There's No Such Thing As A Free Festival
Organising festivals in the '90s presents unique hurdles. Sam Beale talks to the modern day champions of a vital community celebration.
Squall 14, Autumn 1996, pp. 36-39.
At the Tribal Gathering I stood in the Planet Phunk tent, temporarily danced out, wondering where a punter might find a brandy coffee and a fire to sip it by. I turned and walked out of the marquee where everyone was, undoubtedly, having a good night, and took in the night air. Wandering aimlessly around the main arena it was suddenly obvious that there were no brandy coffees and no fires. There were no little cafes to stumble upon in the darkness either, just the one massive corporate bar, £2.70 for a pint of shitty lager. I went and sat in the car and smoked a fag.
Presumably, nobody went to the Tribal Gathering expecting to have a full-on festival experience. That's not what it's for. It's a club in a field. That's what the punters pay for and that's what they get. Me, I like to be surprised and I wasn't, except perhaps by the price of fags (£3.70 a pack) and chocolate (£1 a bar).
If this is the sort of event you want to organise all you need is a massive corporation behind you and a nationwide publicity machine. It also helps if you are sponsored up to the bouncy castle by large companies, preferably multinationals. But what of the smaller promoter? What of the festival organiser for whom huge name acts, spoon-fed entertainment with no room for diversity, and vast profits are not the priorities?
The recent experience of festival organisers suggests that putting on a festival in 1996, be it a free or paying event, is a process of "jumping through hoops and spending a fortune". So says Jeff Hill, long-time provider of stages and tents for festivals, who now runs three big tops at summer events.
Festival organisers face, from the outset, strict legislation and licence regulations for outdoor events, including standards for environmental health and public safety (incorporated in the 1994 Pop Code); as well as a media-fed monster of cultural assumptions with a history stretching back to Windsor, Stonehenge and the Beanfield.
With such pressure why not organise an illegal free festival on squatted land? Why go to the trouble? Mel, one of the organisers of the Brighton Festival of Freedom - a free one-day event in August - is quite clear that for her and the other Brighton festival organisers, the dream is to create an event that will become part of Brighton's calendar in the same way as Strawberry Fayre has become part of the Cambridge calendar over the past two decades. "If we don't liaise with the council this festival could not happen. That's the score. The only way you can put on a festival now is if you co-operate with the authorities," she says.
Jeff Hill believes "small hit and run events in the woods for two or three hundred people" are still possible but "in the present political climate the authorities can't be seen to let something big happen". Many who have taken on board the huge task of dealing with the bureaucracy which now surrounds legal festival organisation, agree.
Safety Bill, a safety consultant for the Social Services Department of a London borough council offers licencing advice to festival organisers. He suggests smaller events are more feasible: "People try and go for big numbers which becomes an organisational nightmare and costs spiral." Sybil Watt, sound engineer and technical co-ordinator for a number of festivals including the Big Chill this year, adds that if you don't want a festival which is, effectively, "one big advert, you've got to keep it small and manageable within the community. Small is beautiful".
"You've got to begin with the attitude that no-one can stop you, that it's your natural, unassailable right to organise a festival", says Chris Meikan, one of the organisers of Hackney Homeless Peoples' Festivals in 1993 and '94, and an advisor to countless festival organisers over the last six years.
Julian Rudd, a key organiser of the Deptford Urban Free Festival from 1990-1993 believes that once organisers have "a plan", they should "try and gain a good relationship with the relevant authorities including the police force and the licencing department of the council. Introduce yourself to the area, make contact with local residents and businesses, test the ground without doing anything too controversial."
Chris agrees: "A festival that goes on without involving the local people at all is really inappropriate. It's always a different atmosphere if the local people are involved." The gap between organisers and locals can, says Chris, be bridged by "just telling them what's happening, offering them the chance to be involved. Offer local charities stalls, get local schools in, put up posters in local community centres, call meetings."
