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The UK festival's ops director discusses the logistical challenges of bringing together a 40,000-person event in five weeks
By Jon Chapple on 27 Jul 2021
Tramlines’ operations director has said he hopes the event can serve as a blueprint for how major, multi-day music festivals can be staged safely until the threat of the coronavirus has receded.
Tramlines, whose 2021 edition took place at Hillsborough Park in Sheffield from Friday 23 to Sunday 25 July, was, along with Latitude in Suffolk, one of two 40,000-capacity festivals to take place last weekend as part of the UK’s Events Research Programme pilot scheme.
Timm Cleasby, says he hopes the success of the events – which used the National Health Service’s Covid Pass app to certify attendees’ vaccination or Covid-19 test status – will demonstrate that music festivals can be held under pandemic conditions, even in the event of tightened restrictions or further lockdowns in future. “I feel like what we’ve done is started to pave the way for the rest of the industry to open up in a way that minimises the risk for everyone,” he explains.
Cleasby (pictured), a former tour manager for the Arctic Monkeys who has been with Tramlines since its debut as a publicly funded city-centre festival in 2009, tells IQ: “It’s so important because the festival industry is on such a knife edge. It only takes something to go to go a bit wrong and then we’re locked down again. So I feel like what we’ve done is really important and hopefully will be able to show people that it can be done.”
Featuring performances from the Streets, Dizzee Rascal, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Little Simz, the Sherlocks and more, Tramlines grew both its capacity and festival site for 2021, adding 10,000 people and a number of site improvements. The festival came together in just five weeks, the tiny window adding extra time pressure to challenges in staffing, equipment hire and more, Cleasby continues. “It was definitely a challenge,” he says, “also because of the extra costs [involved in the pilot format].”
“We did everything we could to give us that space for everyone to feel more comfortable, because it was the first festival back”
“But we made our bars bigger, we got better queuing systems, more toilets, a new arena for stage two… so we did everything we could to give us that space for everyone to feel more comfortable, simply because it was the first festival back,” he adds. “You want to make sure that when people come they have a great time, and from what I saw over the weekend they had a smashing time.”
Specific “curve balls” the Tramlines team had to handle in those five weeks were staff shortages caused by Brexit and the ongoing NHS contact-tracing crisis, or ‘pingdemic’, and issues with the supply chain as a result of the pandemic.
“All the [Covid-19] testing centres and vaccination centres have marquees, cabins, toilets, terraced fencing, etc., and it’s all set up for a long-term hire, so there’s a shortage of equipment that is affecting all the festivals,” Cleasby explains. “And then there’s the fact that people aren’t manufacturing so much because their workforces are furloughed, or they relied on European workers, so stuff isn’t coming into the country as it should be. It’s a proper mixture of everything.
“For instance, our marquee supplier, literally a week before we were due to arrive on site, said, ‘I’m sorry but we can’t deliver anything to you’, because their staff had all been ‘pinged’ [told to self-isolate]. In the end, we had to find a marquee supplier that was also a manufacturer, which could manufacture marquees for us over the weekend, come in Monday morning and put them up, and then still be manufacturing that week as well – so as we’re putting them up, they’re making more!”
The Tramlines team also faced difficulties with cabin and plant hire, he continues, and had to put in place numerous contingency plans for if festival employees and staff were also ordered to self-isolate after coming in contact with someone with Covid-19.
Despite the stress of the past five weeks, Cleasby says it was worth it to see a full festival site in Hillsborough Park after two years away.
“It was fantastic to see everyone, bumping into old friends and having that moment of ‘Oh my God, We’re doing it!’” he says. “Over the weekend, everyone was buzzing – firstly that we’d managed to pull it off in such a short timescale, and secondly that we were back: We’re back in the park, we’re doing it and delivering it and just watching the audience having the time of their lives.”
Cleasby says he’s now looking forward to next summer, albeit hopefully under more normal conditions and with longer to pull the event together. “A bit longer time to get it off the ground would be nice,” he jokes. “Maybe six weeks next year…”
Tickets for Tramlines 2022 are on sale now, priced from £120 + booking fee (tier three).
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