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Risky Business: the Volatility and Failure of Outdoor Music Festivals in the UK – Chris Anderton


Our latest post is by Dr. Chris Anderton, of Southampton Solent University, and looks at UK festivals. He finds a volatile market with, nevertheless, no shortage of willing new entrants.

A post-millennial boom in outdoor music festivals saw the doubling of overall festival numbers between 2005 and 2011 in the UK, driven by a number of factors including the increased commercialisation and professionalization of promoters/organisers, enhanced media coverage (especially with the involvement of the BBC) and strong interest from sponsor brands seeking to capitalise on the youth demographic of festival audiences (Anderton, 2008, 2015, 2019; Webster & McKay, 2016). However, 2012 proved to be a watershed moment as adverse weather conditions, together with competition from the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, and the London Summer Olympics (and Cultural Olympiad) saw many existing festivals taking a year off. This led to a levelling off of the overall number of festivals, as many failed to return in the following year (Anderton, 2019: 39). The festival ‘bubble’ of consistent annual growth now appears to be over, but still leaves a highly saturated market where key weekends, such as the late August bank holiday will see more than twenty outdoor events staged concurrently each year.

Anderton LMX post - Fig 1.








Fig. 1: Total number of outdoor music festivals in the UK, 2005–2014
(Source: Anderton, 2019: 39).

One of the difficulties in examining the overall number of events held each year (see Fig. 1 above) is that headline trend shown in the data masks the considerable variability that has been seen in the market during the past fifteen years. For instance, each year many festivals that were previously held failed to return, while new ones were launched in their place – a degree of turnover that is not clear from the overall trend of growth. Moreover, my own longitudinal research suggests that the average lifespan of an outdoor music festival was only three years between 2005 and 2014, with longer-lived events relatively rare when considered as part of the market as a whole. Indeed, many events fail to be held for more than a single year: for example, almost a third of the new events launched in 2014 failed to return in 2015 (Anderton, 2019: 47).

This volatility within the outdoor festival market can be explained in part by increasing competition and saturation during that timeframe, and partly by the high incidence of independent and volunteer organisers present in the sector – organisers that may lack the knowledge, experience, contacts or finances of more established (and commercial/corporate) concert and festival promoters. The Association of Independent Festivals reports that 38% of festivals with an audience capacity of more than 5,000 people are currently managed by Live Nation, AEG and Global/Broadwick Live (AIF, 2018), but this accounts for only 35 events, whereas the full market for outdoor music events (of all capacities) in the UK is still considerably more than ten times that figure. Furthermore, the larger commercial promoters are not immune to volatility, with several well-known large festivals having been lost from the festival calendar in recent years, including Wakestock, Sonisphere, T in the Park and the V Festival.

Surprisingly, perhaps, there has been relatively little academic research into why the festival sector is so volatile and why festivals fail (Getz, 2002; Getz & Page, 2015; Nordvall & Heldt, 2017). What little there is typically discusses the broader arts and cultural festivals sector, with a focus on non-profit events. An early example is provided by the event management expert Donald Getz, who interviewed a number of North American festival management professionals in the early 2000s. The factors suggested by his research included poor weather, the lack or removal of corporate sponsorship, an over-reliance on a single source of funding, inadequate marketing, and a lack of advance or strategic planning (Getz, 2002) – all factors that may also be recognised in the British context. His conclusion reiterates two particular factors for the non-profit sector: management by volunteers and dependency on external funding and resources.  A later study of Australian festivals (only some of which were music-focused) similarly found that events struggle with succession planning and leadership due to the ‘largely voluntary composition of organising committees’ and a ‘lack of resources’ (Frost & Laing, 2015: 1298). The voluntary nature of festival organisers is an important point in the UK, as many of the smaller music festivals are organised and managed by what Martin Cloonan (2012) would class as, in the context of the live music market as a whole, ‘enthusiast promoters’ whose primary personal income derives from sources other than the festivals that they run. If key members of an organising team become ill, have interpersonal or business disagreements or simply decide that they no longer want to work on a festival, their loss can lead to a festival failing.

