Every year in March, hippies and hedonists from around the world flock to SXM Festival to unplug from their day-to-day worries. But this year was different. No place was immune from the world’s troubles. Not even Saint Martin, the tiny Caribbean island that plays host to the annual house and techno festival.
At the time, opinions on the pandemic were divided. For many, the disease was an abstraction, a hypothetical concern that carried with it a hypothetical risk – the full seriousness of which would only hit home after the event.
“It was a strange situation because there was still a lot of discussion and uncertainty about how serious the virus was and how far-reaching the restrictions would become,” says Julian Prince, founder of SXM Festival.
At the time, countries were only beginning to take concrete action. Panama locked its borders down completely with little more than a day’s warning on 15 March, leaving 300 people trapped at the Tribal Gathering Festival. The French part of Saint Martin would issue its lockdown orders on the 17 March, just two days after the event, making SXM one of the last music festivals of 2020.
Stuck at the intersection of two of the hardest hit industries – live events and travel – the fate of destination festivals is murky. “Even the experts can’t agree on when a vaccine, treatment or even reliable or speedy tests will manifest,” Julian notes. In the absence of solid solutions, the only other alternative is social distancing and good hygiene. But what could that look like in the context of a festival? Is it even possible?
The practicalities of managing coronavirus at a festival are tricky to say the least. Take a large crowd of people, put them in close proximity to one another, remove social inhibitions through drink and drugs, and you’ve got the perfect breeding ground for a contagious virus.
Practices that seem commonplace now were far from most people’s minds in early March. Covid-19 was declared a pandemic on 11 March, just one day into the festival, and at the time, few people really knew what that meant – least of all a crowd of pleasure-seeking hedonists raving in the Caribbean.
While collective responsibility has since taken hold, this was not the case in early March. Bigger crowds bring bigger risks, and it is the organizers’ responsibility to minimise this risk in whatever way they can.
“We did our best to adapt and be as proactive as possible,” Julian says. “We had laser thermometers to scan everyone at entrances, along with sanitizing stations placed all around. We also had stations in the DJ booths and sanitized the equipment between sets.”
“SXM has the advantage because the festival is 100 percent outdoors, which makes it easier to practice social distancing,” Julian adds. But no matter how many precautions are taken and how stringently the social distancing measures are enforced, there are some festivals that pose too big a risk to continue without major modifications.
“Huge festivals with 10,000 people or more, often indoors, will have more complications to adjust to,” says Julian. “It’s going to be very tough and many festivals may not survive, sadly.”
There are many factors that will determine the fate of destination festivals, and size will be a big one. Those billing big bands and big names will struggle. “Promoters won’t have the budget to pay the fees demanded by the superstars,” Julian says. “Especially with the capacities reduced to 2 or 3 thousand people or 30 percent of a venue.”
SXM is a boutique house and rave festival that attracts a relatively small audience. Rock festivals whose lineups consist of famous bands must attract larger audiences to justify the costs. “With bands it’s more complicated,” Julian says. “It’s seven people, their assistants, sometimes their families, 20 hotel rooms, it’s a different stage set up.” EDM and house music, on the other hand, requires one sound system and a DJ.
Running costs aside, the difference in genre may also affect a festival’s likelihood of survival. Raving and rocking are two very different experiences. Fans can conceivably imagine raving solo or in a bubble, but a mosh pit without the people is hardly the same thing.
If live music events were to continue in any form, that form will most certainly have to be smaller, which might not be entirely a bad thing – at least not for DJs who are just starting out. “You can see an upside of the scene returning to its localised roots,” says Julian.
On-the-rise talent may have a rare chance to shine during the next two years. Supporting local communities has been a recurring theme over the past few months – and the same might be true for music and art.
Covid-19 poses a real threat for festivals – especially those that cater to an overseas audience. Large crowds have become obsolete and travel has ground to a halt. It’s anyone’s guess how long this new normal will last.
Virtual festivals have been billed as a possible stopgap solution. “They can help as additional options for events catering to people who can’t attend,” Julian speculates.
The growing popularity of live-streamed events could also bring overlooked talent to the forefront, and may even help them gain revenue streams and sponsorship opportunities. “This is a good thing, and there have been some interesting innovations,” Julian says.
One novel development in live music formats is the drive-in rave, a car park party organised by Index club in Schüttorf. It’s an interesting experience, but a far cry from the real thing. It’s what Stevia is to sugar – a healthier substitute that doesn’t quite measure up no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves otherwise.
It’s too early to make any clear cut judgement on the fate of destination festivals; the pandemic’s lasting psychological impact is only beginning to make itself known and the moral judgements assigned to certain behaviours are still in flux.
But how long can festivals hold down the fort, waiting for the pandemic panic to pass? Music-lovers are rightfully unnerved. And when travel restrictions are lifted and the threat itself is reduced, many people may be just as scared of large crowds.
But for travel-bug-bitten music lovers, the lockdown will, if anything, have increased their thirst for festivals, despite the fear. Virtual experiences don’t fill the void, they draw attention to it – it’s a need for that missing something. And Julian Prince, a man who founded a festival to address this need, feels it keenly. “In my opinion, nothing will replace the human experience.”