Europe music festivals teeter on the brink


Music festival crisis across Europe Image: Dutch Valley Festival 2018, MrOakTree96, CC BY-SA 4.0

At least 60 Dutch (Netherlands) festivals have been canceled this year, according to the national Press.

‘IQ’ stated that this figure marks a record number of festival cancellations – excluding the COVID pandemic years. In addition, only 30 new festivals have been introduced.

Recently, the UB40 (English reggae and pop band)-headlined Chillville in Breda was canceled at the last minute due to “a major shortage of event materials and personnel” and Mañana Mañana (a band from Basel, Switzerland) in Gelderland, promoted by Superstruct (a leading global live entertainment platform)-backed Feestfabriek (event planner in Netherlands) (Party Factory), announced that it would not return after its 10th edition as “ticket sales are not enough to make the event profitable”.

‘IQ’ further stated that in addition to the rising costs and a shortage of resources, many organizers are grappling with the changing Municipal and national policies.

The Psy-Fi Festival (an open-air psychedelic music and arts festival in Netherlands) in Oldenzaal suddenly had to pull the plug because the Municipality “made a complete change in the zoning plan” causing the festival to run into serious time constraints.

The BouleVaart Festival in Krommenie also had to deal with stricter regulations. In addition to an event permit and an environmental permit, an acoustic research was suddenly required.

Said the organizer, “Everything has made organizing more difficult. I don’t think we will ever do it again.”

Meanwhile, the Amsterdam Festival organizers fear that the City’s new permit policy, set to be trialed next year, could lead to bankruptcies.

Set to come into effect in 2026, the new policy aims to give new and smaller events a better chance of getting scarce festival locations in order to “better meet the needs of all the Amsterdam residents”.

Events Councilor Touria Meliani wants to set up a committee that will determine who gets a place based on substantive criteria. By the end of this year, events would know whether they have a place on next year’s calendar.

Festivals including DGTL (Digital, Dutch music festival), Amsterdam Open Air, De Zon, Loveland, and Zeezout have hit back, saying the approach is “too late” and “unworkable” for both new and established festivals.

“You cannot organize a safe and successful festival in six months,” the organizers wrote in a full-page advertisement addressed to the Municipality last month.

The organizers have launched a petition against the new policy, which has been signed by 18,613 people.

Another major issue on the horizon is the Government’s plans to raise the tax rate for the cultural and creative sector from nine percent to 21 percent, which has also prompted a coalition of the organizations to launch a joint campaign asking it to reconsider.

A statement from the coalition reads: “The proposed increase in the value added tax (VAT) rate will inevitably lead to higher prices, which will put pressure on the accessibility and affordability of sports, media, books, culture and catering for the public. It affects everyone in the Netherlands in daily life and in several areas. It is an additional burden on the valuable free time, club life, curiosity and (mental) health of every Dutch person.”

Despite a raft of major challenges facing the Dutch live music industry, Berend Schans of the Association of Dutch Music Venues and Festivals (VNPF) says there’s no immediate need to panic – “The festival offering is always changing. The audience too. Taste changes, people enter a different phase of their lives.”

The Association of Dutch Music Venues and Festivals (VNPF) represent 58 music venues in Netherlands. The venues have a median of 600 audience capacity. Together, the venues present well over 26,000 artiste performances per year, which attract over 4.1 million visits.

Schans also points to festivals and concerts that sold out very quickly despite the higher prices, such as Lowlands (an annual three-day music and performing arts festival held in the Netherlands) (€325 for a weekend ticket) and AC/DC (Australian rock band) (€170 for a standing room).

The Dutch festival market isn’t the only one that’s been hit by a high number of festival cancellations. The United Kingdom has seen over 40 festivals shut down, while Australia’s festival scene declared a crisis earlier this year.

Inside Britain’s Music Festival Crisis


Fighting to Survive

“Its carnage,” says one music festival organizer.

Says another, “People are fighting tooth and nail. Something needs to happen because this isn’t working anymore.”

‘sky news’ stated that this year’s festival season is off to a troubled start, with 45 events either canceled or postponed, according to the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) – compared with a total of 36 in 2023. The AIF predicts the figure could more than double by the end of the year.

