Six Things Learned from the Festival Awards 2012 Conference – Emma Webster

The annual Festival Awards conference was held on Monday 3rd December 2012 at the Roundhouse in Camden, London.  Live Music Exchange was there and brings this report of what was learned about the UK’s festival industry this year.

1.      Mixed messages as to the health of the UK festival market

A recent YouGov report predicted that UK festival attendance is set to further decline in 2013.  The 2013 UK Festival Market Report, however – published in the showguide – was relentlessly optimistic: based on a survey of 11,000 respondents, the Report declared that ‘expectations are high, but the British passion for festivals runs deep’.  The Report then set out to bust five myths, including ‘Bad weather is putting people off’, ‘There’s a recession, people can’t afford to go to festivals any more’, and ‘The market is saturated’.  So far, so positive.  However, the conference programme itself tells a slightly different picture. The 2010 conference’s ‘headline’ panel was entitled ‘Dispatches from the Field’, and featured a panel of three of the biggest UK festival promoters – John Giddings (Isle of Wight), John Probyn (Live Nation UK), and James Barton (Cream) – who spent a somewhat self-congratulatory hour swapping juicy stories about their (very successful) festivals. The 2012 conference, on the other hand, ended with a panel entitled ‘The Festivals Emergency Board Meeting’, featuring Stuart Galbraith of the Sonisphere (cancelled) and Tony Scott of Guilfest (in administration).  Mixed messages indeed, then.

The general mood seemed to be that 2012 had been a very difficult year for both large and small festivals.  Bestival and the Association of Independent Festival’s Rob da Bank posited that 2012 had been a ‘perfect storm’ in which big and small festivals had struggled. Guilfest’s Tony Scott cited intense competition from events such as the Olympics (both in terms of the event itself and peripheral events such as the Live Nation promoted BT London Live events in Hyde Park, and other Live Nation promoted concerts such as Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen), and the weather as the main factors in Guilfest’s demise.

2.     The continued importance of Glastonbury Festival (and the BBC) to the festival sector

Perhaps surprising considering the size of Glastonbury Festival and its pull on customers away from other festivals was the feeling among speakers on ‘The Festivals Emergency Board Meeting’ panel that Glastonbury had been sorely missed in 2012.  The consensus seemed to be that Glastonbury – and the BBC’s extensive coverage – pushed festivals into the national consciousness and that the festival’s fallow years adversely affected UK festivals as a whole.  This is summed up by Serious Stages’ Steven Corfield:-

Not only did we miss [Glastonbury Festival], but I heard a fascinating thing from other promoters, who told me they missed it too … They say their festivals don’t do as well when there is no Glastonbury.  When Glastonbury is on, it’s on the news the whole time, the BBC is pumping it out, and everyone thinks … festivals (cited in Glen 2012, p. 20).

The BBC, then, albeit a public broadcaster, is essential to the success of the commercial festival sector in the UK.  For more on the importance of the BBC to the live music sector, see the three-part series on the history of live music in the UK by Simon Frith et al to be published in March 2013.

3.     Festival promoter revenue and the ‘new bottom line’

In a panel entitled ‘The New Bottom Line’, Chris McCormick – Director of branding agency BluePeg – revealed the festival promoter’s average income, based on an anonymous survey of festival promoters:-

68% – tickets
15% – bars and wet sales
10% – sponsorship
5% – trades and stalls
2% – merchandise

The panel was spent discussing means of increasing revenue that did not necessarily involve a continual increase in ticket prices, including increasing advertising and sponsorship for live streaming, and the use of chip and PIN and RFID technology to allow easier cash transactions.  The latter, however, is currently thwarted by issues with battery and network capacity, infrastructures in which promoters would need to invest.