If there are objections "protestors make a lot of fuss but unless they've actually got some reason other than that they don't want it to happen, they are totally ignored at a licence hearing," says Safety Bill. "Objections can only come down to health and safety, fire risk and law and order. What council's actually want to see is that you've thought about health and safety. So the more sussed you can be about it at the planning stage the easier time they will give you."
"The actual nuts and bolts of licencing are quite easy," says Chris. The key seems to be not being intimidated by the authorities and communicating with them. "Be as honest as possible with the council and the police. They're not necessarily going to do you over. They ask a lot from you but they can help as well," says Mel.
"I think there's a huge gap between the sort of people who go to festivals and the authorities that have to police them. There isn't an onus on either side to communicate and I'd say that onus is just as much on our side as it is on the authorities'," says Julian. "When you've worked to put on a festival you know how incompetent the authorities are. They are actually very faceless. There isn't some huge ogre behind the local council trying to stop you. It's a general feeling of apathy and cynicism towards the sort of community you come from. Most people look at a local authority and it just seems impenetrable, some yeti-like monster. But it's not. It's this huge institution that isn't particularly focussed and you have the ability to be incredibly focussed." Mel believes that "for us to deal with the council and them to deal with us is a really positive thing. It bridges a gap."
Licencing is a minefield but, organisers of legal events generally agree, licences can contain sensible and helpful regulations. Julian: "I do believe in the safety and security of a crowd and being licensed forces you to think about those issues." Negotiating with councils over licence conditions is obviously much easier in a city or an area where the licencing authority is used to outdoor events.
Safety Bill advises organisers to "give councils as much warning as possible. They like about nine months." Once the process is underway it is a case of "satisfying the council, the police and the fire brigade that you're a responsible person and you're going to hold a responsible event. They can't just say no. They have to treat a festival in the same way they treat a supermarket or anybody else who wants to build something."
Mel, who spent seven months working on this year's Brighton Festival and a week and half afterwards picking up festival goers' excrement and rubbish, feels strongly that "if people don't contribute, festivals will stop happening." She believes that people who go to festivals need a better understanding of the amount of work involved in putting on an event for thousands of people, of the time it takes to build up good relationships with councils, and of the affects of breaching licencing conditions: "For some reason people think we're making loads of money. They say 'but you must be getting paid'." Liaising with authorities is, says Mel, "seen as selling out. People have been on the phone saying 'why can't I bring my sound system? What are you fucking about? Are you a free festival or some bloody council day?' We'd love to say just come along, do you're own thing. But who's going to pay for it? Who's going to pay for the toilets? You can't trust people to bury their own shit so you've got to have toilets. The toilets at Brighton cost £5,000."
What they say about corporate events...
“I despise the approach of the Mean Fiddler to organising a festival. It’s cold, it’s corporate. It’s about getting as many people and as much money in as possible.” Julian
“The Mean Fiddler couldn’t hijack a vibe if it came in and smacked them in the teeth but they’re quite good at jumping on a bandwagon.” Julian
“Every commercial festival I’ve been to completely lacks a vibe. They don’t know how to organise one. It must come down to the fact that they don’t actually know anyone who’s on that vibe because they’ve all got their heads too far up their wallets.” Chris
“They’re just not giving enough thought to the on the ground vibe. They’re so completely obsessed with the word ‘production’. They’re absolutely dedicated to putting on really big acts without giving any thought to how it is to actually be there.” Chris
“Large events like Phoenix are just like fucking great live MTV basically” Chris
“Unfortunately a lot of young people going to festivals these days think that’s what a festival is: festival-u-like, buy it off the rack” Jeff
“They wouldn’t be complaining about noise if you had a 50k PA and the London Symphony Orchestra playing at Leeds Castle. It’s cultural assumptions all the way along. ” Chris
Brig Oubridge, a member of the Big Green Gathering steering committee, confirms there has never really been such a thing as a free festival: "In the old days of free festivals: Windsor, Stonehenge and so on, the local authorities picked up a huge tab because they provided skips and bin lorries. The local St John's would turn out for free. They are under a lot more financial pressure nowadays. They have to charge the Big Green Gathering £2,000 to provide ambulances, medics etc."
