What’s the likelihood of festivals going ahead this summer?

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Festivals form an integral part of the music and arts scene – not to mention the health of the economy – for many countries around the globe. Attracting tourists, generating employment, and providing an expressive place for people to gather and celebrate culture are just some of the benefits to be felt from this treasured industry. 

For all these reasons and more, the question on everyone’s lips as we roll into 2021 is whether or not we’re going to see another swathe of Covid-induced cancellations this summer.

2020 saw the brutal and heartbreaking abandonment of festivals around the world. Back then, it was the general consensus that things would kick off again in 2021. It was hard enough to fathom that one season of our much-loved music gatherings had been struck off, let alone to contemplate that next year’s might be in danger too. 

The UK’s Glastonbury, for example, announced that they’d be letting those who secured a ticket for 2020 roll their entrance over to 2021. As did California’s Coachella, and many other large-scale festivals.

But then came the winter. With it, rocketing numbers in new Covid cases and another horrific peak in this pandemic crisis. It did, of course, also see the successful development of a vaccine, which means that the end of this nightmare is now at last in sight.

So, does that mean festivals really do stand a chance of going ahead in 2021? The truth is – there are a huge amount of influencing factors that make it impossible to know for sure at this moment in time. 

UK festival organisers say a Government-backed insurance scheme is needed

While many in the festival industry are remaining optimistic, others in the UK have highlighted the critical need for a Government-backed insurance scheme to be put in place. Without it, they’ve said, they won’t be able to even consider putting plans in place for their 2021 festivals. 

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In December 2020, UK Conservative MP Theresa Villiers asked in parliament whether the minister would “give serious consideration to Government support for an indemnity or insurance scheme” for festival organisers. She highlighted that this would help them make decisions “in the confidence that if there is a third wave [of Covid-19], then their losses are going to be mitigated".

There was no clear answer to the question.

But pressure continues to mount. Paul Reed, chief executive at the Association of Independent Festivals, has warned the UK Government that an insurance scheme will be the “most critical factor” in festivals returning this summer.

He described how, without one, we could end up seeing a situation where festivals are cancelled early en masse, only for public health to take an upswing in spring/summer. This could result in the catastrophic situation of there being a high demand for festivals, but no supply.

The US is hanging its hopes on the vaccine being rolled out in time for spring

Meanwhile, RollingStone.com recently published a piece that indicates there are plenty of live music professionals in the US who are staying optimistic about the festival scene this year. Many of those are hanging their hopes on the vaccine being rolled out in time for late spring. But others, including medical professionals, are more cautious. Dr. Dean Winslow, an infectious diseases expert at Stanford, was quoted in the same Rolling Stone article saying it was optimistic to expect even outdoor music events to return by fall.

It goes without saying the vaccine situation’s pretty complicated. The chief scientist of the US’s federal vaccine distribution programme, Moncef Slaoui, has said that at least 70-80% of the US population must be vaccinated before herd immunity is achieved. Officials say they’re hoping to have begun distributing the vaccine to non-vulnerable groups (AKA those last in line) by the spring. In a nutshell – things are going to come pretty close to the wire in terms of achieving herd immunity in time for full-capacity spring/summer festivals.

So while the news of the vaccine rollout is, without doubt, comforting, it’s clear the festival industry is still in the dark about how feasible it will be to go ahead with plans this year. Because, the fact is, until enough people have been vaccinated, it’s going to be crucial that the social distancing precautions we’re all now so used to remain in place.

There is hope, if governments act now

Festival professionals have warned of the dire consequences if the industry grinds to a halt again this summer. One of them is co-creator of Parklife and the Warehouse Project, Sarah Lord, who was quoted recently in a Guardian article saying, “Music’s one of our biggest exports. If we don’t take place in 2021, I think the vast majority [of festivals] will disappear.”

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And professionals agree there can be ways for festivals to go ahead safely, or at least for the industry to be protected. Alongside specially underwritten insurance, it’s been suggested that mass testing schemes could be put in place to help get around the fact that most festivals would struggle to run at a lowered capacity, making social distancing difficult. 

So, what’s the outlook?

With vaccines being rolled out as we speak, but with the world still very much in the grips of a vicious pandemic, it’s incredibly difficult to gauge what the coming months are going to look like.

It’s clear that there are festival organisers who are staying optimistic, though. Cambridgeshire’s We Out Here Festival, for example, announced its 2021 line-up in early December 2020. And Glastonbury’s lawyer, Ben Challis, has spoken openly about how discussions are underway to make the festival happen this summer. 

Although – and this goes to show how much of a tempestuous grey area the live music industry is navigating right now – there have been recent rumours of 2021 Glastonbury acts being told the festival will not in fact go ahead. Mel B (who was due to perform with the Spice Girls at Glasto this year), said she’d been told the festival was off. To make things even murkier, co-creator Emily Eavis tweeted this in reply to Mel B’s claim:

'Nope, no news this end. Will let you know right here as soon as there is news.'

What about the festivals set to take place in autumn/fall months? Texas’s Austin City Limits usually happens in October, for example, and New York’s Electric Zoo is a September festival. Right now it’s a pure guessing game, but is there a chance that these events could fall on the right side of the global vaccination efforts?

At Ticket Tailor, we’ve seen some organisers delaying their festivals to later in the summer than originally planned, like Glasgow’s Riverside Festival. It follows that we might end up seeing more hopeful rescheduling efforts like this happening over the coming weeks.

Whether in spring or closer to fall, we’re keeping everything crossed that live outdoor music events are able to go ahead this year.

With the right amount of government backing, alongside the innovation and meticulous planning we know organisers are capable of, perhaps festival season 2021 can be more than just a pipe dream.