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Will the show go on? DCMS launch an inquiry into the future of music festivals

Posted on 30 November 2020

The cancellation and postponement of music festivals across the UK due to COVID-19 has compounded the financial difficulties for the music industry, and for the live performance sector more generally. With revenues from festivals down 90% compared to 2019, the economic impact has been significant for all those performing or working at festivals, as well as those employed throughout music festivals' supply chain.

In light of this, the Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) Committee has announced an inquiry into 'The Future of UK music festivals', with evidence to be submitted by Wednesday 9 December 2020. This follows its recently launched inquiry into the 'Economics of the music streaming industry', which we wrote about here.  However, the rationale behind each inquiry is slightly different: the festivals inquiry is predominantly driven by the effects of COVID-19 (albeit also looking into a few separate, un-related issues), whilst the music streaming inquiry is largely the result of underlying (and long-standing) concerns relating to business models. Nevertheless, it is promising that the opportunity to consider and evaluate the future of both music streaming and music festivals is underway.

What evidence does the inquiry seek?

  • With a varied remit, the inquiry by the DCMS Committee poses a number of questions in its call for evidence:
  • What is the economic and cultural contribution of the UK’s festival industry?
  • What has been the impact of cancellations on local economies and those who derive income from festivals during 2020?
  • What are the risks to festivals taking place in 2021 and beyond, and how can these be mitigated?
  • What measures are needed for audiences to attend festivals without social distancing, and how realistic are they?
  • What has been the impact of the temporary VAT cut and Culture Recovery Fund on festivals and their supply chains, and what else can the Government do to secure their futures?
  • How has the structure of the UK festivals market evolved over recent years, and what has this meant for consumers, artists and the wider industry? What further changes might be anticipated?
  • How can festivals be supported to reduce their environmental impact and tackle the dangers of illegal drug use?

What does this mean?

Whilst the majority of the inquiry's questions seek responses on the economic impact for festivals and how they might take place next year with practical, logistical and public safety considerations paramount, there are also longer term questions looking at structural changes to music festivals and their environmental impact.

An initial point to note relates to the Government's economic measures to support festivals and their supply chains. The Culture Recovery Fund is one of the Government's key financial packages that provides financial support to cultural and heritage organisations. The responses in the inquiry to the economic and financial questions will be intriguing, especially given that smaller to medium-sized festivals are more likely to rely on the financial lifelines and that the music industry operates with a large numbers of freelance and self-employed personnel. With the Chair of the DCMS Committee commenting that "[it’s] crucial that support to enable music festivals to go ahead in 2021 and beyond is put in place", it is apparent that attention will focus on support in the short to medium term. Any further or supplementary financial support will depend on the extent to which the current financial measures are considered sufficient and appropriate. Depending on the nature of the responses, changes may be forthcoming to the operation of the Culture Recovery Fund (for example to the application criteria or to the level of funds available to expand its scope and reach), amendments to the other existing support measures (e.g. more target tax breaks or cuts), or implementing another form of sector specific financial support.,

To assist with developing operational and logistical structures that will allow festivals to run next year, responses are sought in relation to managing the risks associated with hosting large scale populous outdoor events in an economically viable manner, whilst retaining the 'feel' and 'experience' for the attendees. Any indication from the UK Government as to how, and under what conditions, the show will be allowed to go on in a safe manner will assist those organising and managing festivals, as well as those reliant on festivals for income.

Finally, a couple of broader, more existential questions are asked as to the state of the music festival industry. Specifically, these explore recent and future changes to the structure of UK festivals (as they develop and evolve with greater variety in their musical, cultural, artistic and culinary offerings), as well as looking into the increasingly important environmental footprint of festivals. Their environmental impact has often been publicised, and while progress has been made by some festivals in this regard (such as reducing or banning single use plastics), it is reassuring to see greater consideration being given to further reducing their effect. We hope to see forthcoming proposals and action on environmentally sustainable criteria that festivals should meet, rather than a piecemeal approach.   

Closing Comments

Whilst the timely launch of this DCMS Committee inquiry will hopefully identify areas and ways in which further, and more targeted, support could (and should) be provided to those working across the music festival sector, swift implementation of any proposals will be critical.. We will continue to follow, and provide updates on, developments in this space.

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