Greenbelt’s Creative Director Paul Northup reflects on the journey that has led to the decision to cancel Greenbelt Festival. Again.
As Oscar Wilde wrote in The Importance of Being Earnest: “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” And the everyday saying that this has given rise to – ‘Once is unlucky. Twice is carelessness.’ – is ringing in my ears as we announce that we’re cancelling the full-blown festival, for a second year running.
There’s a whole gamut of emotions swirling around and within us all here at Team Greenbelt. And I know the same swirl of emotions will be raging throughout our audience and community, too. From disappointment and resignation, of course, to a form of grief. And, yes, even anger.
Please take your seat on the rollercoaster
Since getting back together after last year’s cancelled festival (and delivering our first ever digital Greenbelt summer), we were hopeful that 2021 would be brighter. We started to piece the physical festival back together. To build the bill again, to shape the site – including new venues, spaces and ideas we were excited about.
Ticket sales were strong. Ahead of where they were the year before. As we broke for Christmas, hopes were high. But a week or so later, as we got back into meetings post-Christmas in the early New Year, our outlook was entirely different. ‘Variants’ seemed to be rife and we were headed into our third national lockdown. The mood music had changed overnight.
We battled on, booking all the programming we could, beginning to second-guess how we might be required to run a safe festival in the era of COVID-19. There was much head-scratching and soul-searching. Could we run a much reduced capacity, socially-distanced version of the full-blown festival, for instance? But whichever way we ran them, the numbers just didn’t add up.
Don’t panic. Organise.
During this time we kept in close contact with our friends running other independent festivals through our membership of the Association of Independent Festivals (the AIF). It was clear that all of us were living and working though the same rollercoaster of emotions and scenarios. There was a solidarity in that. But also a worry. Another summer without independent festivals was a real possibility again.
On our behalf, the AIF lobbied government (and particularly the DCMS) hard for the backing we needed to go ahead this summer. None of us could get any insurance for anything COVID-related. And yet that’s exactly what we all needed most in order to plan and progress with confidence and integrity.
The AIF presented reams of evidence about the economic worth of festivals, as well as how we felt we could operate in a safe way from a public health perspective. There were Parliamentary committee hearings aplenty, and special thanks ought to go to Paul Reed, CEO of the AIF, who has been quoted on and interviewed for just about every news and media outlet in the UK this year!
And then came the ‘Government Roadmap’. It was more specific and detailed than any of us had dared hope. It felt like we had our route to the summer laid out. Ticket sales, which were already strong, picked up momentum. After the doldrums of post-Christmas in the early days of lockdown three, hope sprang eternal. Again. We were back in the game.
What we really needed to hear
But the devil was in the detail, and we still needed to hear back on the long-mooted insurance backing for our sector. The DCMS batted back our comparisons to the film and TV industries (which the government had got back up on their feet in the early days of the pandemic with an insurance scheme). TV studios and film sets were controlled environments, we were told. Whereas festivals constituted – new phrase alert – ‘unstructured gatherings’.
The film and TV scheme comparison was, perhaps, a red herring. I was reminded, instead, of 2007, when thousands of homes that had never been flooded before were flooded in the wettest summer on record here; when parts of the UK experienced what were referred to (before that summer) as ‘one in three-hundred year flood events’ not just once, but twice! My own home was flooded twice that summer. It had never flooded before and it hasn’t since. But what it meant was that we couldn’t get home insurance on the open market any more.
That was when the government stepped in with the Flood Re scheme to provide the additional underwriting needed in order for the insurance sector to take on the risk of all these newly flooded homes. The government-backed scheme provided a period of years for the commercial insurance sector to adjust to the new landscape, knowing their backs were covered. It cost the government very little at all in the grand scheme of things. But it made all the difference to thousands of homeowners (like me). Sometimes, when there’s a massive shock to the system, the government has to step in to make sure the market makes the adjustments needed to meet the challenges of the new reality. The bottom line does not always offer a way through times of crisis. We need the state to act.
