book an artist able to attract 15,000 people without paying around €1 million, historically they were paying around €200,000 or €300,000 for the same level artists.”

Jaton says he is fortunate that due to the nature of his event, the festival has been unaffected by the relative scarcity of available acts: “We’re in a good place. Most artists accept that they will get a different fee when they come to Montreux, because the setup is outstanding, very coordinated, and intimate. We knew if we wanted artists to come to the festival, when we don’t have the Congress Centre, we had to create something exceptional. Montreux has a beautiful lake and mountains, so we set out to make the most of that.”

Solid ground

Another long running Swiss festival that is in robust shape is the Paléo Festival Nyon, which started in a village hall in 1976 and has since grown to become the country’s biggest outdoor music festival with a capacity of 50,000.

Set to take place from 23-28 July, the festival has long proven popular, with it typically selling out within one hour of tickets going on sale.

With that level of demand all but assured, the festival’s organisers are not as exposed to risk as some of their counterparts, but its head of safety, security and services Pascal Viot says the impact of rising costs is inescapable.

“It’s a clear trend for all festivals, especially when it comes to infrastructure and artists costs. We really try to keep the price of tickets as low as possible, with the focus on providing the best experience for the best price,” he says. “So that means we have had to make choices, we really want to provide an overall experience that is way more than just concerts, and so we focus on the festival’s presentation, and we have more than 130 food stalls with food coming from all over the world. We prefer not to run after artists, because if your festival’s value is based heavily on the line-up, it’s success is really reliant on that.”

Staunchly independent from the outset, Paléo Festival has around 1,600 people working on it, with 6,000 being volunteers. The event’s scale means that it is far from cheap to create but Viot says it has the advantage of being well established and having creating strong relationships with suppliers and partners.

“We have long term contracts and try to establish a level of trust and work collaboratively with them,” he says. “There is an increasing number of festivals across Switzerland, so the price of infrastructure is climbing due to rising demand. We are lucky to have solid relationships with all providers, and we are well established, but as a whole the festival sector is very vulnerable.”

Paléo may be approaching its 50th anniversary, but among its team there is an ongoing focus on remaining relevant to young audiences, with an EDM stage inspired by Tomorrowland added in 2022, and the creation of flexible ticketing options.

Says Viot, “We have developed a ticketing system with Secutix, enabling us to offer shared tickets, which means I can go one day and you the next. You can also buy a day ticket in advance of the line-up announcement, so once that has been announced in March you have one week to select the day you would like to attend.”

“It’s like a post pandemic symptom, people are just a little bit fussier.” – Sea Sessions Surf & Music Festival’s Ray O’Donoghue

Borderline success

“In the far northwest of Ireland, set alongside sweeping sandy beaches framed by a rugged mountainous backdrop, the Sea Sessions Surf & Music Festival has grown substantially since it was launched in 2008. Located in Bundoran, Donegal, it is pitched as Ireland’s biggest beach party. The festival has a 10,000 capacity and has attracted acts such as Kasabian, Dizzee Rascal, Clean Bandit, Paul Weller and Tinie Tempah to its stages.

Post-pandemic, the festival is seeing less demand for weekend camping in favour of day tickets, according to festival director Ray O’Donoghue. He says, “It’s like a post pandemic symptom, people are just a little bit fussier; they want to have more creature comforts. Last year we had our highest day ticket sales yet.”

The festival has not been immune to the impact of rising costs. It is located in the Republic of Ireland only 5 miles from Norther Ireland, so O’Donoghue has been given a very clear perspective of the impact of Brexit on the cost of items coming from the UK compared to the EU.

“We’re kind of cross border, because we’re geographically in the Republic of Ireland but very close to Northern Ireland. That means around half of our suppliers come from the Republic of Ireland, and the other half are in the UK. We have definitely seen UK prices go up more than the European or Irish prices.”

He says that among the areas seeing the highest cost inflation is transport and labour, the latter being up 50%. To help mitigate the financial impact of soaring expenditure, O’Donoghue says his team is focusing on driving an increase in attendees from further afield.

“It’s a stunning location on the coast overlooking over Tullan Strand, which is one of the most beautiful places in Ireland. Some 85% of festivalgoers come from the Republic of Ireland, with the remainder being from the UK and Europe. The numbers of visitors from further afield has gone up since the pandemic and we are now looking to market it to attract more people from the mainland Europe.”

“It is tough right now, we are struggling with headliners.” –  Sziget Festival’s Márk Bóna

The incomers

Among the promoters already doing a great job of attracting tourists is Malta’s 356 Entertainment, which contributed €51.8m to the country’s economy last year having staged festivals and events including SummerDaze (30,000), Days Like This (3,500), Defected (5,000), Elrow (5,000) and XXL (7,000). With around 90% of its events tickets sold to tourists, this year 356 plans to launch new festivals in Malta including RONG Open Air Festival, Sunny Side Festival and XXL.

Across its events last year, 356 Entertainment was responsible for attracting 56,000 visitors to the island, who collectively made 22,400 hotel bookings during the festival season.

“The island has become a beacon for travellers seeking more than just a traditional holiday experience, and we are proud to continue to realise these expectations and provide memorable festival experiences for our visitors,” says 356 director Trevor Camilleri.

The six-day, 95,000-capacity, Sziget Festival in Hungary is another event that has huge pulling power when it comes to attracting tourists.

One of the biggest festivals in Europe, Sziget (‘Island’ in Hungarian) is held in northern Budapest, on Óbudai-sziget ¬ a 108-hectare island on the Danube. More than 1,000 performances take place each year, with last year’s headliners including David Guetta, Billie Eilish, Florence and The Machine, and Lorde. That edition of the Superstruct Entertainment-owned festival welcomed more than 420,000 fans, with artists from 62 countries performing across more than 50 stages.

Sziget’s booking & production manager Márk Bóna says, “Around 50% of attendees come from other countries, with The Netherlands being the top source of foreign visitors followed by France and Italy. We are seeing less people coming from Spain, possibly due to rising travel costs.”

Operating an event of such a huge scale clearly comes at a significant price and that has risen sharply recently. Says Bóna, “It’s a big issue. Not only has the production costs and the artist fees risen but labour costs have gone up sharply too. The recent change to the taxation system in Hungary for freelancers means that they are now having to pay around one third of their income in tax. I cannot increase my fee by the same amount. The workforce is more expensive, catering is more expensive; so we have to save some money where we can and that is partly why we are losing a stage this year.”

Instead of having a pop-orientated stage and another for tribute acts, the lineup will be merged on the one stage this year. “It’s really hard to have smaller stages and fulfil their needs unless they are very successful. It costs a lot of money to have a stage with the programme, the catering, the crew, the facilities for the bands. So, if we by cutting one stage it’s a significant amount of money saved,” says Bóna.

With around 50 stages to programme, it’s perhaps unsurprising, given the current industry-wide trend, that Bóna is having to work harder than usual to book the line-up: “It is tough right now, we are struggling with headliners. We have three headliners confirmed but we are still looking for others. The issue with headliners now is that they want to do headline stadium shows because they can earn much more money, with a fixed fee. So it’s tough for festivals.”

There are festivals that still sell out in less than a day but for the vast majority of festivals this year, there are major challenges to negotiate, and clearly those with the strongest relationship with suppliers and support from government and local authorities are best placed to weather the storm caused by the pandemic’s impact on behaviour, soaring costs and a dearth of available talent.

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