After Glastonbury Festival was cancelled for the second year in a row, Ben Alderton discusses the dubious reality of 2021's music festivals. Vaccines and masks may not be enough to save the summer.
A Ticket to Boomtown Festival 2021 was at the top of my Christmas list this year. Instead, I got a national lockdown. To make matters (much) worse, Glastonbury festival, the largest music event in the UK, was cancelled for a second year running. Once again, I could feel the promise of a “normal” summer growing distant as my plans disintegrated before my eyes. Glastonbury has become an iconic (albeit very muddy) experience for students, and indeed all age groups, across the country. Its loss has inspired countless articles tapping into anxieties about whether life will ever be normal again – and whether fun may actually return at some point before we start drawing our retirement pensions. The BBC, for example, was notably downbeat in its assessment. They warned that festival-goers shouldn’t get their hopes up this year: uncertainty surrounding vaccine efficacy could mean that social distancing measures remain in place long after everyone receives their jab.
Dr Forrester-Soto, a virologist at Keele University, has said it is wrong, even dangerous, to assume that summer festivals will be safer because they are outside. People will nevertheless be crowded together, singing loudly and therefore expelling more potentially infectious air out of their lungs. The cancellation came as coronavirus-related deaths in the UK passed 100,000. Boris Johnson’s recent announcements have stamped out any traces of optimism that our lives may return to normal this semester. Indeed, this term will most likely see our calendars as empty as their predecessors. But, are there grounds for optimism? Or will summer 2021 fall prey to the lockdown monotony that plagued 2020.
In another corner of the Corporation, journalists were confident that music festivals this summer are still a very real possibility (I know the BBC is meant to observe balance in all things, but this extreme dichotomy borders on the hopelessly indecisive.) It was Glastonbury’s sheer scale, they argued, that forced it to cancel early: it takes several months to get the city-sized site ready. By contrast, smaller city-centred festivals with no camping like TRNSMT and SW4 take mere days to set up and therefore stand a much stronger chance of going ahead. But, regardless of size, live music events will need a comprehensive COVID-19 related insurance scheme. This would provide the crucial lifeline to British festivals struggling to insure against coronavirus-related cancellations.
The rollout of the NHS vaccination programme provides further grounds for optimism, promising to map our route back to normality. The daily “jab rate” of over 300,000 means that, if maintained, the vast majority of the UK population will have been immunised by the summer. And with the efficacy of the Novavax vaccine confirmed, the NHS will soon be able to add this vital weapon to their growing armoury.
Recent music events in New Zealand have been a source of excitement and, I must admit, considerable jealousy. They are reminiscent of a pre-COVID era, with no masks or social distancing in sight: Gisborne’s Rhythm and Vine Festival in New Zealand alone was attended by 20,000 people. Although this may seem irresponsible at first glance, New Zealand’s government has handled the virus admirably, keeping active cases under 100 nationwide. The Instagram stories of headline artists Sub Focus, Dimension and Friction were testament to this as they undertook the mandatory two-week isolation. Their subsequent performances (streamed from the comfort of my couch) were truly sensational, as their first opportunity to flex long-stored unreleased tracks and dubplates to bass-deprived fans.
Proceedings in New Zealand are a world away at the moment. But the “Virgin Money Arena” event in September 2020 proved that live music events can go ahead, at scale, and with appropriate social distancing. The organisers just need courage and, one could argue, the audience needs a bit of courage too, though of a different sort: ticket holders were required to stand in metal pens of 6 people, 2 metres apart. Nonetheless, the Arena, which saw performances from Chase & Status, The Hunna, Patrick Topping, and Alfie Boe, received rave reviews. While spectators inevitably missed the mosh pits and crowd surfers that characterise British music events they seemed truly delighted to be able to see their favourite artists performing live once more.
Finally, the Government has launched a £1.6bn Culture Recovery Fund which some of Glastonbury’s smaller siblings – Womad, End of the Road and Nozstock – have already successfully accessed, so life can be breathed back into this vital sector as soon as the eye of the current storm passes. And the Government is also under increasing pressure to sort out the madness of the insurance sector, whose ambivalence about supporting a cultural revival has been, well, pretty shaming. Given the long lead times for securing venues at scale and booking top acts, we can only hope all these people in positions of authority get their act together. And fast.