Festivals Look beyond Music to Woo Punters in Tough Times

The Evening Standard (London, England), July 25, 2012 | Go to article overview

Festivals Look beyond Music to Woo Punters in Tough Times


Byline: Gideon Spanier

THE great live-music boom has reached saturation point after a decade of growth. In a year when Glastonbury, one of the main music events of the summer, isn't taking place, many other festivals are still struggling.

There is no shortage of excuses: the Olympics, the economy, the poor weather, the lack of big-name artists, youth unemployment, student tuition fees, the Diamond Jubilee and boredom with existing festivals are just some of the reasons cited by promoters to explain disappointing sales.

The only festivals company listed on the stock market, Vince Power's Music Festivals Group, which runs Hop Farm in Kent and Benicassim in Spain, has seen shares plunge 75% in a year as it has warned that sales have been slow.

A string of other festivals have been cancelled or collapsed this year.

These include The Bloc 2012 Festival in Docklands in June, Sonisphere at Knebworth this month, and The Big Chill in Herefordshire next month.

"It's basic economics," says Dean James, chief executive of Mama Group, the live music arm of HMV. "There's over-supply in the market as anyone with a field thought they could make easy money from a festival, and there's less demand because of economic conditions, alternative events and the weather. It's not rocket science."

The only surprise is that the market did not become over-saturated sooner. Music industry executives have looked to tours and festivals as their financial saviour as sales of CDs dived.

Annual revenues from live music in the UK overtook those of recorded music in 2008 to hit around [pounds sterling]1.5 billion, according to industry body PRS For Music. But there was a dip in 2009 and, after a recovery in 2010 and last year, revenues from live are likely to slide again this year.

The fortunes of the music scene are in contrast to the niche world of arts festivals. Events which offer more than just music such as Port Eliot, which took place in Cornwall last weekend, The Hay Literary Festival and Latitude in Suffolk are thriving. Ticket sales at Hay were up 10% on last year and Port Eliot, which keeps itself deliberately small, drew a similar crowd to a year ago.

It may help that these events tend to attract an older, more affluent and more family-orientated crowd -- dubbed "festival dads" -- who are happy to go camping in the countryside for three or four days.

But it also points to a significant trend: festival-goers have become more discerning about spending their cash, as they crave a special experience that feels original and unique -- something that some music festivals appear to lack as they have chased profits.

Cathy St Germans launched Port Eliot as a literary event a decade ago and has expanded it to include fashion, art and culture as well as music. "When we started, the only festival we had to think about at this time of year was Womad," she says. "It's incredible in the last nine years how many festivals there are."

She believes the key has been to keep the Port Eliot intimate, with only 6500 festival-goers -- rather than tens of thousands -- and to be imaginative.

"We keep doing things that are different.

You can't copy us -- there are always surprises," says Lady St Germans, referring to everything from a pop-up hair salon and a flower show to wild river swimming and a jokey athletics contest, called the Rubbish Olympics. Few festivals are as quirky as Port Eliot, but James of Mama Group says music promoters can learn from arts festivals. "I've thought for some time that the days of 'a band in a field with a bar' festival were limited," he says.

"A lack of artists to keep the punter going to that sort of festival being the main reason. …

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