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Will the show go on? Summer festivals prepare amid an uncertain future

Festival organisers hope for a return to normality this year, with some planning to welcome back crowds at full capacity.

Festariyleisöä Robin Packalenin Ruisrock-keikalla.
Archive photo of Ruisrock in 2019. Image: Nelli Kenttä / Yle

There is a coronavirus-shaped question mark hanging over this summer’s music festivals, organisers say.

Despite this, while international events like the Glastonbury music festival have announced cancellations for the second year running, planning for many Finnish events is well underway.

"Finns have remained hungry for culture during the time of corona, but it remains to be seen if people will dare to gather along with others," says Kai Amberla, Executive Director of Finland Festivals.

"Added to that, the summer of festivals is, of course, shaped by whether the coronavirus restrictions are relaxed or tightened. I understand very well that the Finnish government is nervous about the situation. The corona situation in Finland is currently good, but it is worth remembering that in Ireland, for example, infections increased sharply in a few weeks," Amberla adds.

Festival organisers look to improvise

It remains unclear whether or not major events will be able to go ahead this summer. Many of 2020’s events were cancelled last April after the government placed a restriction on mass gatherings. While the restrictions were later relaxed, the move came too late to save much of the summer festival calendar.

However, the organisers of Pori Jazz, Ruisrock, Provinssi and Savonlinna Opera festivals are all expecting their events to take place this summer.

"We’re working on the assumption that there will be jazz in Pori this summer. Jazz’s capacity for improvisation is something we’re working to reflect in our preparations. No one really knows what the situation will be like come this spring," says Mikkomatti Aro, the artistic director of Pori Jazz.

According to Aro, the arrangements for this year’s Pori Jazz are being helped by the fact that a significant number of ticket holders for last year’s cancelled festival agreed to use those tickets at 2021’s festival, instead of taking a refund.

It was a similar story at the Savonlinna opera festival, where as many as 85 percent of ticket holders agreed to use their tickets for admission to a later edition.

"The Finnish festival audience is delightfully loyal," Aro says.

Ruisrock plans for a capacity crowd

Musicians have also agreed to postpone their 2020 plans to this year.

"Some of the artists who were meant to come to Ruisrock last year were re-booked for this year," says Mikko Niemelä, promoter for the Ruisrock festival that takes place in Turku.

In spite of coronavirus fears, Ruisrock does not intend to restrict audience numbers at this year’s event, Niemelä says.

"The basic idea is that Ruisrock will take place as normal," he says.

Sami Rumpunen, director of the Provinssi festival that takes place in Seinäjoki, says his organisers want to know if the government will relax official advice on social distancing.

Can you socially distance in a moshpit?

Social distancing would seem very unnatural at a rock music event like Provinssi, says Rumpunen.

"These are events where direct encounters and shared experience are key. Clearly, health and safety is a priority, and we’re working towards that aim," he says.

By contrast, the Savonlinna Opera festival has decided to halve audience capacity for its 2021 events.

"We can cater for a total of 30,000 audience members, divided into nearly 25 performances over the course of a month," says festival director Jan Strandholm.

According to Strandholm, halving the audience will cost the festival around €2 million.

"On the performance side, we have had to cancel the first night of the opera 'King Roger'. It would have required up to 200 performers to be on stage at the same time," he says.

Strandholm, like other festival directors, hopes that a final decision on either relaxing or tightening coronavirus-related restrictions will be taken as early as possible.

"We assume that there will probably still be some coronavirus restrictions by the summer," he says.

Finland Festivals’ Kai Amberla says there are likely to be more homegrown acts on festivals’ lineups this year.

"A three-day quarantine is a long time for foreign artists. The chain of logistics will be tricky as, in addition to the performer, their tour staff also need to be in the country for several days," Amberla explains.

Ultimately, Amberla says that summer festival audiences will accept and understand even the strictest restrictions.

"National stereotypes are dangerous, but it could still be said that the guidelines are followed quite responsibly in Northern Europe, as long as people can see a good justification for them," he says.

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