This should have been the week of Glastonbury at 50 – will music festivals ever make a comeback?
Imagine this year had been the same in every respect bar one. The British government’s haplessness was still in little doubt; Tiger King had still been the talk of watercoolers through the long, hot spring; and George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis had still been the spark that ignited a wave of protest around the world. The only thing different? That the coronavirus had not swept the world, and that Covid-19 had not caused the greatest public health crisis in living memory.
So this weekend, as is customary at the end of June, a couple of hundred thousand people would have decamped to the Somerset countryside for several days of music, dancing, falafel, terrifying toilets, intoxication both legal and proscribed, and – if the skies were unkind – mud.
And on Friday night, at this febrile moment in history, Kendrick Lamar would have taken to the stage. Across the fields, and out of millions of television sets, would have rolled the song that was the soundtrack to so many of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests in 2015, the song that became a new generation’s version of We Shall Overcome.
“We gon’ be alright / Do you hear me? Do you feel me? We gon’ be alright,” would ring out, hollered back to the stage by thousands upon thousands of festivalgoers, in a moment of catharsis – the kind of spine-tingling moment Glastonbury is famous for, the kind that gets repeated on television year after year, that people talk about long afterwards.
When Glastonbury reconvenes next year – as it intends to; as all the UK festivals intend to – we can hope the world will have changed in ways that mean Alright would not have the same cataclysmic power as it would this summer. But what else will be different? How can events that gather tens of thousands of people together really happen if no vaccine has been discovered?
“Social distancing will be totally impossible,” says Rachael Greenfield, the director of the heavy metal festival Bloodstock. “The whole point about a festival is that it brings people together. You can’t do that and expect them to maintain social distancing. That’s not what a festival is.”
That’s not the case only for festivals – it’s the view taken by concert promoters and large venue operators. Lucy Noble, the artistic and commercial director of the Royal Albert Hall in London, says her venue would have to operate at 30% of its 5,500 capacity to observe current social distancing guidelines. “Most rock and pop shows break even at 80% of capacity,” she notes.
That’s equally true of festivals. But outdoors and with so much more space, might social distancing not be possible, at least in theory? No. Academics at Manchester Metropolitan and Cardiff universities calculated earlier this month that while people standing still needed four square metres of space to maintain a two metre social distance, people in outdoor spaces required 12 square metres, because they move more.
So consider Glastonbury, with its license for 210,000 people – 142,000 ticketholders, plus the many stallholders, performers, temporary workers, guests and so on.
You could, theoretically fit everyone on to the fields of Worthy Farm: with 12 square metres each, they would occupy around 620 acres of the 1,100-acre site, if they all just occupied one spot for the whole weekend. You can probably divide that further: assume everyone goes to the festival in couples, and you’re down to 310 acres. Easy!
You also have to factor in the spaces not open to the public, and remember quite how much of the site is given over to camping: on the 2019 site map, the central area where the main stages are concentrated occupy maybe a third of the whole site.
Consider, too, some of the practical problems: a tight crowd at the front of the Pyramid Stage might contain six people per square metre, so the space that last year once contained 72 people would now contain only one. Kendrick Lamar might be playing Alright, but hardly anyone would get close enough to the stage to hear it.
What if everyone in the Pyramid Arena stood two metres apart?
If Glastonbury crowds follow the current NHS advice on social distancing of two metres, one person would need to occupy a space of four square metres.
Why 2m distancing means 4m²
1 square = 1 metre
Black dot = 1 person
What would this mean for crowds watching a headline act in the Pyramid arena? The 14 acre field has the capacity for 100,000 people (although Adele’s audience is believed to have reached 150,000 in 2016). Introduce two metre social distancing and that capacity shrinks to 14,200 people. Worse, if you accept that you really need to provide each person with 12 square metres of ‘dynamic space’ (a social distance of around 3.5m), the Pyramid arena would fit a meagre 4,750 people – less than 5% of the normal crowd.
See what happens to crowd density at different levels of social distancing
Relative crowd density in the Pyramid arena for…
Rather than only allow a lucky minority of ticket holders to witness the headliner, festival organisers might consider increasing the size of the field. But the numbers quickly get out of control. To allow for two metre social distancing in the Pyramid arena, you wouldn’t just need to double the size of the field, you’d need to increase it seven times over.
14 acres – The size of the Pyramid arena normally
99 acres – Area needed for 2m social distancing
297 acres – Area needed for 3.5m distancing
Let’s assume for argument’s sake that septupling the Pyramid arena is possible, and also that by some miracle everyone sticks to their 4m² socially-distanced bubble. At this point, a pandora’s box of questions begins: how many more speakers and screens would you need? How could the additional noise pollution be reduced for local residents? More fundamentally, what is even the point if a quarter of the audience are now half a kilometre away from the performer and to top it off they can’t even sing or dance with the people around them?
