Brit Beat: U.K. Festival Season Delayed Yet Again; Blur’s Damon Albarn Goes Transgressive

·9-min read

By now, the U.K.’s world-beating festival season [Hey, wait a minute — American ed.] should be in full swing. But the government’s decision to move the final easing of lockdown restrictions back until July 19, from the original date of June 21, has caused yet another spate of cancelations, with the likes of WOMAD, Truck Festival and Kendal Calling all biting the dust since the announcement. Dua Lipa has also pushed back her arena tour from September until May 2022, although other events have insisted they will go ahead as planned this summer.

Festival bosses blame the cancelations on a toxic cocktail of COVID uncertainty, the lack of a government-backed events insurance program and confusion over what restrictions could apply to live events when they do resume. That’s despite results from the government’s own Events Research Program (ERP) – belatedly released after the live industry threatened legal action – showing that there were only 28 positive cases across the thousands of people involved in trials. And, while festivals remain suspended, Boris Johnson has given the green light to sporting events to go ahead with large crowds, including Euro 2020 soccer, Wimbledon tennis and the British Grand Prix.

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That’s left live music executives furious at the lack of a level playing field and the absence of additional financial support after a 15-month blackout of gigs.

“It’s extremely frustrating, especially as most of these cancelations were entirely avoidable,” says Paul Reed, chief executive of the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF), which says over half of this year’s scheduled events have already been axed. “Despite the best efforts of the industry and all of the data and evidence presented in this time, I’m not sure the government fully understands the planning cycle, the economic profile of festivals, the need for some planning assumptions and clear, practical guidance given that festivals require months of planning.”

The industry has now threatened further action against the government should restrictions continue after the July 19 “terminus date”. Watch this space…

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One festival that did go ahead amidst the chaos was Download Pilot. The three-day hard rock and heavy metal festival took place at Donington Park from June 18-20, as part of phase two of the ERP – and proved as ferocious as ever, despite operating at one tenth of its usual capacity.

“Moshing is like riding a bike,” laughs Download promoter Andy Copping of Live Nation. “Once you’ve been in a circle pit, you’re never going to forget how to do it.”

More importantly, Copping says that – while test data is still pending – the event showed other festivals could proceed safely.

“It has to help other festivals happen,” Copping tells Variety. “And I’m confident that it will. It’s tragic that some festivals have had to make the decision that they can’t go ahead, but others are still hopeful. If the results are favorable, why shouldn’t other events open up and take place?”

Copping and his team put together the bill – headlined by Bullet for My Valentine, Enter Shikari and Frank Carter & the Rattlesnakes – at incredibly short notice, even though the promoter could only pay some expenses (Download received no financial aid from the government).

“A normal Download will take us close to two years to organize,” he says. “When we were approached, I was given three weeks to put the bill together and, although I said yes, I thought to myself, ‘There’s no chance’.

“But we managed to get the bill locked, confirmed and ready to be announced within six days. That was miraculous. What we’ve done will hopefully get the whole industry up and running.”

The ERP is now moving into its next phase, with confirmed full-capacity test events including Latitude Festival (July 22-25) and Tramlines (July 23-25). And multiple live industry sources tell Variety that they finally expect a government insurance scheme to come in over the coming weeks.

“They’ve been really slow with that,” says Copping. “That’s been frustrating, particularly when you’ve seen other countries step up and offer insurance back-up.

“It’s like you’re nearly at the end of the rainbow, then you get there and the rainbow moves, so you’re not going to get the pot of gold. It drives you absolutely insane. But maybe we’re going to get that pot of gold this time.”

And, whatever happens this summer, Copping is confident of a blockbuster full-season return next year.

“People are desperate to get out,” he says. “We showed a little crack in the door and they smashed it down saying, ‘I want to buy my ticket’. When things are back to normal, attendances are going to be huge because people have been starved for so long.”

