Sonisphere 2012: why festivals get cancelled – Emma Webster

In the light of yesterday’s announcement that Kilimanjaro Live’s Sonisphere festival has been cancelled, today’s blog examines some of the factors that have caused the cancellation of festivals over the past few years. Sonisphere is not the only ‘big’ festival to cancel in 2012, of course – The Big Chill’s organisers, Festival Republic, announced in January that 2012 would be a ‘fallow’ year for the festival.  Unlike Sonisphere, however, the Big Chill was able to cancel before it had advertised any acts or put any tickets on sale.

In my doctoral thesis, I identified a number of elements that can cause a live music event to fail and/or to be cancelled, based on Simon Frith’s five essential elements for a live music event (an artist, a venue, an audience, appropriate technology, and a catalyst – or promoter – whose role is that of bringing all these elements together).  Cancellation factors, then, divide into three categories: human (for example, the artist pulls out of the gig, or the audience gets out of control); physical (the venue gets double booked, for instance, or the technology packs in); and external crises (for example, bad weather or global economic recession).  Unlike an ‘ordinary’ gig, however, a festival is unlikely to be cancelled if the headliner(s) cancel(s).  The often multi-focus nature of a festival also means that if one element goes awry, another can pick up the slack.  So, for instance, if a second stage or dance tent has problems, this may cause displacement of the audience or cancellation of some artists, but would not necessarily lead to the cancellation of the entire event.

Below I list a number of festivals which were temporarily or permanently cancelled before, during, or after the event, and the factors that appeared to cause the cancellation (or, at least, the reasons cited by the festival organisers …). Added to the three categories above, poor ticket sales may also cause the promoter to cancel before the event takes place. Obviously, reasons for cancellation may not be one factor alone, but the combination of a number of factors that cause the organisers to pull the plug.

Before tickets go on sale

Glade Festival, Winchester, 2010 – cancellation blamed on ‘greatly increased’ requirements imposed upon the organisers for policing, security and stewarding – Glade returned in 2011

Big Chill, Eastnor Castle, 2012 – organisers have blamed a lack of artist availability and scheduling problems with London 2012 Olympics

Bideford Folk Festival, Torridge, 2011 – the economic climate and the rising cost of fuel blamed for the festival’s cancellation

Truck Festival, Oxford, 2012 ?– initially, reports of mis-management, too-rapid over-expansion, and poor ticket sales in 2011 led to the announcement that the 2012 festival would be cancelled, but Truck is now due to go ahead after the organisers of the Y-Not Festival stepped in to take over the running of the event.  Truck suffered another cancellation in 2007 due to flooding.

After tickets go on sale / before event has opened

Sonisphere, Knebworth, 2012 – statements from the promoter cite the current economic climate, touring problems, and ‘a bit of bad luck’. However, no-one outside of Kilimanjaro Live knows exactly why the festival has been pulled.

Beachdown, Brighton, 2009 – festival cancelled a matter of days before the event was due to open, organisers cited ‘slower than forecast ticket-sales and lack of support at a critical time from our bank and certain suppliers’

During

Sunrise Celebration, Somerset, 2008 – heavy rain and flash flooding caused the festival to be cancelled on the morning the gates were due to open

Pukkelpop Festival, Belgium, 2011 – sudden violent storms caused the tragic deaths of five people after staging collapsed, causing the organisers to cancel the event midway through.

Permanently cancelled after the event

Lakeside Festival, Sheffield, 2001 – a last-minute change of venue in 2001 was the most likely cause of poor ticket sales and a number of suppliers losing money, meaning that the event was a one-off and that Lakeside 2002 never happened …

Love Parade, Berlin, 2010 – twenty-one people were killed and at least five hundred people were injured following a stampede in a tunnel leading to one of the festival sites, after which the organisers decided that the event was permanently cancelled

The first thing to notice, then, is that festivals, perhaps more so than ‘ordinary’ gigs, appear to be particularly vulnerable to external factors such as bad weather, fuel costs, and the impact from other events such as the Olympics or other festivals.

The second thing to notice about festival cancellations is when the festival is cancelled in relation to the event – before tickets go on sale, after tickets go on sale, or during the event itself – and to understand how this impacts on the promoter and the festival participants (artist, audience, crew, etc.).

The decision to cancel the festival before tickets have gone on sale is probably the least financially/logistically tricky decision for the promoter as no money has changed hands at this point (although the reasons behind the cancellation may well be as a result of a large financial loss suffered after the failure of the previous festival).