And don’t even get to imagining how those legendary toilets might work, or how you would avoid the inevitable groups of drunk or incapable people who wouldn’t be able to estimate two metres even if they could remember that was the distance they were supposed to keep.
Paul Reed of the Association of Independent Festivals points out that to accommodate social distancing, festivals wouldn’t have to just keep people apart, they would have to entirely reinvent themselves. “We’ve had members model that scenario,” he says, “and the issues are the management of it, and the logistical considerations. You can’t simply add more space – you’d need to design the entire experience around it.”
Food, loos and queues
Food stall vendors will likely need to front the costs of installing physical barriers and ensuring they can accept contactless card payments. Technology may also end up playing a role in limiting risk of long, crowded queues: click-and-collect drinks round anyone? However, relying on technology in this way could solve one problem but create another. Say, for example, that everyone in Glastonbury now needed to use an internet-enabled app for 15 minutes each day, just to get their food and drink. The festival would need to provide a minimum additional 630GB data each day and be able to deal with the inevitable surges in demand at popular times.
It is almost certainly going to be all about hand hygiene next year. Our ballpark estimate for the cost of providing all 210,000 ticket holders, workers, volunteers and performers with 5 days’ worth of hand sanitiser is just shy of £464,000. We can also expect to see hands-free squatting toilets, a greater number of urinals and the rise of the Shewee – a device that allows women to urinate standing up without exposing themselves and which has already reportedly seen a 700% increase in sales during lockdown.
To encourage social distancing, queue lines might not get slower, but would have to get longer. Let’s assume that Glastonbury’s 4,500 toilet cubicles all require a 4m long space in front of them to accommodate a queue of 12 people. With social distancing, each queue now requires a 16m line. Apply this across the site, and the total loo queue lines have quadrupled from approximately 18km to 72km. And that’s just the queues for the toilets.
So what next? How can we get back to the mud in 2021?
The UK’s festival operators are looking to next year with a combination of optimism and trepidation. Many have been able to roll over the majority of the bands on their bills from this year to next, and they report low levels of demands for refunds for this year, with most ticketholders happy to attend in 2021 instead.
But just to stay alive until next year will be tough; Simon Taffe, who runs the End of the Road festival, says he has spent six figures on keeping his event afloat – and he can’t just spend the money from this year’s ticket sales to ease things. “We have to be able to refund if we need to,” he explains. “Once we are sure we can go ahead next year, if we get to a point of certainty, we could take a gamble on spending some of the ticket money.”
The lack of certainty is the problem. Despite the contribution live music makes to the UK economy – people travelling to the UK or within the UK specifically to attend live music were responsible for £4.5bn of spending in 2018, according to the industry body UK Music – the government has paid little attention to the needs of the live music industry as a whole, let alone the 200-plus events in the festival sector.
The first stab at preparing for 2021 has come from Melvin Benn, MD of Festival Republic – responsible for Reading and Leeds, Download and Latitude, among others – who has proposed a “Full Capacity Plan” for the entertainment sector, under which ticket buyers would also have to get a Covid-19 test and download a track and trace app, before being granted a certificate to enter an event (assuming the app didn’t then show them having been exposed to the disease in the meantime).
No one from the music industry was appointed to the Cultural Renewal Taskforce, though space could be found for the men who run the high society nightclub Annabel’s and the Winter Wonderland fairs. Paul Reed of the Association of Independent Festivals has been in weekly touch with the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, but notes that “it hasn’t necessarily translated into meaningful action at ministerial level”. So planning for next year has been left to the festivals themselves, with the hope that at some point the government will endorse their approach.
At the moment many eyes in the live music industry are cast eastwards, to South Korea. “There is a production of Phantom of the Opera running in Seoul that is fully operational, with business at 95%,” says Stuart Galbraith, CEO of the promoter Kilimanjaro. He explains that the show – which shut for only three weeks in April, at the height of the pandemic – conducts temperature tests on all ticketholders, has compulsory disinfecting of hands and wearing of masks, and makes those attending fill in a form declaring their movements. Something similar to that will be required for large-scale live music to return, he says. “We will only see a return to concerts when measures are in place that mean we know when people get to the door they are safe to be with other customers.”
It’s certainly an interesting idea, agree festival operators. But at this point they are thinking more of the practicalities. “The common sense thing to do would be to have masks, and to invest in more sanitary stations and for people to keep washing their hands,” says Rachael Greenfield.
