Sign In
The bubble that doesn’t want to burst: The rise of summer festivals
The bubble that doesn’t want to burst: The rise of summer festivals

A few years ago, the en vogue line of thinking was that the summer festival “bubble” was nearing its peak capacity, surely set to burst. A saturated market with new events popping up every year had seemingly reached an unsustainable size, and there seemed little doubt that something had to give. For organisers, mounting competition meant inflated bookings and tighter margins in an industry already considered to be “one of the highest-risk businesses in the world”; and yet here we are in 2016, the growth still showing no signs of stopping. In the UK and indeed further afield, the festival-going masses are increasing in number, demand seemingly chasing the ever-growing supply as new festivals continue to pop up in every open space available. Intrigued to find out what the driving forces behind this phenomenon are, Ticket Arena examines the rise of summer festivals, and tries to identify what is protecting the rapidly inflating bubble that seemingly just won’t burst.

Mint Festival by Justin Gardner Photography
(Leeds' Mint Festival 2015 - photo courtesy of Justin Gardner Photography)

The reality is that the festival business is just about as risky as they come, with towering overheads, fierce competition and the weatherman all serving up formidable obstacles to profit. For artists, increased competition for bookings means no shortage of work opportunities and inflated paychecks to boot - both of which are welcome developments at a time when live performance is far more lucrative than record sales. For organisers, however, the need to compete means that acts don’t come cheap, and big bookings represent a raising of stakes rather than a guarantee of success.

"The reality is that the festival business is just about as risky as they come, with towering overheads, fierce competition and the weatherman all serving up formidable obstacles to profit."

Throw into that the costs of venues, lighting, sound, marketing and a plenitude of other facilities and you can start to understand why, according to The Telegraph, the company behind Glastonbury made only £86,000 profit from the festival’s total revenue of £37.3m in 2014. Reportedly, portaloo price hikes caused by the London Olympics were the deciding factor in the festival’s year off in 2012, further demonstrating how fine the margins are even for the most successful events.  

For some festivals, this balancing act has proved too much, and the recent collapse of festivals like Forgotten Fields and Scarborough Fair illustrate the harsher side of the industry. For both festivals, the latter of which was due to take place for the first time this May, elevated costs became insurmountable, bringing them to a premature end in much the same way that Indie Guitar Festival was brought to its knees during the 2009 recession. Kent’s Hop Farm Festival, which had run annually since 2008, was cancelled in 2013, and despite a rebirth in 2014, ended forever the following year with its organiser branding the Paddock Wood location “cursed ground”. 2013 cancellation Guilfest told a similar story, with ATP’s Jabberwocky, The Big Chill and plenty more high-profile cases demonstrating the difficulties of sustaining festivals, even before considering the possibility of extreme conditions like the flooding that saw Creamfields close early in 2012.

UK festivals listed on eFestivals
(No. of UK festivals listed on eFestivals (not incl. N Ireland). Source: eFestivals. *Data for 2014 collected on 7 October 2014 - Chart courtesy of the Association of Independent Festivals Six-Year Report 2014)

And yet, despite such examples of events which disappeared along the way, the festival market has continued to grow, as illustrated by the above chart from the Association of Independent Festivals Six-Year Report 2014. With more festivals popping up every year, it seems that the risk factor hasn’t been deterring promoters from trying to secure themselves a piece of the action, but with costs rising in tandem, where exactly does the profit lie?

Sponsorship certainly plays a big part, and with greater numbers of people flocking to festivals each year, sponsorship is in turn becoming more valuable. Branding holds the key to survival for most festivals, with commercial partners and their confusion of logos leaving no shortage of marks on musical landscapes. Conspicuous as they are, commercial affiliations are generally accepted as part and parcel of the festival goer’s experience, and whilst only 47.3% admitted to remembering the sponsors of the festivals that they attended (as recorded by the UK Festival Awards 2015/16 report), brand exposure is certainly worth a lot of money to the companies pumping cash into the industry. With artists generally making more from festivals than their own tours, the likelihood of festivals getting extra support in promotion from the bands, DJs and other performers means that festivals - and any brands associated with them - are usually peppered all over social media. Sponsorship-based income seemingly has no ceiling.