London (UK)-based the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) is the United Kingdom’s leading festival representative body. Founded in 2008, the combined attendance of AIF’s 65 member events exceeds 600,000, contributing over £200m to the UK economy annually. The AIF provides a vital support network for the independent festivals promoters through members meetings, public facing campaigns and lobbying, producing conferences and training events and providing business support services to the members.

Pop, indie and dance events are all affected, including established names such as Standon Calling (an annual music festival held near the village of Standon, Hertfordshire, UK), Bluedot (a music, Science and culture event held annually in July since 2016 in Cheshire, England) and El Dorado (a music festival held in Herefordshire).

‘sky news’ further stated that at first glance this looks like just another cost of living story – a festival credit crunch driven by a spike in costs amid the ongoing fallout from the pandemic and Brexit.

But there are other factors at play.

The way people plan their festival Summer has changed, especially for the younger generations who are wary of cancellations. Day festivals offer an alternative.

An analysis shows that of events cancelled in 2024, almost two-thirds (64 percent) are camping.

And some smaller festivals claim the industry is diluting its hippy roots by selling out to the big corporations.

Freddie Fellowes, Founder of The Secret Garden Party (an independent arts and music festival held in Abbots Ripton, England), which has run for two decades, is among several promoters who said the festival industry is facing a crisis which would not be allowed to develop in other sectors – “If the football industry was behaving the way the music industry is now there would be a national outcry. There’s no support and no investment.”

Fellowes also compares the global companies that have a share of the festival market to an “apex predator”, saying that while they are “not evil”, they are “there to make money and reward their shareholders. But they aren’t about supporting grassroots, talent, or anything like that”.

A Rite of Passage

Music festivals are a huge part of the British culture. Where else can you rave in a field until dawn, covered in glitter, with barely a thought for your dying phone battery?

Glastonbury (a five-day festival of contemporary performing arts held near Pilton, Somerset, England), or the Worthy Farm Pop Festival as it was initially called, started in 1970. It was headlined by Marc Bolan (English guitarist, singer-songwriter), with tickets costing £1 (about £13.25 today, according to the Bank of England’s inflation calculator), and including free milk from the farm.

That same year the Isle of Wight Festival (a British music festival which takes place annually in Newport on the Isle of Wight, England) which began in 1968 was headlined by Jimi Hendrix (American guitarist and songwriter) and saw a record 600,000 people attend.

The other festivals soon followed, including the World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD), founded by rock legend Peter Gabriel (English singer-songwriter) to celebrate world music, while the rise of the rave scene sparked the launch of dance festivals such as Creamfields (electronic dance music festival).

By the middle of the decade, with the United Kingdom fully immersed in Britpop, Glastonbury had exploded. Televised for the first time in 1994, in 1995 it was headlined by Oasis (English rock band from Manchester), Pulp (English rock band from Sheffield) and The Cure (English rock band from Crawley) – attracting so many fence-jumpers as to double in size, according to some reports.

Crime was a problem throughout the 1980s and 1990s, but as the events got bigger, the security was beefed up. And when the Noughties (male four-piece band from the West Midlands) ushered in the era of social media and camera phones, smaller boutique festivals started to spring up.

As the festival culture boomed, the industry became more lucrative, and the corporations got involved.

Typically, the music festivals run on tight profit margins. But now the costs are spiraling, with everything from artiste fees to the power supplies increasing by as much as 35 percent since the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the organizers say raising the ticket prices by similar levels would deter the audiences.

The average ticket price in 2024 is almost £166 – compared with almost £142 in 2019 – a rise of about 17 percent.

The Price of Summer Fun

Putting on a festival doesn’t come cheap. Glastonbury, the United Kingdom’s biggest, cost a whopping £62m to produce in 2023, according to its economic impact summary.

In turn, the festival generates around £168m of income for the UK businesses, including £32m for those based in Somerset, where it takes place.
But the costs rack up even for the smaller events.

The Secret Garden Party, which takes place in Cambridgeshire, is going ahead this year but with a smaller capacity of about 10,000. Despite that, the total cost of staging the event will still be upward of £2.5m.

