Health Check: The UK Festival

James Drury gives his thoughts...
jamesdrury.jpg
The British festival season is the most competitive on the planet.

Viewed from outer space, there must be times when Britain looks like a tiny island teeming with renovated VW vans breezing from field to field. There’s more competition than ever before and – sadly – some events are struggling.

A flurry of postponements and late call offs last summer led some to observe that the British love affair with the outdoor festival was over. Yet fast forward 12 months and here we are, clutching insect repellent and cheap cider, ready to do it all over again.

ClashMusic sat down with UK Festival Awards coordinator James Drury to find out more.

- - -

The British outdoor festival - failing or thriving?
James: For me there was was some media reports last year: “demise of the festival industry” and so on, which I actually found frustrating. Looking at it from my point of view, I see millions of people going to festivals every summer, new events still get launched and are successful. There were some festivals that didn’t go ahead, but that’s the same every year, and I think you’ll find that in any industry anywhere. Some projects work, some don’t. That’s just the way business is really. The fact that there are still so many festivals selling out in record time, I certainly think that any talk of the death of the festival industry is bonkers. Things to me seem in a really healthy state, I think that festival promotions are mindful of the fact that consumers are being a bit more cautious with their spending. Despite the fact that people are a bit more cautious with their spending, their not showing any sign of not going to festivals. I think people see festivals from two points of view: they see it as their music budget, but also they see it as a holiday as well.

Do you think that’s a very important part of where festivals are going, that people are now, because there’s so much choice, that festivals need to cater towards a specific audience and a demand?
Yeah, absolutely. The British festival industry is probably one of the most competitive in the world and I think that what we’ve seen over the last ten years is a real maturity to and a lot more professionalism coming to festivals. There no longer sort of hippie, mud bath, disaster design with horrible toilets and a crappy burger to eat. You can now camp in amazing luxury, the customer service design is really top quality, and festival organisers work really hard on not just customer service, but creating this year round community. It’s not just like someone’s putting on a festival for us, it’s a real collaborative process, I think. Festival owners really pay attention to what the fans say and what they want and I think that’s a wicked thing.

The festival season before was a domain almost of young people, and the demographics have entirely shifted and there’s a lot of family orientated festivals. Have you noticed that as well from your side?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s not just family festivals either, it’s festivals that cater for all kind of audiences. The audience base, like you said, has grown from just being young people, and it’s expanded not just at the top end where you’ve got events for older people, you’ve got Underage, that’s exclusively for under eighteens. I think what we’re seeing is people who went to see music when they were younger then they had a family, they understand that just because you’ve got kids doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t have anymore fun. There’s great events like Lollipop and Camp Bestival and so on, which really do cater for them very specifically. I think with the increased competition in the market, I think having a USP - to put it in a horrible marketing term - is really important, having a strong theme or identity or vibe. Something that people can identify with and gather around and I think that’s what the really successful ones are doing.

Do you think the Olympics is going to have a big impact on the festivals in London and the South this summer?
From talking to organisers and suppliers and so on, everyone’s saying that it will be normal service. But there is no doubt that the Olympics will put a huge strain on resources that are available to festival organisers. But i think the live music industry is really creative and amazing at problem solving and coming up with creative solutions for issues like that. While I think there will be a strain in resources, I have no doubt that people will get round it. I think the Olympics is going to present challenges and opportunities for festivals. Festivals are a really huge financial gamble, you have to put up so much money hoping that enough people will come to cover your cost. So many events just break even or struggle to make a profit, it’s not something you want to do if you want to get rich, really. The Olympics is certainly going to draw some attention away from brands and sponsorship and that kind of thing, which can often be quite an important income stream. But I think at the same time if some brands can’t afford to get into the Olympics will be looking at music and thinking this is a great chance to look at music as an opportunity where it’s less crowded this year. Sports are going to be really busy with sponsors this year. I think music can be an attractive alternative.

How has the growth of European festivals affected the British marketplace?
Yeah, I think british festival goers are very adventurous when it comes to going to festivals outside the UK. Probably more so than any other European country i could suggest. I don’t know, I think the type of people that would go abroad for a festival are the people that really love festivals and will likely go to a festival in the UK as well as ones abroad. I know there has been some concern in the past about some of the lineups, which is just an Easyjet flight away, and perhaps the cheaper ticket prices, because i some countries infrastructures are cheaper than it is here. I don’t think it’s had a huge effect on the British market in terms of a negative impact. Earlier I said people view festivals as holidays as well as a music experience. I think people who go abroad to festivals are the kind of people who are really passionate festival goers and will probably do UK festivals as well.

There's been a rapid growth in the amount of lifestyle festivals on the summer landscape.
Yeah, I think it again comes down to the fact that people’s perception of festivals has really changed over the last few years, and perhaps people who are more affluent and perhaps might not be at that younger age bracket, people a little bit older and so on think that festivals are something they want to go to and combining some acts that they like with some high quality food is a good experience, perhaps for the older festival goer. I think challenges, if you want to talk about some challenges, artist fees and availability of artists is something in people’s minds. Artists are making less money from records, looking to make it up ion the live circuit, and especially from festivals. I think that their has been some criticism of some lineups looking quite similar, you know there’s only a fine number of artists to go round. I think what the smart festivals are doing is creating an atmosphere or a reason to go which is outside the artist. So that people want to go whether or not you’ve got the Foo Fighters are playing for example, they wan to go anyway. Like Glastonbury, the festival sells out without announcing any acts really, doesn’t it? So I think that’s the holy grail for festivals.

What do you see as the prevailing trends this summer?
I suppose electronic music, but that’s not really new, I think that’s been making a pretty big comeback anyway. You certainly see more and more electronic acts programmed at events which were predominantly rock. i think this year is...I don’t want to say it won’t show any growth or there won’t be any growth areas, but I think this year there are some challenges that festivals will be rising to. Let’s see what happens on the other side of the year. There’s some particularly interesting stuff happening around technology.

You can just scan a barcode on a poster now and then you’ll get the latest lineup information, ticket details, advice...
I think that’s a very interesting development in the market. The opportunity to not have cash at festivals for example, is probably quite an attractive thing for festival goers, because it means you don’t lose it or it won’t get stolen and it’s a lot more secure.

Any personal highlights from last year?
Seeing the big four at Sonisphere last year for me was pretty exciting. I actually really enjoyed Odd Future at Camden Crawl, that was a really good show. I can’t really say which ones are my favorites, I don’t have a favorite festival; I have a festival for each kind of mood. Last year had some absolutely amazing festivals and I went to fifteen. I just think that the creativity in the festival industry always stands out for me; it’s what keeps me really excited and passionate. Seeing new events like Wilderness, which won best new festival at the festival awards. It just goes to show that you can launch new events even though there’s an economic downturn and they can still be successful.

- - -

James Drury is MD of the UK Festival Awards.

Have your say

Sign in or Register to leave comments
-