What will 2020’s “pandemic-proof” music festival season look like?

How are those festivals that are still going ahead in 2020 adapting to the age of COVID-19? Gary Ryan gets talking to the festival bosses stepping up to the challenge

COVID-19 has wiped out the 2020 festival season, with big-name events such as Glastonbury, Reading & Leeds and Download all struck from the calendar – and it’s led to grim warnings that the UK sector is teetering on the brink of collapse. Many have moved their entire line-ups to 2021, leaving us seeking succour in livestreams or VR alternatives.

However, for those craving a genuine communal festival experience this year, there are a smattering of bonafide festivals scheduled in the next few months as lockdown conditions ease. Serbia’s Exit Festival is going ahead. So is Iceland Airwaves, Germany’s Reeperbahn Festival, Live At Leeds and Liverpool Sound City, all with reduced capacity and with “pandemic-proof” measures in place. Aitch and AJ Tracey, meanwhile, are set to headline the inaugural Escape 2 The Island Festival in Malta this summer, while the organisers of Northern Ireland’s cancelled Stendhal Festival are planning Unlocked, a series of events due to take place over five weekends in August and September.

But how compatible is the bacchanal of strangers getting mashed to music with social distancing measures in place? How do you juggle the joyous liberation of festivals with ensuring that people feel safe? Until we have a vaccine, some feel we are going to have to find a way of existing normally in this time. So will the experience of the music gatherings that are first out of the traps — like Exit and Liverpool Sound City — provide a template as to what the future of festivals could look like?

“People called us crazy to even attempt this” – Frehn Hawel

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Back in May, when Exit Festival were planning to postpone their 2020 event from its original date in July to 2021, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić suggested they should actually go ahead with it in August as she felt the infection rate was declining.

“Practically, we had two months to finish the job which usually takes 12 months to do,” says Dušan Kovačević, CEO and Founder of Exit. “We had to start the whole process from scratch and redo the booking and sponsorship deals, contacts, deals with suppliers, etc. This was challenging, but it was easier as we felt the support of the industry. An additional challenge is all the precautionary measures which will be taken in order to prevent the spread of the virus, but we’ll do whatever it takes to make the festival as safe as possible.”

In some ways, the festival — which will run from 13-16 August and boasts a line-up that includes Amelie Lens, Black Coffee and Nina Kraviz — will look the same, featuring hip-hop, reggae, trance, bass dance and other genres spread over stages set in the memorable environs of an 18th century Petrovaradin fortress in Novi Sad. But the halved capacity and other rules hint at our new reality.

“In case the virus remains active during August, free tests will be provided for visitors and only those with negative results will be allowed to enter the festival,” explains Kovačević. “Masks will also be provided for the visitors at the entrance, as well as disinfectants at multiple points inside the venue starting from the entrance. Visitors will have access to multiple health checkpoints for body temperature measuring and registration of potential symptoms, and a separate isolation facility in case any of them shows any symptoms during the festival.”

News of Exit going ahead was met with enthusiasm, says Kovačević, particularly among those artists clamouring to perform live again. “Although some are worried, the majority of festivalgoers are eager to experience live music again and feel part of normal life returning.”

After imposing one of Europe’s strictest lockdowns in March, Serbia lifted its nationwide restrictions in May and it is on the list of 59 “air bridge” destinations (which also includes Iceland, Germany and Malta) where Britons do not have to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival. Kovačević feels that Exit sends a positive signal to the beleaguered live music industry and provides a route-map for the future. “We strongly believe that the new normal some are predicting, with some people having zero contact, is not the normal that the majority of us wish or could ever settle for,” he says.

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“Life is not solely surviving: it is much more than that and festivals are an important segment of the overall human experience. We believe we will show that festivals can be safely organised.”

Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, Kovačević believes that the turbulent history of Exit — which was founded in 2000 as a student movement fighting for democracy and freedom in the Balkans — means that it is uniquely positioned to respond to crisis.

“This is our fourth state of emergency in 20 years and we are used to hardship,” he reasons. “We’ve had to overcome numerous very difficult periods throughout the years, but we always manage to find creative solutions and eventually find an exit.

