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  • David Bentley

Opinion Feature: Groundhog Year – more music festival cancellations. Where are we going with this?

As more events get cancelled, David Bentley offers his personal opinion on the plight of music festivals.

Punxsutawney Phil must have seen multiple shadows when he emerged from his Philadelphia hole this year because the global Covid Winter continues unabated.

The organisers of the annual Øya Festival in Oslo, Norway’s biggest music event, have just announced they have cancelled this year’s show, the second successive year they have done so and on this occasion a month before they did it in the previous year.

On their website they say, “It feels like a little (??) nightmare to have to cancel Øya for the second year in a row... but it will not be possible with the guidelines that the authorities presented this week. There is too much uncertainty associated with the existing framework, and even the ‘best case scenario’ with 5,000 people is not compatible with the audience experience Øya Festival wants to provide. We have no choice but to realise that it will not be happening in 2021. We are already in the process of planning 2022 and promise you the festival comeback of all time in Tøyenparken 10–13 August 2022”.

It goes on, “Tickets go on sale on May 18th, and the first artist announcement is just around the corner. As many will choose to transfer their already bought tickets to next year, there’ll be far fewer tickets available than usual. In other words, there’s no reason to hesitate if you long for the great Øya experience in 2022”.

If you think about it there is a very worrying precedent here. Give us your money now or you aren’t going to get in, even though we can’t guarantee an event next year either, anyway” is what they seem to be saying. The promise of ‘the greatest event in 2022’ is pretty much what they said about 2021 when they cancelled last year’s festival.

But it’s much worse than that. Think of it this way. The normal attendance over the whole event is 60,000, with 20,000 each on the Friday and Saturday. If only one quarter of that amount of people are allowed inon any one day to a festival which, apart from the club nights, is held outside, what chance is there for the already rescheduled By: Larm showcase festival (September), which is held indoors and in some venues which are tiny? Answer: none. It is inevitable that must go as well. Along with all other such events in Norway this year.

To put this into some sort of perspective, musical performances, including some by artists that have figured in NMR in the past, have gone ahead in Norway this weekend, as this is written. And indoors, although audience numbers have been reduced of course.

The Covid infection rate in Norway in week 17 (week ending 02 May 2021) was 111 per 100,000 (0.11%), the fifth lowest in Europe not counting the UK, and firmly on the way down like Eddie the Eagle on the Holmenkollen ski jump, passing the point it was at mid-January (source: European Centre for Disease Control). In contrast the infection rate in August 2020 when that year’s Festival should have taken place was – wait for this – just five (5) per 100,000 and that situation had continued from January right through to August, ironically numbers starting to climb just as the Festival would have finished.

My point is this. You don’t have to be a medical expert to know this thing goes in waves. We already know a third wave will come next winter, irrespective of how many people get jabbed, because it mutates so much (there are already at least 10 known mutations). And that isn’t taking into account the Indian variant which is killing thousands every day (and many more by way of food and drink-less lockdowns in 50 degree heat) and which the UK authorities have admitted is much more infectious and “of concern” as they reassuringly say.

So that will probably batter us this winter with more lockdowns stretching into spring/early summer 2022. And then the Øya Festival will be cancelled again with the promise of ‘the greatest event ever in 2023’ but give us your money now or else, meaning they will have had four years worth of revenue with zeroproduct to show for it.

In my industry, air transport, the perceived wisdom this time last year was that a state of ‘normality’ would be achieved by 2024. 12 months later it is 2026. For every passing year, add another two. Why should the music business be any different? They both rely on customers spending hours in close proximity to each other, in a confined space.

How long before music fans smell the coffee, start demanding refunds and giving organisers the finger, and find other things to do?

And all this (purposefully) overlooks the prospect of a Virus 2.0, which is unthinkable but unavoidable at the same time.

Incidentally, I am not singling out Norway or the Øya Festival. The same thing will inevitably happen in other countries and I expect all the other events I have pencilled in for this year, in Sweden and the Faroe Islands for starters, will go the same way, with the exception of Hamburg’s Reeperbahn, which found a way of going ahead last year (the only one in Europe), even though it is an indoor event, and which I’m sure will do the same this year. As for the rest, forget it.

All this must be tearing many musicians to pieces, never mind the fans. We have already mentioned some of them over the past few weeks and the casualties – it isn’t too much of a stretch to talk about them in the way of PTSD victims - must be measured in the tens of thousands. Many will probably never recover.

One can only hope and pray that governments will realise how much damage they are doing (but don’t get your hopes up) by exercising such obsessive degrees of caution and by bowing to the God of Uncertainty. Lockdowns were designed to ‘save’ health services from collapse but we have now reached the point where they are at the very least creating as many problems as they solve and you do not need to be a ‘conspiracy theorist’ to understand that.

Never has the phrase ‘carpe diem’ been more apposite. We are all living on borrowed time in these troubled days. Setting the pandemic apart, how long before China invades Taiwan and embroils the world in war? Or before Korea test fires another missile over Japan, this time with a nuclear warhead attached? Or before the comet comes?

There is a window of opportunity to resume live music now and let’s enjoy ourselves while we can. It’s later than you think. For their part, it is incumbent on musicians to play their part, too, not just to wring their hands despairingly. If it is all you can do to write a protest song, study Dylan or Joan Baez, or Billy Bragg, or read the Berklee paper on it, THEN DO IT.

And where are the elder statesmen of the business? They are notable for their absence. Why are they not creating hell for politicians? Where are the songs attacking the Communist Party of China, and the World Health Organisation for its alleged failings in clarifying the origin of the virus for example? Has protest died? Actually that is a rhetorical question. Of course it has. Has anyone written a protest song about the plight of the Rohingyas? Or the Uighurs?

Last year we did a feature on Joe Hill, the Swedish émigré to the United States, who is considered to be the Grandfather of Protest Songs and who as a trade union activist and musician did more to highlight societal wrongs than just about anyone else and to organise the opposition to them more effectively too. Lord knows, how we need him now.

Obviously the views expressed are those of the contributor.


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