Belgium's festival sector has been placed in a difficult position after a new €60 million government support grant is giving it extra funding, but not the answers it wants.
Despite the grant from the Flemish government, organisers are calling for clarity on how the summer could look, especially regarding how many visitors would be allowed.
"By now, organisers should be placing their orders for stages and light and sound equipment in the coming weeks, and making final arrangements for artists and hiring personnel," Katrien Vermeire, spokesperson for the interest group Sound of Silence, told Het Laatste Nieuws, adding that this is "difficult when you are not yet sure what will be allowed in the summer."
Planning a music festival takes months, and even medium-sized organisations should already be preparing for it by now, the sector stressed, adding that the financial support, while welcome, may not be enough.
In concrete terms, Flemish Economy Minister Hilde Crevits is allocating €50 million in refundable advances, so organisers can start building their festival with a reduced financial risk. The other €10 million - allocated by Flemish Tourism Minister Zuhal Demir - has to help smaller music festivals with measures to protect visitors from the virus, such as building quick-test villages or extra entrances and exits.
However, in Wallonia, festival organisers feel let down, as the budget put in place to support festivals in difficulty slumped from €2.5 million in 2020 to €1.5 million for this year.
Although this sum should allow festivals to cover all expenses and advance payments this year, it still puts festivals in the south of the country at a disadvantage. Gaëtan Servais, co-founder of Les Ardentes, explained: "We have tell our artists that we will only be able to pay the advance payments in March, when the decision is made, whereas in the north of the country they can already pay them."
Festivals in Wallonia have been promised they can count on these subsidies, even if events are cancelled, the office of Wallonia's Minister of Culture, Bénédicte Linard told Sud Presse.
"These subsidies will even be increased by up to 20% to compensate for loss of revenue or to intervene in the additional costs linked to health measures," her press officer added.
"The least the government can do is to support us again this year and confirm at least the same amount of aid," Damien Dufrasne, president of the Federation of Music Festivals in Wallonia and Brussels and director of the Dour festival said, commenting on this decrease in budget.
However, as last year saw most festivals cancelled or taking place in a ‘light version’, a second year of this scenario could have serious economic consequences that may not be covered by these grants, according to Vermeire, who stressed the need for clarity so the sector can start preparing.
Flemish Minister-President Jan Jambon previously said that a decision on whether or not 2021 festivals will be able to go ahead would happen by mid-March at the latest, based on the progress of vaccination.
However, when questioned about perspectives for the summer festivals in the parliament on Wednesday, Flemish Economy Minister Hilde Crevits said that "we are not there yet," referring to the next Consultative Committee on 26 February, where a strategy for "the return to normal" will be worked out.
This leaves Belgium's biggest festivals, including Rock Werchter, Pukkelpop and Tomorrowland, uncertain about the future.
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Festival summer 'not realistic'
While the majority of the sector and politicians remain hopeful - and unsure - virologist Marc Van Ranst has already taken to the press with his doubts.
Organising summer festivals like in 2019, with tens of thousands of people coming together from across the whole world, is "impossible" at this point, Van Ranst told Het Laatste Nieuws.
"If the industry is asking today to be able to organise mass events at full capacity this summer, the answer can only be 'no'," he explained. "It is up to politicians to decide in the end, but the question is not realistic today."
"Going from nothing to everything is not possible today," Van Ranst stressed, adding that very few people already know when exactly they will be vaccinated.
"Abroad, there is no question of it either," Van Ranst said, adding that even if Belgium manages to vaccinate over 70% of its population this summer, a vaccine is not effective immediately after administration, meaning the risks will persist all summer.
"Of course, there will be some prospects once all high-risk groups have been vaccinated, but even then, we will have to return to normal gradually, step by step," he said, warning that that "it will not be: 'It's over now, big parties straight away'."
Lauren Walker & Maïthé Chini
The Brussels Times