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Independence In a Time of Crisis: Reimagining Festival Culture In a Socially Distant World

Independence In a Time of Crisis: Reimagining Festival Culture In a Socially Distant World

“Nothing can replace the euphoric feeling of live entertainment.”

This is an opinion column. The thoughts and viewpoints expressed are those of the author, Gabriel Mattachione. Mattachione is the president of Beyond Oz Productions.

Earlier this year, what feels like a lifetime ago, the entire event space experienced an armageddon-type situation with COVID-19, one which hurt the scene, but impacted festivals, organizations, and groups differently. Running Ever After Music Festival in Kitchener, ON, we experienced things through an independent lens.

What does it mean to be an independent festival?

Being an independent festival is both creatively satisfying and corporately frustrating. The independence you carry when choosing not to involve big corporations or blockbuster sponsors is what can give life to an event or festival. It allows us as organizers to truly listen to fan feedback and make changes however minor or major so the festival can be more enjoyable for its fanbase.

When corporations or money shelling sponsors begin to try monetizing their investments into a product, the flexibility to react gets taken away from us. This is the beautiful part about being independent—we can make our festivals and events whatever the people want them to be. Didn’t like something? We as a team can listen to these concerns and make the appropriate adjustments for the following year, ultimately giving everyone something to look forward to.

The frustrations occur when unforeseen circumstances come into play. We do not have the backing of corporations that can help us adjust through these circumstances. A sponsor can be looked at as a backstop, an “out” if you will. With these products, ticket money is no longer a lifeline but solely a silo of revenue, whether that revenue is enough to carry you to the event or not. As an independent, that ticket money is what makes the festival feasible and possible. It is what allows us to continue to do what we do and love, and that’s producing amazing events with creative freedom.

When large sponsors are involved, the festival can quickly turn into a by-product of something that said sponsor can monetize throughout the year from obtaining your information through ticket purchase or buying patterns while on the grounds. Essentially, while you’re having the time of your life, the festival is a living, breathing billboard that is learning your habits to sell you something at a later date. Choosing not to go this route is a difficult decision for a promoter to make, but it is one that should show how much they value their customers and their wants and needs.

Now let’s not confuse having product sponsors and one of these product sponsors being a major funding factor. Ever After, for example, allows sponsors, though none to the tune of controlling how the event is operated or showcased. The downfall of this is less monetary gain from the deal itself, yet the upside is complete freedom and the ability to bring our vision to life.

How has COVID-19 directly impacted independent festivals?

When something like COVID-19 happens—a completely unforeseen pandemic that almost feels as if it hit not only the industry but also the entire world overnight—it greatly affects how independent festivals can react to these circumstances and limits viable options for resolution.

Blanket refunds are something we would have loved to have been able to offer our ticket buyers, however, given our independent status, the ticket money becomes your cash flow, the thing that secures artists, production equipment, venue space, and so many of the things that create what your experience will be, come the dates of the festival. The scenario we have with COVID-19 is what can be defined as an unforeseen circumstance, which does not allow us to offer these blanket refunds, as the funds must be used throughout the campaign and planning process. In what may seem like a perfect world, no one would receive a deposit or payment until the festival is over and reconciled. This way, the ticket money is always protected whether something dramatic happens or not, right? The problem with this model is that it opens the doors for tremendous fraud potential and the possibility of the event never actually happening, or never even intending to happen.

So, how does an independent festival deal with the circumstances at hand? For one, we must be creative and carefully take all aspects into consideration. First and foremost, a loyal and understanding audience and fanbase gives independent promoters and festivals a one-step advantage when attempting to navigate these situations. This is where Ever After’s repurposing option was born, giving patrons that no longer wanted to attend a valid option at obtaining their money back.

We use our marketing efforts and dollars to promote and facilitate the resale of your ticket. Though this may not be a perfect solution, it is the only solution we have at the moment. In what we once called normal times, we would never do this once a ticket is purchased, but under the current world climate, we knew we had to think of something that we could provide our fans. We also provided the options of perks for those who wanted to roll their ticket over into two of the following years in attempts to encourage the ticket holders to stand by us and support us through these difficult times. In the end, those who choose to keep their tickets will get the experience they paid for.

What does the future of industry life look like, and how will things change?

Things will inevitably change, and we are preparing for it. Though hard to accept, we know that we must shift with the times to bring Ever After to life in 2021. A closer look at the health and safety guidelines is something all promoters are prepared for. What this means, no one truly knows yet, but we need to come together to establish some common ground to ensure we keep attendees healthy and happy.

I believe this pandemic does allow some positive change to the industry as well, specifically within the promoter, artist, and agent relationship. In the old festival climate, there was no real onus on the artists to make sure the festival succeeded. The objective was for agents to get the best possible billing for the most amount of reward. This sometimes caused bidding wars between promoters, which created more of a distraction than a positive impact in the industry. I believe COVID-19 has shown not only the agencies, but also the artists themselves how important promoters and venues truly are to their personal successes. So, sharing some of this risk and truly diving deep into the promotions of every bill they are paid to be on is something we can’t wait to see take shape. It makes our already amazing teams that much more amazing when you have every artist on your bill rowing in the same direction you are going over and above to ensure there is success in every edition, whether big or small.

How does social distancing impact festival life?

Social distancing has been an imperative function in the fight against COVID-19, but how does this look at a festival, and is this even possible? Our job as promoters is (or was) to bring as many people as possible together in one space to create unimaginable energy and an unforgettable experience. This is inherently the opposite of social distancing. So again, can this work?

I believe the true answer will come down to what the patrons will deem acceptable. Part of the festival experience is being able to interact and socialize with new people, all while making new friends, and I am not sure that will be possible with social distancing rules. I believe there is going to have to be a lot of collaborative work between not only promoters and city stakeholders, but also with the fans as well. Through this, I know our industry can come to a conclusive middle ground that cities and fans can be happy with.

How do virtual events factor into the scene moving forward?

Virtual events served as a great band-aid in the beginning, but can they really be a substitute for live events? My answer is definitely not. There are important aspects of live events you just cannot get through a screen, no matter how amazing your at-home tech may be. The interaction, the energy, the feeling of walking through those gates, and just feeling at home with a bunch of other people who share the same general likes and interests you do—none of that lives through your screen in your living room. Nothing can replace the euphoric feeling of live entertainment.

How will COVID affect the demand for the live event industry post-lockdown?

In many cases, I believe the demand won’t change much. I think what will change is the product offerings, which in turn may make promoters feel as though the demand increased. COVID-19 is a terrible thing that not only happened to mankind as a whole, but also to businesses. When you take away the ability for an organization to generate revenue in the short windows we do have, it can certainly cause a collapse.

I believe a lot of festivals and events, especially on the independent side, will not be able to survive. We’ve been left off of many relief plans, and obtaining any type of monetary assistance for an industry that is still so undefined post-COVID-19 is slim to none, as banks and lenders have no security or comfort with what the future could bring for their investment. Inevitably, the sad truth is that some will go bankrupt and some of these festivals we know and love won’t have the means to return. With fewer products and the same customer base, demand may feel as though it has increased.

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