Music festivals 2021: To play or not to play? | Culture | Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 23.06.2021

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Music festivals 2021: To play or not to play?

Though COVID infection rates are sinking, prospects for the reopening of the events industry remain questionable. A few festivals are going ahead by using creative ideas.

Tomorrowland Festival in 2019 Belgium

The main stage of the Tomorrowland Festival in Belgium in 2019 — a far cry from this year's plans

At first it seemed promising for the Wacken Open Air. Touted as perhaps the most famous heavy metal music festival in the world, it has been held annually since 1990 in the village of Wacken in Germany's northern state of Schleswig-Holstein.

On June 1, however, it was canceled. "Our hearts are bleeding," said festival boss, Thomas Jensen. The next edition of the major heavy metal event is now set to take place from August 4 to 6, 2022. 

With this, Wacken joins a long list of festivals that had already canceled their events in the northern hemisphere spring for the second year in a row due to the COVID pandemic, including the Hurricane, Melt!, Splash, Rock am Ring and Summerjam festivals.

But demonstrating that things are changing weekly, Wacken organizers announced mid-June that they would at least be holding a "mini" version of the festival.

But as German politicians continue to play things by ear, planning an event in its usual form remains far too financially risky for most event organizers. There is no real perspective for the industry to reopen — despite sinking COVID infection rates nationwide.

Overcautious politics?

Axel Ballreich, festival organizer, club operator and chairman of the LiveKomm event industry federation, understands this caution. Yet, he sometimes wishes leaders would be more courageous. While he understands why politicians do not want to take risks, "sometimes it's simply negative." 

"They never gave us any perspective; we never knew how things were going to look like in a month." 

A person covered in mud smiles as a red-haired friend kneels down next to them

Fans at Wacken Open Air, seen here in 2018, can often end up in the mud

Ballreich admits that there are comparatively good financial support programs in Germany for some sectors, for instance, for clubs. But the discontinuation of some festivals cannot be prevented.

That's because many organizers of smaller festivals work on a volunteer basis. "After all, they have thrown themselves into preparations twice, they have spent money, yet get no returns at all," he said.

In addition, attendance at these festivals after the pandemic is still unclear. "You can't expect that within a year or two the industry will bounce back to where it was in 2019. It may well take until 2025," Ballreich told DW.

Different approaches, same overall picture

Other countries have attempted to take risks but with few positive results for the industry so far.

In February, for example, French organizers received a clear go-ahead from Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot for the summer festival season, but because of COVID-related security requirements and restrictions, most organizers ended up canceling them themselves, including popular festivals such as the Rock en Seine, Solidays and Hellfest. 

French COVID regulations stipulate that people may not stand at the festivals and imposes a limit of 5,000 people per show. For a festival like Hellfest that features mainly heavy metal music, seated concerts would be simply unthinkable.

Bachelot was at least in constant contact with festival planners regarding the regulations, so they had advance notice and could react to new circumstances.

Reality check across the Channel

In England, given the speedy and successful vaccination campaign and sinking infection rates, people were confident about this summer.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced in the spring that measures would be largely loosened nationwide starting June 21. But ever since the highly contagious delta variant saw infection figures spike again, this plan has now been postponed to July 19 — with drastic consequences for festival and concert organizers.

Many festivals are currently still planned for this summer, including the Leeds and Reading Festivals, which are scheduled to take place at the end of August, each expecting around 70,000 visitors.

But even they are on the back burner again due to current COVID numbers.

According to the British Association of Independent Festivals, a quarter of all music festivals in the United Kingdom were canceled in May.

British daily The Guardian quoted pop star Peter Gabriel as warning that the industry will be blighted by dire losses if the government does not introduce a financial safety net for organizers. 

Tomorrowland: Concert of the future?

Belgium was also optimistic like England. According to a government decree, festivals with up to 75,000 visitors should be possible in the country again under certain conditions from August 13. Belgium hosts many music festivals, with their revenue contributing significantly to the economy. 

Attracting 360,000 visitors pre-pandemic, Tomorrowland — a Belgian electronic dance music festival — is the largest of its kind in the world. Thousands of people, including from South America, Asia and Australia, normally make the annual pilgrimage to the small town of Boom, where the festival is held. 

Last year, the organizers had a radical idea. Together with partners from the gaming scene, the festival developed a revolutionary concept: digital worlds were created, with imaginatively designed stages and venues in keeping with the popular look and style of the festival. "We wanted to bring our communities together. So, we decided to have a digital festival and not just a livestream," press spokesperson Debby Wilmsen told DW.

Danish DJ Kölsch on stage at Tomorrowland in 2020

Danish DJ Kölsch made a digital appearance at Tomorrowland in 2020

Real performances in virtual worlds

Star DJs performed in front of green screens in studios in Antwerp, Brazil and the US and were inserted live onto digitally created stages. Fans were able to use their festival tickets to virtually move around the festival over three days, visiting shows on different stages.

The concept was a huge success among fans and DJs alike. "It was a real festival," Wilmsen summed up. After the success, the idea was also adopted for this year's edition.

Following government regulations, this year's Tomorrowland was to be a combination of the digital festival and a COVID-compliant physical version. Numerous DJs were slated to perform on several stages over two weekends — in front of 75,000 spectators a day. 

Then, this statement appeared on the festival's website on June 18: "Yesterday, the Boom & Rumst local council decided that the 16th edition of Tomorrowland cannot take place. We are very surprised and confused by the contradictory statements of our governments."

It continued: "No Tomorrowland for the second year in a row would be a major disaster for our company and more than 1,500 supporters, freelancers and thousands of employees." 

The meticulously prepared physical version of the festival will not go ahead as planned.

A village and its festival

Meanwhile in Germany, a rather small festival in North Rhine-Westphalia has decided to try its luck.

The Haldern Pop Festival is an annual German outdoor music event held in the little village of Rees-Haldern on the Lower Rhine. Since 1984, the festival, organized with great attention to detail, is considered one of the most popular events for hand-picked indie rock, pop and singer/songwriter music.

When Haldern 2020 had to be canceled, concerts were streamed live from the local church. 

But that wasn't enough for 2021, according to festival director Stefan Reichmann. "We realized that we were missing the people. A festival is a physical encounter," he said.

Two photos, one of an elaborate stage at the Haldern Pop festival and another one of grey empty field.

Haldern Pop Festival, with — and without — people

Instead of ticket sales, he and his colleagues have decided to return to the festival's roots: The idea is for festivalgoers and the village to connect.

Between August 12 and 14, 300 people who will be divided into three hiking or biking groups of 100 people each will be able to attend outdoor concerts that will be held in surprising places or in the church.

Local residents, musicians and festival audiences will be able to interact in 20 different gardens in the village "because we all have stories to tell," said Reichmann. The goal, he said, is for the audience, organizers and the artists to reconnect. And the festival, which normally takes place in a horse-riding meadow, will return to the village, with the COVID test center housed in the village school.

Like Haldern Pop, various festivals are now trying to make their mark with creative ideas, offering hope and prospects given the current circumstances. 

However, the overall situation remains extremely precarious for an industry that has remained almost completely dormant for the second year in a row.

This article has been adapted from German by Brenda Haas

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