Ten Things Learned at the Festival Congress 2014 – Emma Webster

The inaugural Festival Congress took place in Cardiff in October 2014, organised by the Association of Independent Festivals. A number of festival promoters and festival suppliers gathered for a conference and awards dinner. Live Music Exchange was there in the shape of Emma Webster, who wrote and presented a report based on six years’ worth of AIF audience survey data within a wider contextual framework.

As with previous industry conferences – namely the Live Music Summit in 2012 and Festival Awards Conference in 2012 – Live Music Exchange likes to share what we’ve heard or overheard, and so the following contains our ‘Ten Things Learned at the Festival Congress 2014’:-

  1. There was concern from some quarters about the competition between the smaller independent festivals and their larger cousins, particularly Live Nation-owned festivals such as Reading and Leeds. Indeed, 2000trees director, James Scarlett, accused the bigger festivals, such as Live Nation’s Reading, of ‘suffocating’ and trying to ‘squash’ smaller festivals by forcing artists into exclusivity deals which do not allow artists to play any other festivals, which was felt to be not necessarily good for the artist’s career as it limits their audience. Catfish and the Bottlemen were suggested as an example of an artist who was allowed to play a wide number of festivals by their booking agent and hence played to a wide audience. To counter this practice, Rob da Bank suggested that there should be a cap at either £5K fee or 5000 capacity festival, below which exclusivity deals should not be allowed. In addition, AIF members are also encouraged not to use exclusivity deals themselves in order to encourage best practice among the bigger festivals and artists’ agents. It was also interesting to note that AIF acts partly as a ‘gossip shop’ according to founder Rob da Bank, useful for finding out how much other promoters pay for their artists
  2. Yourope, the European festival association, has produced a set of Standard Terms (The Yourope Standard Terms) for festivals booking artists and performers for live performances in 2014. The aim is to protect promoters from signing contracts which force them to provide services/riders which the promoter does not see until after the contract has been signed, but the Terms also include standardised clauses around issues such as weather, security, and backline provision.
  3. The total spend by AIF member festival-goers for the past five years (2010 to 2014) is estimated to be approximately £1.01 billion. The estimated total spend in the local area by AIF member festival-goers over the past five years is £77.1 million.
  4. 79 new drugs came onto the market in 2013 – this is up from 49 in 2011. Safe & Sound’s Katy Macleod explained that while so-called NPSs (New Psychoactive Substances) are prevalent at festivals, they are not as prevalent as so-called ‘traditional’ drugs, of which alcohol is the biggest ‘problem’ drug, followed by ecstasy and MDMA.
  5. A group of festival promoters have started an initiative called ‘The Show Must Go On’ to coordinate the festival industry’s response to climate change/crisis. The first initiative will be to encourage audience members to offset carbon via donation at the point at which they purchase tickets. In a slightly different vein, we also heard about The Festival Woods, which is a wild forest regeneration initiative from A Greener Festival and charity Trees for Life, which has so far has planted 1056 trees.
  6. 50% of Glastonbury’s waste is recycled at the festival’s onsite facility and is sorted by hand. The sheer volume of waste means that the festival’s waste service is at capacity and cannot go any higher and so the festival is looking at ways of reducing waste, including using stainless steel water bottles and reusable cups for alcohol from the bars. Shambala already charges for its reusable cups which means that if people don’t bring them back to the bar, they have to pay a levy to get a new one. Shambala’s Chris Johnson explained how his festival uses simple psychology to encourage people not to drop litter, which is that if your festival site is clean, people don’t drop litter; Shambala therefore employs more litter pickers throughout the day (rather than only in the morning or afternoon) to keep the site clean.
  7. Surplus food distribution charity FareShare collected six tonnes of food from just three festivals in 2013, including Bestival, and distributed it to vulnerable people to prevent it going to waste. Another charity collected 30 tonnes of food waste at Denmark’s Roskilde and Glastonbury is estimated to produce 50-60 tonnes of food waste each year, from both traders and festival-goers.
  8. Standon Calling is the first festival to go entirely cash-free, using RFID technology to enable festival-goers to leave their cash at home. The technology is not entirely risk-free, however – traders were left unpaid by the trading arm of a different festival, Galtres Festival, which used a cashless payment system and then went bust.
  9. Research by James Cobb into fatigue in live production shows that 75% of those working on-site regularly get 6 or less hours’ sleep while 18% are regularly getting 4 or less hours’ sleep. 63% admitted to at least one ‘near-miss’ in the past year, and 11% suffered at least one injury which required time off work – this is compared to 1% in the construction sector. While there are laws in the UK to prevent this kind of thing happening, it was felt that these are ignored in order to save money, but it was argued that ‘we can’t keep working people to death in this industry’.
  10. There was debate over whether festivals should provide internet access for its festival-goers if mobile signal was poor. On the one hand, internet access was seen by some as vital for staying in touch with friends and for social media – those working behind the scenes also require good internet access as the backstage areas are often full of tour managers working on their artist’s next shows. On the other hand, festivals are seen by some as places to switch off and get away from technology and the ‘real world’. One point raised by a number of people were the long queues for people accessing recharging points – some even mentioned that the most aggressive behaviour across the entire festival site could be found at these charging points.

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!


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