There are nearly 1,000 festivals held in the UK every year. Most are music festivals. They range from the gigantic Glastonbury with its 200,000 participants to numerous basic events: vegan music festivals on farms, folk festivals in pubs, punk festivals in Blackpool, micro-festivals in back gardens, classic festivals on country estates. All life is there. Or was before coronavirus.

After wiping out last year, the outlook for 2021 is still in the balance. There are hopes of a return to action later this year. But time is running out. According to evidence presented to a parliamentary selection committee this month, big festivals like Glastonbury need to know this month if they can go ahead or if there is no time to organize. Smaller ones could possibly wait until March or April.

Another year of closure threatens ruin. Glastonbury founder Michael Eavis claimed after being canceled last summer that “it will be curtains” when the same thing happens in 2021.

Rumors that this year’s event has already been canceled – the source was Mel B of the Spice Girls, who spoke in a radio interview about their group’s alleged plans to perform at the festival – were disputed by Glastonbury organizer Emily Eavis. There was “no news about this ending,” she insisted this month.

Sarah Emberson and John Kelly with their children Eirinn, Eve, Elliot and Elsie at their homemade replica of Glastonbury – ‘Glasthomebury’ – in Hertfordshire last year © EPA-EFE

The festival representatives who appeared before the cross-party members of the cultural selection committee made various requests for government support. Their biggest question was twofold: an official date after which festivals could take place and a government-sponsored insurance system in case they had to be canceled later.

There are similar backstops in other countries. Last month, the federal government announced a cancellation fund of 2.5 billion euros for events in the second half of 2021. The aim is to compensate the organizers for upfront costs such as booking staff and stage crews and paying deposits to the performers.

“It’s a very challenging road ahead of us, but not impossible,” a festival representative, Anna Wade, told the selected committee. She feared that her festival, Boomtown, Hampshire, would not survive a second canceled summer.

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The plight of festivals like Boomtown can be felt in all of the arts. Last year the government set up a £ 1.57 billion fund to protect the cultural and heritage sectors from the pandemic. It was an important intervention, more generous than expected. However, the requirement for an insurance system is a different matter. Will it be successful?

“I was racking my brain to think of a precedent for pop festivals,” says Professor Martin Cloonan, director of the Turku Institute for Advanced Studies in Finland and author of popular music and the state in the UK. “The thing that pops me out of history is the Windsor Free Festival. This is a very rare example of central government support for pop or rock festivals. “

Windsor Free Festival in Windsor Great Park, August 1972 © Getty Images

The Windsor Free Festival was among the numerous illegal events in the early 1970s. It is located in Windsor Great Park, provocatively near the royal residence of Windsor Castle, and was forcibly closed by police in 1974.

Amid requests to investigate the police’s response, the then Labor government provided funding for the festival, which was to be held in a new location the following year. It did, but then it worked.

“The Economist at the time got angry and said pop was a free market form and had to be left to the market,” says Cloonan.

Festival-goers stay on their pitches last year at Gisburne Park Pop-Up, the UK’s first dedicated, socially distant music festival. © Getty Images

The point of view was shared on the other side of the gap. “In the music industry in general, there is a mindset that is over-capitalist and leaves me alone. You can also see that in the ideology of the 1960s: government is bad. But even though the central state didn’t do much in festivals, the local state did, ”he says.

Local authorities in cities and counties have played an active role in supporting festivals since the 1980s. Help comes in the form of grants, licensing decisions, venue usage, and marketing.

In the music industry in general, there is a mindset that is over-capitalist and “leaves me alone”.

The motive was sometimes political, as in the major unemployment festivals organized by the Greater London Council in 1984 and 1985. Typically it has to do with raising money and attracting visitors. “Festivals have become a tourism strategy,” says Cloonan.

Competition between different regions of the UK was part of the dynamic that sparked a boom in festivals in the 2000s. The number doubled between 2005 and 2011. Despite the expansion, the market is not saturated. Festival attendance in the UK rose from 4.9 million to 5.2 million in 2019.There will be no problem with demand if it is judged safe to resume festivals: on the contrary. The question is what is left of the industry to meet them.

The Hip Hop Jam, organized by the Greater London Council at the Southbank Center in 1984 © Redferns

The role of local government in supporting music festivals is now much more and at a higher cost to central government. It faces an unfamiliar dilemma. The gamble of drawing a 2021 festival season that may be written off must be set against the gamble of not doing so and against the risk of decimating a thriving cultural sector. The deadline for a decision is getting closer.

Cards by Liz Faunce

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