Noted Founder Freddie Fellowes, “We’ve seen the writing on the wall.”

The Secret Garden Party started in 2004 with about 700 guests with the capacity swelling to more than 30,000 at its peak. Over the years, it has offered a platform to the upcoming artistes, playing host to stars such as Lily Allen (English singer-songwriter and actor) and Ed Sheeran (English singer-songwriter) before their careers took off.

Added Fellowes, “The XX (English Indie rock band from Wandsworth, London) played two years in a row for less than £500 before they became a massive act. Dua Lipa (Albanian singer and songwriter) cut her teeth with us as well.”

Fellowes is candid about the cost of the artiste fees. A single headliner costing £150,000 could pay for more than 200 individual emerging acts, the festival shared in a post on social media.

While the event takes place on his own land, which eases the pressure, the going is still “tough at the moment”, he says.

‘Not Many People Are Getting Rich’

Green Man (an independent music, Science and arts festival), in the Brecon Beacons in Wales, started in 2003 as a one-day event for a few hundred people. Now, it is one of the United Kingdom’s biggest independent festivals, featuring about 150 musical acts, plus comedy and visual arts.

The costs have increased by about 35 percent since 2019, says Director Fiona Stewart (Owner of the Green Man Festival), but they are fortunate to have a loyal audience – this year’s event sold out in two hours, before the lineup was announced.

Stated Stewart, “A festival is like a little town. It’s not just the stages, it’s the infrastructure, the showers, the delivery of fresh goods, everything.”
Green Man generates £10m into the Welsh economy, highlighting why the festivals are important, says Stewart.

She has developed relationships with the Governments and cultural organizations in countries such as India and Brazil, and believes that festivals are part of Britain’s “soft power”.

There is an argument that the festivals market was saturated and the cancellations are a necessary contraction. But the experts dispute that because ticket sales, overall, are still healthy.

According to the AIF Chief Executive John Rostron, more than 100 festivals “disappeared” during the pandemic, which equates to about one in six. In 2022, “lots of festivals sold out and ran at a loss”, he says.

Said one festival organizer, “Not a lot of people are getting rich in this business, people are just surviving. Perhaps it’s the industry resetting and shaping… but we’re going to end up in a cultural wasteland.”

Put in Paloma Faith, English singer-songwriter-actor, “It’s important for the emerging artistes to play at the smaller festivals. It’s so intimidating walking on stage in front of an audience like Glastonbury… If you’ve done small things before you build immunity to that pressure.”

‘They’re Like Supermarkets’

Festivals aren’t just important for their role in Britain’s cultural life, they are also a vital part of the economy.

In 2022, the music industry contributed £6.7bn to the UK economy, according to the UK Music’s 2023 annual report. In 2020, when the figure was £5.8bn, the AIF said festivals contributed £1.75bn, just under a third.

The live entertainment companies such as Live Nation (American multinational entertainment company), the Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG – American global sporting and music entertainment company) and Superstruct own the biggest portions of the market, according to industry analysts IBISWorld (a premier provider of comprehensive and succinct business intelligence information on a global scale).

The Live Nation and its subsidiaries own about 30 percent of the events running in 2024.

A lot of the United Kingdom’s biggest festivals, including Reading and Leeds (a pair of annual music festivals that take place in Reading and Leeds in England), Download (a rock festival held in Leicestershire, England) and Latitude (an annual music and arts festival held in Suffolk, England) are run by Live Nation through its Festival Republic subsidiary and the company has also bought shares in more alternative events such as the Boomtown Fair (British music festival) in recent years.

The Live Nation says the festival market is defined by its competitive nature and that there are “hundreds of festivals in the UK ranging in size, genre and audience”.

Another festival promoter compared the bigger companies involved to the supermarkets pricing out the smaller shops – “These massive festivals just suck in everything. The smaller festivals fall away, the bigger ones will pull in everything else and dictate the prices.”

The bigger festivals will often put exclusivity contracts in place, meaning the acts they book cannot play anywhere else within a certain time period or distance range.

