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Will music festivals actually happen this year?

Summer 2021 is fast approaching. Niamh Ingram surveys the festival landscape to find out which festivals are likely to go ahead

  • Niamh Ingram
  • 27 January 2021

Glastonbury has been cancelled for the second year in a row, casting doubt over the 2021 festival season and whether festivals will be able to happen this summer amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Glasto organisers Michael and Emily Eavis said that in spite of “efforts to move heaven and earth”, it became “clear” that the festival couldn’t go ahead. So are festivals really doomed for another year or will they be back on?

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Paul Reed, CEO of the Association of Independent Festivals, said that the fate of the hundreds of UK festivals that take place over the summer is dependent on their size. While Glastonbury won’t be able to welcome quarter of a million people to Worthy Farm this year, smaller festivals may still be happening. “There are 975 festivals in the UK,” Reed told The Guardian last week. “Though some of the larger events will be making decisions this month as to whether they go ahead, for many of the smaller ones, the cutoff will be later.”

Mixmag has reached out to a number of UK festivals to find out how they will be approaching the 2021 summer season. While some were hesitant to share information publicly, others were confident that the show would go ahead safely despite the pandemic.

After claiming on social media that “it’s going to happen, no question”, organisers of Newsam Park and Mint Festival in Leeds told us that they’re preparingg for both festivals as normal, but going ahead depends on the government guidelines. “If they are needed, we have rapid tests in place for both Newsam Park and Mint Festival, however things have changed a lot since we announced this in December, we have to wait and see, things are changing every week, its out of our hands,” said promoter Stuart Forsyth."

Rapid COVD-19 testing is one of the keys that could unlock this summer’s festival season and the UK’s Swallow Events is the first company to offer “a full rapid testing screening service facility to detect COVID-19” that is now available in 24 countries. They say that results are ready in 15 minutes and the tests boast zero false negatives.

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Swallow Events has also established a digital passport platform “which enables a digital customer verification process - including age verification among other things - to be fully integrated with any rapid test or vaccine results.” Mirroring developments in wider culture, the company says their digital passport can be used to track ticket holders in order to show they’ve been tested and are able to enter a festival site safely.

Albanian festival Unum will be using Swallow Events’ tests this summer and last week announced a line-up alongside the assertion that the event will “100 per cent” go ahead while Primavera Sound just revealed that a non-socially distanced event featuring rapid testing in Barcelona returned no COVID infections.

Boomtown has become one of the leading UK festival’s over the last decade and has a capacity of 66,000 people. Whether or not it goes ahead will be a barometer for what happens to other large festivals and although “none of the plans that have been developed since March 2020 have stayed the same for longer than 24 hours”, Boomtown’s Communications and Strategy Director Anna Wade is currently feeling hopeful the event will be happening. The festival was relaunched in October to “provide foundations that’ll enable us to put on a safe, secure, COVID compliant event”.

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While all festivals will be taking the appropriate steps toward being able to open as safely as possible, some events are throwing caution to the wind by securing weekends in September. London’s Mighty Hoopla has moved from June to September, a decision made “following vaccine roll out timing reviews and rapid testing” according to Jamie Tagg, festival organiser. Lambeth council has given the festival the green light and the Mighty Hoopla will “ensure every necessary safety measure” (as well as free tickets to NHS staff) but organisers won’t be releasing full safety measures until a later date (sister festival Cross The Tracks will also take place the day after Mighty Hoopla in the same location of Brockwell Park).

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Hospitality In The Woods has also nailed a date in September. “Despite the difficulties and challenges of the last 10 months across the UK and the wider world, Hospitality is still very much looking forward to the summer and its adventure in the woods when everyone can hopefully come together as one,” say organisers in the hope that the rearrangement of dates will allow the festival to operate as normally as possible.

In the wake of the cancellation of Glastonbury’s June date, Michael Eavis has even speculated that he wants to do a smaller event in September that coincides with the date the very first Glasto was held on – September 18 1970.

Smaller, more nimble festivals and all-day events may be able to change dates at the last minute with relative ease, like TRNSMT in Glasgow. Festival Director Geoff Ellis told The Guardian that there was still hope for the great Scottish event. “It takes us days rather than months to build,” he explained, suggesting that events such as TRNSMT could hold off longer if there is a chance of being given the go-ahead. Referring to Glastonbury’s cancellation, he added that “all other festivals are on a very different scale” in comparison, so the cancellation of the landmark festival might not have sealed the fate of others quite yet.

The uncertainty caused by the pandemic is also underpinned by the absence of insurance indemnity for the festival industry from the government. While other arts industries such as the film and television sectors are provided with insurance schemes to provide a safety net for COVID-related consequences, there is a gaping absence of the sort for the festivals.

“We have 250 artists booked for Parklife in September,” Sacha Lord told The Guardian recently. “They are imminently going to start wanting deposits and we need the confidence from insurance to start paying those deposits.”

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Many festivals are not covered for communicable diseases and insurance providers are not selling cover for cancellation and business interruption due to COVID-19, making it extra risky for festivals to plan for 2021.

Like its slow response in helping the £66 billion night time economy, the government has been similarly sluggish in moving to support festivals. Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden made a vague statement saying “we continue to help the arts on recovery, including problems around getting insurance” while an earlier remark from Digital and Culture Minister Caroline Dinenage said that the government was “not yet convinced by the evidence presented to date that insurance intervention is the right form of support for the events sector nor that this is the right time to consider it”.

Bodies such as UK Music have been calling for the government to support the festival industry and to take a lead from Germany – the country recently announced a €2.5 billion cancellation fund to cover the cost of events planned for the second half of 2021 that may be cancelled due to COVID-19.

Of course, there will be a plethora of online festivals and VR experiences but with rapid testing now a reality and a vaccine that is being delivered to people quicker than anywhere else in Europe, it’s now time for the government to step in and work with festivals to provide support and a roadmap to get the festival back on track safely in 2021.

Niamh Ingram is a freelance journalist and co-founder of The Gem Collective. Follow her on Twitter

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