When festivals go bad
It’s not all happy revellers and photos of people wearing Indian head-dresses on the festival front this summer
Kilkenny’s Light Colour Sound, the festival with the unpaid artist bills, is not the only problem event on the festival circuit this summer. It seems that promoters other than just LCS trio Marie Croft, Arlie Croft and Thomas Donoghue will have reasons to remember summer 2014 as a tempore horribilis.
There’s All Tomorrow Parties and their ill-fated Jabberwocky event which was supposed to happen in London at the weekend and didn’t go ahead. There’s Vince Power, the one-time Mean Fiddler big kahoona, who has been banned from staging live music events in the UK due to outstanding licence issues when he allegedly operated the Hop Farm Music Festival in Kent from 2009 to 2012 without a PRS licence. There’s Lisa Paulon’s Camden Crawl, the festival which held two runs in Dublin in recent years, which collapsed with debts of more than £100,000, including £14,400 to ABC, £6,000 to Yuck, £4,200 to Steve Mason (the man who was offered £1,000 in Nando’s vouchers to play the fried chicken kings’ stage at Camp Bestival), £2,000 to Mouse on Mars and £2,500 to Au Revoir Simone.
There’s the I Am Music Festival which didn’t go ahead in Colchester’s Castle Park after the local council said no because the event failed “to meet the criteria of providing a safe event”. There’s Another World, the UK festival with Snoop Dogg and Mark Ronson on the bill, which featured an appearance for OTR’s old friend “unforeseen circumstances”. And then there are the festivals which had weather problems with the tail-end of Hurricane Bertha knocking out the Junction 16 Festival in Crewe, where Katherine Jenkins’ appearance was cancelled due to “extreme weather conditions”, and the Boardmasters festival in Cornwall where the weather caused “carnage”.
Even the festivals which went ahead – and were successful at that – faced post-event problems and questions. The Herald focused on the 32 arrests at this year’s Marlay Park events – no breakdown on which of the eight shows (five standalone shows and the three Longitude days), which attracted around 220k punters in all by our account, had the most arrests – while the Indo (a story which had previously ran in the Sunday Times) reported on the record number of complaints (“up to 150″) from local residents about the series of shows. The G**** B***** effect, no doubt.
In Mayo, the organisers behind the Westport Music event cast doubts over that event returning in 2015. This is down to a number of reasons including low ticket sales (“ticket sales were not at the level necessary to ensure viability in the run up to the festival”), costs (“issues surrounding accommodation – not alone the lack of it – have also given them cause for concern”) and locals taking the mick (“feeling entitled to get in for nothing because it is in their back garden”).
There’s no doubt that promoting live music events and taking those kinds of risks is not for the faint of heart. But while you can’t really plan for the tail-end of a hurricane coming down on top of you or other weather SNAFUs, the problems caused by unpaid artist bills or other financial problems are of a much different order. These are issues which a lot of people might chalk down to inexperience or naivity, but that’s to ignore the willful, fraudulent behaviour involved in handing out cheques like Monopoly money which you know will bounce or not paying artists who’ve paid a gig for you.
It’s one thing to think that you’re the new Harvey Goldsmith or Bill Graham and that everyone wants to go to a festival, but it’s quite another to put on an event in the current climate and get everything right or nearly right. When you assess the foreseen and range of unforeseen problems involved in putting on any kind of largescale event, your respect for the people who get it right year in and year out, like the teams at Indiependence, Castlepalooza, Body & Soul, Sea Sessions, Life and Knockanstockan for instance as well as the bigger year-round operators, goes up a few notches.
But it’s not just tyro events who find themselves out of their depth. All Tomorrow’s Parties are an operation who’ve been in business for years and yet they hit the wall spectacularly with Jabberwocky. However, when you dig into the details (starting with Alex Marshall’s forensic look at ATP’s history), it’s clear that ATP has had persistent financial problems with events in the past. All of which makes this recent interview with ATP’s Barry Hogan seem rather prescient.
The question now is if this will significantly damage ATP’s reputation in the future. Despite the problems outlined in Marshall’s piece, agents were still happy to take bookings from ATP for Jabberwocky and other upcoming events. Will acts and fans now think twice about accepting a booking or buying a ticket for an ATP event? Online forums are full of people ranting about never going to an ATP event again, yet if they manage to book an act you really like for a rare gig (which is ATP’s speciality), are you going to go? Will brands who seek to work with promoters like ATP think twice about this in the future? For example, Jabberwocky sign-ons Pitchfork ran as fast as their legs could carry them in the fallout from the event.
Then, there’s the bigger picture. Many of you will have seen this superb piece about the summer festival bubble. Given that one agent was talking about 847 different festivals in the United States alone, it’s clear that the festival circuit is beginning to look a lot like classic bubble economics. You can understand why acts are happy to play the circuit because of high fees for relatively risk-free shows and you can see why some successful events, like Rob da Bank’s Bestival, are in expansion mode.
But it just does not appear to be sustainable in the medium or long run for a few reasons. Inevitably, punters are going to look for something else beause the current vogue for festivals has begun to plateau after a 10 year rise. This will be partly due to a lack of serious choice because line-ups don’t change all that much from event to event. Furthermore, there are no new headliners coming through. As every economist knows, this will lead to stagnation in the market.
All of this will lead to more problems like Jabberwocky and Light Colour Sound, more unpaid bills, more woes for punters and more ire all round. But there’s always a silver lining albeit a questionable one: it all means more opportiunities for Live Nation or Festival Republic or other deep-pocketed corporates to swoop in and cherry-pick the events they want to control. Then again, as we’ve seen with the disastous recent history endured by Oxegen, that doesn’t always work out for the best.