A summer without festivals: what is the impact for promoters?

Pictures by Daniil Lavrovski

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Will Belgian festivals survive a summer with a ban on large events?

Never has the Belgian event business been in a more precarious state as now. During the time of writing, “dance events” are not allowed to take place until at least August 31. Setting all the alternative activities like bubble terraces and mini-concerts aside, this profoundly impacts the core business of festivals. As June, July and August are the months in which the entire industry makes its yearly turnover, the effects of cancellation would be a lot more far-reaching than some might assume. How do they deal with ticket refunds, unpaid freelancers and signed contracts? Will these events even be around next year? Comparing the strategies used by a handful of small and big festivals, we looked for a bit of clarity in a new era that's marked by uncertainty.

See you in 2021!

First of all, what about the people that had already bought tickets? In practically all cases in Belgium, festivals and events have a policy that made these tickets valid for next year’s event. Paying refunds instead is what most events are trying to avoid since it would create an immediate cashflow problem. This is where a distinction between big and small events should be made. Take Antwerp's Contrair Open Air, for example, which was supposed to take place in June with only 3000 visitors. “Artist fees and promotion had already been paid, so having to refund everyone without the chance to make some money in return would be nothing short of disastrous”, promoter Yves Massignani said. “Even in normal circumstances, we have to tread lightly to balance the books; like many of my colleagues, we don’t have much financial reserve”.

Unlike their bigger counterparts, most of the smaller festivals are currently dealing with immediate survival.

Unlike their bigger counterparts, most of these organizations are currently dealing with immediate survival, so whipping up a campaign for 2021 might not be possible (and even if it is, it is not a priority). Even when you simply cancel an event, you’re still facing a mountain of work, like managing your communication, dealing with customers, contractors and artist managers – and navigating the chaotic landscape of rules, regulations and guidelines.

Shifting attention to next year seems like a logical move. So far, none of the big summer festivals has started a full-blown campaign for their 2021 editions yet, other than announcing the new dates and the occasional artist reveal. Dour Festival, for example, has recently started the ticket sales for next year and has already communicated 25 acts – all of which were set to perform this summer. “We are trying to move as many of our 2020 lineup to next year”, explains promoter Damien Dufrasne. "All the work of our bookers had been done, the money had been paid, and we were good to go. Moving the show to next year instead (as opposed to getting a full refund) is an option that comes with a lot less headache". Similarly, Couleur Café moved its biggest headliners to next year’s edition. “That was the strategy that made the most sense for us”, says promoter Irene Rossi. She is right. In this way, customers have more reasons not to seek refunds, and it makes sure all the negotiations by its bookers have not been pointless.

What about the lineups?

Most festivals have already paid booking fees, and are now negotiating with the artists' managers – a painstakingly frustrating process with varying degrees of success. Paradise City Festival, which was supposed to take place two weeks ago, has vouched to keep 70% of their 2020 lineup. “When booking fees have been paid already, but the artist fees haven’t, it’s usually a logical step for both sides to postpone the performance to the next edition”, says promoter Gilles De Decker. “However, the hustle starts when you have paid the full artist fees already. We do try to recuperate those, as they are a significant chunk of our budget – and we can use that money elsewhere”. De Decker stresses this is only relevant for acts with artist fees over €2000. “We’re not going to put artists under more pressure by demanding they pay back their fee. If they are open to the idea of playing next year without additional costs, we’re good”.

When booking fees have been paid already, it’s usually a logical step for both sides to postpone the performance to the next edition. - Gilles De Decker.

Two problems come to mind when 2020 lineups are transferred to 2021. Firstly, will this lineup still be relevant next year in a music industry that’s changing faster every day? And secondly, are we not in danger of oversaturating next year’s festivals with the same names?

In a world where artists rise and fall faster than the length of an Instagram Story, we should not neglect the possibility that a lineup composed more than a year in advance could well become outdated by the time the event takes place. However, most promoters we talked to do not worry too much about that. “The biggest acts will still be relevant, but we make sure there is enough room for flexibility”, says Dufrasne. At Paradise City Festival too, the organization insists on keeping one-third of the available slots open for acts that prove their worth in the coming year. Keeping this in mind, we should remember that the lack of events in 2020 barred many artists from capitalizing on their releases this year. The breakthrough speed of some artists now is thus a lot slower than usual.