The Big Green Gathering has also paid policing costs, facing in its first year in 1994, Thames Valley Police and, for the past two years, Wiltshire Police who "thought the only way they could stop it turning into a Castlemorton and our security being overwhelmed by convoys and ravers was to have a police operation". This year the Big Green Gathering has so far paid the police half of a £10,000 policing bill. Now Brig believes, after two years on the same site, the festival has gained enough support within the local community and council "to say we don't believe your policing is justified. The farmer has come to the end of providing you with a searching facility on his land because he doesn't see why people coming onto his land should be harassed in this way when in two years you've not charged anyone with possession of anything and you've only found 30 people to rap on the knuckles." With this in mind the gathering perhaps faces a more difficult run in with the Wiltshire authorities next year.
Nonetheless other organisers see paying for policing as a dangerous precedent. Safety Bill notes that it is now illegal for paying police to be made a licence condition, and although it helps (ie if you refuse they may find other ways to shaft your event), you don't have to. Some councils already charge for policing licences and, more worryingly fees for applying for a licence are high and often non-returnable (even if your application is refused).
Licencing for dance events is currently being reviewed with conflicting approaches by two Home Office committees. One is drawing up new licencing guidelines for local authorities (including suggestions of introducing CCTV and searches at all dance events). Bizarrely (or typically), the other is looking at the possibilty of abolishing licences entirely, as part of the Government's march towards deregulation in the name of commercial 'freedom'.
There seems to be an over-riding acceptance amongst organisers that the future of festival organisation is about accepting that we live in the late 1990s, that there is no such thing as a free festival and there never really has been. Everything ultimately costs somebody something. Money to pay for free events comes from benefits, bucketting and, very rarely, sponsorship. As Brig points out: "Festivals rely on lots of volunteer energy otherwise they would cost millions of pounds to put on."
The cost of festival infrastructure, from plumbing and toilets to fire extinguishers, generators and electrics, is astonishing.
Without sponsorship or funding, main sources of revenue after ticket sales are festival bars and stallholders. At a free event these are clearly the only source of revenue. Illegal bars though, like illegal sound systems, often highly popular with punters, are thus plagues of festival organisers. As Mel observes: "You've sold your bar concession for £5,000 and you've got your barman saying' I've just paid you £5,000 so why are there ten illegal bars on site?'" Mel recognises small bars and cafes as part of a good festival vibe: "I don't mind what people do to make a bit of money but they don't have to be in your face with it. At Brighton this year they were putting up huge signs, even asking for vehicle passes to get off site and get more alcohol. None of them made a donation to the festival afterwards."
Some top tips from festival organisers: yer basic dos and don'ts from those who know...
Do have a plan.
Do start small.
Do find a suitable site: be realistic about where it is possible to hold your event.
Do network with other festival organisers.
Do get stalls and contractors lists from other festivals.
Do your utmost to get the local people on board.
Do get security that is responsive and understands the vibe you’re trying to create.
Do get on top of the media. Set the agenda, rather than always having to react to what they throw at you.
Do attempt to keep the police sweet. Then you can say you have their support.
Do know how incompetent the authorities really are.
Do get uncopiable vehicle passes.
Do take out bad weather insurance if you can.
Do get the licence as right as you can in the first place.
Do get your punters to clean up the festival (eg by handing out binliners). (If it’s a three day festival)
Do get some sleep on Thursday...
Don’t organise it from your bedroom.
Don’t expect to make any money.
Don’t imagine you can do it on your own: there are no one-man armies.
Don’t give a stage to someone who isn’t going to be involved in either the admin or fund-raising for it.
