10,000 enjoy moshing without masks at Download Pilot
The organisers of Download Pilot – the UK’s first major camping festival of its kind since lockdown – are hailing it a resounding success and are confident that the test will encourage government to green-light other summer events.
The specially created three-day festival took place over the 18–20 June weekend as part of the second phase of the UK government’s scientific Events Research Programme (ERP). The Download Pilot involved 10,000 metal fans welcomed to the hallowed grounds of rock in Donington Park to enjoy a fully-fledged festival experience with no social distancing, no masks and moshing allowed.
All attendees were required to take both a PCR and lateral-flow test prior to the event, sharing details with the NHS contact-tracing system. Attendees had to show proof of a negative result to enter the festival gates and have committed to submitting a second PCR test five days post-event to help scientists monitor any Covid-19 infection activity.
Headlined by Enter Shikari, Bullet for My Valentine and Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes, 40 acts in total from the UK’s world-leading rock scene waived their fees, united by the prospect of moving the live events industry forward and playing in front of an audience for the first time in over a year.
As the last of the fans left the venue today, promoter Festival Republic dismissed any notion that live events are not possible while the Covid-19 pandemic continues. “[This] is 100% evidence that this is not true,” stated managing director Melvyn Benn. “This is a very clear demonstration that you can do it.”
“This is a very clear demonstration that you can do it”
He continued, “It’s really fantastic. I am very heart-warmed by it all. The level of compliance around the testing and requirements we have is absolutely extraordinary. It is coupled with a level of normality that is equally extraordinary when you have been out of it for so long.”
Benn believes the data gathered through the festival will prove similar events can take place this summer. “In fairness, the [Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport] are on board with the message which is that these things can happen and they can happen safely,” he told reporters.
“What we want from Download is data that scientists can analyse that will effectively reinforce that position, and that data is being gathered and I am certain it will do just that.”
Indeed, another Festival Republic gathering, Latitude, has confirmed it will go ahead for its 22–25 July event, while it’s expected that the Reading and Leeds festivals in August will also proceed as planned.
Benn added that following talks with the DCMS in recent days, he felt “sufficiently encouraged” to push ahead with Latitude and he suggested the UK government is finalising plans to launch a limited coronavirus insurance scheme that will allow other festivals to push ahead with their 2021 editions.
“There is no guarantee, but I believe the government will come forward with a limited government-backed insurance scheme,” he commented. “It wouldn’t be everything that we want, by any means, but it would certainly be enough to encourage us to all get going again.”
“We urge the government to reappraise its approach and to listen to the recommendations of its own reports”
However, while that optimism will buoy the UK business, any government backing has come too late for Kendal Calling festival, which today criticised the government for delaying the publication of ERP report, as it outlined the decision to shelve its festival for the second year running.
“Without this safety guidance, there are numerous aspects of the festival we cannot plan, and which could lay us wide open to last minute unforeseen regulations or requirements which could scupper an already built festival,” reads a statement on the Kendal Calling website. “Capacity or density restrictions, track and trace protocol, testing regime, Covid certification – a host of unknown actions required, yet potentially requested too late to be implemented.
“Our understanding is that the DCMS are keen to publish the ERP findings and guidance, but that it now does not fit around [the British government’s] communications plan. This is insulting to our entire industry, who have been awaiting the results of a pilot event that took place almost two months ago to inform our approach to staging events safely this summer.
“This has been a frankly devastating 16 months for our industry. If calls for a government-backed insurance scheme had been heeded – as recommended by the DCMS, emulating successful schemes now up and running in other countries – we could have potentially continued to plan and invest in the coming weeks. We take this opportunity to urge the government to reappraise its approach and to listen to the recommendations of its own reports, as the continued lack of leadership hampers the recovery of our live event industry.”
Meanwhile, the iconic Notting Hill Carnival will also not go ahead in 2021, it has been confirmed, for similar pandemic concerns.