Two slightly disturbing discussions were over ‘dynamic pricing’ and the afore-mentioned RFID technology (from the previous panel, ‘How to Capture and Retain an Audience’).  Dynamic pricing would allow promoters running the bars to change the pricing of drinks throughout the day, for example, which would mean that they could be sold more cheaply at less busy times of the day and vice versa (one audience member did point out that this may well backfire and anger festival-goers).  The latter – RFID technology – would mean that, if mobile phones are to become the means by which people pay for goods and products in the near future, ticket and consumer data could be directly linked to customer’s social media networks.  This would enable festival promoters to ‘personalise the festival experience’ by offering the festival-goer something ‘you know they want’ as they’re walking around the site, such as special offers based on previous alcohol spend or artist merchandise based on music download purchases.  It may well just be me, but this sounds increasingly Orwellian.  Particularly when coupled with Stuart Galbraith’s remark at the Live Music Exchange, Leeds event in May that:-

There’s already technologies now – softwares – coming in that we’re running beta trials with, where as soon as I get you to engage with me on Facebook – and you opt in – I can then data mine your network.  And, er … So we’ve promoted shows for thirty years and we do market research when we launch a show and  ‘this TV show produced this’ and ‘this newspaper ad …’  And at the top of that list, every single time, is ‘heard it from a friend’.  So for the first time in thirty years we’re actually going to know who those friends are.

Stuart Galbraith & Simon Frith – Live Music Exchange, Leeds (May 2012) – 51’42”

 

4.     Festivals may now be 365 days-a-year events

Linked to the previous point, and from the same panel, was the concept that festivals are no longer weekend-long events, but are now being seen by some festival promoters as a ‘365 day-a-year activity’.  This is made possible by social media, of course, whereby festival promoters attempt to ‘build an event that lasts all year’ and in which the festival-goer is able to interact with the promoters and other festival-goers via social media to create an online community in which festival-goers contribute to decisions over headliners, etc.  The Head of Digital for V Festivals – Paul Glossop – commented on the difficulties that V faces in maintaining a regular audience, due to the changing nature of the festival’s headliners and therefore identity (Eminem one year, The Stone Roses the next), but promoters of smaller festivals such as 2000Trees are able to connect readily with their audience via their Facebook page.  Through the use of posts such as 2000Trees’ favourite albums of the year and subsequent discussions, the festival is able to maintain its allegiance and therefore identity with certain artists and genres.  In this way, festival promoters are allegedly ‘not forcing sales messages down their throats, just interacting with them as they would with their Facebook friends’.

5.     Social Media and the Facebook ‘dial-down’

Keeping with Facebook for a moment, the elephant in the room at the conference – as pointed out to me by Shambala Festival’s Chris Johnson – was the lack of discussion about Facebook’s recent page reach ‘dial down’.  Reports have indicated that organic page reach has dropped between 40% and 85%, meaning that if a festival promoter posts something on their Facebook page, the number of page posts seen in fans’ newsfeeds has been reduced. This may have been a deliberate move by Facebook, possibly to increase revenue from sponsored ads (‘if you want your fanbase to see your post, you’re going to have to pay for it’), although the company has denied this.  Perhaps social media is not the golden goose festival promoters hope it is, but for the meantime, some festival promoters certainly appear to be investing large amounts of time and money in increasing their social media profiles, albeit using third party software with their own commercial agendas.

6.     What to do when lightning does actually strike

Finally, in a fascinating panel entitled ‘When Lightning Strikes’ about bad weather, emergency planning, insurance, audience safety and crowd management, some bright spark from the audience asked what to do if lightning actually does strike at a festival.  Tim Roberts, Director of the Event Safety Shop consultancy, recommended the following:-

  • Stages are relatively safe if they are constructed from metal frames because of what is known as the so-called ‘Faraday’s Cage Effect’, wherein the metal frame will earth the lightning.  Artists and crew should therefore remain on the stage, although not in high winds in which stages may collapse.
  • Another safe place, for the same reason, is inside a car – therefore evacuating audience members to their cars is a good option.
  • Large tents and marquees are not safe structures, on the other hand, as such structures have a tendency to fall over in bad weather and crush those inside.
  • Personal tents, on the other hand, being smaller, are another good option.
  • Generally, an effective lightning evacuation plan would be to distribute the audience away from central areas and away from large structures.

Of interest in the discussion was that no-one cited any major festival disasters that have occurred in the UK, instead describing the tragedies that have occurred in the US and in mainland Europe.  It appears that disasters in the UK tend to take place in indoor venues such as nightclubs but not – touch wood – at outdoor events such as festivals.  Whether this is a result of the extremely high competency of those who work at UK events, because of UK regulation, publications such as the HSE’s ‘Purple Book’, or the UK climate, is not clear, however, but long may it continue!

References

Glen, A. (2012) ‘Supporting Stars’. Festival, December, Issue 12. Live UK, London.

 

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