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What's Next for Music Festivals?

by Robert Flis / October 19, 2020

As we move ever closer to the end of 2020, questions arise as to what next year will hold. In music industry circles, it’s uncertain whether live shows will make a return, and if they do, what they will look like compared to the gigs we’re used to. Will music festivals make a comeback? How many people will attend and what precautions will need to be taken if in fact Covid-19 remains a significant public health risk? It’s hard to answer these questions with any certainty, but industry professionals are looking ahead and making their best predictions for what the future of live shows, and music festivals in particular, will look like.

This article is based on a recent presentation by Indie Week called “What's Next for Music Festivals? The future of event planning in 2020 and beyond”, featuring speakers Andy Jones (FOCUS Wales), Peter Åstedt (Musichelp / Future Echoes), Sebastian Nasra (M for Montreal / Avalanche Production) and Darryl Hurs (Indie Week / CD Baby).

The Rise of Virtual Festivals

The music industry has gone through its share of struggles over the past several decades, which in a weird way makes it somewhat well placed to deal with a challenge like a pandemic. It’s an industry full of creators who find unique ways to reinvent themselves in times of hardship. Many artists have refocused their efforts online and turned to live-streaming as an alternative to playing live shows. Some festivals are trying to do the same, developing online projects to continue supporting artists. Now more than ever, it’s an important time to develop international connections, and we’re seeing evidence of this happening in the festival industry with virtual festival editions starting to be announced.

“It soon became clear that the festival wasn’t going to happen,” says Andy Jones of FOCUS Wales, remembering the early chaos resulting from the outbreak. FOCUS Wales takes place in May and was among the first festivals to be cancelled. He is confident that the festival will return in 2021, but in what capacity is unclear. FOCUS Wales attracts up to 15,000 people and trying to picture it with social distancing is difficult. For Andy and others in his field, the guesswork and uncertainty has been very stressful and made all the more difficult by having to manage everything from home. Still, there is an air of positivity regarding the future, with the mindset that we can move toward a better one if we stick together and continue to build the community. After all, everyone is going through this together. M for Montreal is another festival that has fully embraced the potential of virtual events. They launched Hub Montreal, which focuses on tech and culture, and will be held virtually along with M. “We have to develop virtual technologies,” says Peter Åstedt (Musichelp / Future Echoes). “Even after Covid. It’s not just for this year, it’s for the future.” What that future will look like is anyone’s guess, but adaptation will be key. Live-streaming technology has been around for a while, and bands and promoters alike should be using it to their advantage.

No Going Back

Being open minded is going to be the key for surviving the upcoming year. As sad as it is to think about a concert with social distancing, there are certain realities that can’t be avoided. When people start to have a few drinks, it’s just not realistic to enforce social distancing, so innovative solutions will need to be created. Live music represents a huge portion of the industry, so it’s of vital importance to make sure it survives. “It’s not replaceable by other revenue streams,” says Åstedt. “So we have to be aware of the importance of saving it and put pressure on politicians to help us out.” With so much up in the air, artists are asking if they should be applying to festivals. Many organizers are honouring their commitments to book 2020 artists for 2021, so there will only be a limited number of slots available for bands to play next year. However, to compensate, artists will be able to apply in 2021 for 2022. “To take an opportunity away from and artist who had been booked, due to event cancellations, is just not fair,” says Andy Jones. There are many logistical and other intangible challenges to consider for festival managers during these uncertain times. How do you sustain festival staff? Sebastian Nasra (M for Montreal / Avalanche Production) credits the Canadian government for the wage support being offered in response to the pandemic. However, they have still had to scale down their entire team and rehire temporarily. The big question is what will happen from January onward? Even in 2021, there’s a strong possibility that many events will remain either virtual or a hybrid, until we get out of this fully.

The Big Picture

It’s impossible to say for certain what the lasting impact of Covid-19 on the music industry will be. But one thing we do know for sure is that the industry will find some way to move forward. They may not be the way we remember them (at least not at first) but music festivals will make a comeback, and when they do they will introduce innovations that may permanently change the live concert experience for everyone.


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