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

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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?

<>Reality and virtual reality <>Change of scenery <>Sustainable business models <>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.

Published 26th June 2020
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Leading insights