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.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”