UK Festival Industry Primed for Biggest Weekend Since Pandemic Began

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LONDON — Three of the biggest live music events in Europe this summer kick off this weekend in the United Kingdom, after an extended lockdown left Britain’s festival season in grave doubt.

Around 200,000 people will attend the sold-out Reading and Leeds festivals each of the three days, along with 70,000 a day at the four-day Creamfields, which started yesterday (Aug. 26). All three events were canceled last year due to the pandemic but now return at full capacity and free of  COVID-19 safety restrictions such as masks or social distancing.

Reading and Leeds — which are promoted by Live Nation-owned Festival Republic — are the biggest live music events to take place in the U.K. since lockdown restrictions ended on July 19, and are the biggest music shows to take place in Europe this summer. (The organizers of EXIT Festival in Serbia, which has a daily capacity of 50,000, say that event drew 180,000 people over four days in July.)

Headliners for the three-day events ending Sunday include Stormzy, Post Malone, Liam Gallagher, Disclosure, Catfish and the Bottlemen and Biffy Clyro.

Creamfields, in Daresbury, Cheshire, about 20 miles away from Liverpool, sold out its ticket run within days of going on sale. The Live Nation-promoted event features David Guetta, The Chemical Brothers, Bicep, Alesso and Martin Garrix.

The return of Creamfields and Reading and Leeds makes this weekend a critical one for a British live industry still struggling to get back on its feet after the double punch of Brexit and COVID-19. At stake is any hope of saving the last few weeks of the U.K. festival season and preserving fall and winter touring schedules.

Tentpole events scheduled for September include Wireless Festival in London and the 50,000-capacity Isle of Wight Festival.

The organizers of Reading and Leeds have had to contend with a series of artist cancellations and lineup changes. In July, Queens of the Stone Age pulled out of their co-headline slot with Liam Gallagher due to travel restriction and logistical issues, with Scottish rock band Biffy Clyro replacing them on the bill.

Then earlier this week, the festivals said Machine Gun Kelly would not be performing for the same reasons. Blossoms were drafted as a last-minute replacement. Other Reading and Leeds cancellations include North American acts 070 Shake, Spiritbox, Cleopatrick and Surfaces and British band Gallows.

Creamfields has also undergone lineup changes. Deadmau5 is among the DJs no longer on the lineup. (Billboard’s requests for clarification from the festival and the artist’s team have gone unanswered.)

Melvin Benn, managing director of Festival Republic, says a variety of different factors are behind the cancellations. Some U.S. artists were not able to get vaccinated in time to travel to the U.K. without having to quarantine. Others were forced to pull out when people in their camp tested positive for COVID-19, Benn says.

Up to now, ongoing COVID-19 restrictions in many European markets have led to the cancellation of most major European festivals, including Tomorrowland in Belgium and Lowlands in the Netherlands. That means that artists are not able to spread touring production costs over multiple dates. “The cost to artists is proportionally much greater,” says Benn. “It limits their opportunities.”

Earlier this week, Benn, a 30-year veteran of the British festival business, was dealing with last minute lineup changes and numerous supply chain issues, ranging from a lack of available tents and portable toilets to a shortage of qualified truck drivers.

“A huge amount of the temporary infrastructure that we rely on — porta cabins, toilets, trestle tables, the tents that we use for entrances, bars and medical tents — they’re like rocking horse shit,” said Benn, speaking to Billboard from the Reading site, which is about 40 miles outside of London. “You just can’t find them anywhere.”

Instead, the same tents where festival-goers usually buy drinks — or seek medical help when they’ve had too much — are being used as pop-up testing centers at U.K. hospitals, schools and businesses.

Also in short supply are available security staff and truck drivers because of Brexit and the relocation of many U.K.-based European workers back to their home countries. Festival costs have risen more than 5% as a result, says Benn.

Despite those challenges, the promoter says he’s confident that Reading and Leeds will provide a beacon of hope to the live industry about how to operate large scale events safely during a pandemic.

“We have done something few people expected us to do, which is deliver Reading and Leeds — two of the greatest festivals in the world — in the most extraordinary difficult circumstances,” says Benn.

To help ensure the safety of everyone on site, all ticket holders must either be fully vaccinated or show proof of a negative lateral-flow test. The only other way to attend is through demonstrated natural immunity (based on a positive PCR test to show you have had the virus within 180 days of the event). The same entry requirements are in place at Creamfields.

Covid vaccinations will be on offer at Reading and Leeds, where festival-goers are typically between 16 and 25 years old and predominantly (more than 95%) U.K. residents, say organizers.

Nevertheless, with the rise of the Delta variant, fears remain over the spread of infection at music festivals. According to government figures, more than 1,000 people out of 37,000 total who attended the Latitude Festival in Suffolk from July 22-25 later tested positive for COVID-19. Festival Republic ran the event as part of the government’s Events Research Program.

Everyone needed to be fully vaccinated or test negative to attend Latitude, but findings showed 432 people were probably already infected at the time (but didn’t test positive or show symptoms), leading to around 600 new infections.

Benn — who also ran U.K. pilot events in Liverpool in May and the 10,000-capacity Download Pilot festival in June — says the results were broadly in line with the infection rate in the U.K. at that time and met scientists’ expectations.

“It completely reinforced the belief that by doing an event properly with testing and making sure everybody was vaccinated that we have an incredibly good future for the industry if we work to those standards,” says Benn.

Despite a recent surge in virus cases around the world, he’s confident that the U.K. live industry has turned a corner in its 16-month fight back to full-capacity shows.

“We’ve been able to rescue a summer and a year from what very much looked like the jaws of defeat,” says Benn. “It’s great to be back.”

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