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From the Fields launches partnerships division
From the Fields, the UK festival promoter behind popular summer events Kendal Calling and Bluedot, has hired Chris McCormick to oversee a new brand partnerships division.
McCormick joins Manchester-based From the Fields from Bluepeg/Star Live, where he was commercial director, working with brands including the Mercury Prize, Heineken and Amazon Music. As partnerships director, he will oversee partnerships for both festivals, as well as working with external clients.
Co-op is the newest client for From the Fields Partnerships, with the retail group planning to bring its pop-up festival food and drink store to Kendal Calling (25,000-cap.) from July 2021.
Ben Robinson, From the Fields’ managing director, comments: “The addition of Chris to our team marks an exciting new era for From the Fields, allowing us to service a wider range of clients with a full complement of services from online and offline sponsorship delivery, activations, curation, marketing and production.
“Now, more than ever, brands expect a joined-up approach, and thanks to our portfolio of award-winning major events and our highly-respected team, From the Fields is now uniquely positioned to deliver incredible campaigns.”
“From the Fields is uniquely positioned to deliver incredible campaigns”
“I’m absolutely thrilled to be joining From the Fields,” adds McCormick. I’ve worked with Andy [Robinson, co-founder], Ben and the team for over a decade as clients to my own businesses, and their creative and entrepreneurial spirit has always impressed me. Having the chance to join the dots of our combined skills and experience was an opportunity not to be missed.
“I’ll be steering the partnership strategy for Kendal Calling and Bluedot, as well as working with external clients. We will also be harnessing our creative, marketing and production expertise to deliver experiential and strategy for brands within music, entertainment and live events.”
In addition to launching From the Fields Partnerships, the company has announced a new addition to its event roster in the form of Manchester Food and Drink Festival.
From the Fields’ core festivals, Kendal Calling and Bluedot (21,00-cap.), will return in July 2021, with Björk, Groove Armada and Metronomy having already been announced as Bluedot 2021 headliners.
Bournemouth’s Arts by the Sea, curated by From the Fields, will go ahead this month in a Covid-secure format.
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Ground Control’s Jon Drape launches Engine No. 4
Event production veteran Jon Drape has launched Engine No.4, a new production company headquartered in Manchester, UK, as he retires the Ground Control brand.
Drape, former MD of Ground Control Productions, director at Broadwick Live and founder of Festival Safe, forms part of a core team of equal partners with Tommy Sheals-Barrett (Back On Your Heads Ltd), Jim Gee (N4 Productions) and Will McHugh (CC Events).
The decision to create Engine No.4 follows the withdrawal of Broadwick Live and Ground Control parent company, Global, from the festival space earlier this year.
“It was the ideal time for a rethink – it’s not just a rebadged version of Ground Control,” comments Drape. “We came to realise that a more streamlined business was the only sustainable option.
“With a desire to focus on quality events and festivals, I thought the best move forwards would be to form a new partnership of four equal shareholders and directors together, covering all elements of the industry and able to deliver more bespoke and considered solutions.”
“It was the ideal time for a rethink – it’s not just a rebadged version of Ground Control”
With over 30 years’ experience in the live industry, Drape managed production at legendary Manchester venue the Hacienda, later founding Ground Control in 2013. Drape is a patron for music charity Attitude is Everything and drug safety testing group the Loop.
Sheals-Barrett takes on the role of head of technical production, with 25 years’ experience managing production for Festival No. 6, Bluedot and Parklife.
Kendal Calling and Parklife operations director McHugh will handle the sponsorship side of the business, building on existing relationships with clients such as EE, Lynx, Nintendo and Carling.
Gee, whose recent projects include reopening Manchester’s 10,000-capacity Depot at Mayfield, will serve as the director and head of site management.
“We’re immensely proud of what we have achieved so far at the Depot,” says Gee. “Our remit was to transition the Warehouse Project from Store Street without losing the spirit and the vibe in a much larger venue. Somewhat of a challenge but something we have delivered.”