Don’t put up someone who has a criminal record (particularly for drugs) as a licensee.
Don’t accept licence conditions you know you can’t comply with just to get a licence. Negotiate.
Don’t try to save money on toilets.
Don’t spend the ticket money before the event: it will be the death of festivals if people think they might not get paid.
These tips have been compiled from the heads and experiences of Chris, Julian, Mel, Jeff, Bill and Sybil.
As licencees, festival organisers are liable to be prosecuted for any breaches of their licence, including sound systems exceeding noise limits or failing to switch off at the specified time. Councils do pursue breaches through the courts and fines are often enough to be the death of a festival. Mel: "We had 12 stages at Brighton which was excessive anyway and then people say 'it's a free festival: I'll bring my 15k rig and set it up wherever I want'. No! Go and organise your own festival."
Safety Bill thinks "sound systems should do a bit more negotiating with festival organisers. What they don't realise or care about is that they're the people who face prosecution. Mind you the music from the sound system in the car park at Harvest Fayre made my weekend."
Mel and the rest of the Brighton committee, if they choose to put on their festival next year, face a £5,000 debt and the job of rebuilding a relationship with council and police. Car parking was a nightmare for them, their security were useless (and violent) and they lost most of their environmental deposit because two trees were ripped up and some fenced-off rare orchids were trampled.
Festival security and stewarding are the only way festival organisers can avoid heavy police presence on festival sites. Good security crews who understand what the festival is about and are not out for a fight, are hard to find. Bill sums up a common feeling: "I get really sick of this macho, arsehole mentality of putting a load of yobbo hell's angels or ex-criminals on the gate who just stand there screaming at Travellers."
Zo, who has worked on the gates of festivals including Forest Fayre, Harvest Fayre, Glastonbury and the Big Green Gathering for years, believes the key to a good security team is "being able to resolve a situation before it becomes too much, rather than resolve it with violence. You need a bit of tact. We try and keep it nice and sweet on the gate. If you've got a chilled gate you've basically got a chilled site." Zo believes in a mixed security crew, "not just meatheads out for a fight. On our gate crew we've got a nurse, a councillor and bouncers."
Bill maintains the main job of a security team should be to catch thieves. Sybil agrees: "I've had to sleep on top of equipment so many times to stop it getting nicked." The Big Chill this year had no fence and says Bill "preferred to have security catching tent thieves rather than standing around trying to stop people getting in."
Several newspaper articles following the Harvest Fayre blamed that ubiquitous media catch all "New Age Travellers" for all the festival's problems. There is clearly a problem of definition here: "A load of people coming out of London in a £50 transit van are considered Travellers by half the police force," says Safety Bill.
Harvest Fayre allowed some living vehicles onto the site by prior arrangement. Nonetheless many others turned up on the gate. Such situations immediately create problems for gate security, particularly if no provisions have been made for living vehicles, ie there is no space. 'No living vehicles' or unrealistcally strict specified distances between them are also frequently licence conditions for camping areas.
Safety Bill: "A lot of it comes down to unrealistic festival organisers who don't think that Travellers will turn up and yet are quite happy to tap into Travellers who work the festival circuit and provide very good services at a very reasonable cost. You can't put on a festival that taps into the Traveller culture and then blame them for turning up."
The problem of defintion of Travellers here extends to a festival site itself. Many festival organisers recall dealing with, to say the least, 'unsociable' troublemakers who care little for a festival vibe. They are a minority in a majority of Travellers who work the festival circuit as site crew or technicians, or run their own set-ups and contribute to the atmosphere that it so lacking at corporate events. But they are a highly visible and often unreasonable minority who have little or no respect for the aims of a festival, let alone for licence conditions. Bill observes Travellers could be asked to help with policing a site where some are creating problems: "It's a lot easier to get Travellers to sort themselves out if you get a reasonable Traveller to talk to them." There are no easy answers. There are idiots in all comunities. Refusing people entry is often easier said than done, particularly when police are pressurising gate crews to get large vehicles off the highway and deal with them on site.
