Sarah McBriar

Sarah McBriar: What the pandemic taught me about the future of festivals

With festival season upon us, the founder and director of  AVA, an Audio-Visual Arts Festival and Conference with its beginnings in Belfast, breaks down what she’s discovered about the festival industry after two years apart from it.

Sarah McBriar
  • By Sarah McBriar
  • 19 May 2022
  • min read

As someone who was born at the end of the ‘80s, grew up in the ‘90s and the noughties and cut my teeth professionally in the ‘10s and now ‘20s. I have been blessed with the rise of the internet, access to incredible art and music, the era when Facebook was fun and social media was very organic, and the period when hopping on a flight to travel anywhere in Europe was as easy as nipping down to your local shop.

I raved throughout my university days in the heartland of Manchester, went to countless festivals around the world, and set up AVA (Audio Visual Arts) in 2014 with very little money and built it from the ground up, whilst working full time as a project manager at Manchester City Football Club in the early years.

Across the last eight years from 2015 to 2022, AVA has grown from a one-day festival and conference to a large outdoor multi-stage festival in Belfast, a conference and festival in London plus over 45 satellite events around the world, from Mumbai to Amsterdam. This growth hasn't been without its major challenges, and nothing can quite compare to the pandemic and the devastating impact on the world and the music industry, particularly the live sector. This will be a period that we will look back on, reflecting on the challenges and the opportunities that developed as a consequence.

For me there were eight key learnings; this is not conclusive or factual, merely a personal reflection.

‘We all need to function for the ecosystem to work. When one block falls, it has a major knock-on effect to the whole system.’

Firstly, we are sociable beings. We need and want connection, and live music, gigs and festivals provide a safe space for many people to meet, discover new music and art, express themselves and forget about their daily lives. The value of this should not be underestimated. Speaking personally, I enjoy meeting new people, connecting with old and new friends and discovering new music. When this was removed entirely from my life, there was an impact on my mental health that I had never experienced before — it created a sense of fear that it would not return.

Technology is advancing at a staggering speed, and this is impacting on how we communicate, market, purchase, pay for and experience music. This is also impacting on how we create music and art. Immersive technologies have and are advancing greatly, and we have only scratched the surface of what is possible. We at AVA are excited by this, and plan to really explore this creatively.

Supply and Demand has never been more in flux, and the pandemic has largely contributed by reducing supply, bottling demand, re-introducing demand, then flooding supply. I enjoyed Economics at school, though navigating this flux in business has never been more challenging.


‘When the industry truly comes together, we are stronger and more effective.’

The importance of the live sector for artists and audiences is evident. An artist needs to tour to connect their music with audiences around the world. This grows them creatively, alongside building their global fan base. For audiences, it creates memories, moments, and meetings. The removal of this has impacted the growth of emerging talent, as well as established talent, and affected audience confidence. This has impacted the number of artists growing into headline acts, which in turn impacts festival bills and variety.

When the industry truly comes together, we are stronger and more effective. Throughout the pandemic many groups formed locally, nationally, and internationally. This created honest dialogue, professional and personal relationships, and a greater confidence in sharing information. This is a truly wonderful thing, that I believe will have a positive impact on the industry through support, respect, mutual learnings and growth.

There is a complex ecosystem that operates across the industry. Interestingly, depending on what area you operate in — venue, talent, management, promoter or other, your world revolves around your own centre point, but so too does everyone else’s. We all need to function for the ecosystem to work. When one block falls, it has a major knock-on effect to the whole system. This was blindingly evident, and still is. This shows the importance of shared support, from the small 200 cap venues to major league festivals.


‘Providing opportunities for young people to create and or experience music and art in their hometowns plays an important role in society.’

Sustainability needs greater continued attention, and this is challenging to prioritise as a business rebuilding from the pandemic. Sustainability, in effect is ‘wasting less’ and building smartly for longevity. This philosophy conflicts with the speed of technology, and we need to use technology to advance our abilities to waste less. The event sector is guilty of this, and our government needs to restrict waste from above, like the ‘pause’ of the pandemic, we all need to re-think how we approach waste. It is unnecessary, but the sector needs to cohesively address this, due to the competitive nature of the open market.

Finally, traveling is harder, more expensive and less appealing. This provides greater opportunity locally, for everyone. Providing opportunities for young people to create and or experience music and art in their hometowns plays an important role in society, and we need to protect this, promote it and support it.

Moving into a post-pandemic era, we have an opportunity to really learn from the experience and positively create a better future. I feel optimistic but returning to a more balanced landscape is critical for the industry as whole.