Operating from September 2019, Engine No.4 has new projects lined up to add to its existing client base.
International event production professionals will be gathering at the ILMC Production Meeting (IPM) on Tuesday 3 March at the Royal Garden Hotel in London.
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Rain fails to dampen spirits at From the Fields fests
Extreme weather tested Manchester, UK-based promoter From the Fields at Kendal Calling and Bluedot festivals this year, but did little to detract from the events’ best ticket sales to date.
Bluedot and Kendal Calling, From the Field’s biggest events, took place on two consecutive weekends from 18 to 21 and 25 to 28 July.
Both festivals were an “absolute success”, From the Fields co-director and Bluedot festival director Ben Robinson tells IQ. Bluedot, now in its fourth year, sold out in advance with a 30% increase in capacity.
“I think we’ve reached our happy size there at 16,000,” says Robinson, stating “we have no ambition to increase further.”
The longer-running, larger Kendal Calling also saw record sales, shifting 30,000 tickets and maintaining a capacity crowd throughout the weekend, despite “a lot of extreme weather”.
“Every stage went ahead as planned and the festival opened on time every day,” explains Robinson, commending the site crew on their efforts “against the elements”.
Taking place each year at the Jodrell Bank Observatory, recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to the gigantic Lovell Telescope, the fourth outing was a special one for Bluedot, coinciding with the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing.
“[The moon bounce] was the most unique thing I’ve ever seen at a festival and something you’d only find at Bluedot”
Audio clips recorded by headliners Kraftwerk, New Order and Hot Chip were used in a moon bounce, a radio communications technique that reflects waves from the moon back to an Earth-based receiver.
Robinson says the Bluedot moon bounce was “the most unique thing I’ve ever seen at a festival and something you’d only find at Bluedot”, which fuses music, science and technology.
The festival received a one-off license extension to 5 a.m. on the Saturday, allowing organisers to projection map onto the telescope and broadcast radio clips in real time with the original moon landing fifty years before.
According to Robinson, the “niche electronic programming” and music/ science combination – scientific speakers such as astronaut Helen Sharman and wildlife documentary presenter and biologist Liz Bonnin shared the main stage along with musical acts – attracts a “more specific audience” than Kendal Calling.
“Kendal Calling really feels like a broad cross section of the northwest of the UK,” says the From the Fields co-director. “There’s something for everyone.”
Orbital, Nile Rodgers and Chic, Manic Street Preachers, Doves, Courteeners and Tom Jones were among those playing the main stage over the weekend at Kendal Calling. Bristol punk rock band Idles were joined on stage by rapper Slowthai in a “truly unique” collaboration.
“There’s a real sense of community at both Bluedot and Kendal, and that makes people feel safe”
Despite their differences, both festivals provide a family-friendly environment, which Robinson puts down to “robust back of house services” and “good security and stewarding”.
“There’s a real sense of community at both Bluedot and Kendal, and that makes people feel safe,” says Robinson.
Both festivals have “landmark” years coming up in 2020, with Bluedot’s fifth anniversary and Kendal Calling’s 15th edition.
If this year’s Bluedot was about looking backwards at an iconic historical moment, says Robinson, next year’s festival will be a lot more future-facing. “The collaboration between music, science and tech gives ample opportunity to keep things fresh, as there are always new and exciting elements within those areas.”
Robinson describes the longevity of Kendal Calling as a “really bold achievement for us”, as the promoter confirms plans to continue the festival for the next ten years at least. Following “quite a muddy year”, the From the Fields co-director believes it is the right time to take a step back and look at “refreshing the site and design” in time for the festival’s anniversary.
Tickets for Bluedot 2020 are already available, with weekend camping priced at £168.75. Tickets for next year’s Kendal Calling go on sale on Friday at 10 am GMT.
Extinction Rebellion joins forces with Kendal Calling
Independent UK festival Kendal Calling has announced a unique collaboration with anti-climate change, civil disobedience campaign group Extinction Rebellion (XR).
