(Guest Article by Dean Courtney – Blogging from London)
It almost sounded tempting. As emails and tweets flew around boasting Bloc tickets with a special “Buy 5 get the 6th free” offer, in many quarters this was touted a part of a new-era of London festivals. Having repeatedly sold out its ticket allocation of 5,000 in previous years in Butlins, organisers moved the festival to London, boasting a threefold increase in capacity. As we now know, but not yet why, this capacity was so badly managed it nearly proved fatal. Reports are flooding in that they had sold well tickets well in excess of capacity.
As it stands, the festival had to be closed early due to severe overcrowding issues. Commentators have taken to Twitter in their droves to complain about 2 hour long entry queues, 40 minute queues for drinks and hour-long queues to even see any music. Much like when Ulster Bank suffered its unforgiveable computer meltdown, while people on the ground complained that the event was a “car crash”, festival organisers merrily continued to tweet on their own feed that everything was business as usual. In the end, police crews had to be drafted in and the festival closed early as punters began to fear for their safety in fiercely overcrowded conditions. Several onlookers reported stampedes, and at very least there have been reports of people suffering broken arms after being trampled on by droves of people fleeing the venue for safety.
On top of failing to provide useful advice on Twitter, the Bloc website offers no further help, merely mentioning that the festival simply won’t open for business this evening. Early reports would indicate that people were being allowed into the festival with a “strict capacity” of 15,000 without their tickets actually being checked. If these allegations are correct, a full and thorough investigation should take place with urgency. One thing is certain though; Bloc’s reputation may have suffered a deadly blow.
Evidently, this is one of the more serious incidents in recent years at a British festival. Indeed, rather than becoming overcrowded, the largest complaint, particularly since the recession has been that punters will now choose to only attend one festival, leading to cancelled events due to poor ticket sales. As if this wasn’t enough, British festivals now face steep competition from an ever expanding array of mainland European festivals. Often with the promise of near-guaranteed sunshine, many people (of whom I am one) now choose to go abroad, turning their festival into a complete holiday package.
This year I feel especially vindicated in this change of heart to British festivals. Having already bagged tickets to the apparently one-in-a-lifetime Stone Roses gig at Heaton Park last Friday, money wouldn’t stretch for a Spanish or German festival. This became a kick in the teeth in the end, as no sooner had Heaton Park sold it’s 220,000 tickets, the Stone Roses saw an opportunity for some serious money spinning and announced many further headline performances throughout Europe. Not wanting to miss out on the festival action altogether though, we decided instead on a relatively cheap day ticket to the Lovebox festival a couple of weeks ago.
Now perhaps I have become spoilt, having made a hat trick of continental European festivals in the last three years, but Lovebox was a huge disappointment. It started off well in the early afternoon, as staff with barrels of beer and cider strapped to their backs crusaded throughout the ground, keeping crowds at the bars relatively low. Come teatime though, they were nowhere to be seen. Queues for the toilets became unbearably long, as men used the urinals conveniently placed right beside the snaking queues of women, waiting for up over half an hour with a full bladder, who looks enviously on. Queues at the bar became, frankly, unacceptable. Waiting for up to an hour for a pint what is purported to be a pleasurable day out, for which £55 has exchanged hands, I wasn’t the only one feeling short-changed. Especially not at a little under a fiver a touch. By the time any of the acts arrived that we wanted to see, such as Groove Armada, we desperately tried to get into the mood. In the end, we left shortly before the main act, Friendly Fires took to the stage.
Never mind, we thought, there is always the Stone Roses. 70,000 people a night in Manchester, they’ll have that one covered much better surely? Failing to anticipate just how many people would want a drink to see the band everybody on site has waited over 15 years to see is simply ludicrous. Priced up at £4 a drink, it was slightly more reasonably priced, and the door policy to get drink into the ground was certainly much less draconian by all reports. But to have 3 or 4 bars staffed by only a few small and badly organised teams of people is shocking. At one point the crowds were so severe that a sole member of security was left to sort it out, as people began to crush at the front of the queue. Even once served, there was no way out of the crowd. Tensions began to run high, as people began to look visibly distressed and angry exchanges between crowd and staff were had. Simply put, the experience was horrible.
Perhaps it is only by virtue that the Stone Roses gig itself was so mind-blowingly brilliant. Walking home (a 10-mile trek, no less), we agreed that the whole day, while imperfect, was all about the experience of being there. For that, it will stay with me. But for £60 a ticket, it would have been nice to have the chance to see the support acts. Waiting in the queue for drink, frankly with no way back out again, we missed two hours of festival and with it Primal Scream and The Wailers.
Let me make something very clear. I am not in anyway complaining about the poor staff on the ground at these festivals. Those involved in Lovebox, the Stone Roses and indeed Bloc are often poorly trained volunteers getting paid a pittance, if at all. Often a free ticket to the festival is the only wage these young people receive. It would be shameful for us to expect them to deal with crowd control issues on skeleton staff on top of it. The problem here lies squarely at the feet of the organisers and management.
Taking European festivals as an example, it is still possible to find a well-run, well-organised festival abroad for a fraction of the price you would pay for the “experience” back home. For £155, you can buy a ticket for next weekend’s Benicassim, one of the largest festivals. For the price, you get 4 days of music, and 9 days of free camping in the sunshine to boot. Having been there myself in 2010 and 2011, I have never even heard of the experiences similar to those above. At the lower end of the scale, Melt festival in Germany brings back fond memories from 2009, and you could have grabbed a 3-day ticket to next weekend’s festivities for a meagre €110 (£88).
When I attended my first British festival, Reading, back in 2001, the ticket cost just £80, comparable to the price of this year’s Melt festival. For 2012, the ticket has rocketed to £197.50, with a hefty booking fee of £8 on top. Taking into account the effect of inflation, the price in real terms has roughly doubled in a decade, despite having added several thousand places to its capacity. I dread to imagine how much a beer costs inside.
Admittedly, Reading festival is not the same as Lovebox, the Stone Roses or Bloc. Some of this extra money has gone into increasing security at the events. But it’s not hard to see a pattern emerge. Punters complain about the ever-strengthening corporate feel to British festivals, which drain your pockets and energy just to see one band. For those festivals, which continue to have a dominant grip on the British market, they feel like nothing more than a bigwig money grab.
The strategy will push them to breaking point. By cutting resources of security and stewards at festivals with many thousands in attendance, they are beginning to find it hard to cope with the demand of everything. I imagine though that the bottom line profit must be very healthy. Rather than ploughing this profit straight into the pockets of chief executives and boards of the corporations in charge, what happened at last night’s Bloc festival must surely be a stark reminder that we must increase investment in festivals along with their numbers. Still in circulation are unconfirmed reports of a death at last night’s festival. This is a highly serious issue. Moreover, 22-year-old Chris Brahney, who went missing from Heaton Park last Friday, prompting a widespread social media campaign to help the efforts for his safe return. Sadly, he was later found dead in a canal on the other side of Manchester. One can’t help but wonder whether if organisers has laid on some extra transport or had a few more security staff on hand whether this situation could be avoided.
While nowhere near as serious as the risk of death, the feeling of being screwed over financially at festivals is simply driving people away. Serious music fans rightfully demand that if they are going to pay over-the-odds for a ticket compared to their continental counterparts that it should be safe, well organised and contain the appropriate facilities from food & drink to basic sanitation without having to waste hours negotiating them. There is nothing wrong with organisers expanding their operations and making their festivals bigger, as long as they are fit to do so. It would appear that few in Britain are. Until the British festival circuit sorts out their act, frankly I’ll stay out of it. Hasta la vista España.
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