NME Festival Survey 2014: Five Massive Questions About The State Of UK Festivals Answered

The dust may have now settled on festival season 2014 but discussion continues to rage: are our festivals safe? Do weekenders abroad offer better value for punters and promoters alike? And are escalating ticket costs pricing regular people out of live outdoor music events? There were some big themes coming out of the UK’s summer season. Here’s five burning questions answered…

Are festivals getting more dangerous?

With crowd crushes at The Libertines at Hyde Park, an alleged rape at Reading and a fatal assault at Parklife in Manchester, you’d be forgiven for thinking that even as festivals become bigger and better organised, they’re also getting more dangerous. Is that the case?

“I genuinely don’t think so,” says Festival Republic’s Melvin Benn. “One always has to put things into context, and the context is that at Reading there are 90,000 young people all living in tents. It’s not like a town of 90,000 people, because in a town of 90,000 people there’d only be five or six thousand teenagers. This is a town of 90,000 very young people, and when you consider that there’s not been any disorder or disruption… I don’t think they’re becoming at all dangerous. What happened at Parklife could just as easily have happened in Manchester city centre, or in any big city. I don’t think there’s a concern with safety at any UK festival that I’m aware of.”

Darren Bartholomew of St John Ambulance, who has worked at every V Festival since its inception in 1996, agrees with that assessment. “The numbers we’ve had to treat have been dropping year on year, so it’s certainly not been our experience that festivals are becoming more dangerous. At Chelmsford this year we treated around 536 people, which was down from 657 last year, although ticket sales were down so you would expect proportionately less people to need our support.”

That said, the growing popularity of flares is a cause for concern, not only because of the danger of burns, as Bartholomew explains, “but because of the effects of the smoke they give off. Most festivals take place outdoors, but even at V, if you let off a flare in one of the big tents, that can lead to the dangers of smoke inhalation.” Bartholomew believes festival organisers should be “more vigilant at the gates, and around the campsite: things that are allowed into the campsite but not the arena – like gas canisters – are safe if they’re used properly, but very dangerous when they’re abused.”

Are festivals too posh?

“Festivals,” Mark E Smith said recently, “have become totally overpriced: they’re all about charging £900 a ticket so these rich parents can send Jemima and Tarquin for a nice weekend away.” Smith’s words echo those of Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson, who earlier this year lambasted Glastonbury as “the most bourgeois thing on the planet. Anywhere Gwyneth Paltrow goes and you can live in an air-conditioned yurt is not for me.”

They have a point: the rise of so-called ‘boutique’ festivals means that an increasing number of events, big and small, proudly trumpet their glamping facilities, healthy-eating areas and open-air art installations. At this summer’s BST Hyde Park gigs, meanwhile, punters willing to shell out significant amounts of extra cash could ensconce themselves in special VIP enclosures, boasting beanbags, private bars and an improved view of the stage. With so many events competing for the same crowd – and often the same bands – the boutique route offers something different, but are festivals in danger of sacrificing their soul in the process?

“The pure festival-in-a-field model, that’s just about the music and offers nothing else, which Reading & Leeds are examples of, is actually really hard to pull off now,” says eFestivals editor Scott Williams. “Festival-goers, particularly older ones or those with families, now want so much more to go alongside the event.” That’s backed up by T In The Park boss Geoff Ellis’ promise of his festival having “more of a boutique feel” after next year’s relocation to Strathallan Castle; though in truth, T has been slowly moving towards that model for a while.

Reading & Leeds, it seems, is the last of what Festival Republic’s Melvin Benn calls the “straight down the line” large-scale music festivals. “I see Latitude as being the perfect boutique festival,” Benn told NME, “but Leeds and Reading are whatever the opposite of a boutique festival is. As Huw Stephens once said to me, ‘There’s no clowns at Leeds and Reading, Melvin.’ I created Latitude to be entirely different. People want different things, they want different weekends; some people go to both, but they put slightly different hats on. Maybe they buy the posh wellies for Latitude and put the ones with holes on for Leeds and Reading!”

Is it a gamble buying tickets for a new festival?

Over the past few years, the number of festivals taking place in the UK has almost doubled, from 496 in 2007 to 986 in 2014. This year, 26 of those festivals didn’t go ahead, resulting a cancellation rate of 2.63%. Yet despite concerns about the over-saturation of the marketplace, that figure is actually down from the previous year’s (3.75%) and a vast improvement on 2012 (6.13%). In fact, going by data provided by eFestivals.co.uk stretching back to 2007, the figure is the lowest it’s ever been – an intriguing statistic considering the economic recovery still isn’t being felt by most people and there was a summer of televised sport to compete with (the reason Rockness gave for calling off this year’s event). The British appetite for festivals, it seems, should not be underestimated.