Exit Festival in Novi Sad, Serbia (Picture: Gordon Stabbins/Getty Images)

“We work on one of the toughest markets in Europe for organising a festival, with our local economy allowing us to charge tickets several times less than the ones that other major festivals charge in the rest of the continent. The situation is absolutely the same when it comes to the sponsorship capacity of the Serbian market. For instance, Glastonbury receives more sponsorship in one year than we did in 20. We’ve had to be very creative to survive.”

Still, some might feel trepidation about visiting a festival — which we’re told are super-spreading hotspots — in the time of a global pandemic. Does Kovačević have a message for those who are cautious?

“Simply follow your hearts and respect your own feelings,” he responds. “If you feel unsafe going to large crowds, maybe it’s best to skip the festival this year. On the other hand, if you feel the same as we do, that life is more than just surviving, our gates are wide open. And we’ll do whatever it takes to make the experience as safe as possible. We have always advocated for the right of choice – that’s what freedom is all about.”

Billing itself as “a pandemic-proof festival”, Reeperbahn Festival will take place in Hamburg, Germany in September, with Ghostpoet and Shame on the bill. When the dates for the three-day shindig were announced in May, the reaction from festivalgoers was polarised.

“Most were really enthusiastic and encouraging — especially our partners from the UK — [though] others called us crazy to even attempt this,” recalls their media spokesperson Frehn Hawel. “But we do not take this lightly and are fully aware of the responsibility we have taken upon our shoulders, so the safety of everyone involved is our highest priority.”

As such, Reeperbahn have capped their attendance at 4,000 — down from the 8,000-15,000 capacity of previous years — and will be spread across 30 venues instead of 90. There will be a total of 350 live concerts instead of 600, and the focus will be on neighbouring European countries and domestic acts rather than international bands. Venues will be emptied between shows so they can be ventilated and disinfected, so an extension of changeover times are expected. An array of safety measures, including the requirement to wear masks, are laid out in detail on their website.

As with other festivals going ahead in 2020, they’ve incurred a rise in overheads due to the increase of security, instalment of scanning devices, putting seats in normally unseated venues and the implementation of a “digital solution to record which visitors are at which location at what time [in accordance with data protection laws] to be able to act quickly and effectively in the event of an infection.”

This, coupled with the reduction of capacity, means they’ve taken an economic hit. “With the drastic cut down of capacities to a third of normal, ticket sales are affected heavily,” says Hawel. “Economically, the realisation of the pandemic-adapted Reeperbahn Festival 2020 is only possible due to the funds we are receiving from the City of Hamburg, as well as the German government commissioner for Culture and the Media.”

Germany has been locked down since mid-March, and a ban on large-scale gatherings like festivals was extended last month until the end of October. However, some events like Reeperbahn will be allowed to take place if they can provide contact tracing and comply with hygiene rules. In a time of flux, Hawel hopes Reeperbahn’s pandemic-adapted festival shows that the live industry can get into some kind of working mode again.

“As the current circumstances are new to everybody, there are no experiences or proven concepts to fall back on. But as the situation is looking very much like something we will have to deal with for the foreseeable future, we’re aiming at developing practical and effective measures that could work as guidelines for the industry for staging live shows under pandemic circumstances beyond the festival itself,” he says.

Gig crowd, Kurupt FM
The crowd at a Kurupt FM gig in 2018 (Pictre: Ollie Millington/Redferns)

In the UK, Liverpool Sound City finds itself as the first major UK festival slated to take place since the coronavirus outbreak. At present, the plan is still for the three-day music festival/conference — once dubbed Scouse By Scousewest — to go ahead from 25-27 September, after it was rescheduled from May.

Over 300 bands (including Friendly Fires, Pale Waves and Red Rum Club) are expected to perform across multiple stages in the city’s Baltic area — albeit this year there will be a lack of international bands, and the conference will skew towards UK-based speakers. Safety measures and distancing measures will be in place.

Fear of COVID-19 has apparently not dented demand. When the new dates were announced two months ago in lockdown, there was “a huge surge” in ticket sales according to Sound City boss Dave Pichilingi. “The response was phenomenal. There is a sense of optimism and readiness from the fans to get back in front of the live experience.”

Echoing the palpable frustration of others in the music industry, the key challenge Pichilingi is facing is a lack of clarity from the UK government. “If we had safety regulations, then we could plan our way forward. They are just too slow and they are failing our sector in a way that is going to kill off many festivals, venues, production companies and ultimately artists. It’s a shocking state of affairs.”

