We should be at the gateway to a fun-filled summer celebrating the joys of country music in (hopefully) glorious sunshine at fabulous festival venues the length and breadth of the country, including Stanford Hall in Leicestershire and the Isle of Cumbrae on the spectacular West Coast of Scotland.
Instead, the festival season is all but cancelled and the music industry as a whole faces an uncertain few months ahead. We’ve spoken with a number of festival organisers to understand their thoughts on the present and the future, and to gain some insight into how things are shaping up for 2021 and beyond.
Taking part were:
Buckle & Boots – Gary Quinn, Co-founder & Creative Director
Stockport’s Buckle & Boots was forced to cancel its May festival weekend and chose instead to host a virtual event featuring artists including William Michael Morgan and Sarah Darling. Since then, it has also been running online Seclusion Sessions with various artists.
Millport Country Music Festival – Gavin Chittick, Director, Cumbrae Group
In 2019, Millport celebrated its 25th anniversary with Grammy award-winning headliner Cam among more than 50 artists appearing at this beautiful Scottish venue. In April, event organisers Cumbrae Group announced this year’s August event would be cancelled and discussions are ongoing about 2021.
Dixie Fields Festival – Georgie Thorogood, Co-founder
Last year saw Essex’s inaugural Dixie Fields Festival headlined by Lauren Alaina. 2020 marks another first with the Dixie Fields Virtual Festival on July 11 when among the artists taking part will be US artist Jackson Michelson, one of the standout acts from 2019.
Maverick Festival – Paul Spencer, Founder and Festival Director
One of two Suffolk events featured here, Maverick Festival, held near Woodbridge, admirably fills the Americana slot with its laid-back and friendly vibe. Cancelled for 2020, it is set to return in July 2021 but in the meantime look out for a special live stream on July 4.
The Long Road – Baylen Leonard, Creative Director
Thanks to its idyllic Leicestershire location and past headliners including Kip Moore and Josh Turner, in just two years The Long Road has become a hot favourite with country fans. 2020’s cancelled event promised Ashley McBryde among the headliners but dates are already in the diary for September 2021 with artists including Kyle Daniel and Brandy Clark.
Red Rooster Festival – Rupert Orton, Booker / James Brennan, Production Manager & Promoter
At another stunning country estate setting in Suffolk, Red Rooster Festival mixes Cajun, soul, rock ‘n’ roll, blues, roots and country. With its 2020 event originally scheduled for May, instead it held a Red Rooster 2020 Virtual Festival and postponed the main event until 4-6 September this year. Organisers are promising a final decision on the 2020 festival by mid-July.
We asked our guests a series of questions, starting with a reference to a rather gloomy outlook as reported in the national press…
Q. The Guardian recently published an article warning that the British independent festival sector is at risk of collapsing. What are your thoughts?
James Brennan – Red Rooster Festival: It’s certainly a concerning time for festival organisers. We make huge investments throughout the year and as Goc O’Callaghan mentioned in The Guardian article, we’ve lost a whole year of revenue. Some of the larger or more financially stable events will just about keep their head above water, but there is going to be a lot of casualties this year. A small festival that has already spent a few hundred grand in the planning process, of course using the ticket revenue to do so, is now facing having to refund customers; 8 out of 10 small festivals will be having to borrow/crowdfund. The public will be essential in helping festivals to survive – government support is too little, or for some non-existent, so if audiences can afford to roll your ticket over to next year, this is the only way that we can ensure the festival sector doesn’t collapse.
Unless there are some major changes in this pandemic within the next 3 months, I’m also expecting to see further festival casualties later in the year. Festivals that announced postponements to 2021 will be hoping for decent sales between October and December to keep themselves afloat. But unless we all start having more reassurance that things will get better, not all customers will jump on board until they’re sure.
As a production manager as well as a promoter, one of my biggest concerns is the effects it is having on crew. The livelihoods of festival and touring crew have been decimated in 2020. Crew that are used to touring the world are now packing shelves in supermarkets, as there is very little support for many professional crew, and no support for those that are sole directors of limited companies – without the crew, there are no shows. I hope that all our production crews survive this year.
Paul Spencer – Maverick Festival: Of course, it’s hugely challenging to face a world in which Covid is calling the shots and troubling to see festivals on the brink. I do think smaller festivals who have built a loyal following like ours will bounce back, especially with the likelihood of a vaccine by next summer. Until there is a vaccine, it is hard to imagine a festival with social distancing – what would be the point?
Luckily we have very few fixed costs and although we have lost an entire year’s income, we will tighten our belts and wait for the good times to roll once again as they surely will.
