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York Life Festival

York Life is a new, free music festival for York. Funded by City of York Council (CYC) through the UK Government’s Additional Restrictions Grants and organised by a partnership between Make It York and York Music Venues Network.

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This case study is part of a series from the LGA Culture Commission

The challenge 

During Covid-19, independent venues, music promoters and performers were especially hard-hit, often falling between the cracks of financial aid and provision. Recovery for the live music industry has been one of the most difficult of any in the cultural sector, with venues navigating managing public health in ill-designed spaces, high ticket cancellation rates, performer wellbeing and last-minute cancellations/postponements due to illness, and struggling to recoup mounting costs when much of their activity was re-scheduled gigs, which limited the ability to boost income through new ticket sales. Artist and promoters’ incomes are precarious; freelancers make up over 50 per cent of the sector, and during the pandemic many had seen their incomes drop overnight.  

After a period of disruption and ongoing difficulties for the creative sector, the council, Make It York and York Music venues Network wanted to offer a high-profile opportunity to York’s artists and musicians to showcase their work in the city centre - ensuring they were properly paid for their contribution as individual creative freelancers recovered their incomes post-pandemic. In addition, they wanted to support residents to enjoy free live music in the city centre, to feel valued as residents, and to attract new resident audiences for the music venues and live acts. The event also aimed to drive more footfall to the city centre and through this to support local businesses and attractions.  

A festival stage with large backdrop, reading York Life, in front of a big crowd. Four members of the band Bull are performing with a variety of musical instruments.

The solution

York’s groundbreaking Culture Strategy puts culture at the heart of both resident and visitor engagement, seeking to ensure every resident has access to high quality cultural experiences, and raising York’s profile as a cultural destination. The implementation of the Culture Strategy, commissioned by CYC and informed strongly by the sector, forms a key part of Make It York’s SLA with CYC (MIY is a Teckal company, responsible for management of the visitor economy, culture, city centre events spaces and markets).  

York Music Venues Network (YMVN) is a dynamic blend of mid-scale commercial venues, Arts Council England supported specialist venues, and smaller scale grassroots venues which are frequented by residents and visitors drawn from York’s hinterlands. The Venues Network is a growing and active voice in the city, committed to the city’s Culture Strategy, and keen to work in partnership both within and beyond the sector.  

In 2021, CYC commissioned MIY and YMVN to produce a new music festival for the city that would be free to attend and give musicians and venues a high-profile context to showcase their work. The partnership arrangement was extremely successful, with MIY providing the expertise for running a high quality, professional and free city-centre outdoor event, and YMVN programming the festival’s main stage and offering technical expertise.  

The York Life Festival took place on 2 – 3 April 2022, in a prominent city centre location, Parliament Street, and was free to attend. A main stage with stretch tent area, a second fringe/workshop tent, and smaller open-air spaces were used for a range of activities such as live music, spoken word, magic, and creative workshops. The festival ran over a weekend, with activities for all ages at appropriate times of day, involving over thirty local artists and performers, and with notable York-based bands headlining the stage. 

The impact

York Life attracted a predominately local, young, and diverse audience, bringing gig-going audiences into the city-centre. It provided a safe public place for families and young people to enjoy music and creative activities together. An all-age flashmob, organised by York Dance Space, took place and dozens of local people took part in the dance. 

During the 2022 festival, footfall was 19 per cent higher than for the same period in 2019, with over 71,000 visitors to the city-centre that weekend, benefitting city centre hospitality at a quiet time of year. Two street-food vans were in the enclosed festival area, offering these small local businesses a valuable weekend of trade. 

Over 30 local acts were financially supported in a high-profile context and profiled to new audiences. MIY and YMVN benefitted from partnership working, strengthening ties between the organisations, attendee responses to the event were positive, and achieved local press coverage. 

YMVN members reported an uplift in ticket sales as a result of the festival. 

"What a weekend! It was wonderful seeing York Life run so well, and we were overjoyed by great promotion of all the music venues. I can’t explain the joy seeing the NCEM logo so large & visible and promoting our upcoming season. Some good bookings coming in as a result!"

- National Centre for Early Music

A huge well done to the whole team for a fantastic weekend. I'm sure all the audiences experienced something unique in York city centre. Thank you so much for programming us and making us feel so welcome."

- Say Owt Collective

"Taking part in the flashmob the most joyous experience after two terrible covid years. Mums with babies performing the dance were the icing on the cake, amongst the sea of youngsters (and us oldies of course) - more of this please." 

- Flashmob Participant

How is the new approach being sustained?

The festival was made possible through the City of York Council’s Additional Restrictions Grants and was initially planned as a one-off event. However, given the success of the event in showcasing the city’s independent music scene, positive responses from the partnership approach to producing the festival, and the young, diverse audience it attracted into the city centre, there is appetite across the city to install York Life as a regular fixture in the city’s year-round calendar of events. 

Investing in the festival in future years will give residents a free weekend of cultural activities, financially support over thirty local acts and creatives, and support the local economy through increased footfall in the city centre.  

Make It York and City of York Council are exploring options for funding to safeguard the future of the festival, which could include funding streams, grants or sponsorship. This would keep it free and accessible for the audience whilst ensuring it is a high-quality event with professional performers supported financially, and ensure the event continues to have a non-commercial, community orientated feel. 

Three people, two young and one older, take part in a drumming workshop inside a marquee with bunting.

Lessons learned

York, though regarded as a wealthy city, has a widening socio-economic gap between residents. As a free, small-scale festival, it notably attracted a more diverse and youthful audience than other city centre activities and offered a high-quality cultural activity for residents and visitors of all ages to enjoy. A major lesson is appreciating the appetite and need for such events within the city. Like other resident focused activities, such as the annual Residents Festival, there is certainly a place in the city’s calendar of events for this festival as a means of celebrating local talent, thanking residents for warmly welcoming our annual 8.4 million visitors, and supporting city centre businesses during a traditionally quieter period of the year. 

A key learning through the first iteration of this festival is the importance of accommodating access needs within the events plan – future festivals will include better resources to support neurodiverse audience members to take part, a dedicated wheelchair space, and safety equipment such as ear-defender loans in order to be as inclusive as possible for audiences with diverse needs. Many families enjoyed the event and fringe creative activities, and consideration may be given to ensuring a safe, family-friendly feel permeates future editions of the festival. 

Finally, the partnership approach to the event, with MIY working with YMVN to provide expertise, and connections into York’s music scene, is a key lesson to apply to both future versions of this event and the other Make It York managed city-centre activities. Working with grassroots creative networks is mutually beneficial in ensuring events are high quality, pitched appropriately, and offer a genuinely valuable, place-based cultural experience to both residents and visitors.  


Bethan Gibb-Reid, Creative and Cultural Development Manager 

Email: [email protected]