The socio-political group has been staging protests in London since 15 April and met with British environment secretary Michael Gove yesterday (30 April).
The group will commandeer an area at the festival to raise awareness around climate change and species extinction, hosting in-depth talks, workshops, film screenings and yoga sessions.
Founded in 2006, this year’s Kendal Calling (25,000-capacity) will take place from 25 to 28 July in Lowther Deer park in the Lake District, a Unesco world heritage site. The theme for this year’s festival, Kendal Calling Goes Jurassic, ties into XR’s anti-extinction protest.
“We’re very happy that we had such a good turn out from our supporters in London and beyond, and connected with new rebels who created a wonderful friendly atmosphere,” says XR spokesperson Oli Nichols.
“To take our global message to a festival like Kendal Calling is a further extension of how we like to conduct ourselves, with good spirit, determination, and good intentions”
“To take our global message to a festival like Kendal Calling is a further extension of how we like to conduct ourselves, with good spirit, determination, and good intentions.
“Although we created disruption, the XR actions sparked imagination and further action around the climate emergency and all done with festival vibes, focused around positivity and hope, on all sites,” says Nichols.
The group hopes to make “deep and long-lasting connections” at the festival
In addition to the XR area, Kendal Calling’s programming includes art installations, comedy, cabaret, cinema and children’s activities.
The festival sees headline performances from disco group Nile Rodgers and Chic, as well as Manchester-based indie groups Doves and Courteeners. Miles Kane, the Pigeon Detectives, Idles and Manic Street Preachers are also among those on the bill.
Kendal Calling won the marketing campaign of the year award at the 2018 UK Festival Awards, following its 2016 best medium festival win.
Tickets for Kendal Calling can be found here.
The show must go on…
In Bohemian Rhapsody, the recent Queen biopic, we see Live Aid broadcast to 1.9 billion people. A moment in music history where the combined forces of music and events came together to try to change the world.
Fast-forward 30 years, and the power of music and events to bring people together and change their perspectives remains, and is at the heart of Energy Revolution, a charity set up by a collection of industry professionals with first-hand knowledge of running large-scale events in rural locations.
It started in 2015, when industry think tank Powerful Thinking laid out the environmental impacts of the UK festival industry and presented them at the COP21 climate change talks in Paris. The report was called the Show Must Go On (also, incidentally, the final track on Queen’s 1991 album Innuendo) and was a festival industry response to climate change, the current global issue facing the planet, and one that we all need to address in our lifetimes. The report showed that up to 80% of the average festival’s carbon footprint came from audience travel, which is where Energy Revolution’s mission was born.
There is no quick fix to the problem of climate change. Positive change must come from both practical action and perceptual shifts. Earlier this year, a single episode of the BBC’s Blue Planet caused a shift in perception so drastic that social media feeds are still brimming with ways to avoid single-use plastic. What an epic sign that change can come quickly when the message is clear and powerful.
Energy Revolution works with over 40 UK festivals, their audiences, suppliers, and artists, to help them understand the practical impacts of their travel choices. We help event organisers engage audiences and encourage them to consider more sustainable travel methods – and people are more engaged than ever.
In the words of Freddie, “the show must go on” – and for that to happen, we need to have a healthy planet for the show to be on
But let’s be honest: most festivals happen in fields or remote locations, and there is little chance that touring headline artists will fit their show production into the boot of a Tesla. In accepting this reality, Energy Revolution calculates impacts from travel by measuring and recording fossil fuel miles, calculating the associated CO2, and then balancing unavoidable emissions via donations that we then invest in projects that create clean renewable energy.
One hundred percent of all donations go to the projects, which have so far included reforestation, wind turbines, and community-owned solar and wind projects. So far, Energy Revolution has balanced over 7.8 million average car miles, that’s the equivalent of 2.5 million kg CO2e. It’s a bold start, but the real power in the project is the framework we’ve created that means all events, venues, gig-goers, crew, and artists can educate themselves on the true impacts of travel emissions, and actively balance that impact in a direct, practical and positive way.
