‘I am heartbroken to confirm’ ... Death of an Irish music festival

Cancelling a festival is huge. A vast army of people are suddenly out of a job

Electric Picnic reflections: Festival organisers and workers exude positivity. Practical people, their work involves coming together to make things happen. Photograph: Niall Carson /PA

Electric Picnic reflections: Festival organisers and workers exude positivity. Practical people, their work involves coming together to make things happen. Photograph: Niall Carson /PA

 

One of the first festivals of the season, It Takes a Village, should have been filling the Trabolgan Holiday Village this weekend. Revellers would have enjoyed more than 70 acts as they cut loose from the daily grind. It feels almost unimaginable now.

A statement on the festival’s website reads: “Unfortunately due to the ongoing situation with Covid-19 we are forced to postpone this year’s festival and reschedule for May 2021...” The site offers the option of a refund, or to hold tickets for 2021.

Over at Body & Soul, which was to have run from June 19th to 21th, the message says “I am heartbroken to confirm that Body & Soul 2020 cannot go ahead.” There’s something similar online at All Together Now (July 31st to August 1st).

Ironically, you’d feel sorry for Electric Picnic, that most massive of mass gatherings. It had expanded to a capacity of 70,000 and tickets sold out in record time, and yet with 2020 dates of September 4th to 6th, they’re just outside the Government veto on large events, which currently runs until the end of August. The organisers at MCD wouldn’t make themselves available to comment for this article, although managing director Denis Desmond did say in an interview on Newstalk in April, that “It’s a long shot. The chances of it happening are not good.”

So what happens next? Cancelling a festival on foot of a government directive invokes force majeure: an element outside of your control that removes liability for breaking a contract. While force majeure technically gives promoters an out, anecdotally, some are discovering clauses that may have been negotiated up to a year ago which seem to negate this. It is uncharted territory. But for the Electric Picnic organisers, how far do you go, while you know you’re odds-on to stop?

Insurance is unlikely to help. The Wimbledon tennis tournament made the headlines in April when it was reported that, following the 2003 outbreak of Sars, the organisers added an insurance clause covering infectious diseases. They are now in line for more than £100 million in compensation. But if everyone had had such insurance, the insurance industry itself might well have collapsed. And if pandemic insurance does become a feature of all future policies, will anyone be able to afford it?

Spreadsheets and contracts

I speak to Body & Soul founder and director Avril Stanley as she juggles online meetings, calls with banks, and the inevitable poring over spreadsheets and contracts.

“We were due to go on site on April 15th, to start the creative build. The Government cancelled large-scale gatherings on the 20th. We changed our deadline, but we’d progressed as far as we could. It went backwards and forwards: if we can’t go ahead in June, what’s our possibility for delay? How late in the year can you ask people to camp? Could you do a festival for 4,999 people? But there’s a duty of care – full stop. We had to call it.

“But then you always hope,” she continues. “Hope got us through April. If you weren’t willing to take risks, and if you weren’t willing for your life to be an absolute rollercoaster, you wouldn’t do festivals in the first place.”

Cancelling a festival is huge. While ticket holders ponder whether to seek a refund or hope for a brighter 2021, a vast army of riggers, sound engineers, stage builders and more are suddenly out of a job. That’s before you even get to the performers. Stanley says everyone has been paid for work done to date, and the festival has offered refunds on all its tickets. “But in the meantime you’re dealing with the heartache.” Body & Soul has four full-time and 18 part-time staff, which balloons to 1,100 during the festival.

Body and Soul at Ballinlough Castle, Clonmellon, Co Westmeath: Cancelling a festival on foot of a government directive invokes force majeure. Photograph: Allen Kiely
Body and Soul at Ballinlough Castle, Clonmellon, Co Westmeath: Cancelling a festival on foot of a government directive invokes force majeure. Photograph: Allen Kiely

So what is the mood among Ireland’s secret army of festival-makers? Surprisingly, it’s mainly positive – or to be more accurate – sanguine.

“It’s an industry that’s built on the gig economy,” says Peter Jordan of Slua Event Safety. “It’s hard to judge where it’s going, but the question we’re all asking is: how do we get to the other side, but better?” Jordan’s festival work dried up pretty much overnight, and he is now involved in roadmapping a future in which large gatherings can operate in safety.

“Last summer I don’t think I slept more than four hours a night,” says sound engineer Sandra O’Mahony, of a season that takes her from Cork’s Marquee gigs right through to Electric Picnic. “Now I’m 100 per cent unemployed.” She sounds almost cheerful. “I know. I’m having my moments when I go: oh my good God; but you’ve absolutely no control over it, and everyone’s in the exact same boat.”

Cancellation fees

The theme is repeated over and over. “It’s not optimism,” insists O’Mahony, “it’s resignation, but there is a massive sense that we’re all in this together.”

