It's 8pm on the Sunday night at this year's Standon Calling, an enjoyable 5,000-capacity festival that has made its home in the Hertfordshire countryside for the past seven years. The mid-August sun has shone throughout the day, but it's drifting towards the horizon as London indie folksters Goldheart Assembly arrive to play the penultimate set in the Twisted Licks tent, the festival's second stage. Unfortunately, they're greeted by a crowd of just 24 people, in a tent that holds hundreds. After them, on the outdoor main stage, the acclaimed Africa Express Soundsystem close the festival with an array of singers, MCs and musicians. But the field they play to is so sparsely populated you could easily walk to the barrier at the front of the stage. In fact, you could drag a sofa with you.
This, some would suggest, has been the story of the 2011 festival season, where even the major events have struggled, with many seasoned ticket buyers responding to high prices and underwhelming bills by becoming ex-ticket buyers. By the beginning of August, industry bible Music Week was gravely reporting that more than 30 festivals had already been cancelled, while the much-loved Truck festival went into liquidation soon after this year's event, unable to pay its artists and citing low ticket sales and on-site costs. Standon Calling's organisers didn't respond to my questions for this article, but they didn't appear to have a great year, either. Even Glastonbury's Michael Eavis predicted his event's demise in "three or four years", telling the Times after this year's festival: "People have seen it all before with festivals. They want something else." Or, as the Daily Mail's subsequent headline rather gleefully put it: "Festivals are dead!"
In a country where it's estimated that more than 500 festivals did take place this summer, that's clearly an extreme diagnosis. Melvin Benn, managing director of Festival Republic, whose festivals include Reading, Leeds, Latitude and the Big Chill, thinks so. "In 1988, probably less than 30,000 people went to a festival in this country," he says. "This year, on the August bank holiday weekend alone, just between Reading, Leeds and Creamfields, more than a quarter of a million people went to a festival. So, the concept that the UK has suddenly fallen out of love with festivals is just wrong. But the UK is definitely counting its pennies. There's no question of that."
Benn readily admits that tickets sold more slowly for his 2011 events than in recent years. "When money's a little bit tighter, people choose a lot more carefully," he says. "You wouldn't be in a position where nobody you knew wasn't affected by the economy in some way. We have a government that absolutely wants to punish the people for the small minority of people's mistakes." Benn doesn't clarify who that small minority are, but it seems reasonable to assume he means the bankers. He's clear about the upshot. "You've got to buy the groceries, you've got to pay the rent, but you don't have to buy a festival ticket."
DJ Rob da Bank, whose Bestival event has grown quickly from a 10,000 capacity in 2004 to more than 50,000 now, agrees the impact of the economic downturn has bitten in 2011. "I think maybe we all thought we'd got away with it. But I've been getting so many tweets and Facebook messages saying: 'We've been to every Bestival, but we can't afford to go this year,' with comments about what the government has done to people in terms of wages. Quite specific things such as, 'I've lost my job', or 'I'm a nurse and I can't afford it on this salary,' that I would never, ever have had in previous years."
The obvious response to that is to ask why the big festivals aren't dropping their hefty ticket prices in response. This year, weekend tickets for Glastonbury, V, Latitude, Isle of Wight festival, Reading, T in the Park and Bestival all sold for £170 or upwards, with the ever-irksome booking fees and delivery charges on top. That's a lot of money to spend on a weekend that may involve standing in a field getting rained on while drinking expensive beer.
"Of course," says Eavis's daughter Emily, who co-organises Glastonbury. "They are all expensive. But we have to sell all our tickets to break even. We aim to give £2m to charity and it's just such an expensive show to run, because we have so many areas. And there's so much investment in the infrastructure side, too. We do everything we can to keep the price down – and we don't charge for things such as programmes or firewood – but that's really the lowest price we can make it."
Glastonbury is fortunate, at least, that it doesn't pay the really big bucks for its headliners. "Luckily, bands like playing here," says Eavis. "There is a lot of money flying around for bookings these days, but what we offer is really about a tenth of what others do."
At a time when it's increasingly difficult for acts to make money from selling their music or touring, festival fees have become something of a financial lifeline for musicians. "It's a place where they absolutely want to maximise their income," Benn says. "There's one particular artist, for instance, that has played four of my festivals this year and I would've generated more income for him than his record company did."
Following the boom in festivals in recent years, artists are effectively now more in demand, meaning they can negotiate higher fees. "Fees are going up across the board, from the tiny bands to the big ones," Rob da Bank says. And for the headliners, that can mean quite a pay day: "At the big festivals, we are talking seven-figure sums," Benn says.
That, coupled with the money spent on infrastructure and facilities, insist the organisers, means the current ticket prices are inevitable for the major events. "It can't be helped," says Benn. "There's no point wishing or pretending that there's any other way around it. There isn't a lot of fat for the promoter. We're in a cycle where, of course, we'd all love to cut the prices, but the reality is that there's no fat to cut. If there was, we'd be doing it."