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Even when festivals and gigs do come back, British touring acts are likely to face chaos over post-Brexit European touring plans. Six months after the U.K. left the European Union, there is still no provision for British artists to tour Europe without visas or work permits, as was possible pre-Brexit. Artists will face huge additional bureaucracy and costs once touring resumes post-pandemic.

Elton John was among the high-profile artists to urge the government to negotiate a solution, telling the Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport committee that “we are currently in grave danger of losing a generation of talent due to the gaping holes in the government’s trade deal”.

Yet when Brexit minister Lord David Frost appeared before the committee this week, he dismissed the criticism, saying Elton hadn’t needed the EU to succeed on the continent in the early ‘70s. Instead, he asked musicians and trade bodies to help put pressure on European governments “to be less restrictive.” Inevitably, that approach has only prompted further fury from the music industry, with many now writing off any prospect of European tours happening before 2022.

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Despite Brexit, there was some good news for British music abroad. New figures from recorded music trade body the BPI show that British music exports reached a record high in 2020, despite the pandemic.

Powered by streaming, the value of U.K. music sales abroad rose 6% to £519.7 million ($735.3m) last year, the highest figure since records began in 2000. The U.K. is the largest exporter of music in the world after the U.S., with British artists accounting for one in 10 of all tracks streamed globally. However, U.K. music now only accounts for 10% of global music revenue, down from a peak of 17% in 2015, while the 2020 Top 10 IFPI Global Recording Artist Chart was a Brit-free zone for the first time ever. The BPI is now calling for government support for the industry’s attempts to grow international sales further, including the establishment of a music export office.

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One company targeting more international success is legendary independent music group PIAS, which shocked the indie world this month by striking a “strategic global alliance” with Universal Music Group.

PIAS – home to such legendary U.K. indie labels as Heavenly, Mute, Bella Union and Acid Jazz via its PIAS Cooperative partnership group – will remain fully independent but will receive funding from UMG and grant the major access to its international distribution network and services division.

PIAS co-founder Kenny Gates admits to Variety that the deal had “raised a few eyebrows – I could see hundreds of eyebrows in front of me!”, but said the pact was essential for the indie to continue to compete.

“We needed a partner because the market’s gone crazy,” he says. “There’s a gold rush for copyright; every day you read about another billion [coming into the market]. We, as a traditional record company, are still in the business of nurturing artists, breaking their music and trying to spread it to the largest audience possible. But we have to evolve in a market where some people just go, ‘Money money money’. We can now up our game.”

Co-founder Michel Lambot says the additional funding will be used to “invest in new music, we won’t be paying 25 times [multiples] for 1960s copyrights”, and that Universal was a more understanding partner than private equity.

“It was an easy world before, it was black and white, the indies vs the majors,” Lambot tells Variety. “But, over the last couple of years, the dialog has been more about record companies versus bankers. We’re not going to be helped by BlackRock at the DCMS inquiry into music streaming in the UK, but we are by Universal.”

Despite numerous offers, the pair have no intention of selling the company (“So many people sold their company and died of boredom,” laughs Lambot). Instead, they want to double in size over the next five years and plan to hit back against some of the new, more monied entries into the indie sector.

“The word ‘independent’ has been hijacked,” says Gates. “Everyone calls themselves independent because it feels and looks good. But music is just a commodity for them, whereas we are still music people – and that’s the difference. Now, we’re going to disrupt the disruptors.”

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One U.K. indie label that can clearly still compete with all-comers is Transgressive Records, also part of PIAS Cooperative, which recently announced a new global deal with Damon Albarn. The Blur/Gorillaz frontman’s debut solo album, 2014’s “Everyday Robots,” came out on Warner Music’s Parlophone label (home to Albarn’s band projects) but Transgressive – which has found success with the likes of Arlo Parks and Flume – will release the follow-up.

“It’s an astounding record,” Transgressive co-founder Toby Langley, aka Toby L, tells Variety. “He’s the epitome of what we look for in an artist – that restless experimentation that happens to occasionally bother the mainstream. That’s an exciting world to live in.”

Albarn’s “The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows” is due for release on November 12.

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