The fate of UK summer festivals was thrown into doubt earlier this week, after cultural behemoth Glastonbury announced the cancellation of this year’s event.
After more than 10 months without live events due to the coronavirus pandemic, those with tickets for gigs this summer might be wondering if Covid-19 will decimate the festival circuit for the second year in a row.
Gill Tee and Deborah Shilling founded the Black Deer festival
But the founders of an award-winning Kent festival are eager to stress that Glastonbury is not the canary in the coal mine for the entire industry.
Gill Tee and Deborah Shilling, the duo behind country and Americana festival Black Deer, are pushing ‘full-steam ahead’ to open the gates to 20,000 ticket holders this summer, adapting however they must in order to fit with the government’s ever-shifting Covid-19 guidance.
The festival, which is due to take place at Eridge Park, near Tunbridge Wells, on June 18-20, will host transatlantic stars like Wilco, Van Morrison, and Led Zeppelin legend Robert Plant.
Gill, the festival director, said: “As far as we’re concerned Black Deer is happening in June, in Eridge. We’re really excited, the team’s been working really hard on everything and it’s full-steam ahead.
“Obviously we are looking at all the government guidelines, we’re working with all the appropriate authorities on how we’re actually going to do this, but we are very much saying ‘the gates are opening.’”
The pair were not surprised to learn of Emily Eavis’ Glastonbury festival announcement on Thursday – as one of the biggest events in the UK with a capacity of around 200,000 people and scores of stages, the organisers were placed in a difficult position of having just a few months left before having to begin setting up the site.
Gill said: “The build time for Glastonbury is huge, and the numbers involved with building that world are very huge.
“It’s a very different dynamic to a 15-20,000 capacity festival – Glastonbury could take nearly three months build time, ours is just under three weeks. Glastonbury had to make a decision because of the build times and the cost involved of bringing all of those people on site to make it work.”
Determined to bring their celebration of Americana and country to music fans in June, Gill believes the maximum capacity of 20,000 coupled with the 3,500 acres of Eridge Park means they are well placed to adapt to social distancing guidelines.
She said: “We’ve got this beautiful estate and we can expand to accommodate what’s required for Covid restrictions. That’s the most wonderful thing we’ve got in our favour.
“Our conversations internally are everyday about how we can still open gates given that there will be certain restrictions. I, along with every other festival organiser, hope the restrictions that will be in place by then are that people wear their masks, and they’ve been inoculated or they’re Covid-free.
“There will be an opportunity, we believe, for people to actually be standing side by side – standing in front of a main stage artist, I think people will self-police. If you’re there and you’ve still got that caution, we’ve got enough space on that land to still get the atmosphere of the main stage but you can sit back from it.”
As of now, all artists are still confirmed to performing as part of the festival’s impressive line up.
Deborah, marketing director for the festival, said: “I think there’s a huge will from this whole industry, the artists themselves want to get back on those stages.
“We’ve got this beautiful estate and we can expand to accommodate what’s required for Covid restrictions…”
“This is their livelihood and if their management companies can make it happen then they will be making it happen.”
But even with the benefit of location flexibility and the will to push onward, the planning and execution of events like this are a gigantic undertaking.
Gill, Deborah, and their team work tirelessly throughout the year to bring their annual event to life.
Each element of a festival has to be organised down to exacting standards – from food outlets, to stage building, to the delivery of toilet facilities and clean water.
When you consider the sheer scale of a 200,000 capacity event like Glastonbury, the number of sub-contractors and companies involved is difficult to comprehend.
Gill said: “Black Deer is a year-round operation and the planning starts from the very beginning of when the last festival ended.
“We’re fortunate we’ve got a lot of our site plans in place already and all the elements to pull a festival together, and we’ve got the advantage of amazing suppliers who are all understanding of the dilemmas that are happening at this moment in time.
“There are hurdles and difficulties – some suppliers are having a really hard time at the moment because they’ve not just got one festival they’re supplying and they had an extremely hard time last year. But the industry is blossoming again and there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
But controversy over the government’s protection of the music industry was thrown into stark light as the country moved into its post-Brexit state.
More than 100 artists, including Elton John and Bob Geldof, signed an open letter published in The Times this week, saying musicians had been ‘shamefully failed’ by the government’s Brexit deal.
It followed the revelation that the UK government will not pursue a scheme allowing British musicians to tour the EU without the requirement of visas and customs waivers.
Now the live events industry is calling on the government to provide festival organisers like Gill and Deb insurance to protect them from further event cancellations as a result of the pandemic.
Culture secretary Oliver Dowden expressed his disappointment at the cancellation of Glastonbury in a tweet on Thursday, but said his office was continuing to help the arts recover, including ‘problems around getting insurance.’
Both Gill and Deb are hoping the government offer greater support for their industry.
Gill said: “It’s very difficult for people who are working in politics to understand the dynamics of running a festival, but the understanding now is far greater than it ever was.
“We would love to have the reassurance of insurance to back anything should it not happen because the government suddenly has to cull it, but we can work through that.
She added: ”We want the government to help us as much as possible, and going forward to understand that this is a really big industry that is bringing a lot into the UK economy.”
The pair remain positive at the prospect of welcoming music lovers and artists back through the gates in June for the first time since 2019, and an urge for it to go ahead appears to have manifested in ticket sales too.
Since the cancellation of the 2020 weekend, tickets have been purchased for this year’s event almost every single day.
Deb added: “There’s so much to be immersed in in terms of the music, we’ve got 80 plus acts all confirmed for this June…we just can’t wait for it to happen.”