Search International Hotels
Another large UK music festival was cancelled last week, as Sonisphere joined the Big Chill and other smaller events and bowed out of the summer of 2012. Is the British public's love affair with music festivals on the rocks? Or is this year an anomaly, with festivals feeling the effect of the Olympics and the Euro 2012 football championships?
There are exceptions, including Bestival and Camp Bestival, Reading and Leeds, V Festival, Rockness, and some niche and boutique events, but overall UK festivals are facing a tough year. Many smaller shows including Oxford Folk, the Small Nations, Trowbridge and the Bay have already joined the bigger casualties and been forced to cancel. After the Sonisphere cancellation was announced, John Probyn – the chief operating officer of Live Nation, promoters of the rival festival Download and owners of Festival Republic, who run Latitude and, since 2009, the Big Chill – tweeted: "Another one bites the dust."
Glastonbury long ago decided to take one of its periodic years off in 2012. Shortly after last year's event, the founder Michael Eavis publicly questioned its long-term future, citing lack of demand and a crowded marketplace, although some took his statement with a pinch of salt. Eavis claimed that Glastonbury had "probably got another three or four years" before apathy and economics took effect. "Partly it's economics, but there is a feeling that people have seen it all before."
Bestival and Camp Bestival, the independent festivals run by DJ Rob Da Bank, are among the few that haven't seen a noticeable decline in ticket sales, but here too, organisers have felt the chill wind. "We're doing pretty much what we've always done, ticket-wise, and we'll sell out again on both our shows," says Rob Da Bank, who was crowned independent entrepreneur of the year at the AIM Music Awards last November. "But I'd be a fool to say that generally it's all rosy in the festival field, because it clearly isn't. I can see into the whites of the eyes of some of the big boys and it's clearly not plain sailing any more."
Sonisphere, a roaming European festival, was due to take place at Knebworth in July, headlined by Kiss, Queen featuring Adam Lambert, and Faith No More. The official statement admitted: "Putting the festival together in what is proving to be a very challenging year was more difficult than we anticipated and we have spent the last few months fighting hard to keep Sonisphere in the calendar."
Stuart Galbraith, the Sonisphere European tour director, said: "This is such an unusual year… There has definitely been an Olympics effect, because of associated events. They are taking talent and customers out of the overall market. When you've got an event like Radio 1 Weekend in Hackney, with 100,000 free tickets, and Dizzee Rascal playing Hyde Park for only £15, because it's subsidised by Coca-Cola, that's going to have an effect on the market."
There is an array of live events scheduled to coincide with the Olympics, many free or subsidised, including the London Live events at Hyde Park, Victoria Park and Trafalgar Square. More than 60 events will be taking place around the country along the Olympic torch relay route. Coca-Cola is holding an 80,000-capacity gig in Hyde Park with Dizzee Rascal, Mark Ronson, Katy B, Rizzle Kicks and others the night before the Games start and also has free gigs in Cardiff, Glasgow, Leeds and Birmingham featuring the likes of Friendly Fires, Emeli Sandé and You Me At Six.
Beyoncé and Coldplay headlined Ireland's biggest music festival, Oxegen, last year, but in December promoters MCD announced that "Oxegen, like Glastonbury, is taking a year off in 2012 and will be back in 2013". Falling ticket sales were said to be responsible.
The cancellation of the Big Chill in January was a wake-up call throughout the industry, as this was for many the first boutique festival when it launched 18 years ago. Some argue that attempts to attract a younger audience in the past couple of years have alienated part of its core audience.
Rob Da Bank still feels that the boutique festivals that offer something more intimate and unique will feel the pinch less this summer. "I've said for a while that this is going to be the year of the smaller and midsized festivals. But there are possibly too many on the market, and I'm probably partly responsible for that, as Bestival has spawned a lot of new boutique festivals."
The high cost of tickets is clearly an issue for some. Many big festival tickets won't leave you with much change from £200. Add in travel, accommodation (even if it's just a new sleeping bag), food and drink, and other festival essentials, and you can spend £500 in a weekend.