Glastonbury by Andrew Allcock
(Glastonbury remains one of the world's most successful festivals - photo courtesy of Andrew Allcock)

Underpinning any and all sponsorship, however, is the festival’s ultimate measure of success - the number of tickets sold. Whilst the prominence of social media has exacerbated what AIF term the “Glastonbury effect” - whereby positive coverage and the extreme visibility of festival marketing leads to FOMO-fearers flocking to book their own festivities - competition between festivals vying to attract punters is increasingly fierce. Millennial culture might have created a generation of festival fanatics, but getting them to choose your festival over all the others is certainly no mean feat. Locally-focussed festivals, such as West Yorkshire’s Reach, have had success in this respect, appealing to the local community by supporting local artists. “We believe in our home grown talent, and anyone we book must be part of our musical philosophy”, says the festival’s director, Rickie Hurlstone. “We have a strong crowd and music policy which our customers value.”

“We targeted people who are looking for something more from a festival experience than the norm.”

Whilst in bygone eras festivals might previously have marketed themselves as the main providers of certain genres, this no longer seems possible given the large number of events that can offer any one style of music, and so the search for unique selling points has intensified. For some, such as Bluedot festival, this might have come naturally. The “intergalactic festival of music, science, arts, culture and the exploration of space”, as billed by the Bluedot organisers, enjoys a genuine USP thanks to its focus on science and space exploration, making some big musical bookings but also emphasising lectures, workshops and stargazing as integral parts of the Bluedot experience. “We targeted people who are looking for something more from a festival experience than the norm”, explained Ben Robinson, Bluedot’s Creative Director. “Those who like to look a little deeper into experiences, be that through science talks, interviews with academics, geeking out on music production or just feasting on new sight and sounds.”

(A visual spectacle at Jodrell Observatory - photo courtesy of Bluedot Festival)

Others have turned towards festival tourism, with organisers looking to blur the lines between festival and holiday. Examples such as Dominican Republic’s Groovefest have abandoned the standard ‘pitch up a tent and slum it out’ approach, instead offering luxury hotels with all the adornments to provide for a higher-maintenance crowd. The abundance of festivals in warmer European territories, particularly Croatia, also reflects a growing sense in the UK that the weather is an important contributor in a festival’s desirability. Beautiful settings like Fort Punta Christo, home to Dimensions and Outlook, have become dance music pilgrimage spots thanks to the high temperatures and unspoilt beaches that the festivals guarantee, whilst Metropolitan festivals have proven popular in London, Sheffield, Leeds and more, no doubt due in part to the attraction of sleeping in your own bed rather than a broken tent once the party finishes.

It is without doubt a struggle keeping a festival in the green, but will the future see the collapse of the summer festival bubble? Undoubtedly, the answer is... “maybe”. A tight game full of twists and turns, the bubble may well be near its maximum capacity, but the Daily Mail’s bold 2011 declaration that “Festivals are dead!” has proven typically vacuous.

"The abundance of festivals in warmer European territories, particularly Croatia, also reflects a growing sense in the UK that the weather is an important contributor in a festival’s desirability."

“Just as art will always develop and take new directions, I believe that festivals and mass gatherings of like minded people in celebration will always be around and always be in flux”, Ben Robinson tells us, drawing upon his experience as Creative Director Kendal Calling as well as Bluedot. “From drum circles in the ancient times, garden parties and parades in little England right through to Glastonbury and the modern immersive experiences of boutique festivals around the UK, people sharing spaces, spectacles and feasting on their senses together will always be one of the most vital elements of the human experience.”

Reach Festival
(Smoke billows at Reach Festival - photo courtesy of Elliot Young Photography)

Instead of collapsing as so many had predicted, the festival market has continued to expand and diversify, and even smaller festivals have been able to graft a foothold in the market. Some will inevitably be lost each year, but for each there always seems to be another waiting to take its place. For the music fan, this can only be a good thing. For the music promoter, perhaps Reach’s Rickie Hurlstone sums it up best:

“Competition is everywhere and in many forms, you have to just stay true to what you’re doing and why you are doing it, and that will always shine through... It can feel daunting, but you never score if you don’t take the shot.”

Words by Andrew Kemp
Main photo courtesy of Bluedot Festival