Fears that Cornwall’s festival and events industry is in crisis

The entertainment industry in Cornwall is in crisis with music festivals facing bankruptcy and huge job losses looming.

That’s the message from people working in the events sector, frustrated by the Government still not announcing exact dates when large-scale festivals can be held again.

Although the Prime Minister announced today (Friday, July 17) that indoor performances with socially distanced audiences can take place from the start of August, many in the industry have said it is not economically viable.

There are fears there might not be any festivals in Cornwall next summer either if there is a second wave of coronavirus, which they say will devastate the industry.

If Boardmasters is not held for a third year running it could have a critical knock-on effect to myriad businesses.

Boardmasters was cancelled in 2019 and 2020 (Image: Alex Rawson Photography)

The renowned Cornish company, SW1 Productions, which programmes the line-up at the huge Watergate Bay festival, says if that happened they might not be able to “come back from it”.

People in the industry are now calling for help for many of the freelancers who work in the events sector and have “fallen through the cracks”, unable to claim grants or be furloughed.

They also want the furlough scheme extended for production staff as there is currently no work for them to return to.

We have talked about what many have called a ‘critical situation’ with three of Cornwall’s major players in the events industry.

Katy Barnes, SW1 Productions

Based at Heartlands in Pool, SW1 Productions programmes the line-up for Boardmasters and NASS and also works in artist liaison as well as putting on gigs across Cornwall and Devon. Among shows it has had to postpone due to the pandemic are Rufus Wainwright at Exeter’s Great Hall and Michael Kiwanuka at Plymouth Pavilions.

Katy Barnes, of SW1 Productions

“The current situation is really difficult – uncertain is the word.

“Everything this year has been cancelled. We are trying to be positive about next year and are working on booking regular shows and festivals, but no one knows if they will happen. Our first show is next April but beyond that we haven’t got regular shows until autumn 2021 – it’s crazy.”

The company has no income as all of its ticket money remains with the ticket agencies in case they have to cancel again due to a second wave.

Two of SW1’s staff are on furlough and a third has stopped doing the books, so Katy is left doing the work of four on a reduced wage.

“I don’t know what will happen to SW1 when the furlough scheme ends to be honest. I don’t know how we’d come back from it if Boardmasters had to cancel for a third year.

“Because Boardmasters and NASS have both been cancelled, our contract has had to be renegotiated which means a loss of income for us.

“We have been relatively lucky as we are a limited company not freelancers, so we have received Government help and a £10,000 grant from Cornwall Council, which has been great, which means we’ve managed to keep the office at Heartlands … at the moment.

“However, I can see it being really difficult for freelancers, the sort of people doing lighting or stage management. They have slipped through the cracks.

“It’s really difficult in Cornwall as everything is so uncertain. We are programming for Boardmasters and NASS, in Shepton Mallet, with the determination that they will happen next year, but if there is another wave or spike are people going to feel safe going to a festival even then?

“Though I do think people think it’s safer to go to an outdoor festival.

“The Government said last week that you can put on a large outdoor gathering as long as you can ensure social distancing rules. As soon as that happened I started getting calls from people saying ‘let’s do a gig!’ But my reaction was ‘I don’t want to do it’, it feels irresponsible to encourage people to Cornwall during this period.

“But there is an argument that young people are craving to go out. As a result, we are seeing illegal raves which we don’t want to encourage.”

“Anything that gets the economy moving and freelancers a job has got to be a good thing. But from my point of view, I’m reluctant.

“Some festivals are copying and pasting their line-ups but we can’t do that.

“We’re having to be very cautious with the programming and the social distancing means less capacity which has a knock-on effect on ticket sales, bar sales, caterers, everything.

“Agents are being very supportive as their work has ended too. They’re keen to support promoters like us and many of their artists are reducing their fees which is really helping.

“I’ve heard from some people that it could be two more years before we see the local band circuit in pubs.

“It is a crisis – it’s all screwed. The situation is pretty grim.

“We can just hope there will be a vaccine and we don’t get a second wave and a sense of normality returns.”

Rob Simpson, Nub Sound

Based at St Merryn, Nub Sound provides audio visual equipment and services to business, government, education and individuals for installation and events, including production on tours for Jamie Lawson, Ed Sheeran and Cornish festivals.

Rob Simpson, managing director of Nub Sounds

Nub Sound has taken an 80% hit in terms of turnover.

Rob said: “What annoys most is the wishy washy attitude of the Government; they’re not giving us any targets.

“People have interpreted today’s announcement that indoor gigs can happen from August 1, but that’s unrealistic.

“It would mean a reduced capacity which then means a cost impact on everything from infrastructure to catering. It’s just not viable.