Yet as eFestivals editor Scott Williams points out, a drop in cancellations doesn’t mean there’s room for expansion. “Around the same number of new festivals try to start each year, but the amount of people going to them isn’t increasing significantly,” he explains. “If a new festival flourishes, it’s probably at the expense of an existing festival. Of those cancelled this year, I’d say half of them were new events. Most events now have found a niche, whether it’s a market, a locality or an angle – it’s hard to make crowds defect from one event they regularly attend to another.”

Along with Jabberwocky, one of this summer’s big disappointments was Alt-Fest, the Kickstarter-funded festival that was cancelled as a result of insufficient ticket sales, despite securing Marilyn Manson as its inaugural headliner. The consensus seems to be that Alt-Fest aimed too high, a common mistake among rookie promoters. “You have to wonder how any new festival which has a wildly unrealistic bill will succeed,” says Williams. “These days the market is much fuller and it’s much harder for an amateur to be successful. There are still going to be those that give it a go, and if their idea is good and their business plan sound, then there should be no reason for them not to succeed. New events have flourished in this tough marketplace and replaced some of the older events.”

UK festival franchises go global

The British summer (or lack of it) has long been the bane of every festival promoter’s existence. With more than one in 10 UK festival-goers looking to attend an event in sunnier climes in 2014, then, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that more and more promoters are following them overseas.

In August, Bestival announced that they would be expanding to the US in 2015 (the location is yet to be confirmed), while Field Day and The Warehouse Project helped stage the inaugural Unknown Festival in Croatia last year. In December, the organisers of Wilderness will stage Wonderfruit, a disco, downtempo electronica and techno festival that takes place in Thailand and is founded on an eco-friendly ethos.

For Wonderfruit director Jo Vidler, the shift towards foreign festivals is rooted in the UK festival industry “becoming harder and harder. In 2005, the year that Glastonbury wasn’t on, UK festivals started becoming more prominent and the audience wanted to be in an environment where they were almost going on holiday for the weekend. In 2012, the weather hit the UK really badly, and it got to the point where a lot of organisers were losing a lot of money, so they started looking at places like Croatia, where it’s cheap to get to, there’s no issue with the weather, and there’s no real competition.”

Before settling on Thailand, Vidler had looked into staging an event in California. “I wanted to do festivals abroad because I wanted to give what we create to other countries,” she says. “No-one does festivals like the British. It’s almost ingrained.” Yet while places like Spain, Hungary and Croatia are a short-hop flight away for British festival-goers, Southeast Asia is a very different (and much pricier) proposition. Can Wonderfruit entice punters halfway around the world?

“Hopefully!” Vidler replies. “A lot of people come to Thailand for Christmas, so it’s a good option for them. And a lot of Australians from the UK will stop off because they’re on their way home. There are a few EDM festivals here, but there’s nothing like a lifestyle festival in Asia at the moment. I think more and more people are going to start looking at Asia as a festival destination.”

Is laughing gas a safer alternative to traditional drugs at festivals?

Empty canisters of laughing gas (nitrous oxide), and the balloons used for huffing the contents, were a ubiquitous sight at this year’s festivals. We asked Dr Adam R Winstock, Consultant Psychiatrist, Addiction Medicine Specialist and director of Global Drugs Survey, whether laughing gas really is just harmless fun.

“Used in safe environments – and at a dose of few balloons or bullets on the occasional day – nitrous is pretty safe,” he says. “Accidental injury, fainting, nausea and hallucinations are quite common but death is very rare – about one a year – and typically from asphyxiation. Nitrous oxide also binds to haemoglobin more tightly than oxygen, so people can suffocate if they keep using one bulb after the other. Long-term heavy use can lead to a nerve condition causing tingling, numbness and weakness in the arms and legs. Simple rules to reduce the risks are to avoid mixing with other drugs, especially alcohol; make sure any room is well ventilated; and don’t use it near roads or bodies of water. Make sure you’ve got mates around, leave several minutes between hits and give yourself breaks between periods of use to refill those vitamin stores.”

Words by Dan Stubbs and Barry Nicholson