The result, says James Hamlin, marketing director of secondary ticketing service Seatwave, is that penny-pinched festival fans are being much more selective about which – and how many – events they go to. "The festival market grew and grew until organisers were thinking: 'People are festival-crazy, they're going to go to three, four, five a year.' And they built an industry on that. This has been a year where people are not in a position to go to that many. But they still want to go to one. So they're making strategic decisions based on lineups, price or, if you even want to buy on the day of the event, weather. They have less money, so they're making smarter decisions." Plenty of festival-goers, too, are finding their demands for affordability, strong lineups and good weather met by foreign festivals, accessible via budget airlines and offering an experience that's part-holiday, part-festival. Why stand in British mud, after all, when you can sunbathe at Benicassim? Canny foreign promoters realise that, and many European events are now as heavily promoted in the UK as domestic events.
In other words, in a festival market that is depressed and over-saturated, some events will inevitably fall by the wayside, while only the strongest and smartest will survive. And, the truth is, plenty of UK estivals have flourished in 2011: V festival's pragmatic decision to follow the charts and the airwaves by shifting focus from mainstream rock to urban-flavoured pop saw it sell out its two 85,000-capacity events in hours; according to Benn, Live Nation's Hyde Park events sold more tickets than ever before; Glastonbury's 135,000 tickets were snapped up in lightning speed, before it even revealed its lineup. Many smaller, independent festivals also continue to thrive: events such as Green Man, Secret Garden Party, End of the Road and Rob Da Bank's Camp Bestival all rapidly sold out in 2011.
As did Kendal Calling, an event held in a Lake District deer park. "We had a fantastic year," says Kendal Calling director Ben Robinson. The 30-year-old founded Kendal Calling with a friend in 2006, "as a reaction to going to other festivals and being annoyed". Kendal Calling is run with the philosophy of always trying to think from the festival-goer's point of view. So, unlike many of the bigger events, you don't have to queue to buy a token to then queue to buy a drink; when you get to the bar, you're offered local ale at decent prices; you can get near enough to the bands to see them properly; they keep weekend camping tickets to just £95; and they're innovative with lower-budget ideas, such as organised space-hopper races. Plus, crucially, their bill is still topped by acts with broad appeal: this year Blondie and Chase & Status. It's a simple, sensible formula, but it's one they're delivering with aplomb. Despite increasing capacity from 8,000 to 10,000 this year, the festival sold out in record time. "If it's the right event at the right price, people will still spend the money," says Robinson.
Groove Armada's Tom Findlay, one of the founders of London's Lovebox festival, agrees. "I think the festivals that will survive will be the ones that have developed a strong, trusted brand, such as Secret Garden Party and Bestival. And I'd like to think Lovebox has just about moved into that. But we've been going nine years and I think this year was the first time we've ever made a profit. You can't just be like those people who think because they can cook a bit of dinner, they can run a restaurant. It takes a lot of time, effort and learning from mistakes to end up with a successful festival."
Lovebox has also been helped by the reinvigorated dance music scene. "Dance music, in the broadest terms, is definitely having one of its moments," says Findlay. "There's a whole new generation of artists coming through – the Katy Bs and Tinie Tempahs. It's been notable how well Ibiza has done this season, too. Whereas the most interesting indie band of the summer seems to have been Pulp."
Certainly the big rock festivals appear to be struggling to find of-the-moment bands capable of headlining. And fans seem increasingly bored of seeing the same acts rotating around the festival circuit each year. Muse have played eight UK festival headline shows since 2004; Kings of Leon played five in the last four years, not counting their two Hyde Park shows this summer. And when the Killers were announced for this year's Hard Rock Calling it was billed as their first UK festival show for "nearly two years", ignoring the fact that this only meant they had finally had a summer off in 2010; even Arctic Monkeys seemed dated and lacklustre at V Festival – in their second festival of the summer, after T in the Park – compared to its ebullient urban stars. Seatwave's Hamlin attributes Reading's slower ticket sales to its headliners failing to capture the imagination of its traditionally teenage crowd. "For Reading this year, the demand just wasn't there," he says. As a result, Seatwave sold tickets for the event at less than face value. "It appears to have stagnated. I know it's a rock festival, but there was literally nothing but that. And its headliners [the Strokes, My Chemical Romance, Muse] weren't as strong [as other festivals]."
A bullish Benn insists that Reading did sell out well in advance and points out that he can't control what price people then choose to sell (or, as he puts it, "tout") those tickets for. He predicts the likely emergence of bands such as Florence and the Machine and Mumford & Sons into the big league of festival headliners and expects more one-off themed shows from the established acts following Muse's full performance of their Origins of Symmetry album at Reading.