“We’re starting to see the impact it’s going to have with important venues like Manchester’s Deaf Institute closing. Clearly anything the Government is doing isn’t working if we are losing iconic smaller venues, which are the lifeblood of the music industry in this country.

“The worrying thing is the hump that’s generating five to ten years down the line from an economic point of view.

“A reason the Government is resting on its laurels, I think, is because it’s seen as a fun industry where workers who have gone off to find other jobs – I know tour managers who are now delivering for Waitrose – will come running back because they love doing it.

“But there might not be jobs for them to come back to – it’s hugely devastating for companies. My company is relatively small, employing ten to 14 people, but we’re having to lose staff. Massive companies I work with, who employ 160 people, are having to make 75% cuts in the next three or four weeks.

“It’s difficult for the entertainment industry to go cap in hand as people see it as Ed Sheeran with millions in the bank, but hundreds of people are working at every level of pay, from minimum wage, on his tours. It’s right through the spectrum of earnings and it’s all stopped.

“We’re seeing the impact in Cornwall with the job losses at the Eden Project, which is a kind of venue.

“What’s happening is legitimately scary – live entertainment and music is our country’s greatest export. It’s one of the UK’s biggest economic contributors but it’s being completely ignored.

“There is a lot of talk about the £1.57 billion support package for that arts but it’s actually £900 million in loans. People will still have to borrow their way out with no guarantee of a future.”

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Rob told me about a nationally renowned artist he works with as production manager, who would face bankruptcy if it wasn’t for record company support.

“If that’s the case how are those guys who tour the smaller circuit and come to venues like the Princess Pavilion in Falmouth going to survive?”

Rob said it’s always been harder for venues and festivals in Cornwall without the added pressure caused by the pandemic.

Acts that sell out the Apollo in London may not sell out the Princess Pavilion because of differing tastes in Cornwall, while festivals also find it hard-going.

“It’s hard at the best of times in Cornwall – then, wallop, this happens. A lot of festivals down here are run by people who have passion and drive. Jobs are at risk. Without Government support I can see some Cornish festivals going bankrupt.

“In terms of impact, less people are going to be willing to put their balls on the line to run festivals in Cornwall.”

He added that there needs to be more support for grassroots venues in Cornwall and across the country.

“If there are less gigs, it means less kids going to gigs, then less young people picking up guitars who in turn hone their craft on the live circuit. Ed Sheeran wouldn’t be Ed Sheeran if it wasn’t for those little gigs at places like the Princess Pavilion.

“It has such a knock-on effect. I think something like 30% of international travel to the UK involves people coming to see an event, which in turn leads them to spend money on accommodation, visiting other places, etc. It’s so far-reaching.”

Rob thinks extending the furlough in sectors like entertainment would help workers “and places like Eden”.

Louise Martin, events and festival organiser

Louise is renowned for helping to programme and stage festivals like The Great Estate, Tunes In The Dunes and other big events in Cornwall.

Louise Martin on a festival site

Because she is a freelancer, Louise is not entitled to grants.

“It’s a very challenging; it’s a desperate situation. It would have been much more helpful if the Government had a phased plan – if everyone was told about capacity and dates when events could start again.

“They came up with a five-step plan but it was very wishy washy – it didn’t give people dates.

“You need production, you need artists, you need to sell tickets, but you can’t do that without dates.

“Yes, the Government is helping the arts, culture, theatre and some music venues to the tune of £1.57 billion but that does not filter through to events and festivals – we don’t come into that category.

“Everyone can manage one year without a festival but they can’t do two – a lot of people will go under if that’s the case.

“It has a huge impact – half the tourists who come to Cornwall do so to come to an event or festival. Porthleven Food Festival brings 30,000 people into the town, Boardmasters brings 53,000 into Newquay. Think of the impact on local businesses if we don’t have those events.

“Just look at the huge artists who were coming to rural Cornwall this year – Kings of Leon, Diana Ross, My Chemical Romance, Richard Ashcroft – it’s really upsetting.

“So many businesses and jobs are intertwined with festivals and big events in Cornwall.”

“The Great Estate was due to happen at the end of May, then it was moved to August and it has just been cancelled until next year. People want refunds every time a festival like that is moved. It’s a logistical nightmare.

“If the Government turned around now and said ‘you can hold a festival in September’ you just couldn’t do it. You just can’t hold a festival with social distancing.

“If the Government doesn’t extend the furlough scheme for people working in the events industry a lot of people will lose their jobs in Cornwall.

“I am lucky in a way as I just work for me, but lots of people are employed doing big shows – for them, it’s really, really serious.”


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