Brit Beat: U.K. Festivals Roar Back as 200,000 Attend Reading and Leeds; Is Simon Cowell Reviving ‘The X Factor’?

·8-min read

The U.K. festival sector just had its busiest weekend since lockdown restrictions on live events were finally eased on July 19. And the biggest noise of the Bank Holiday weekend was undoubtedly made by the legendary Reading & Leeds Festivals – headlined this year by Stormzy, Post Malone, Liam Gallagher, Biffy Clyro, Disclosure and Catfish & The Bottlemen.

Reading and Leeds attracted around 105,000 and 95,000 fans respectively. But the fact that they happened at all was a personal triumph for Melvin Benn, managing director of Festival Republic, the Live Nation-backed promoter that’s also behind many other events, including Download and Latitude. It was Benn who pushed for live music to be part of the U.K. government’s Events Research Program, which trialled the return of large crowds to sporting and cultural events.

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“I’m not one to throw in the towel,” says Benn, talking to Variety on the Reading site. “I put my hand up to create the Sefton Park and Download pilot events and that gathered the data that meant we were able to withstand some of the negative data around the Euros.”

He’s referring to the more than 9,000 COVID cases linked to Euro 2020 soccer games; by contrast, Download had fewer than 100 cases amongst its 10,000 attendees. Reading & Leeds attendees had to show proof of full vaccination or a negative test to get on site, with all festival workers regularly tested. And, while other events have been hit by coronavirus spikes – most notably August’s Boardmasters Festival, which has been linked with almost 5,000 cases – Benn says it’s important that live events aren’t “singled out”.

“COVID isn’t happening because of festivals,” he says. “COVID is in the restaurants, in the bars, on the trains, on the buses, in the public parks. We’ll be singled out because we’re 105,000 people, but I would suggest that the R rate [the average number of people that one infected person will pass the virus to] will not be much different [at Reading and Leeds] than it is anywhere else in the U.K.”

Coronavirus wasn’t the only logistical challenge for the Festival Republic team. They faced a shortage of festival workers, with many having left the sector during its two-year hiatus, while the event had to be put together in a much-reduced six-week window.

Reading and Leeds also have a long tradition of landmark performances from U.S. headliners. This year, however, only Post Malone made the trip, after travel restrictions and COVID concerns put others off – although Benn expects the Americans to return in numbers in 2022.

“When they see Post Malone on that stage. they’ll all have a ‘wish I was there moment’,” he predicts. “They’ll all have that FOMO again. And certainly the indicators from the agents are the Americans can’t wait to get back next year.

“So get your passports ready guys, because this is where it’s happening, I can assure you,” he adds. “We’re in a better place than anywhere in the world.”

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Also happening across the weekend was AEG’s All Points East festival in East London, which drew around 40,000 fans per day to see headliners including London Grammar and Foals.

APE usually takes place in May but was moved to the end of the summer to take advantage of the lifting of restrictions. And AEG CEO of European Festivals Jim King tells Variety that it was vital some festivals took place this year, despite the challenges posed by the ongoing pandemic.

“Another barren year would have been incredibly difficult,” says King. “It’s been terrible; the supply chain has been massively disrupted and longstanding suppliers and really good companies have been pushed out of business. If the whole industry had missed summer ’21, it would have had placed even greater devastation on the industry.”

King’s thoughts are now turning to 2022, when AEG’s flagship British Summer Time event in London’s Hyde Park, cancelled in both 2020 and 2021, will also come back. Pearl Jam and Duran Duran, both first booked for 2020, will roll over to next summer, with more announcements due soon.

“As it stands, we’re certainly planning and booking for a full quota of shows next year,” says King, who notes that the long-awaited government-backed insurance scheme for live events, which starts in September, will also help secure a full festival season.

Numerous live sector sources tell Variety that next year’s U.K. stadium slots for music are already fully booked, and King admits 2022 will be “a very congested market.”

“We hope that oversaturation doesn’t take place,” he says. “We mustn’t over-supply the marketplace and put too many tickets in there. That will naturally put a strain on how many shows fans can go to, so we have to be careful and ensure that the timeline between headline touring and festivals is the appropriate length.”

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With the truncated 2021 festival season already almost over, the U.K. live business’ focus will soon return to regular touring. But while European travel is slowly opening up, many UK acts still report formidable Brexit-related issues when it comes to playing live on the other side of the English Channel.

That’s despite a recent announcement from the U.K. government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport that “visa-free short-term touring” was allowed in 19 of the European Union’s 27 member states.

That drew an angry response from the live sector, with the government accused of misleading musicians that progress was being made. Prior to Brexit, artists had unlimited, restriction-free access to all 27 European nations. One of the largest European touring markets, Spain, is not on the list of 19 countries.

“Nothing has changed,” says David Martin, CEO of the Featured Artists Coalition which, along with several other music industry trade bodies, backs the #LetTheMusicMove campaign for a reduction in the cost and bureaucracy of European touring. “The situation for touring now is exactly the same as it was on January 1 [Brexit day]. We’re not seeing anywhere near the level of political engagement or the level of seniority needed. There’s been no political engagement with the sector on this issue for months and months.”

#LetTheMusicMove has been backed by over 1000 artists, including Radiohead, Annie Lennox and One Direction’s Niall Horan. And Martin said the full scale of issues is only just coming to light as touring starts up again.

“There’s already permanent damage done,” he says. “We’re having numerous artists every week coming to us saying that European tours are no longer viable. We’ve heard of one artist having £21,000 ($29,700) worth of fees for visas to do one gig in Spain for them and their touring party. That is unbelievably prohibitive.”

While U.S. artists will be able to access Britain under the same procedures as pre-Brexit, Martin warned that the standard practise of many American stars starting their tours in the U.K. and picking up transport and road crew for European dates is also under threat. Post-Brexit rules mean UK trucks can now only make three stops in Europe before returning to the U.K., while British roadies are also subject to non-E.U. worker rules.

“Coming to pick up crew, rehearse here and then travel into Europe is now more difficult,” says Martin. “In terms of practicality and other costs for American artists, there’s potentially an enormous impact.”

Despite DCMS claims that the government is “actively engaging” with EU states over further progress, Martin says the industry had seen “no evidence” of such negotiations. Instead, he calls for a transitional support package for those affected, warning the issue is “a ticking timebomb for the government.”

“This is going to be incredibly embarrassing for them when you start to see tours failing and the biggest artists in the world saying, ‘I’m not going to these territories because the government has not solved these problems’,” Martin says. “It’s going to be hugely problematic.”

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Meanwhile, despite reports to the contrary, Simon Cowell might not be done with “The X Factor” just yet. Although the once all-conquering talent show has been cancelled at ITV in the U.K., Syco insiders tell Variety that a return for 2023 is currently being considered. Cowell maintains a strong relationship with ITV – his new musical talent/quiz show Walk the Line will be shown on the channel later this year – but, with the show a free agent, a move to another channel could also be an option, with sources noting how American Idol successfully moved from Fox to ABC in America. Watch this space…

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