Chris Meikan believes that free festivals still exist "but they've changed cultural shape so people don't recognise them anymore. I think environmental protests are good places to do events and the festival vibe exists in these places. You'll have a few acoustic bands and 600 people having a laugh." Jay from Road Alert recalls "the Earth First! gathering in Snowdonia this year became a festival. For many activists the only safe way to communicate now is face to face which means we start organising festivals. They are a unique place to meet people and talk." The Reclaim the Streets 'Festival of Resistance' on the M41 in July was an extraordinary one-day free festival; sound systems, stalls, acoustic bands and all. The five-day Flim-Flam festival at Newbury at the end of August was billed as 'a Protest Party'. As Warren from Schnews in Brighton says: "It's about having to stay underground and pop up in the least expected places. It's a party and a protest, a guerilla festival." Perhaps we should begin to see protest sites and 'blat in, blat out' free parties as the '96 versions of the old free events. Larger events, with a number of stages and an infrastructure to deal with thousands of people staying in one place for a few days, have a long history and as such have developed to such a point that they are now legislated for (or against). The best way to ensure their survival is realistic acceptance that regulations exist and informed respect for the enormous task festival organisers take on and the risks they face. Even after intense planning and co-operation with councils and police mistakes are made, disasters happen, there are no guarantees.
The alternative risk is organising an illegal festival. Contrary to the opinion of many, Safety Bill believes as long as you organise an illegal event safely, get a big crowd, ensure self-regulation on site and clean up afterwards: "The police won't do anything until after the event has happened by which time it is very difficult to find the organisers." Illegal events will always happen in some ingenious shape or form but you won't find toilets, safety-checked structures or a welfare tent at them.
Experienced organisers are keen to offer advice and facilitate other events. There are plans to re-vamp the Fayres and Festivals Federation and form a support group to help would-be organisers through the licencing process, offer training and advice on fund-raising. Template licence applications are available, solicitors are willing to offer advice and thousands of people up and down the country offer a clear mandate so...
"Get organising. Do it. Do it yourselves. Blag, benefit, network. If you miss a festival, fucking organise one yourself and face the enormously complex task with some bollocks. You can do it. There really isn't anyone stopping you," says Chris.
The last word goes to Julian: "We're in a situation where we could be initiating a new generation of festival that isn't based on the '60s and '70s, Glastonbury or Reading but on whatever the individual organisers want those events to be. The thing to shout from the rooftops now is let's get on with it. If we are an organised, serious, committed, focussed force in British society then we're just here and we've go to be dealt with.
Why do it at all?
“They’re incredibly positive things, positive forces in peoples’ lives. There’s a community that exists in Deptford that will be there for as long as anyone that was involved in that festival or anyone who remembers it. That community exists and is empowered and strong and at any point if someone has an idea and they want to make something happen in the area, they remember Fordham Park and remember that it was possible. I think that’s a very positive vote for progress in a free society that ordinary people can get involved in something that affects them in an immediate way and affects their long-term environment. ” Julian
“For me there’s no bigger learning experience that I’ve ever had. Fuck college. That’s nothing. Festivals you learn, you really do.” Mel
ASSEMBLIES OF CELEBRATION - an overview of recent decades of festivals, raves, travellers and protesters - 1998
CULTURE-CASH-IN ON RAVES AND FESTIVALS - a look at the so-called 'new age entrepreneurs' cashing in on the current political climate for festivals - Squall 10, Summer 1995
RECREATIONAL DRUG WARS - the battle waged between vested business interests and rave culture - Squall 12, Spring 1996
WALLY HOPE - A Victim Of Ignorance - the life and death of one of the founders of the Stonehenge Free Festival - Squall 11, Autumn 1995