Are Music Festivals Dead?

Does the demise of Hop Farm herald the beginning of the end for music festivals in England? Are festivals struggling to cope due to the economic climate, or is the marketplace simply levelling off after the last decade’s ‘boom’? More may go under this year, but the idea of what a music festival should be has changed so much in the past 20 years that we'll never see a return to the Glasto/Reading duopoly of the '70s and '80s.

There’s no denying that the last decade has been a real golden age for the venerable English institution that is the humble music festival. In fact, lately these events have been anything but humble; mega-extravaganzas of music, arts, literature, and any other cultural activity you’d care to throw into the mix. But for the last couple of years there has been trouble brewing, and 2013 looks set to be yet another difficult year for this most summery of pursuits.

Myself, I’ve never been one to get too excited by them, and looked on with wonder and disbelief at the massive growth of the festival sector in the late noughties. The few I’ve been too have been fun, for sure, but it was very clear that music actually has very little to do with the ‘festival’ concept at all. If you want to actually see a band, then go to a proper gig; in most cases the sound will be better, the set itself will be better, and you get to go home to a real bed at the end of the night. I’m happy to camp on a walking holiday, but after a sweaty, booze-fuelled evening? No thanks.

But while music festivals aren’t really for me, I can see why they appeal to a wide range of people. Loads of bands all in one place, sunny weather (if you’re lucky), and a party atmosphere; an ideal day out for many, particularly if you’re usually cooped up in a big city. Others more financially minded than myself also saw the appeal, and the last decade has seen a massive upsurge in medium-to-large festivals the length and breadth of the country. “Whatever your tastes”, went the cry, “there is a festival for you”; no matter how niche or outré those tastes might be.

All too predictably, however, supply soon far outstripped demand. Going to a festival is an expensive business, both in terms of money and time, and running one is even more so. In these times of perceived austerity, splashing out what in most cases is well over a hundred pounds is simply an unjustifiable expense for the majority of households. Actually running a successful festival is a logistical nightmare, and not, it would appear, a very profitable one. Despite the phenomenal demand several cases have recently proved that music festivals are all too easy to cock-up entirely...

The Hop Farm Debacle

Most recently, it was announced this week that Vince Power’s Hop Farm event was being cancelled due to poor ticket sales despite having an impressive lineup of big acts. This is a double blow for Power: last years Hop Farm caused his company Music Festivals PLC to go bankrupt, with alleged debts of £4.8 million (a claim disputed by Power himself), and this year’s event was supposed to be his big return — a phoenix rising from the ashes to prove his naysayers wrong.

Hop Farm is not the only festival in trouble by a long shot. The ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ umbrella of festivals are being scaled down following the parent company ATP going into liquidation last July after fourteen successful years. The Alan McGee-curated Tokyo Rocks festival has been cancelled owing to ‘management issues’ (although there is talk of it being rescheduled for later in the year). 2012’s biggest festival debacle was Bloc, which was shut down by police midway through its opening day with disturbing reports of massive overcrowding and woeful mismanagement. Bloc was just the most dramatic example, though, and 2012 was a brutal year for a whole slew of festivals. Big Chill, Sonisphere, Rough Beats, Cloud 9, Golden Down, MFEST, Hit Factory Live and the Underage Festival were all cancelled, and Guilfest also went into administration after twenty-one years as one of the mainstays of the festival circuit.

So what next for music festivals in England?

Is this the beginning (or, perhaps, the middle) of the end for these summer blasts? More likely this is just the marketplace readjusting itself. There are just too many festivals at the moment, and they cost far too much to go to. Glastonbury will always be a highly sought after ticket, but the small festivals will have to realise that they cannot continue charging £100 for tickets that would only have cost £40 a decade ago. The boom in appetite for festivals has hyped prices and filled the summer schedule with a glut of events that simply can’t draw enough people in.

The next couple of years will undoubtedly see more festivals go under, and it will be harder than ever to get a new one off the ground, but ultimately we’ll return to a point where there are just enough events to meet demand, and a prices the average punter can afford. As long as people enjoy getting drunk in the sun while watching bands, there’ll always be music festivals.

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