Over the past year, the traditional sounds of the festival summer – the drone of guitar feedback, the smack of drumstick on snare – have been silenced by the pandemic.
On Friday, they’ll finally be blowing the dust off the amps at Donington Park, where 10,000 people will be rocking and camping at the Download pilot – an event the industry hopes will herald the return of live music.
Yet even once Boris Johnson decides to take the final step to reopening – and it’s looking like that will now be in July – there are plenty of hurdles to overcome before Britain sees another summer of festivals. Shortages of tents, fencing, cabins, chairs and even stages are playing havoc with organisers, not to mention a lack of festivals’ most notorious amenity: toilets.
“Everything is in short supply,” said Melvin Benn, whose company Festival Republic is organising the pilot. “You can barely get a white canvas tent because the government have got them all for testing centres up and down the country. It’s the same for portable toilets … almost everything.”
It’s not just the coronavirus vaccination and testing centres that have scooped up all the available tents, he added. Wedding marquees and the construction boom, which has seen builders scrambling to find scaffolding, are also playing their part.
“For Latitude, I’ve got a local farmer who is building dressing rooms for the comedy stage for me out of wooden posts because I can’t get the dressing rooms,” Benn said. “My team keep coming back to me saying, ‘We can’t find this’, but we have to find other solutions.”
The third lockdown has already forced some to give up. More than a quarter of the 172 festivals with a capacity of more than 5,000 that had been planned for this year have been cancelled, according to the Association of Independent Festivals.
David Farrow, who runs Beautiful Days in Devon, is hoping that this year’s line up of the Levellers, the Orb, James and Hawkwind will go ahead on 20 August, but he has had similar problems.
“Our normal stage supplier was the first one to say sorry, we can’t do your job,” he said. After last year when most staging companies lost all their festival business, they looked further afield and some have shipped equipment to the Middle East. “You can’t blame them, because most of their biggest jobs weren’t there last year,” Farrow said.
“Toilets are a disposable item really. They get damaged and they don’t last for ever, and fencing too – that gets damaged so it has to be replaced. A lot of that wasn’t manufactured.
“I’ve found a company willing to do it for me, but I’ve got to put down money so they can do it. So as long as we do open up, I’m prepared to do that. But I can’t get a Covid insurance policy.”
Rising Covid cases and hospitalisations have reportedly led to a four-week delay to the original reopening date of 21 June being discussed in cabinet. That would be ruinous, according to Live, the group representing the live music industry’s 3,150 companies, which says 5,000 events would be cancelled, including about two-thirds of the remaining summer festivals.
Adam Gregory, who runs Bloodstock, a heavy metal festival in Catton Park in Derbyshire on 11 August, says he will make a call in mid-July. “Every week that goes by there’s a cost,” he said. “The closer you get, the higher the number and it will go from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. It’s critical that we get clarity on what’s happening and when so we can plan effectively.”
There is a further hidden cost, according to Mark Mynett, a senior lecturer in music technology at the University of Huddersfield: the loss of uncounted numbers of stagehands and road crew.
Most are freelance – Live estimates about 90,000 – and they were not eligible for furlough or other state support, forcing many to turn to foodbanks and Crowdfunder campaigns.
Mynett, who is also a record producer and sound engineer and will do front-of-house sound for some acts at Bloodstock, was angry at the lack of support for his friends and colleagues, so launched the ILoveMetal campaign.
“If you look at charity gigs in the past, the crew all gave their time for free to help out when there was a disaster. When the tables were turned, I don’t think there was enough support for them,” he said.
“There is a widely-held belief that on 21 June, or maybe a few weeks later, that with the flick of a switch live music will restart. But we’re sleepwalking into disaster, and when people realise the extent of the damage to the music industry, the education and knowledge that has been lost, they’ll ask why we didn’t do more.”
Greg Parmley, Live’s chief executive, said: “Our biggest concern is the delay to reopening. The majority of the festival season will go because it destroys any confidence that promoters will have in investing in events. We’re facing a cliff-edge.”
The Download pilot is part of the Event Research Programme, which began with the Sefton Park pilot festival in Liverpool last month, and Parmley said that leaks of the data from that event suggested that there had been only 15 Covid cases out of 58,000 people who attended.
“We can overcome a lot of challenges but we can’t overcome a government that was very nervous to allow us to go ahead even though the data shows it can,” he said.