What about payments? “There are no cancellation fees being paid,” she says. “It’s new territory – and cancellation fees aren’t really a thing for independent contractors, anyway. You know there’s no money, so you’re not going to go looking for it.”

“If you asked me in January, would I be sitting at home now, I would have said you were mad,” says Murt Whelan, who runs his own sound hire company. Whelan recently invested in new equipment “It’s now in a warehouse doing nothing. We’ve done a deal with the banks, Revenue aren’t looking for money. We usually employ a lot of freelancers and they and the other full-time staff are laid off. But on the other hand, there’s no bombs coming out of the sky . . .”

Whelan has praise for the Covid-19 payment scheme: “This all happened so fast. I’m not political, but for the Government to get that up and running so quickly really helped.”

If you danced under a huge stretch-tent or took in the view across a festival field from a temporary mezzanine, chances are it was there thanks to Extreme Structures, where Ronan Burke says planning can start eight months ahead of an event. “Those big festivals are our bread and butter. We have to scale back and keep going until next year. We’re trying to diversify now.”

Have the festivals paid their bills? “We always get a deposit, which you use to start your build, but the event game is last-minute-dot-com.”

“Our job wouldn’t be a very glamorous kind of job,” says Rory O’Kelly of Ecokell, who employs an army of litter pickers to expunge those apocalyptic scenes of broken tents and left-behind rubbish that give festivals a bad name. Ecokell also has contracts with schools and the HSE, so are still busy. “Talking with friends in the industry, it’s bleak enough,” he says. But he is positive about the future.

“I honestly think Ireland is going to be the place to be. Americans are going to be in huge trouble. The UK have screwed themselves with Brexit – every company in the world will want to be here.”

O’Kelly is the type of person who makes you think a job picking litter might be pretty good fun. “We brought in a couple of hundred staff for Metallica alone,” he says, remembering the good times.” Do the scenes at abandoned campsites ever depress him?

“The older generation have a bit more respect. Sometimes it’s gas – you see the younger ones getting off the buses with bags and suitcases, and come Monday morning, you see them getting back on the buses with nothing at all.” O’Kelly thinks that if anything good comes out of it, it will be a resetting of priorities. “Maybe this is nature’s way of coming back again and saying: Ahh now lads . . .”

Food stall costs

For some, the festival scene was already overblown. “A lot of the good went out of it before this happened,” says Graham Bolton of the Barracuda Barbecue Company. “You’ve got to be at full capacity to make it work. If it doesn’t you’re in trouble.” Food pitch costs at festivals depend on size and location, but Bolton quotes in the region of €7,000 for Electric Picnic, although from the festival website, trading applications haven’t actually opened for 2020.

“That’s an expensive one. The ploughing is €4,000 for three days. I’m going to have to change the nature of what I do. I haven’t had one inquiry this season, and I’ve had lots of cancellations.”

Electric Picnic: a vast army of riggers, sound engineers, stage builders and more are suddenly out of a job. Photograph: Dave Meehan
Electric Picnic: a vast army of riggers, sound engineers, stage builders and more are suddenly out of a job. Photograph: Dave Meehan

Big festivals will change. The Public Investment Fund (PIF), a wealth fund owned by the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, has taken a 5.7 per cent stake in Live Nation, the behemoth company, which itself bought into Electric Picnic. The PIF has also invested in Carnival cruise lines, so you can see an element of carpet bagging going on.

Instead of being on site in Trabolgan, Ed O’Leary, who, with Joe Kelly, runs It Takes a Village, is working on refunds and postponements. “Everything has stopped. We’ve had no income since March 13th.” He talks about the logistics of concerts with social distancing, and about rescheduling. Most people, he says, have opted to hold their tickets for a later date. “The earliest show we’ve booked in is September 26th, that’s Lankum at the [Cork] Opera House, which was sold out for St Patrick’s Day. But we’ve no staff left, just me and Joe.”

“People are very decent,” he continues. “Usually, if a show doesn’t do well, you look at yourself and ask: what could we have done? This time, there’s nothing we can do . . . Any bands we’ve been dealing with want to make it work. There’s no one taking advantage of this situation, because there’s no advantage to be taken.”

The positivity is surprising, but these are all practical people whose work involves coming together to make things happen. O’Leary tells me how they’re now holding drive-in concerts in Denmark, while Jordan believes that the energy and ideas in the sector can help come up with answers for the future. “The guys in the Government shouldn’t be expected to have all the answers,” he says. But one of the big challenges is how to stage live performance.

“How can you do a festival without gathering people in a field?” asks Stanley. “It’s about coming together, however we do it.”

O’Mahony agrees. “They don’t have to be mass gatherings, but when we do come back, things are going to be beautiful. It’s going to be emotional. I’m not a big hugger, but I will hug.”

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