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‘Reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated’: Chief exec of AIF talks the independent festival market

Paul Reed, chief executive of the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF), talks to PSNEurope about sustainability, market monopoly and the effects of Brexit, in his annual update on the state of the independent festival market

Paul Reed

Piece by Paul Reed

Festival season is upon us again and I’d like to start by saying that reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated.

This season may be off to a slightly slower start with an almighty cloud of Brexit uncertainty hanging over our rather crowded marketplace but, in truth, many AIF (Association of Independent Festivals) members are where they need to be or slightly ahead in comparison to last year.

In the current climate, festivals that are able to find their niche will be the ones that thrive. This is illustrated by the growth of events such as Black Deer, Nozstock, Bluedot and, on a larger scale, Boomtown Fair.

At those events and many more, the owners really invest in the customer experience; there is an attention to detail and level of care involved and I’m convinced that the customer can tell the difference.

For artists, there is no shortage of festivals on offer, and the live industry remains the rocket fuel powering a lot of careers. But many independent festivals have stepped away from the major artist headliner arms race.

Festivals are ultimately at the mercy of artists being available and this has meant that many organisers have invested in overall quality and other non-musical parts of the programme such as comedy or creative production.

It’s a smart move – especially when you consider that, in AIF’s 10-year report last year, when asked about the single most important factor influencing ticket purchases, 53 per cent of people said that it was the “atmosphere, vibe, character and quality of event”.

This was based on almost 30,000 responses across the 10-year period and the report also confirmed that our members contributed an estimated £1 billion in revenue to the UK economy in the three-year period between 2014 and 2017. We’re punching above our weight, as ever.

There’s also a continued focus on sustainability. Following the launch of our ‘Drastic on Plastic’ campaign and pledge to eliminate single-use plastic in a three-year period last year, festivals have reported some significant changes at their events: 93 per cent of signatories ditched plastic straws, 40 per cent banned the sale of drinks in single-use plastic on-site, 40 per cent replaced single-use bar cups with reusable cups, 67 per cent sold branded reusable drinks bottles, and 87 per cent promoted the use of reusable bottles.

AIF’s 10-year report also revealed that 9.7 per cent of people attending its member events had ditched
a tent when leaving a festival in 2017, equating to an estimated 875 tonnes of plastic waste, the equivalent of 70 Routemaster buses or eight blue whales.

In response to this, we launched the ‘Take Your Tent Home/Say No To Single Use’ initiative, an awareness-raising campaign that aimed to equate this behaviour with the single-use plastic crisis and urging major retailers to stop selling and marketing tents as essentially single-use items.

There are an estimated 250,000 tents abandoned at UK festivals each year, the majority of which can’t be recycled, meaning they end up in landfill.

The average tent weighs 3.5kg and is mostly made of plastic, the equivalent of 8,750 straws or 250 pint cups. The campaign attracted widespread coverage and we estimate it reached over 12 million people online. We’ll be continuing the messaging throughout the season and hopefully it will have a tangible impact.

Shifting focus to the overall market, we published a festival ownership ‘map’ in 2018 revealing that a single transnational corporation, Live Nation, now owns or controls 25.6 per cent of UK festivals licensed at over 5,000 capacity. Due to further acquisitions that have subsequently occurred, this is already out of date and, in a wider context, a MINTEL report published in 2017 showed that Live Nation owned 47 per cent of the overall festivals and music concert market.

Live Nation also owns Ticketmaster, the world’s largest ticketing company, which according to our analysis controls an estimated 46 per cent of the top 61 venue box offices in the UK and sells 500 million tickets worldwide annually.

This essentially means that a single company increasingly has control of all elements of the live music supply chain through vertical integration of concert promotion, festivals, ticketing and box office control.

The live music sector is fiercely competitive, but this data rings numerous alarm bells – highlighting that
a single transnational corporation is headed towards widespread dominance. For independent festival operators, and indeed the entire live music market, a Live Nation monopoly would quite simply be a stranglehold with profound and serious consequence.

Interestingly, a DCMS Select Committee report on live music published in March asked that the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) consider “conducting a market study of the music industry to assess whether competition in the market is working effectively for both consumers and those working in the industry”.

At the time of writing, we’re still waiting for the government to respond – I can’t imagine what else they have going on at the moment.

Back to the ‘B’ word. The only certainty is uncertainty, but it is bound to have an impact on our sector, especially in the event of a no deal Brexit and in terms of movement of people (performers and crew), freight, VAT, data protection… the list goes on. A recent report from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) raised concerns about the current visa system, stating that, if it’s maintained, foreign workers in the music industry will face convoluted, drawn-out visa applications or the possibility of being shut out entirely, as their jobs don’t qualify for the Tier 2 work visa. The same report estimated that self-employed workers account for 70 per cent of the music industry, all of whom could be at risk. The one thing we can be sure of is it won’t be business as usual, and the government needs to stop perceiving the music, festival and wider events industry as ‘soft power’ and ‘nice to have’.

According to UK Music, 30 million people attended live music events alone in 2016, and those who work hard to make these events happen need to be offered appropriate protections, whatever lies ahead.

AIF is holding its Festival Congress on November 6-7 – a two-day conference and the Independent Festival Awards – and the full conference programme was recently released, which you can find here.