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UK festival industry washed out by elemental onslaught

Daniel Gumble
UK festival industry washed out by elemental onslaught

What began as a disappointingly damp summer is rapidly escalating into a full-scale travesty for the UK festival circuit, as erratic weather conditions continue to batter British shores, causing untold chaos for festivalgoers and organisers alike.

While some events have been pulled altogether, others have attempted to fly in the face of adversity by braving the elements, only to watch droves of patrons either flee the site on arrival or find themselves unable to reach their desired location. A prime example of this came only two weeks ago in the form of the annual Isle of Wight Festival, which saw thousands of fans unable to reach the site due to treacherous conditions caused by the rain and the mud. This subsequently led to various locals kindly offering their gardens and driveways as temporary accommodation for stranded campers, while others were simply forced to head for home.

Also making the headlines this week was the cancellation of Pete Waterman’s nauseating nostalgia-fest The Hit Factory Live in London’s Hyde Park. Having hosted the O2 Wireless festival just a few days earlier, the boggy terrain was ultimately deemed too dangerous to accommodate yet another stampede of gig-goers. Nevertheless, this should be seen as a welcome reprieve for many, as a ‘long awaited’ duet between Kylie and Jason Donovan was duly avoided.

Despite going ahead, Scotland’s T in the Park Festival hardly fared much better, with thousands of fans made to endure some truly appalling conditions, while festival staff struggled for days to remove vast quantities of mud from much of the equipment in use. In fact, it appears to be the opinion of several festival professionals that the mud is of far greater concern from a technical perspective than the rain. This has certainly proved to be the case for Martin Connolly of Capital Sound, who supplied the audio equipment for T in the Park. He explains: “The main problem we had with T in the Park was the large quantities of mud, which covered much of the equipment. So, although we haven’t suffered too much from the rain, the mud has been a far greater challenge.”

Having also supplied the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations with a raft of audio equipment - an event that was also blighted by the weather - Connolly believes that effective measures can be taken against the rain; something that can’t always be said of the mud: “Our busiest weekend of the year so far was the Diamond Jubilee weekend. And while we had loads of equipment out across the weekend, we were fortunate that the cover was good from the staging companies, which protected us against the worst of the rain.”

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In addition to the aforementioned events, this week has also seen the Kilver Court festival and Morrisons’ MFest join the growing list of festival casualties, with Kilver organisers stating: "Despite there being no rain on Wednesday (July 11th) morning, the lawns at Kilver Court are under water. The damage caused by construction of a stage and providing access to 300 people under the circumstances is untenable.”

So, while some might say that the cancellation of outdoor music events is inevitable in light of such a sustained elemental onslaught, others aren’t quite so sure, indicating that the plight of outdoor festivals and concerts is symptomatic of an endemic frailty within the infrastructure of the UK festival industry.

Revered FOH engineer Dave Swallow is clearly of the opinion that UK festivals are yet to catch up with the rest of the world in terms of preparing for the conditions and properly catering for its staff. He explains: “Over here the infrastructure isn’t really in place for professionals to do their job. Having one tractor on site isn’t a proper infrastructure. There are a lot of people who say that the UK festival scene is the best in the world. Obviously they haven’t been to one outside of the UK.

“I think that if you look after the people working when the conditions are against you, and you look after them properly, then they will be keener to muck in when things aren’t going well,” he continued. “What you want is to have an event that people want to be at, not just to pick up a pay check; that’s not what festivals are about.”

Clearly not enamoured with the UK festival circuit, Swallow also believes we can learn a thing or two from the continent. “Belgium’s Werchter festival is, in my view, one of the very best in the world. When it rains they have wooden walkways everywhere for everyone, so they really know how to deal with the problems better than in the UK. All artists and event staff across the board are properly catered for; the hospitality is amazing, so you still feel like you can go out and do your job regardless of the conditions.”

Although many are keen to discuss the different methods that could be employed to help deal with treacherous conditions, others believe that preventative measures should be taken in order to avoid the inevitable problems, as opposed to remaining steadfast and trying to fight a losing battle. Industry veteran and audio expert Tony Andrews, of UK sound reinforcement specialist Funktion-One, certainly subscribes to this approach. “If you look back over the past four years, June and July have become a total washout. If this is the way it’s going to be from now on, maybe the industry needs to think about moving its outdoor events to spring rather than summer, as this seems to be a recurring problem.”

Andrews’s views on a potential change of season can also be applied to the location of an event, with some spots in the UK offering such benefits as superior drainage, therefore reducing the un-negotiable levels of mud. “Some of the worst muddy conditions in the world are now at Glastonbury. Maybe the industry should be looking at sandy venues, where the drainage is better and the terrain doesn’t stick like mud; avoid the problem rather than try to deal with it when it arises.”

In a year that is reporting worryingly low ticket sales across many of the UK’s festivals, many Brits are now looking abroad for their festival options, particularly in southern Europe. “The Boom in Portugal guarantees heat, so lots of people are heading for southern Europe as they know they’ll get decent weather,” Andrews notes. “People may head abroad more for festivals rather than staying in the UK if the conditions continue in this way.”

While mud and rain are hardly new concerns for the UK festival industry, the fact that the past three or four years have marked a notable deterioration in ticket sales and a substantial increase in event cancellations is something that clearly cannot be ignored. Whether a few preventative tweaks are all that is required, as opposed to a full revision and infrastructural overhaul, is something that will become more apparent over the next few years. Perhaps organisers will attempt to tackle the bad weather head on, opting for indoor venues and accommodation as a direct solution. Or maybe a greater degree of research as to the durability of the terrain could serve as a more methodical way to address such issues. Either way, the UK festival circuit may well be entering a period of significant transition, and to remain stubborn in light of these persistent difficulties will surely exacerbate the problems facing the industry even further.

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Tags: glastonbury, funktion one, t in the park, capital sound, uk festivals, tony andrews, isle of wight festival, isle of wight, Kylie, wireless festival, queen's diamond jubilee, hit factory live, jason donovan, kilver court festival, morrisons mfest, the hit factory, pete waterman, dave swallow, werchter festival, the boom festival

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