Annual Music Festivals Face Financial Vulnerability

The financial health of the UK's festivals circuit is, in many cases, precarious. The success of Glastonbury, by far the most significant live outdoor event in the UK music calendar, is not a reliable indicator of the health of the country's wider festival scene.


  • David Pattie

    Associate Professor of Drama, University of Birmingham

The closest the festival circuit has to a trade body - the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) - lists 50 festivals as cancelled, postponed or closed this year. It expects the end-of-year total to be 100. This is part of a wider, and worrying, UK trend.

In 2023, for example, the Music Venue Trust noted a sharp drop in the number of grassroots venues supporting live music. Membership of the trust dropped from 960 to 835, because the venues had either stopped hosting music or had shut altogether.

The reasons for this sharp decline are relatively simple, but cumulatively devastating. They include the effects of the COVID pandemic, inflation, business rates, supply costs, staff costs and the pricing of food and drink. That's all before you factor in the strain of having to maintain facilities and equipment and the need to keep ticket prices competitive during a cost-of-living crisis.

Festivals face the same pressures, but they can't spread the financial load through the fiscal year. Everything is geared toward the event.

Before the pandemic, festival organisers could rely on advances from ticket companies. In the wake of COVID, those advances have dried up. Organisers now carry the full cost of the festival, which means that they have to increase ticket prices.

All of this squeezes already marginal profits. And if something happens, for example, other festivals crowding into the time slot, changes in the weather, a headliner dropping out, or a sharp increase in the cost of staging the show, it can prove fatal for the event.

The larger festivals can and will survive. Glastonbury is global. Other festivals are run by large entertainment organisations. Latitude, Wireless, and Reading and Leeds are run by Live Nation, a multinational entertainment company based in the US.

The festivals that are closing have neither external commercial support nor the cultural clout of Glastonbury, but this doesn't mean their loss won't be felt. Smaller festivals feed larger festivals. Lewis Capaldi's first headlining slot was at Barn on the Farm in Gloucester in 2019; by 2023, the singer was playing Glastonbury.

Smaller festivals are a vital part of the touring network in the UK. They are a training ground for stage crews and lighting and sound engineers. And they boost the economies of the areas where they are held.

But the danger is that smaller festivals, like smaller venues, will disappear. And when they do, a crucial part of the UK's live music ecosystem will be hollowed out.

Change of government

The festival sector is live music's canary in the coal mine. At the moment, in difficult times, festivals are uniquely vulnerable. Within the music industry, they have been hardest hit.

A music venue can struggle against tough trading conditions for some time - even if it does eventually fold - because venue managers can vary their programmes. Festivals have one chance per year and, as such, any change in the cultural and economic weather affects them first of all.

A festival's business model is inflexible, and the sector has already taken all the steps it can to survive. Sponsorship deals won't cover all of a festival's costs. Linking with other festivals risks the event's autonomy and uniqueness - and a festival's independence and ethos is often an important part of its brand.

If help comes, it will need to come from outside of the sector.

It would be reassuring to think that the new government will turn its attention to the yawning gap between a decaying small- and medium-scale festival circuit and burgeoning large-scale events like Latitude. The new government, to be fair, has identified music, and the creative industries, as needing support.

Other solutions have been proposed - levying a tariff on arena ticket sales. There's the possibility of a deal on UK musicians' access to the EU - and EU musicians' access to the UK. The AIF itself is running a campaign to persuade the government to cut VAT on festival ticket sales for the next three years.

These solutions, however, would need either legislation or at the very least government support.

But help needs to come soon. A music venue can bend before economic and cultural storms, even if those storms cause damage. Many music festivals, in the same storm, will simply be blown away.

The Conversation

David Pattie does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

/Courtesy of The Conversation. This material from the originating organization/author(s) might be of the point-in-time nature, and edited for clarity, style and length. Mirage.News does not take institutional positions or sides, and all views, positions, and conclusions expressed herein are solely those of the author(s).