Nordvall & Heldt’s (2017) study of the bankruptcy of Sweden’s Peace & Love music festival found that competition from a new and better resourced rival contributed to a fall in ticket sales at a time when costs were rising. This study underscores the financial precariousness of a music festival model (see also Carlsen et al. 2010), where large sums of money need to be spent in advance of the festival opening to the public and ticket income subsequently becoming available to offset costs – to pay for land rentals, stages and PA equipment, upfront artist fees, security and policing arrangements, toilet hire and a range of other facilities and demands. Many festivals work on very narrow profit margins, so unexpected expenses, such as needing to deal with the effects of extreme weather events or simply the failure to sell enough tickets to break even, can be a significant problem for commercially-run events that are not in receipt of funding from local authorities or arts funding bodies. New events, in particular, are at considerable risk because they may well be relying on ‘walk-up’ sales on the day of the event rather than having the benefit and loyalty of repeat attendees that may be encouraged, often through discounted pre-sales and early-bird offers, to buy tickets in advance. Larger events, typically reliant on high profile headliners to drive ticket sales, may also encounter difficulties in finding a line-up that will prove a suitable draw.

The competitive and saturated festival market in the UK has led to the growth of smaller events that rely less on famous headliners and more on catering to the ideological, aesthetic and lifestyle interests of niche audiences. These are sometimes referred to as ‘boutique’ festivals (Robinson, 2015) that may be design-led, independent and participatory in nature (such as Secret Garden Party, Shambala or Boomtown), or as ‘hybrid’ events (such as The Big Feastival) that merge two or more distinct festival concepts within a single event (Anderton, 2019). Indeed, there is a general shift towards non-musical attractions at festivals of all sizes, as these provide value added entertainments for festivalgoers and a way to differentiate between events that may be unable to afford the big name artists that drive ticket sales at larger festivals. They may also be unable to afford or even book artists operating at a lower level, with Paul Reed of the Association of Independent Festivals recently claiming that Live Nation UK engages in anti-competitive practices that make it more difficult for the independent festival sector (quoted by Davies, 2018). At the same time as this shift to smaller, boutique and hybrid events, there has been a parallel movement by the major promoters toward large-scale, single-day and non-camping festivals in urban parklands (rather than the traditional greenfield camping model). This suggests that they are reacting both to changes in attendee expectations and interests and to increasing cost pressures – as these events are a good way to avoid the costs and risks that are associated with residential camping events. Examples include the BST Hyde Park in London, the TRNSMIT Festival in Glasgow, and the Rize festival in Chelmsford.

Two further factors specific to the UK market have been suggested in affecting and skewing the festival market, thus contributing to volatility: the Glastonbury Festival’s practice of talking ‘fallow’ years, and the growth of events curated and managed by the BBC.  The Glastonbury Festival is, in comparison with other music events, characterised by its disproportionate size, kudos and media coverage, such that it can affect the market as a whole. In the years that the festival is staged, enhanced media coverage, particularly from the BBC  helps to popularise the festival concept more generally in the minds of audiences and might therefore help to drive attendance at other events (Webster & McKay, 2016; Anderton, 2019). In contrast, the fallow years may be seen as a commercial opportunity for promoters, with new festivals attempting to capture the event’s usual audience for themselves. This ‘Glastonbury effect’ was enhanced in 2012 when several other medium to large festivals took the year out and over 80 new events launched for the first time, despite the enhanced competition from non-music events that year (Anderton, 2019: 47). The involvement of the BBC in outdoor music events has a long history, but the publicly-funded corporation has been criticised both for its expenditure on covering the Glastonbury Festival (Anderton, 2019: 90-91), and for ‘distorting’ the festival market more generally by producing low-priced or free events for its various brands, thus undermining the competitiveness of independently owned commercial events (Reed, cited by Hanley, 2018). It is worth noting, however, that corroborating evidence for the impact of these suggested factors has yet to be presented.