Georgie Thorogood – Dixie Fields Festival: I agree with the article, it has been an exceptionally hard time for the festival sector who predominantly rely on a one-off event each year in order to survive financially. That said, the overwhelming impression from our supporters (and the public in general), is that the love for live events is still absolutely strong and as soon as we are able to get back to it, we will have a ready and willing audience. As long as the festival or event is able to get through this period, I think the future is not necessarily as dark as anticipated, but that said, the events themselves will have had a shake up and will need to be approached differently once we are able to get going again.
Gavin Chittick – Millport Country Music Festival: Collapse is a strong word, but the sector will certainly require re-calibrating and, in some situations, business models will need to be reinvented. The trials of 2020 will have wiped out most, if not all, of the working capital of independent festivals, which will need to be somehow replenished. It is particularly challenging for festivals who do not receive any of the proceeds of their ticket sales from the big ticket agencies until after the festival takes place; this means that they have to pay all of the upfront costs from their own resources, which can be very large sums to cover artists deposits, production, infrastructure etc. With no festival this year, many festival promoters, especially if they don’t own the site, will simply not have the resources to do so in 2021. Festival organisers will therefore have to carefully consider what is possible going forward and it would not surprise me if a number decide not to return for a year or two while they replenish their coffers from other sources.
Q. What are you doing to thrive and survive for the future?
Paul Spencer: We‘ve continued a constant conversation with our community ever since the spectre of the virus first surfaced. By doing that we have managed to nurture goodwill which I am pleased to say has meant 99% of ticket-holders have retained their tickets for 2021. That means we will go into next year with a running start which is very encouraging
To maintain that dialogue with our community and as a thank you for their loyalty we also decided to invite artists who had appeared at Maverick in years gone by to film an exclusive live track for a programme which will be posted on our social media and website on July 4.
I think the fans are willing us to be positive and that energy is inspiring. Everything points to a bumper year in 2021 when the brakes come off.
Gavin Chittick: In addition to running Millport CMF, we have Country In The Afternoon (CITA), which is a much smaller format and got off to a great start in 2019 in London. We are looking at how we might expand the frequency and number of locations, thereby reaching new audiences. As it is much lower outlay, and therefore lower risk, to set up a CITA, it is much more flexible than an annual festival featuring 50 artists and multiple stages like last year’s Millport CMF. We will monitor the situation carefully on the island to determine if holding the festival again next year is appropriate, given that this year’s lockdown restrictions have revealed huge sensitivities that we need to be conscious of.
Baylen Leonard – The Long Road: The response to The Long Road’s 2021 line-up preview has been amazing and it’s reassuring to see an eagerness from our audience to get back to festival life.
Q. What are the pros, cons and challenges of organising a virtual concert and are these enough to keep the fans happy?
Gary Quinn – Buckle & Boots: Having to postpone Buckle & Boots 2020 was a decision that was enforced due to the government lockdown and although hard, it was the right decision. However, we still wanted to deliver an event on the cancelled dates, by way of a virtual festival. We felt the pros like fan engagement, brand relevance, visual presence and a platform for artists to still perform in front of an eager audience (albeit virtual) all outweighed some of the cons like limitations with regard to sound and visual quality. It took a bit of ingenuity and there were some logistical barriers but overall, we think it went really well. Fans will always want to attend live events, but I think the virtual option was enough to keep our followers happy.
Gavin Chittick: We have great admiration and respect for those who have already hosted and plan future virtual festivals, but they are not for us. The quality is all-important from a performance and production perspective, whether it is in-person or streamed, so if we were to do something like this, it would need to be a unique and attractive offering. If you are going to charge for tickets, it needs to be very slick, which is expensive to arrange, and unlikely for a small promoter of country music like us to be a worthwhile use of our time. If the festival is to be free to stream, how do artists get paid and other costs get covered? We enjoy proper live music in person, so that is what we will focus on, once the venues and opportunities to promote again return in due course. If we do get involved in streaming, it is more likely to be an offshoot of a live in-person event, rather than stand-alone.
Q. There seems to be quite a disconnect between those fans who say they will be happy to go to a festival/gig as soon as it’s allowed and those who are much more cautious. How does this affect your decision-making in terms of maybe location/limiting numbers/attractions etc?
Georgie Thorogood: This pandemic has caused so many differences of opinion on how people should behave, I really think that it is absolutely a case of each person being able to make their own decision on their actions and not being judged for it. All we can do as a festival, is provide our customers with the information they need to be able to make this decision for themselves.
