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‘UK’s position as live music leader at stake’: nine festivals cancel amid rising costs

<span>Standon Calling festival has announced this year will be its last.</span><span>Photograph: Matt Eachus/PA</span>
Standon Calling festival has announced this year will be its last.Photograph: Matt Eachus/PA

When Standon Calling – the summer music festival during which 17,000 people descend on the Hertfordshire countryside to see headliners such as Bloc Party and Wolf Alice – announced this year would be its last, it became the ninth festival for 2024 to cancel or call time for good.

The Association of Independent Festivals’ (AIF) CEO, John Rostron, has called for “urgent government intervention” to assist events hit by rising supply chain costs, debts incurred during the Covid pandemic and slower ticket sales, stymied further by the cost of living crisis.

“It’s been three or four years of losing money and debt,” says Rostron. “Some [events] were keeling over last year; this year we’re only in February and festivals are falling over. They can’t even make it to the summer.”

It’s a situation that some say could lead to the end of “rite of passage” live music events, which have become the staple of British summer’s cultural offering – leaving only the biggest festivals, such as Glastonbury, remaining.

The AIF says 36 festivals either folded completely or were postponed last year, adding to the 100 events that have disappeared since the peak in 2019, when there were 600 live music festivals in the UK.

Many events that have gone were small and still maturing, but this year more established festivals such as Standon Calling, Bluedot (which is having a “fallow” year) and Nostock have succumbed to rising costs.

Ella Nosworthy, who runs Nostock in Herefordshire, saw the cost of hosting her 5,000-capacity event soar by 40% since the pandemic. Rostron says the build price of one event, meaning assembling stages, bars etc, rose from £400,000 in 2019 to £900,000 in 2023.

Increased artist fees, lack of marquees because they were still being used as makeshift Covid testing centres, eye-watering costs for shower hire, skilled staff leaving the outdoor events industry, Brexit prompting staff to leave and increasing logistical costs had all led to a “perfect storm”, Nosworthy said.

“It got to the point for us where we were looking at five years without any profit and what business can handle that?,” she said. “We could have carried on but we had to look at cutting our costs because the risk was getting too big.”

Simon Taffe, co-founder of End of the Road festival, has been hit by a 30% to 40% increase in costs since 2019. He took the decision to raise ticket prices by 30% and with his event attracting an older, middle-class demographic, that increase hasn’t put off punters, with 75% of tickets sold before the lineup was announced.

Taffe believes we could be seeing a readjustment, where it is not just the biggest festivals that will be left standing but also those smaller or mid-size events which are bespoke and carefully curated.

“If you’re just trying to do what everyone else is down the road then you’re not going to survive,” he said. “It’s a very risky business to set up in the first place and if you don’t have a unique vision or selling point I just don’t see how you can make a go of it.”

End of the Road offers a cinema programme curated by the likes of Martin McDonagh and Ben Wheatley, while Taffe approaches bands that aren’t touring on the festival circuit.

Other festivals are also thriving. Afro Nation, which is based in Portugal but is run by British promoters and has a majority UK crowd, has plugged into the growing Afrobeats scene and captured one of the most underserviced festival audiences: Black Brits.

Live At Leeds is holding its first ever outdoor event, Live At Leeds In The Park, in additional to the annual city showcase. We Out Here was a sellout success showing the pulling power of jazz, Houghton thrives offering a boutique dance music festival in rural Norfolk, and Glastonbury, once again, sold out in under an hour.

But for Nosworthy, the rate that festivals like hers are being lost has a long-term impact on British culture, especially music.

“The UK’s position as a leader in live music is at stake,” she says. “It sounds dramatic to say it but that’s what goes if these smaller festivals and events aren’t protected.”

Rostron’s suggested solution to the problem is a cut in VAT to 5% for festival tickets, a measure implemented during the Covid-19 pandemic but since scrapped as the rate returned to20%.

“If we can have two or three years of relative stability, in theory the supply chain will regrow, trained skilled workers will come into the sector, but they need stability,” he said. “We just need a couple of good summers.”