Don’t mourn the decline of the big camp-out: urban festivals could boost our cities’ economies

Fun fun fun. Image: Tramlines Festival.

The great, big, all-encompassing music festival is, for better or for worse, a British institution. In spite of erratic weather patterns, we still travel in droves to idyllic countryside spots in order to muddy them with vast quantities of lager, camping equipment, and, of course, mud.

But the economics of “greenfield” festivals are increasingly in doubt. Glastonbury only made 50 pence profit per ticket sold in 2014, around 100 mid-scale festivals closed in 2016 under economic pressure, and security & maintenance costs are constantly rising, causing the big ones like Leeds to adapt and change to remain relevant.

In any case, the modern, institutionalised music festival contrasts drastically its predecessors in the “free festivals” movement of the 1970s, where hippie culture promised a sonic “state of nature”.  Thousands would gather around impromptu stages, without the permission of any particular authority. Glastonbury – itself a pioneer of modern festival culture in the UK – has its origins in this movement.

Nowadays, the largest music festivals, originating in great counter-cultures, more or less resemble the prevailing live music ethos: all ticketing, security and private enterprise. But these festivals don’t exist in a vacuum.

Consider two radically different "festivals" from my home county of Suffolk: Ipswich Music Day, which largely does what it says on the tin, and Latitude Festival. The former is exceedingly local, encourages community enterprise, and twice inexplicably played host to Ed Sheeran. The latter is run by Festival Republic, a large company also responsible for Reading and Leeds festivals. While less than impersonal, Latitude is stereotyped as being an extremely middle class affair that has about as much to do with Suffolk as it does with the literal concept of latitude. This is reflected in the statistics; only 5 per cent of UK festival-goers are from the East of England, while the corresponding statistical region constitutes almost 9 per cent of the UK population.

Ipswich Music Day, meanwhile, is the polar opposite. It plays host to six stages of emerging artists from Suffolk, and, although it’s the largest free one-day festival in the UK, it isn’t exactly ambitious, economically speaking.

But perhaps it ought to be.


Multiple studies into the dynamics and economics of festivals make similar arguments about how to drive “re-patronising” – in other words, how to make festival-goers want to come back next year. Evidence suggests that “social identification” – having something in common with other festival-goers – is often just as important as the quality of the music or the food.

Festivals can capitalise on this boon of social identification by offering a self-contained event designed, with both locals and tourists in mind. Locals are more likely to patronise events that emphasise community spirit; while tourists are enthused by events that symbolise & epitomise the local culture. Boardmasters, a large festival held annually in Newquay, plays to this trend by combining live music with surfer culture.

But it’s urban festivals, by virtue of their location in dense population centres, that have greatest potential when it comes to social identification – with additional opportunities when local communities are integrated in the event itself. Sheffield’s Tramlines festival, launched in 2009, began as a bold coalition of council and private business: over 70 venues playing host to musicians big and small, markets, workshops, and more. The festival continues to this day as an initiative that combines the council’s “Sheffield Music City” with a large-scale festival environment in surrounding green spaces.

In the midst of constant growth, however, it maintains connections to its community, through continued consultation of interest groups, integration of local businesses, and free ticket ballots for those most affected by the noise.

While not every city can be a Sheffield, the continued success of Tramlines, as well as other urban festivals such as Field Day in London’s East End and Parklife in Manchester, prove the point: the decline of the great camp-out signals the beginning of something else. But what benefits can a collaborative effort like Tramlines really bring?

First of all, these festivals boost the local economy. Urban festivals not only draw on local businesses for services and catering: they also offer a source of income for councils. Compared to private properties such as Leeds Festival’s Bramham Park, offering to host festivals in public spaces, such as Sheffield’s Hillsborough Park, ensures the revenue stays local.

Urban festivals are also more popular because of their cheaper ticket price. This attracts additional punters from the area directly around the festival, building the quota for social identification; but it also encourages festival-goers from further afield to stick around, stay a weekend, and spend money locally, especially when these festivals offer multiple days of music, as many do.

Finally, in the context of a struggling economy for local music venues, urban festivals help provide a more sustainable launch pad for more new artists, given their lower running costs. If Tramlines is any example, the collaboration of a large festival with popular appeal and a smaller, community-run initiative yields benefits and higher attendance for both parties.

So, there you are: with the right mix of public-private partnership and local innovation, the boom of urban festivals will do our cities good.

Incidentally, if we convince every town north of the Watford Gap to hold a local impression of Tramlines in their back garden, we could probably solve the north-south divide in the space of a bank holiday weekend. If that sounds too ambitious, just remember: British Summer Time got 65,000 people to pay to see Phil Collins live last year. Anything’s possible.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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