Online festivals – the show must go on, but will they be here to stay?

26 June 2020

Online festivals – the show must go on, but will they be here to stay?

At this time of year, festivals should be in full swing, ranging from small local food festivals to very large music festivals, topped by Glastonbury. Festivals are another casualty of COVID-19.

The Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) claims that over 90 percent of UK festivals will be cancelled this year, creating financial vulnerability for their organisers, which typically operate with low reserves.

The AIF has estimated that the average festival has invested £375,000 in set-up costs which cannot be recouped. As in other sectors, festivals have been creative in adapting to an online presence so that the show can go on.

But at the same time, questions are raised about what the new “normal” will look for festivals post-COVID-19. How will their business models stack up? As in other sectors of the economy, there is a lot of speculation, but what can we learn from theory and history?

Why are festivals becoming more popular?

Festivals have proliferated in recent years. Most are organised by local groups of amateurs who share a passion for something - vintage cars, local crafts, or organic food, for example.

Large commercial festivals are outliers, but even smaller festivals need to adopt business models which will allow them to survive and prosper. To understand why festivals have grown, and whether they can be sustained online, we need to understand the basic purposes of festivals.

Festivals are essentially a coming together of people with a shared interest. We can learn a lot from sociology about how being a member of a group reinforces an identity, distinguishing a ‘tribe’ of festivalgoers who are the ‘in-crowd’ from everybody else who is ‘out crowd’.

An annual festival helps to reinforce this identity and creates a loyalty which commercial brand owners could normally only dream of. As an example, the organiser of the annual Isle of White music festival claims that over 80 percent of people who had bought tickets for this year’s cancelled festival have exchanged their tickets for next year’s festival, rather than take a refund which they were entitled to – very different to the situation of many commercial travel organisations.

Reality and virtual reality

We increasingly live in an ‘experience economy’ in which the process of consumption can be as important as what we consume. Festivals are rich in experiential qualities, but are these qualities transferrable to online environments?

‘Consumption experience’ can be very difficult to define but is essentially about distinctive and memorable events. The challenge for online festivals is that memories are more likely to be developed and retained where multiple cues are present.

Real-life festivals can provide cues through all five senses – sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste to evoke emotions and create a memorable experience: touch, smell, and taste cannot be replicated by festivals online.

The interplay between the virtual and real worlds of festivals is complex. Can a virtual festival be a substitute for the real thing, or is it more likely to be just complementary to it? There is an apparent paradox that virtual representations have a tendency to evoke demand for the real thing, rather than replace it.

There is a long history of this effect, for example many films and television soap operas have evoked a desire to go and see the film location, or a recreation of the film set. Even the children’s cartoon character Peppa Pig has spawned demand for real life Peppa Pig theme parks. So online festivals are more likely to complement real life festivals than be a substitute for them.

Another emerging question, especially for millennials, is about the distinction between reality and virtual realities. In a world where an individual’s work and leisure time is largely spent online, real-world experiences can stand out as a point of difference. So, in a world of streamed music, a music festival is a point of difference in life.

One of the reasons for recent growth in book festivals may be a desire to bring e-books to life. For an Instagram generation, ‘being there’ offers an additional sense of identity and group leadership, reinforced by powerful images sent to followers.

Change of scenery

The tourism literature has for a long time explored the reasons why people travel. Essentially there are push and pull factors at work. Pull factors relate to the inherent attractiveness of a destination, while the push factors represent a desire to escape the confines of current life constraints and to live – temporarily at least – an alternative life. A few days camping at a music festival can be a welcome escape from the tedium of everyday life. But can an online festival provide such escape?

Festivals which have had to cancel their summer 2020 events have developed imaginative ways of keeping in touch with their followers, including live streaming of book and music festivals and interactive presentations by science festivals.

Festivals that have gone online have made either no charge or only a nominal charge – the main objective has been to retain the loyalty of followers and retain a diary slot for the following year.

Organisers have realised that it would be very difficult to charge anything like the normal attendance fee for a virtual festival - there is so much free material available online and high charges for an event low in experiential quality may alienate loyal followers.

Sustainable business models

Can festivals have a sustainable business model when they go online? Online formats of festivals are probably here to stay, but without the experiential qualities of face-to-face, they will most likely only ever be complementary.

A challenge for organisers is that having a high quality, creative online presence may now become a basic expectation of followers. After the creative adaptations associated with COVID-19 they may no longer be happy with the previous status quo of a basic static website.

This follows a pattern in many service sectors where online has not replaced face-to-face, but created duplicated and complementary routes to customers which must both be supported with investment. How should festivals build online presence into their business models? What will the business models of festivals look like in the ‘new normal’?

Geographical freedoms

Virtual versions of a festival can have a much wider reach than the real thing and offer new opportunities for tribes of very niche interest groups to be formed and sustained.

The organisers of the annual Hay-on-Wye book festival have noted the ability of this year’s online festival format to draw in geographically much more dispersed participation than previously. Presenters and guests who might have been disinclined to attend because of geographical distance may be able to do so online.

Another question is whether online festivals in themselves can create local economic and social impacts. Research undertaken with Nicole Koenig-Lewis of Cardiff University has indicated that higher engagement levels during a festival, and its perceived festival authenticity, are the primary drivers for wider social impact. When festivals go online, these wider social benefits will only be achieved if online is complementary to, and not a substitute for, the real thing.

How festivals adapt to the new blend of online and off-line goes back to their very purpose - to develop tribes of like-minded people.