Why the era of expensive music festivals might be over

Iona Bain

When I first launched the blog six years ago, I began by asking whether the once-healthy festival scene in the UK was out of tune with young music fans. It was two years after the markets crashed and we were experiencing financial hardships on multiple fronts, from an adverse jobs market to house prices that were already beyond our natural reach.

So it was no surprise that we were beginning to look at festivals with a critical eye. Uninspired line-ups, the emergence of touts and already-expensive tickets…it all suggested that festivals were becoming too corporate, complacent and cold to demand our continued loyalty. When Reading and Leeds struggled to sell tickets in 2011, I started wondering whether Britain’s tired festival culture should perhaps sing its final encore and get replaced with something more vibrant, authentic – and affordable.

So…what’s happened? Well, the death of festivals has been somewhat exaggerated. The stats seem to suggest the opposite; the number of music festivals held across the UK has doubled over the past decade to more than 1000 today. Around 3.5 million people attended music festivals in 2015, typically spending £250 in the process – and that doesn’t even include the cost of tickets.

Plus, Reading and Leeds have bounced back, with the former selling out this year and the latter now only offering limited tickets (despite the weekend camping option costing £213).

But it’s no exaggeration to say that the traditional three-day camping affair is endangered. What belies the statistics quoted above is a precarious industry in which only the biggest names have survived with ease.

The three day camping affair – too costly for young fans?

The big daddy of festivals – Glastonbury – is probably safe due to its size and sheer prestige, although it is taking a break next year and founder Michael Eavis has previously said that it may not continue forever (shock horror!)

But T in the Park, a stalwart of Scotland’s festival industry, has been cancelled this year and the much-loved Secret Garden Party will close for good after this summer, joining the likes of Rockness, Wickerman and many others in the British Festival graveyard. With the cost of hosting even a mid-sized musical festival surpassing £1 million, balancing the books can be touch-and-go if the fans aren’t there in enough numbers. Even rain makes all the difference; the forecast of a muddy Apocalypse Now in some random field can drag ticket sales into the danger zone.

At the same time, there has been a huge spike in city-based festivals and day events, ranging from British Summertime at Hyde Park to Damon Albarn’s new Demon Dayz in Margate (near to where I am now partly based). Indeed, the latter is a big deal for the Dreamland retro theme park, on the cusp of closure last year (as we reported) but now fighting back by catering to the Margate hipster crowd with boutique arts events.

According to a recent report in the FT, many events are now masterminded by international promoters, who are able to pay a handful of superstars to appear exclusively and thus bring in the crowds. BST at Hyde Park has been particularly adept at this, scoring a significant coup with Carole King last year. The trend for day-only festivals has even prompted the organisers of Camp Bestival to start up Common People, an urban version that takes place in Oxford and Southampton at the end of May (albeit with a slightly less stellar line-up…unless Fatman Scoop is your cup of tea).

But actually, a focus on more underground acts is how many sub-Glasto festivals are staying in business, shunning costly headline acts that may disappoint (like Sean Paul and Major Lazer did at Bestival last year) and instead cultivating a well-heeled crowd who like the feeling of “being in the know”.

On a slightly more grannyish note, DJ Rob Da Bank (the founder of Bestival & Common People) also told the FT that people “like to go home and sleep in their beds at night”.

Well, I can understand where Mr Da Bank (?!) is coming from. As someone who would hardly call herself a festival veteran, but has been to a fair few over the years (Glastonbury, V and Latitude), the whole camping shtick really starts to tire as you get older. The sun bathing your tent in light at 5am, the chaotic array of personal effects strewn all over the groundsheet, the absolute inevitability that you will be eaten alive by midgies and burnt to a crisp unless you’re wearing factor 1 billion…I could go on.

Sleep in your own bed and save hundreds of pounds? Yes please

But what really sticks in the craw is the cost. The most recent UK Festival Awards data shows most festival-goers believe £4 is good value for a beer; I can only conclude they are suffering from Stockholm syndrome. The beauty about city/one-day festivals is that the time you are held hostage to the festival’s purveyors of overpriced falafel and ale is strictly limited. You spend £40 – £70 on tickets, perhaps £20 – £30 for food and drinks at most, but (hopefully) have a brilliant day-out and (probably) end it in your own bed. Compare and contrast to a three-day camping extravaganza, where you fork out £500 for what feels like a noise-laden episode of a Bear Grylls reality show (once ticket costs, travel, spending on sustenance and ludicrous fancy dress are all factored in).

At the same time, a plunging pound is prompting many young people to try foreign festivals. After all, if you’re going to spend half a grand, better to make your money go further in a nice hot country rather than rainy Reading. The UK Festival Awards survey found that 14 per cent of its respondents in 2015 went abroad for a music festival, with the majority saying they preferred the experience thanks to a better line-up, atmosphere, organisation and weather (plus cheaper food, drink and tickets didn’t harm).

My own experience (for what it’s worth) is that going to the Sonar Festival in Barcelona remains one of the best holidays I’ve ever had. I combined a long weekend trip to one of the world’s best cities with a brilliant music festival – all for around £500. It beat four days in a Somerset mud-pit any day of the week.

So festivals might not be over yet, but thankfully we’re moving to a market in which young fans are setting the tone; lower costs, fresher acts and all-round better value. That’s music to my ears.

What do you think? Tweet @ionayoungmoney or leave a comment below.

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