We are blessed to have a huge venue with masses of space, so being able to give extra room for our visitors is not an issue, so if people wish to come to Dixie Fields and still practice social distancing, that is no problem at all. If they wish to come and behave as if the pandemic has never happened, that is also their choice, as long as they remain within whatever guidelines are currently in place and they don’t impose their opinions on anyone who wishes to act differently!
I think the key to this is effective communication and managing the expectations of our attendees, who in return, we expect to behave in a respectful manner both to each other and to our staff who will be managing the situation when the time comes.
Gary Quinn: Its reported that around 40% of fans feel they will not want to return quickly to large gatherings straight after lockdown, which is entirely understandable, and so that will impact on what type of event we deliver. However, we will be guided more by government and public health recommendations and plan accordingly based on those. We have regular engagement with our followers and know a lot of them are eager to get back to watching live music safely. Our location will not change, and we hope to have news about our future plans soon.
Q. Presuming air travel is back to something like normal next year, what are you hearing in terms of artists willing to travel from the US. It’s never a cheap trip for them, do you think we will we miss out here while they stay closer to home?
Baylen Leonard: The artists we talk to are chomping at the bit to get back to the UK, and we are all working together to make sure that can happen as soon as possible.
Rupert Orton – Red Rooster Festival: Like everything at the moment we just don’t know what is going to happen next year, especially with air travel. Roots music is a US art form so US acts are a key ingredient to a festival specialising in Country or Americana. If the quarantine restrictions in the UK are lifted by next year, the R rate drops to a handle number and airfares don’t sky rocket then we stand a fighting chance of US acts being able to come over.
Paul Spencer: We have a commitment from all the artists on our line-up this year to come next year, so we are cautiously optimistic that our North American acts will be able to make the trip and re-schedule their tours accordingly.
Of course we cannot afford to bring them over just for Maverick and my fear is that many of the venues that promote Americana at the grass roots level where we operate may not be around in 2021.
We just hope that promoters will take up the challenge and find alternatives where necessary. They are a resourceful and passionate bunch so we travel hopefully!
Georgie Thorogood: This is the million-dollar question! I think so much can change in the space of a year, as we have seen just in 2020 alone, that we just are not really in a position for conjecture at this stage. I have heard reports that some of the bigger artists will not be travelling, but there are some amazing artists who may not be so well known in the UK but are still keen to come over here, so I don’t think there will be any shortage of talent even if line-ups do look a little different than they may have done. That said, no-one knows what next year will bring and nothing definitive has been announced by any of the artists who I have been dealing with, so I am happy to remain positive and just deal with any issues like this as, when or if they happen!
Gary Quinn: In the conversations we are having with international artists we are hearing that they are still keen to get across to the UK and perform. Obviously, every artist is different and the team they have behind them will all have their input. Perhaps some artists may feel it’s not worth the risk right now or next year, but we have confidence in being able to deliver as diverse a line-up as we always do and feel our followers won’t be disappointed.
Q. What are your predictions for the future of country festivals in the UK and what’s your message to fans right now?
Rupert Orton: Up until this February, the UK Country and country scene was booming with lots of great tours and festivals. The industry will definitely take a hit next year when the economic shocks from the virus kick in and there will be big changes across the board. However, all going well, the industry will be back on its feet by 2022 to carry on from where we were earlier this year.
James Brennan: From a festival point of view, pandemic aside, I think the future of country festivals is bright. The demand for country and blues music is growing year by year; seen by new festivals now popping up like The Long Road and Black Deer, as well as main stream radio channels and plays for artists. It’s an exciting time for country and it’s great that more events are now starting up and championing the genre; the trajectory will no doubt keep moving higher.
Gavin Chittick: We can take nothing for granted. Some festivals may have to take a couple of steps back before they stride forward again. Except for C2C, none of the UK’s country music festivals can be considered as being very large compared to festivals in other genres. However, we know all of the other country music promoters and we are a resilient and committed bunch, so we will find ways to bring enjoyable, safe festivals back to our audiences.
Baylen Leonard: The UK has a great spread of country festivals, from unique independent shows, through to the multi-venue C2C. Each of those shows brings something different to our scene and we’re confident that support from audiences and artists will create an environment where all those continue to thrive.
So there you have it; an insight into the thoughts of some of the country’s top country and roots music festival organisers as they’re preparing for the future.
A huge SSC thank you to everyone who took part and roll on 2021, when there is already plenty to look forward to – we hope!
Photo credits – E Whytock Photography, Drew Burnett Photography