Financially, the most costly option for the promoter is to cancel before the event takes place but after the tickets have gone on sale – they will most likely lose all ticket revenue and yet will probably have made unrecuperable financial investments.  In order to mitigate such risks, Sonisphere in 2012 introduced a non-refundable deposit scheme of £50 on booking, with the balance due on the 1st May.

The most dramatic occurrence is if the event is cancelled during the event (i.e. the festival was about to or had already opened its doors to punters). In this case, the promoter may be able to claw back revenue, dependent on the terms and conditions of the ticket sale; the promoter faces logistical difficulties, of course, in removing possibly angry and/or traumatised festival participants from the festival site once the decision to cancel has been made.

While cancelling a festival may cause short-term economic and logistical difficulties for the promoters, in the longer-term, they may also have lost what Goffman defines as ‘face’ – the somewhat unquantifiable ‘positive social value’ a person claims in their interaction with others, otherwise perceived as trustworthiness or respect – with the artist, the artist’s representatives (agents, managers, etc.), and the audience.  Out of the list of cancelled festivals above, some returned the following year, while for others, the cancellation of one year’s event meant that the event never recovered – the promoters of Lakeside Festival, for example, lost money but also face with the suppliers and artists who didn’t get paid, and the event bit the dust after the first year.   Beachdown and the Big Green Gathering, as another example, faced particular loss of face with their audiences after ticket refunds were slow to surface.

Let us hope, then, that Kilimanjaro Live are able to refund tickets successfully and that their policy of a non-refundable deposit does not backfire, or that the cancellation of acts such as Queen and Kiss has not lost them too much face among the live music industries. The festival obviously has a loyal fanbase and I’m sure that it will come back stronger in 2013.

With, on the one hand, Glastonbury taking a year out and perhaps leaving space for smaller festivals to thrive, and the Olympics on the other, almost certainly distracting some attention away from the UK festival scene, what can be said for certain is that 2012 is shaping up to be a very interesting year.

Emma Webster

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4 thoughts on “Sonisphere 2012: why festivals get cancelled – Emma Webster

  1. To this can be added festivals which advertise before they get licences and then have to be cancelled when they don’t. This is often a complex story and involves various parties blaming the other for the event not happening.

    Should you choose to hold a festival without the necessary licence then the police may choose to break it up. Historically important examples of this include the People’s Free Festival at Windsor in 1974 and the mega rave at Castlemorton in 1992.

    Prior to their reappearance in recent years festivals were effectively banned from the Isle of Wight under the 1971 Isle of Wight County Council Act.

    A very good account of festivals is Chris Anderton’s PhD which can be found at: http://solent.academia.edu/ChrisAnderton/Papers/275137/_Re_Constructing_Music_Festival_Places

    For my money the best book on festivals Michael Clarke’s The Politics of Pop Festivals which thirty years after its publication stands the test of time.

    I also recall that one promoter we interviewed during the live music project told us that we shouldn’t always believe the official reason for concerts being cancelled. So for “sore throat” read “not tickets sold”. As ever, devil lies (!) in detail.

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  2. An interesting blog. Though i think the overall factor for cancellation tends to be poor ticket sales (apart from the odd license not being given). Sonisphere had a pretty ropey line up – which they seem to be admitting – which in turn (+ econ conditions & other competition) led to poor ticket sales.

    The Glade is an interesting one for number of reasons. Tickets did go on sale in 2010 but sales were very poor. The festival had grown quickly in the first few years but then suffered a torrential downpour in 2007. Interestingly they were going to cancel the event on the friday in 2007 due to the severe floods (it was biblical) but the police said they wouldn’t be able to get people safely off site – so they may as well have the festival! They never really recovered from that though, 2008 was really quiet and a new venue in 2009 didn’t really work. In 2010 – although the police bill was high – I think that was used as an excuse to save face – which you touched on. In 2011 (after a big restructure behind the scenes & Secret Garden Party getting involved) they had a number of venues pull out on them – no doubt once they discovered the nature of the festival. They did manage to hold one in 2011 though with very reduced numbers (it was a great venue but in Norfolk) … it’ll be interesting to see how it fares this year

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  3. There is no single silver bullet to solve problems and no single lead one that will kill your festival.

    The thing that always amazes me is that there are people queuing up to take the high stakes Russian roulette spin on a festival. My only theory being that the old nasty rip-off merchant image of promoters has been replaced by that of being the coolest characters in town – it’s just that (sometimes) they pay heavily to buy their cultural capital.

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