Millions of tickets have already been sold and headline acts from Keane to Stormzy are preparing to return to the stage, but the organisers of hundreds of live music festivals planned for this summer are warning that if the government does not follow other European countries and offer to underwrite Covid cancellation insurance, they may be forced to pull the plug.
The national reopening timetable, largely unchanged since it was announced in February, will allow mass gatherings from late June. But scheduling a post-pandemic event brings significant financial risk, as a local or national spike in coronavirus cases could lead to a last-minute cancellation by public health authorities, which would leave festival organisers with huge losses.
In recent weeks the sold-out 66,000-capacity Boomtown festival near Winchester and Shambala, due to take place in Northamptonshire on the August bank holiday weekend, became the latest events to cancel because of a lack of insurance.
The organisers of Boomtown blamed their decision on the lack of Covid-specific cancellation insurance from the government, writing on Twitter: “There’s no safety net to support. This means we would be gambling up to an 8-figure loss should the event not be able to go ahead due to Covid restrictions, which would put the future of the festival at serious risk.”
Government-backed insurance is the “big missing piece of the jigsaw,” said Greg Parmley, the chief executive of the Live trade association. “There is no commercial insurance available for coronavirus. Other governments are stepping up and helping; we feel like we are banging our head against a wall. We are seeing a steady stream of cancellations and it will get bigger until the summer.”
The music industry, festival organisers and promoters have been calling for several months for a government-based indemnity scheme. This would operate like a form of insurance by providing financial support if events were affected by the coronavirus crisis, similar to the film and TV production restart scheme announced last July.
European countries including Austria, Denmark and Sweden have launched such schemes, and the Dutch government recently created a €300m (£259m) event cancellation fund to cover music, business and sporting events scheduled from 1 July until the end of the year.
The average cost of staging an independent festival is £6m, according to the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF), and about 40% of payments, including non-refundable deposits, are due a month in advance.
More cancellations are expected as crunch time looms, according to Paul Reed, the chief executive of the AIF, which represents 85 events.
“As organisers get closer to having to commit to those costs, I think sadly you are going to see more and more understandably take the decision to not take that level of risk,” Reed said. “If for whatever reason the event can’t go ahead for a Covid-related issue, for an independent business it would bankrupt them.”
A crowd of thousands of people gathering to eat, drink and dance may still seem a distant prospect, although festivals mainly take place outdoors, but the government’s easing of lockdown in England anticipates a full lifting of restrictions from 21 June.
Trials of mass gatherings and indoor events by the UK government are taking place in April and May to assess how venues might operate safely this summer. The first “near normal” concert will take place in Liverpool on 2 May, when the band Blossoms will play to a crowd of 5,000 fans, who will need a negative Covid test result to attend but will not be required to wear masks or socially distance.
Consumer demand for live events has bounced back, and some of the UK’s largest have vowed to go ahead, including the Reading and Leeds festivals headlined by Stormzy and Liam Gallagher, albeit without insurance as yet. However, Glastonbury will not welcome its 210,000-strong crowd for the second year in a row.
Following the announcement of the national roadmap, 2m tickets were sold in just 72 hours for events that the independent festival production house The Fair is involved in, according to its chief executive, Nick Morgan.
Some festivals have shifted from early to late summer in the hope of hosting a sizeable crowd. The Hampton Court Palace festival, located at the former home of Henry VIII near Richmond-upon-Thames, has moved its series of evening concerts by the likes of Tom Jones and Keane from June to August.
The concentration of more events in September brings its own challenges. “It’s a much shortened season, there is less kit like stages available because everyone is competing for the same weekend,” said Morgan. “There are more shows than ever on any weekend.”
Organisers have found that owners of equipment including fencing and trackway sold it off to construction companies in 2020 in a desperate attempt to raise cash after live events shut down.
The organisers still intent on welcoming back music fans are working out how best to operate safely, although organisers have said social distancing will not be possible. Latitude festival, held in Suffolk in July, has said it will test festivalgoers who have not been vaccinated against Covid before they enter, and will refund all ticket holders if the event is postponed or cancelled.
Events including Womad and the family-focused music event Standon Calling are considering posting Covid tests to attenders to use before arrival, particularly because younger audience members are unlikely to have been vaccinated by the summer. Both festivals have pledged to refund ticketholders who test positive and cannot attend.
Womad, founded by Peter Gabriel, hopes to welcome its usual crowd of 40,000 to its home at Malmesbury in Wiltshire to watch artists including Anoushka Shankar and Nitin Sawhney, although on a 30% larger site.
“There is a real hunger to get back out there again to meet, to greet, to hug, to do all those things which have been denied to us for so long,” said the festival’s director, Chris Smith. He added: “This year is about reassurance. Even with restrictions lifted, there are people who want to come but are asking, what we are doing?”
The festival is planning to provide audience members who would like space from other guests with a “womat”, which they can place on the ground to demarcate their area.
Meanwhile, the Glyndebourne opera festival in Sussex promises ticketholders for its summer season that only uncirculated air will be used in the auditorium as part of its Covid-19 safety measures, while it will provide socially distanced seating indoors.
Standon Calling, a 17,000-capacity festival in Hertfordshire, is going ahead in July after its founder Alex Trenchard raised £90,000 last year through a crowdfunding campaign from regular attenders, and recently secured a £400,000 grant from the government’s culture recovery fund.
Trenchard believes Covid status certificates may help large-scale events to take place, but added that many questions remained unanswered.
“What is important is that the Covid certification integrates through the IT with my ticketing,” Trenchard said, “otherwise you are going to have to introduce a lot of human input which maybe leads to more errors and a time-consuming process.”