Times change: Bohemian Rhapsody shows Bob Geldof expressing the plight of the African continent and rallying for £1 million (£2.2m in today’s climate). That’s around what one artist of equivalent stature might get for a single show today, and in the region of what Glastonbury donates each year to charity. Charity is also at a point where the perception change required is one that drops ‘Do They Know it’s Christmas?’ from its vocabulary, and instead empowers the communities they help.
Today, the greatest threat to humanity is climate change. We need to utilise the power of music and events to change perceptions and encourage practical action. We have reach through our audiences. Just as our industry has developed standards in health and safety, disability access and hearing protection, we also need to have sustainability on the tips of our tongues.
Kendal Calling, Boomtown, Download, Reading, Shambala, Bluedot are already on board, and I implore anyone reading this to get on-board, too, and to help spread the word. In the words of Freddie, “the show must go on” – and for that to happen, we need to have a healthy planet for the show to be on.
Support for festival drug testing grows in UK
Respected UK charity the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) has called for drug-testing facilities, such as those trialled at Kendal Calling and Secret Garden Party last summer, to be made standard at all music festivals “where drug use is common”.
In a new report, Drug safety testing at festivals and night clubs, released this morning, RSPH says the move, “which is backed by 95% of festival-goers, [would] help minimise the risk of serious health harm as a result of recreational drug use”.
Secret Garden Party became last July became the first British festival to give attendees the chance to test the content of their drugs without fear of recrimination, with Kendal Calling following a week later. Jon Drape, whose Ground Control Productions company works with Kendal Calling, told IQ at the time drug testing is a “no-brainer”, adding around a quarter of those who tested their drugs opted to bin them after discovering their content.
RSPH’s own data suggests a similar figure of almost one in five (18%).
Drug testing at both festivals was undertaken in partnership with nonprofit The Loop, which will also introduce the testing – officially ‘multi-agency safety testing’ (MAST) – at several Festival Republic events this summer, including Reading and Leeds.
“If drug users can be reasonably sure of what they are actually taking, they will be better placed to make informed decisions about if and how to take these substances”
MAST, or a local variant thereof, is already commonplace in continental Europe, including the Netherlands, Austria and Spain. Efforts to introduce drug testing in Australia have been frustrated by local government and police, with festival promoters in New South Wales told they could face prosecution for drug supply.
According to RSPH, the need for pill testing at festivals has become more acute with the rise in strength of the average ecstasy pill. As reported by IQ last May, MDMA use is on the rise across Europe, with a simultaneous increase in the availability of high-MDMA pills and powdered and crystal forms of the drug.
“Given that a large degree of health harm associated with ‘club drugs’ stems from user ignorance of the exact strength and content of pills and powders of uncertain provenance, any measures that increase our knowledge base can be expected to have a positive effect on reducing harm – especially if the provision of such information creates an opportunity to impart information on safer behaviours and risk reduction to the key target population,” reads the RSPH report.
“If drug users can be reasonably sure of what they are actually taking, then they will be better placed to make informed decisions about if and how to take these substances, and so are less likely to have an adverse reaction or overdose as a result.”
MAST, therefore, says RSPH, is a “pragmatic harm reduction measure” which should “become a standard feature of places where drug use is prevalent, such as city-centre nightlife areas and festivals.”
‘First virtual festival’ Kendal Calling sells out
Independent UK festival Kendal Calling, returning for its 12th outing in the last weekend of July, is celebrating its fastest-ever sell-out after having sold all 25,000 tickets in just over a week.
Festival co-founder Ben Robinson says: “The team are truly humbled by the reaction to this year’s line-up, and we’d like to thank everyone who has bought tickets to make this our 12th successive sell-out. We’ll be keeping our heads down over the next six months, working hard to make this the best festival possible.”
