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‘We’re at a pivotal point’: AIM’s Paul Reed on the future of independent music festivals

The world of independent music festivals is as vibrant as ever. Here, Paul Reed, general manager of the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF), takes the pulse of this burgeoning sector and offers his take on where it's headed

“Trying to predict the future is like trying to drive down a country road at night with no lights while looking out the back window” according to American business author and consultant Peter Drucker. Fortunately, its a drive that I’m willing to take, though I’m not going to cover technology as it moves so fast that it will probably render my predictions to be the equivalent of a Gameboy Colour in a year’s time. Despite this, a couple of quick observations on that front: I don’t think that VR and AR will affect the live industry as much as some are predicting, they will be simply be supplementary elements to large-scale festivals and concerts. Also, something is going to have to happen to crack open the cashless/mobile payment market in the UK, which has predominantly being impervious to change thus far.

Now. with that out of the way, I’d like to talk about three key trends in relation to the future of festivals…

More consolidation in the marketplace involving major players

Let’s address the largest elephant in the room first. AIF recently published some research illustrating that global entertainment behemoth Live Nation now operate or own a controlling share of almost 25% of festivals in the UK over 5,000 capacity. One single US headquartered transnational company marching towards a monopolistic position, with vertical integration across ticketing, secondary ticketing, concert promotion, venue operation and artist management. The writing is on the wall.

Let’s be clear, there is nothing wrong with a large market share per se and Live Nation undoubtedly pump a tremendous amount of money into artists and the live industry – but it is resulting in a less diverse market and the imposition of hugely restrictive unofficial exclusivity deals on talent further and further down the line up. This ultimately has a detrimental effect on emerging artists and independent festivals alike.

I know one thing for certain – Live Nation is on an acquisition rampage, making 13 acquisitions in as many months up to March this year, controlling eight of the nine largest festivals in the UK with a portfolio of more than 90 festivals worldwide.

They are not done yet. As the company increases their festival network and tentacles across all areas of the business, they create an environment in which it is easier to acquire independent festivals or worse, put them out of business.

It will also be interesting to see the next moves of AEG Presents and Global, which currently owns 8% of the UK festival market. Perhaps I would say this, but like a lot of other sectors the innovation and experimentation takes place in the independent sector, with only the strongest ideas and formats likely to survive. Which brings us to the next point: It is all about the experience.

[Boomtown] is less a music festival than a new form of interactive fiction, wrapped around an almighty party, in which musical line-up is secondary. It feels like the next evolutionary step for festivals

The growth of more experiential event formats.

Something is happening in the market. Based on an AIF audience survey from 2016, 54% of those asked ‘When buying a ticket for a festival what is the single most important factor when deciding which one to attend?’ replied that is was the ‘The general atmosphere and overall vibe, character and quality of the event’ and 7.7% replied ‘Headline acts’ out of over 4,000 respondents. 51% say they chose a festival over a holiday.

It feels like we’re at a pivotal point – Boomtown Fair sells out at 60,000 capacity, featuring an incredible level of production and attention to detail, interaction with live actors and literally hundreds of micro venues to explore. With areas divided into specific ‘districts’ like the Wild West and Chinatown, it is like the south-east corner of Glastonbury stretched across an entire festival, with each ‘Chapter’ forming part of an overarching narrative. It is quite simply mindblowing and, if approached a certain way, is less a music festival than a new form of interactive fiction, wrapped around an almighty party, in which musical line-up is secondary. It feels like the next evolutionary step for festivals.

The pioneering Secret Garden Party sadly called it a day this year, inferring that they felt a lot of imitators had followed in their wake and there was no further space to innovate in the festival format.

But I still feel that there are stones to be unturned – the frontier is forever shifting and although it is far from the death cry of the traditional music festival, it is about finding your niche. End of the Road are a great example of this- for a certain type of music fan, they are the gatekeepers, with a carefully curated experience putting music first and foremost. The demand for such festivals isn’t going anywhere.

If promoters want to simply put a few bands on in a field then good luck to you in standing out in the crowd. Unless you don’t put them on in a field at all…

The rise and rise of city-based festivals

Multi venue city based festivals are springing up everywhere, with at least one in every city or town. It makes perfect sense as lets be clear- putting on a greenfield festival carries a near absurd level of financial risk due to the cost of festival infrastructure. You are basically building a small town. More promoters are choosing to transform their own town, with brilliant events like Handmade in Leicester, Sŵn in Cardiff and Twisterella in Middleborough leading the way.

Tellingly, even the majors are doing this now, with TRNSMT taking the place of T in the Park this year. Promoters can pack a load of talent into the line-up, market it as a festival and create a festival feel, with multi-arts elements and good street food, mixing up permanent and temporary venues and catering to a non-camping crowd.

I feel that generally, there is much to be hopeful about the future of the independent sector and festivals in general. But as David Bowie once said, “Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming”.