This is what Greenbelt – and all independent festivals – needed more than anything this summer: a government-backed safety net that would enable insurers to cover us against the risk of late COVID-related cancellation or restrictions. There are lots of estimates out there about how ‘little’ such backing would have cost (relatively speaking) compared to the revenue that summer festivals generate. But it seems that our case has fallen, if not on deaf ears, then on ears more attuned to the clamour of other sectors.
More than just insurance
But it hasn’t been just about insurance, obviously. And one of our concerns, if we’re honest, has been around not wanting to appear chicken and completely risk-averse. Because that’s not very Greenbelt. Especially when we all know that staging a festival is a precarious in any year! Not just in a global pandemic. And we’ve been at this a long time. Surely this was no time to lose our nerve?
There were other concerns and issues for us to weigh. Lots of them. But we were willing to wrestle our way through all of them in different ways – whether those were local perceptions, more onerous requirements for our volunteers, the revised methodologies around site layout, queuing and venue styles, the additional costs, the practical and ethical concerns around access based on COVID status, and the understandable anxieties of our growing constituency of festival-goers requiring additional access support onsite.
It feels ironic to be cancelling at the same time as we’re seeing pictures of test events around the country. People with no masks or social distancing at raves and gigs in Liverpool, a pretty-much-full Crucible for the Word Snooker final. The trouble is, we won’t know the outcomes of these test events (and the recommendations we’d be required to implement as a result) for a good while yet.
But any awkward irony we feel now will be as nothing compared to when August Bank Holiday weekend rolls around and we’ll all wonder to ourselves: why on earth can’t we be at Greenbelt right now? We get it. Really we do. It’s not just us. Other independent festivals happening in late summer have reached the same point. Even sold-out events like Shambala and Boomtown. We’re all so near. But still all so far. We’re just one part of a whole wave of independent festivals who can hold on no longer.
Two years running
So for the second year running we’ve had to call and email artists and speakers to effectively say, “You know that work we booked you for? Well, we can’t go ahead with it again. Which means you won’t be paid for it, again.”
Don’t worry, we didn’t really say it like that.
We’ve had to let our volunteers – and especially our volunteer team leaders – down again, too. They work tireless with us year-round and they’d been modelling with us the myriad different and complex ways in which we anticipated that volunteers would need to work this year.
We’d been working closely with our Health & Safety adviser and the local authority on what our mitigations were likely to be. It felt like we had a good model in place, one that would have enabled us to deliver a festival that still looked and felt like Greenbelt at the same time as making sure we were doing it safely.
All the while, ticket sales and appetite had stayed strong! Not surprising really, given the pent-up demand and the fact that the government had injected a whole heap of consumer confidence into the festival and events market with its roadmap (even as it hadn’t provided the backing for its own plan). At the end of it all, we were left out on a limb. Taking all the risk on their behalf.
Heartbroken. But hopeful.
So that’s where we are. Heartbroken. We’ve worked right to the wire on making the full-blown festival work. We’ve poured everything into it. Because the roadmap and the data pointed towards the festival being entirely possible. And safe.
But as well as heartbroken, we’re still hopeful. So we’re working on a ‘Plan B’. We’re not going to plan and produce a summer-long set of digital programming this year. Instead, we want to see if there is still something more embodied and closer to Greenbelt’s pre-digital past that we can tap back into at this late stage. Something completely new. And, maybe, old. Something radical – in the sense of radical meaning to go back to one’s roots.
So, stay with us for a week or so, just until we can share our thinking on this.
In the meantime, thank you all from the bottom of our hearts for your patience, your faithfulness and for riding this awful rollercoaster with us. Our love and prayers go out to all our supporters and ticket-buyers, as well as to all our friends in the independent festival sector, all our artists and speakers and all our suppliers. A festival is an ecosystem, a delicate web that means life and livelihoods for so many for so many reasons.
But this isn’t quite over yet. All manner of things shall be well.