The 2017 event has a six-headliner bill featuring Stereophonics, Manic Street Preachers, Franz Ferdinand, Brian Wilson (performing Pet Sounds), Tinie Tempah and Frank Turner, with Editors, Slaves, The Coral and Jake Bugg also confirmed to be performing.
“We are truly humbled by the reaction to this year’s line-up”
Kendall Calling, held in Lowther Deer Park, in the Lake District, has also announced it is the “first festival to go virtual” in Google Maps.
The web mapping platform, known primarily for its street maps and route-planning service (and for capturing Liam Gallagher drinking in Camden), has captured the entire festival grounds, “allowing festival fans who missed out on tickets to take a simulated walk around the site”.
Take a stroll around Kendal Calling 2016 by visiting www.kendalcalling.co.uk/virtual-tour.
Festival Focus: BST, Sziget, EDC Japan, Sasquatch
With the 2017 festival season fast approaching and many events close to finalising this year’s line-ups, there’s a lot to fit in the first festival round-up of the year.
With that in mind, we’ve introduced a new, slimmed-down Festival Focus for the new year to ensure we cover as much news as possible, keeping you abreast of all the latest developments in the festival world with the minimum of waffle.
So, without further ado, read on for all the latest festival announcements (headliners are in bold) – and if we’ve missed something, or you’d like to see your event featured in a future Festival Focus, drop news editor Jon Chapple a line at email@example.com.
New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (Jazz & Heritage Foundation, US, 28 April–7 May 2017)
Stevie Wonder, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Maroon 5, Dave Matthews/Tim Reynolds, Kings of Leon, Usher/The Roots, Harry Connick Jnr, Meghan Trainor, Lorde, Snoop Dogg, Alabama Shakes, Pitbull, etc. (Stevie Wonder photo by Thomas Hawk)
EDC Japan (Creativeman/Insomniac, Japan, 29–30 April 2017)
Afrojack, Armin van Buuren, Axwell Λ Ingrosso, Fatboy Slim, Kaskade, Martin Garrix, Sander Van Doorn, Yellow Claw, Zedd, etc.
Sasquatch! Music Festival (Live Nation/Adam Zachs, US, 26–28 May 2017)
Twenty One Pilots, Frank Ocean, Chance the Rapper, The Head and the Heart, The Shins, MGMT, Phantogram, Mac Miller, Bonobo, etc. (Twenty One Pilots photo by Clark Terrell/Do512)
Bunbury Music Festival (PromoFest, US, 2–4 June 2017)
Muse, Wiz Khalifa, G-Eazy, Bassnectar, Pretty Lights, The 1975, Thirty Seconds to Mars, Death Cab for Cutie, The Shins, etc.
Isle of Wight Festival (Solo, UK, 8–11 June 2017)
Catfish and the Bottlemen, The Vamps, Clean Bandit, Zara Larsson, The Strypes, The Second Sons, The Amazons, The Novatones, Judas, Germein Sisters
NorthSide (FKP Scorpio Nordic/MKS 64/Down the Drain, Denmark, 9–11 June 2017)
The Prodigy, Richard Ashcroft, Agnes Obel, When Saints Go Machine, Peter Sommer/Tiggerne
Parklife (Parklife Manchester Ltd, UK, 10–11 June 2017)
The 1975, Frank Ocean, Boy Better Know, A Tribe Called Quest, Jess Glyne, Two Door Cinema Club, Fatboy Slim, Carl Cox, Damian Marley, London Grammar, George Ezra, Flying Lotus, Chaka Khan, Eric Prydz, Above & Beyond, etc. (Frank Ocean photo by Andy Holmes/Pemberton Music Festival)
Roskilde Festival (Fonden Roskilde Festival, Denmark, 24 June–1 July 2017)
A Tribe Called Quest, Lorde, Against Me!, Gucci Mane, Bryson Tiller, Rag’n’Bone Man, Av Av Av, etc.