But even simple actions like that could have profound consequences for festivals: Tortoise estimates that the cost of hand sanitiser for Glastonbury – based on people washing their hands 20 times a day over five days, with three millilitres used each time, could be more than £400,000.
Glastonbury is the biggest festival in the UK, and the costs will not be so high at other events – but scaling down those figures still suggests the average festival might well be facing bills for sanitiser alone running into tens of thousands of pounds.
“There’s a general acceptance that there are going to be increased costs to uphold the duty of care,” Paul Reed says. “It’s inevitable there will be cost increases, and if they come without government support, then they could be passed along to the customer.”
At Bloodstock, the organisers have been proud of their commitment to sustainability, with compulsory reusable plastic cups on site. “Under the current guidelines that would be unhygienic, because the virus holds to plastic more than to other materials. It would be likely we would move to paper cups, but that can be very expensive.”
And be honest, do you want the safety of your family entrusted to a bored student working the gate at a festival in return for free entry on the other days? Any serious system of checking credentials before admission is likely to require trained staff, which will further drive up the costs.
What if everyone was required to prove they had a recent negative Covid test result?
Melvin Benn’s Full Capacity Plan imagines that future festival goers are required to test themselves for Covid at home and download the NHSX tracing app. They get a time-limited “authority to enter” a social event, which can be updated based on their movements tracked by the app. But there are issues.
Would ticket holders with a positive Covid result be entitled to a refund? Would an entire group of friends have to be accepted and refused entry as one if they had travelled together? What if people with a positive (or no) test result turn up anyway? Things could quickly get messy.
And what about the additional time – and therefore staff – required to check certificates and carry out temperature screenings on entry? Say it took an additional 15 seconds to process each ticket holder. That’s equivalent to 25 days of non-stop work. A team of 100 staff would have to spend six hours each to get everyone through.
Passing along the costs to the consumer doesn’t mean your favourite festival asking you for a few more quid on top of the £150 you’ve already paid for the ticket for the event that was cancelled this year. It means next year’s experience is going to be different. “I spend money on things I don’t have to spend money on,” says Simon Taffe of the End of the Road, a beautiful festival in the Dorset countryside, with a wonderfully decorated site. “But increased costs mean you have to compromise on the experience slightly, because a medium-sized festival is already a very tight ship.”
What if everyone who usually travelled by train and coach travelled by car instead?
In theory, Glastonbury would need to increase its current car parking space by nearly 50% to find an additional 80 hectares of surrounding fields for an additional 30,000 or so cars. Doing so would allow the 90,000 ticket holders and workers who would normally have travelled to the festival by coach, train or bus to avoid spreading the disease to one another before they even arrive.
This would be a challenge, but not impossible – unlike increasing the size of the actual festival space, no special license is required for car parking. Local farmers just need to be able and willing to lend their fields. What could prove more difficult is managing all the additional road traffic, particularly if it rains. In 2016 some Glastonbury goers were stuck in traffic for up to 12 hours due to poor weather conditions. Now imagine that, but with an additional 30,000 cars on the road.
Festival promoters talk of the possibility of rejigging their line-ups, to reduce the risk of unhygienic crushes in tight spaces – moving all the biggest artists to the main stages, rather than giving smaller acts the chance to shine on the big stages, and spreading the stardust around the site. They wonder if those hot, sticky, humid tents will be allowed next year, or whether every stage will have to be completely outdoors.
There will be consequences down the line, too. The almost certain closure of small venues around the UK because of Covid-19 means fewer artists progressing through the “talent pipeline” in the coming years. In recent years, the decreasing flow of young artists to festival headline slots has been a matter of complaint, and the tightening of the talent pipeline will only worsen that. For those festivals with new band stages, it could be even more serious. Bloodstock, for example, has one stage entirely filled with bands chosen on the strength of their appearances at a network of 30 grassroots music venues. Take away the venues, and there goes the stage.
And if, God forbid, festivals can’t return next summer, then expect a great many of them to disappear completely. One year without any revenues is hard, but possible to survive. For most of these events, though, two years in a row would be impossible to weather.
For now, though, let us assume (and hope) summer 2021 sees the stages erected, the bands playing and the fans returning. Perhaps it won’t be the same. Perhaps the events won’t be able to afford to sprinkle the extra fairy dust on their sites. Perhaps there will still be some twinge of nervousness about gathering together in such vast numbers, regardless of tests and apps. Even then, though, think of the explosion of joy when the music kicks in and people can once again feel part of a particular community that is a crowd responding to live music.
It might be different; it will still be great.
Graphics and data by Ella Hollowood