Another issue is the increased competition from the continent. Five years ago, few outside the music business had been to a festival abroad, but now a trip to Sonar or Benicàssim in Spain, or Hideout, Electric Elephant or Garden Festival in Croatia (the latter three organised by UK promoters and aimed at the UK market) is commonplace. Most will organise a group of friends and go for a week, combining a long weekend at the festival with a few days R&R either side. Flights included, it can work out the same price as a ticket to Glastonbury or Reading.
Gareth Cooper, the founder of Snowbombing festival, argues that it's also cheaper to run a festival on the continent. "Festivals in Europe aren't competing on a level playing field, as they're paying less for talent. A band like the Arctic Monkeys won't get paid as much for playing a festival in Spain or Poland as they would in the UK. This means ticket prices are cheaper, and budget airlines still offer cheapish flights. If you live in Newcastle, it's probably cheaper to fly to some of these European festivals than it is to get a train to Glastonbury."
So convinced is Cooper of the demand for festivals abroad, that he is launching a new company called Planet Festival. "It's specifically aimed at taking festival-goers from the UK to festivals all over the world – by coach to Exit festival in Serbia, or by plane to Fuji Rocks in Japan."
For some hardcore festival-goers, it is also a question of aesthetics. There's a sense that the slicker festivals have moved too far away from the original ethos of a music festival. The food outlets at some festivals are now as interchangeable as any British high street, with chains such as Pizza Express and Gourmet Burger Kitchen. Along with the omnipresent branding of sponsors, some see this as symptomatic of a sanitised experience that is the antithesis of the authentic festival ethos.
If a picture is worth thousands of lost tickets sales, then it's the photograph of Jeremy Clarkson and a baby-swaddled David Cameron at cheese master Alex James's Harvest festival last summer, which was dubbed "Worstival". That one image did huge damage to the image of such boutique festivals.
There are still some festival organisers who feel they have something new to offer to the market. "It's surprising how many people are still brave enough to launch a festival in this difficult market," says Rob Da Bank, "but if you're a glass-half-full type of person, and you feel you have something different, go for it."
Two of the Big Chill's founders, Katrina Larkin and Victoria Burns, have returned to their roots and launched the Nova festival, which takes place from 5 to 8 July in West Sussex. Without announcing their music line-up, they sold out their early-bird tickets in days. And, for full disclosure, I am curating the arts and culture side of another new event: Festival No 6 will be launched next month and takes place in Portmeirion, the Welsh village where cult 60s TV show The Prisoner was filmed.
Rob Da Bank feels some independent festivals will hang on in there, even when they're losing money. "Some of the bigger players are businessmen, pure and simple. They can make a simple business decision to pull a festival. It's different for us independents. A lot of us make a loss for years but don't blink, because we didn't get in to it for money – we do it for love and because it's fun. We'd never pull the plug even when we're losing money because we're too stupid."
Bestival Launched in 2004 by Radio1 DJ Rob Da Bank, it benefits from a beautiful setting on the Isle of Wight. A loyal return following won it "fans' favourite" at the 2011 UK festival awards. Headliners for 2012 include Stevie Wonder. Capacity 55,000; tickets £180.
V Festival Held jointly in Hylands Park, Chelmsford, and Weston Park, Staffordshire, this favourite sold out in just two hours. Headline acts this year include the reformed Stone Roses. Capacity 90,000 at each venue; tickets £155.
The Big Chill Launched in 1995 with a focus on alternative and dance music, it had grown to a capacity of almost 30,000. Held in the grounds of Eastnor Castle, Herefordshire, it had headliners last year including Kanye West. The organisers, Festival Republic, blamed the Olympics for its cancellation in January.
Oxegen Ireland's biggest festival, held at Punchestown in Co Kildare, with acts including Coldplay headlining last year. Despite being named best European festival by various music awards over the past decade, it is "taking a year off".