To conclude, it is clear that music festivals, perhaps especially those held outdoors and with onsite camping, represent a rather risky business proposition with narrow profit margins and many challenges to overcome. Nevertheless, there appears to be no shortage of people wanting to try their luck, support a good cause, put on their favourite artists or simply get involved in creating their own commercially or community-focused events. This is no doubt driven by low entry requirements (as no formal qualifications are required to become a festival promoter) and a great deal of enthusiasm. The sector is, as a result, inherently volatile, competitive and saturated, and despite a tailing off of growth since 2012, many hundreds of events are still held each year. When promoters get it right, they can provide a great atmosphere, fabulous memories, and a sense of escapism, belonging and authenticity that is treasured by festival attendees and helps to build a loyal following (AIF, 2018; Anderton, 2019), but success remains a gamble and volatility in the market is likely to continue in future.


AIF (2018a) ‘Ownership of UK festivals over 5000 capacity’, Association of Independent Festivals [website]. Available at:

AIF (2018b) ‘Association of Independent Festivals Ten Year Report 2008-2018’, Association of Independent Festivals [website]. Available at

Anderton, C. (2008) ‘Commercializing the Carnivalesque: The V Festival and Image/Risk Management’, Event Management, 12(1): 39–51.

Anderton, C. (2011) ‘Music Festival Sponsorship: Between Commerce and Carnival’, Arts Marketing, 1(2): 145–58.

Anderton, C. (2015) ‘Branding, sponsorship and the music festival.’ In G. McKay (ed.), The Pop Festival: History, Music, Media, Culture, pp. 199–212. New York & London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Anderton, C. (2019) Music Festivals in the UK. Beyond the Carnivalesque. Abingdon & New York: Routledge.

Carlsen, J., Andersson, T.D, Ali-Knight, J., Jaeger, K. & Taylor, R. (2010) ‘Festival management innovation and failure’, International Journal of Event and Festival Management, 1(2): 120-31.

Cloonan, M. (2012) ‘Selling the experience: the worldviews of British concert promoters’, Creative Industries Journal, 5(1-2): 151-70.

Davies, R. (2008) ‘Live Nation’s grip on music festivals ‘stifling competition’’, The Guardian [online], 27 August. Available at:

Frost, W. & Laing, J. (2015) ‘Avoiding burnout: the succession planning, governance and resourcing of rural tourism festivals’, Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 23(8-9): 1298-1317.

Getz, D. (2002) ‘Why festivals fail’, Event Management, 7(1): 209-19.

Getz, D. & Page, S.J. (2015) ‘Progress and prospects for event tourism research’, Tourism Management,  52:  593-631.

Hanley, J. (2018) ‘AIF chief Paul Reed on BBC festivals, Camp Bestival and 10 years of the indie trade body’, Music Week [online], 2 November. Available at:

Nordvall, A. & Heldt, T. (2017) ‘Understanding hallmark event failure: a case study of a Swedish music festival’, International Journal of Event and Festival Management, 8(2): 172-85.

Robinson, R. (2015) Music Festivals and the Politics of Participation. Farnham: Ashgate.

Webster, E. & McKay, G. (2016) From Glyndebourne to Glastonbury: the Impact of British Music Festivals. Norwich: Arts & Humanities Research Council/University of East Anglia


Dr Chris Anderton is a music and music industry researcher and practitioner based at Solent University in Southampton, UK. He is the author of Music Festivals in the UK. Beyond the Carnivalesque (Routledge, 2019), co-author of Understanding the Music Industries (Sage, 2013, with Andrew Dubber and Martin James), and has published and presented internationally on music festivals, the music industry and music history. He is currently working on the book Music Management, Marketing and PR: Creating Connections and Conversations (with James Hannam and Johnny Hopkins), a special edition of the academic journal Rock Music Studies (focusing on progressive rock), and an edited collection of essays on mediated music histories called Setting the Record Straight: Hidden Histories of Popular Music (with Martin James). At Solent University he manages music business degrees and runs the in-house music organisation Solent Music ( He is also co-executive producer of the long-running music industry conference and live event SMILEfest (, which is transforming into SO:MusicCity in 2019.

Please note that this is a forum for discussion, dialogue, and debate, and posts and comments on this blog represent only the author, not Live Music Exchange as a whole, or any other hosting or associated institutions.


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