Isle of Wight Festival boss on September festival: “Over my dead body will it not occur, and I don’t intend dying in the near future, believe me”

“Heart-breaking”. “Infuriating”. “Devastated”. “Gutted”.

Those were some of the words being bandied about by UK festivals such as Kendal Calling, Truck and Beyond The Woods as they faced up to having to postpone their much-loved events for the second year running.

That was the most immediate consequence of the government’s decision to extend the lockdown beyond the so-called June 21 “Freedom Day”, without offering additional help or guidance to the beleaguered live sector. But that could just be the beginning.

Not for nothing did last week’s column write that “the UK government letting down the live music sector” was now one of life’s absolute certainties. Even so, the level of incompetence and unfairness it’s displayed over the last couple of weeks is surely unprecedented, even when measured against the Johnson administration’s staggeringly low standards.

After all, the government has said it will allow 15,000 people to attend the Wimbledon tennis finals; over 60,000 football fans to watch the Euro 2020 final at Wembley; and 140,000 petrolheads to head to Silverstone for the British Grand Prix. Meanwhile, live music remains in limbo.

“The bottom line is, we’re being treated like second class citizens,” fumes John Giddings, promoter of the Isle Of Wight Festival, which has moved to September from its usual June slot, and managing director of the Solo booking agency. “They’re allowing the Grand Prix, the tennis, the football – but all those events are financed by TV income, the audience is peripheral. We can only do shows if we can sell tickets to pay for the costs, but we’re last in the queue. We have to beg to have test events, which is pathetic.”

Those test events – which included a Blossoms gig at Sefton Park in Liverpool and the BRIT Awards – seemed to go off without a hitch, with a mere 15 positive Covid cases reported across the entire programme. And yet the government has so far refused to publish its report on the Events Research Programme (ERP). Multiple sources tell me that the report reveals live music is safe, but the contents don’t fit with the government’s current narrative.

Meanwhile, events are left in the dark as to what restrictions they might be forced to operate under – cited as a key factor in this week’s spate of cancellations. No wonder trade bodies and live events companies are taking legal action to force the government to reveal the report’s findings.

“We understand that the findings of the Events Research Programme are positive to date. The question is, then, why isn’t the government publishing them?” says Paul Reed, chief executive of the Association Of Independent Festivals (AIF). “The entire point of the programme was to determine if events could take place safely in a Covid context with the right mitigations, and to inform decision making and relevant guidance. We need full transparency and the publication of the report. It is completely unacceptable for Government to hold this back for political reasons. We need to be able to safely reopen and can’t get stuck in a perpetual pilot phase for festivals.”

The latest pilot event – last weekend’s three-day Download Pilot festival, the first to allow camping on site – was, by all accounts, a huge success, albeit the results on testing are still pending. Those findings will come too late for many festivals and, while Latitude Festival boss Melvin Benn has said he is “very certain” that festival will go ahead, despite being scheduled for just four days after the new unlocking date of July 19, many independent festivals are unlikely to proceed in such an uncertain climate.

Furthermore, there is still no word on the long-awaited government-backed Covid insurance scheme, that would allow more events to gamble on taking place, although John Giddings says Isle Of Wight – backed by live giant Live Nation – will go ahead regardless.

“Over my dead body will it not occur, and I don’t intend dying in the near future, believe you me,” Giddings sighs. “We are prepared to take the risk – you should phone me in October to see if I’m bankrupt or not!”

Giddings says it costs £10 million to stage his festival and Paul Reed says events have already invested an average of £450,000 at this stage, despite no guarantees over whether they can actually happen.

“The absence of an insurance scheme is pushing the UK’s festival industry to a cliff edge,” warns Reed. “Every day counts. If the government has confidence in July 19 as a terminus date, they will back this now. Waiting until after step four will be far too late for the vast majority of festivals this summer.”

Reed says 50% of this summer’s scheduled festivals over 5,000 capacity have already been axed. Of the remaining events, 90% take place after July 19 but, without advice and support, more will fall by the wayside. No wonder John Giddings describes July 19 as “critical” for the industry.

“If they extend [the lockdown] I don’t know what will happen,” he says. “We’re getting very angry and we feel we’re being treated half-heartedly.”

Giddings, like many executives in the live sector, is happy to implement vaccine passports, testing programmes and other protocols if that’s what it takes to allow events to go ahead. And there are growing fears that a second barren summer could see many events disappear altogether. So when the full season does return in 2022, what will be left?

“I’m worried about next year because there’s a knock-on effect where there is going to be twice as many shows as normal, because everything’s moved,” says Giddings. “There’s going to be 10 to 12 stadium tours in June/July and more festivals than you’ve had hot dinners – although some of them will have bitten the dust, because they can’t take the risk anymore. Are people going to buy enough tickets to keep the industry alive when there’s twice as much to go and see? I don’t know the answer, I just know how busy next year is.”

Paul Reed, meanwhile, remains hopeful the sector can return to its former glory… eventually.

“Ultimately, we are a hugely creative and resilient sector,” he notes. “The audience demand is definitely there and we’ll bounce back in that respect in 2022. But I think, realistically, it will take three to five years to repair the damage on a systemic level.”

And that fightback can’t start until the Department For Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) remembers it’s supposed to represent the first three sectors in its name, and does the right thing.

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