The 2021 lineups will bear a lot more importance, though. After all, if you can’t convince people to buy tickets next year, you’re in for yet another financial hit, which could well be fatal to any festival big or small. This raises the question: will the festivals place safe bets by booking artists and DJs from the relatively small pond of established yet fresh names that draw ticket buyers?

The real damage is taken by our contractors, suppliers and the entire seasonal ecosystem that depends on our festival. - Damien Dufrasne

“The music scene will be up and running again at some point”, Dufrasne says. “This will kickstart a lot of shows and tours throughout the year. The music scene will produce new stars like it always has, so I’m not worried about that”. Voodoo Village’s Lennert Luypaert notes that we tend to forget that the Belgian audience has grown significantly over the years. “The demand for festival tickets will remain stable, even when there are many overlaps on the lineups headliners. After all, people used to choose just one or two festivals to visit in the summer. In recent years, that number has risen significantly”. So far, most of these festival promoters are confident people will show up again next year.

Who takes the hit?

You would be forgiven for thinking this all seems to pan out pretty well for everyone. Alas, someone has to be on the receiving end of the ruthless consequences of a national ban on festivals. Not that the big players are doing well (Couleur Café, for example, was forced to put most of their team on non-active), but these organizations generally have more means to limit the damage. By making bought tickets valid for next year, festivals will have to deal with a cashflow problem later (and in cases like Pukkelpop, who did not start their sales before the lockdown, that problem is here already). "It's clear we're going to take a financial hit this year, but luckily we are not solely dependent on ticket sales, and we have saved up some extra funds for unforeseen situations like these”, says Dour’s Dufrasne. “The real damage is taken by our contractors, suppliers and the entire seasonal ecosystem that depends on our festival. I’m talking about the more than 200 people that indirectly rely on us: local businesses, production companies, etc. I'm heartbroken to see that they are facing a tough time now”. Paradise City Festival’s De Decker agrees. "Most of these people are freelancers, working up front all year – and then their sole source of income dries up. Yes, there are ways to get some financial support, but it barely scratches the surface of what they were counting on. If they are out of business by next year, we have a serious problem”.

So far, the only consistency in 2020 has been uncertainty.

What happens after August 31?

Probably the most frustrating issue for event promoters during this lockdown is the unclarity surrounding what’s allowed and what’s not. By definition, event organizations need to plan ahead – but if the rules regularly change, setting up your event becomes almost impossible. Currently, big “dance events” are not allowed if they take place before August 31. But what happens with festivals that were planned after this date? After all, the festival season continues well into the Indian summer. At Horst Festival – which is supposed to welcome thousands of visitors between September 11-13 – the organization is overflowing with frustration. “Even though we know the current ban on large gatherings only lasts until the end of August, we remain doubtful if we could continue to host our festival as planned”, explains promoter Jochem Daelman. “Instead, we have been focusing on alternative activities with severely reduced crowds during the summer, as well as keeping a few options open for the main festival. It’s just impossible to say what that weekend will look like”.

"When the lockdown was announced, we had just finalized our lineup”, says Lennert Luypaert, co-promoter at Voodoo Village, the one-day house and techno festival that is still planning to welcome guests on September 5. “We wanted to wait to start our promotion until we received a clear framework for events that take place after August, but alas this still hasn’t come, so we still decided to launch our campaign and ticket sales". Remarkably, tickets for Voodoo Village were selling much faster than the promoters expected.

One thing is sure: festivals as we know it will never be the same again.

RIP small festivals?

So far, the only consistency in 2020 has been uncertainty. If you are an event promoter that depends on a full year of work before cashing in on one weekend, a COVID-19 summer could easily be your worst nightmare. At the very least, large festivals that employ dozens of people year-round with fixed contracts are lucky they can fall back on governmental support for their salaries. Relatively speaking, smaller open-airs or festivals are more reliant on freelance and contract work. For the thousands of people in those positions (from promoters to subcontractors) there is no safety net. Without these people, many events will get into trouble. For all these reasons, it is likely – or in the very least, possible – that we will see many events getting tangled in financial problems next year.

It’s completely unknown what the pandemic will look like in a few months (hence the uncertainty in the first place). The unfortunate results of that unclarity create an environment in which it's practically impossible to operate a festival successfully. If that wasn’t bad enough, many seem to overlook the possibility of a second COVID-19 wave. If a similar situation plays out again after the summer (or in 2021), we’re in for a whole lot more misery. For festivals which can stay afloat, the focus predominantly shifted towards the next edition, while organizing various alternative activities that are compliant with the safety regulations. One thing is sure: festivals as we know it will never be the same again.