According to the #LetTheMusicPlay campaign, 93% of festival businesses run the risk of being totally wiped out without government support — while it’s not yet known whether festivals will benefit from the recent ballyhooed £1.57 billion arts bailout fund. How real is that threat for Liverpool Sound if it doesn’t go ahead?

“It’s very real,” admits Pichilingi. “The lack of action from this government towards our sector is criminal. They should have acted more quickly. If you look at other countries, such as Denmark, Germany, Taiwan, China and Australia, there are clear regulations and guidelines in place. The UK is far too slow to action, and even when they do action, everything is too vague.

“This government needs to recognise the economic importance of our music sector. They need to put effective packages of support together that go beyond the current grant and furlough schemes. They need to consult wider and move quickly. Time is running out and they are about to see economically viable festivals, production companies, venues and much more simply go into administration because of the complete paralysis of these bumbling politicians.”

Compounding matters is that it is tricky planning for a multi-venue festival in September when, as the Music Venue Trust recently warned, it is unlikely some music venues will be able to return before October.

“We are in continual dialogue with our venues,” he says. “Some of those we planned to use will of course not be opening, so we have to look for alternatives. Things change on a daily basis and this adds to the level of detail and issues.”

With local lockdowns in Leicester refocusing minds on the potential for a second spike, Pichilingi recognises that some music fans may feel wary. The latest Music Venue Trust survey, for instance, found that only 36% of people felt that it was currently safe to attend a gig.

“We understand some people will feel cautious. Safety is top of our list. We are ready to deliver Sound City this year and be amongst the first in the UK to show how it can be done,” he says.

“To be able to party like it’s 1999 again someday, you have to act like it’s 2020 now”

Taking place in November in Reykjavik, tastemaking festival Iceland Airwaves will welcome Metronomy, Courtney Barnett, The Murder Capital and Squid across various venues in the nation’s capital. With social distancing restrictions being gradually relaxed in Iceland last month (including allowing gatherings of up to 500 people), it is predicted that by the end of the summer — three months before the festival is due to take place — that there will be no restrictions for gigs or concerts.

“We are keen to maintain as much as we can about what keeps Iceland Airwaves special,” says its Managing Director, Will Larnach-Jones. “Think of it as a mini SXSW or The Great Escape, with a welcoming celebratory atmosphere that’s positively electric.” Yes, there will be more Icelandic acts — including a show from Russell Crowe-approved hometown Eurovision hero Daði Freyr — but “that is because there’s so much good music coming out of Iceland at the moment, and because many of these artists have not had a chance to perform anywhere this year up until now, either in Iceland or overseas.”

Larnach-Jones feels that Iceland Airwaves is in a fortunate situation as it’s taking place at the end of the year and is happening in a country whose response to the pandemic — which has been about prioritising testing, tracking and tracing — has been widely praised. “I think how festivals come through this will be very tied to how their respective countries have handled COVID-19,” he says, before adding that they have the buffer zone of time to accrue expertise in the area. “Ahead of the festival, the company we work for is producing several large-scale events in the late summer and early autumn which also gives us the benefit of having run through the best measures and practices several times over ahead of November.”

Ticket sales are strong, with particular interest from the UK, France, Germany and the Netherlands — suggesting that festivalgoers are feeling the fear and doing it anyway. “Earlier this month we announced Daði Freyr, and we were hit with a huge avalanche of interest from the public, and emails from agents and artists from all over the world wanting to play this year. As it turns out, this year Airwaves may very well be the only new/showcase festival to take place in 2020. People around the world have been so praiseworthy of Iceland handling the pandemic so well and so responsibly.”

All this sounds overwhelmingly positive, but the public health stakes are high. Hanging over all festivals is surely the worry that mass gatherings could lead to a spike in coronavirus infections. Organisers will do everything in their power to minimise risks and find innovative solutions so that we can see our favourite, and discover soon-to-be-favourite, artists. Yet is it really possible to socially distance when we’re so used to going feral at festivals? And won’t the first events bear the brunt of people’s partying instincts after months of being locked up under lockdown?

“To make this all work, more than ever it is the responsibility of each and every attendee to act carefully and comply with the regulations,” says Reeperbahn’s Frehn Hawel. “To be able to party like it’s 1999 again someday, you have to act like it’s 2020 now.”

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