Another industry insider says these have become more “aggressive” in recent years making it harder for the independent festivals to book decent lineups. The Live Nation also runs major venues and has a stable of foreign festivals, meaning they can offer headline acts big-money deals – “The festival industry is now two-tier where we have multinational entertainment organizations which own a great deal of festivals in Britain.”

Fellowes agrees that the exclusivity deals are becoming more of a problem and claims this is because even some major festivals are “fighting for their lives”. While Glastonbury might sell out months before the lineup is announced, that’s not the case for most.

Observed Fellowes, “We’re getting to a point where very few people are controlling what is supposedly a counterculture. When that’s all that’s available to the customer, it’s hard for them to realize, or for us to explain, what they’re missing without sounding bitter.”

The Live Nation said that the restrictions between the artistes and the festivals are “the global standard” used to “avoid diluting the value of the performances at each festival and ensure variety for the fans”.

Added Live Nation, “These restrictions prevent an artiste from competing against their own show by playing a show immediately adjacent in time and geography and the artistes are compensated for these arrangements.”

Meanwhile, some of the bigger festivals are also facing problems of their own. After weeks of musicians and comedians dropping out of The Great Escape (a four-day music festival held in Brighton and Hove, England) and Latitude, in protest over sponsorship from Barclays (a British multinational universal bank), the Live Nation announced recently that the bank is now stepping back from sponsorship of its festivals.

A Safety Net

The independent festival organizers have raised concerns about what they see as the growth of Live Nation in the UK’s festival market.

The company, which also owns Ticketmaster, is currently facing a lawsuit from the Justice Department (DoJ) in the United States where the regulators have accused it of using illegal tactics to maintain a monopoly over the live music industry.

A Live Nation spokesperson has described the allegations as “baseless” and said the DoJ’s case “ignores the basic economics of live entertainment”. The company pointed out that the lawsuit does not make any allegations about the festivals.

The last time the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), a Government regulator, took a closer look into their activities regarding festivals in the United Kingdom was in 2017, when the Live Nation invested in the Isle Of Wight Festival – a move which was approved.

Since the report, the Live Nation has lost the V Festival (an annual music festival held in the United Kingdom), one of its bigger offerings.

But the industry insiders claim the Live Nation might look to gain some control.

Rostron says Glastonbury, which he calls “the greatest show on Earth”, is viewed differently as it has stayed true to its independent roots, despite its vast size – “Glastonbury works a lot with the independent community… lots of our members are involved, running stages and areas.”

He describes companies such as the Live Nation’s Festival Republic as “giants” that sometimes “put their feet in the wrong place at the wrong time”.

Chloe Birkett, an associate in the competition team at the law firm Freeths, explains that under the UK law, having a large share of a market does not necessarily mean you are doing anything wrong – “What you have to look at is, is there a dominant position and then is there an abuse of that dominant position? Just because you’re a dominant player, it doesn’t mean that’s wrong or illegal, but you have a special duty as a dominant player to not abuse that conduct and not act in a way that’s anti-competitive.”

Losing the Habit

After a long period of uncertainty during the pandemic, the people seem more cautious about buying festival tickets in advance.

Experts say this trend is particularly prevalent among the young people, who due to COVID, never formed the festival habit.

Behavioural Psychologist Jo Hemmings says the financial squeeze means booking festival tickets a year in advance is no longer an option for some young people who do not know if they will be able to afford all the extra costs such as transport and the camping gear.

Saving the Scene

So what does the future hold? The corporate festivals certainly have their place now and investment has provided stability to many – but the independent organizers say there should be room for everyone, and at the moment, the smaller ones are struggling.

Observed a festival organizer, “It’s not the music corporations that will destroy the UK festival and the music industry. They are just doing what they were designed to do – make money at all costs. It’s the ignorance of the Government.”

During the pandemic, the Government supported festivals through its £1.57bn Culture Recovery Fund. It recently increased a fund for grassroots music up to almost £15m to cover the festivals and provide additional support.

But the festival organizers say specific support is needed for their industry.

The AIF’s solution is to slash the VAT on the ticket prices from 20 percent to five percent for three years to give the promoters time to recover from the pandemic fallout. There is agreement across the industry that this could be, what Rostron calls, the “silver bullet” to save the festivals.

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