Rock Werchter (Live Nation Belgium, Belgium, 29 June–2 July 2017)
The Chainsmokers, Royal Blood, Bazart, Bonobo, White Lies, Agnes Obel
British Summer Time (AEG Live, UK, 30 June–9 July 2017)
The Killers (exclusive), Elbow, Tears for Fears, White Lies
Bilbao BBK Live (Last Tour, Spain, 6–8 July 2017)
Royal Blood, Brian Wilson, Explosions in The Sky, Joe Goddard, Idles, Aterciopelados, Los Punsetes, Zazkel
Trnsmt (DF Concerts, UK, 7–9 July 2017)
Radiohead, Kasabian, Biffy Clyro, Belle and Sebastian, Catfish and the Bottlemen, The 1975, London Grammar, George Ezra, The 1975, London Grammar, etc.
Festival Internacional de Benicàssim (Maraworld, Spain, 13–16 July 2017)
Kasabian, Liam Gallagher, Ride, Blossoms, Bonobo, Tyler the Creator, Slaves, Surfin’ Bichos, Mourn
Kendal Calling (From the Fields, UK, 27–30 July 2017)
Stereophonics, Manic Street Preachers, Franz Ferdinand, Brian Wilson, Tinie Tempah, Frank Turner and The Sleeping Souls, Jake Bugg, Seasick Steve, Editors, Slaves, Lethal Bizzle, The Coral, Kate Nash, etc.
Sziget (Sziget Cultural Management, Hungary, 9–16 August 2017)
Kasabian, Billy Talent, Jamie Cullum, The Kills, Clean Bandit, Metronomy, Interpol, The Pretty Reckless, Jagwar Ma, Charli XCX, Crystal Fighters, Flume, etc.
Reading Festival/Leeds Festival (Festival Republic, UK, 25–27 August 2017)
Kasabian, Two Door Cinema Club, Flume, Fatboy Slim, Wiley, Circa Waves, Jimmy Eat World, The Amity Affliction, Rat Boy (Kasabian photo by Lotus @ Lollapalooza Chile)
Pill testing: the cure for music’s drug problem?
The issue of drug deaths at dance music festivals was thrust once again into the spotlight this week following a spate of misfortunes for the Hard Summer event in California.
First, relatives of a 19-year-old woman, Katie Dix, who died after taking designer drugs (‘bath salts’) sold as ecstasy at the 2015 festival – one of two fatalities, along with 18-year-old Tracy Nguyen, who died from MDMA “intoxication” – announced they are suing promoter Live Nation for “turning a blind eye to the known risks” of drugs “in order to capitalise on teenagers and young adults who believed they were attending a safe party environment.”
Then news broke that three young people (Derek Lee, 22, Alyssa Dominguez, 21, and Roxanne Ngo, 22) had died at Hard Summer 2016 last weekend, held in the city of Fontana for the first time after being forced out of Los Angeles following the deaths of Dix and Nguyen. Although Hard published a long list of safety precautions prior to the event – and, it should be noted, the causes of death are still undetermined – the fatalities are likely to spark further discussion about what more can be done by festival promoters to keep patrons safe at their events.
While banning drugs at EDM events is a good first step, it’s fast becoming clear that a more radical approach beyond prohibition is needed if the industry is to tackle its growing drug problem
Representatives of a number of major electronic dance music (EDM) festivals, as well as a spokeswoman for Amsterdam Dance Event, were keen to highlight to IQ their events’ zero-tolerance drug policies. However, while banning drugs at such events is a good first step, with close to 30 deaths at EDM festivals since May 2015 others believe that a more radical approach beyond simple prohibition is needed if the industry is to effectively tackle its growing drug problem.
At the Ibiza International Music Summit (IMS) in May, ‘The Future of Our Industry’ panel discussed just that, and the delegates’ consensus was that promoters should work with governments to focus on harm reduction in addition to enforcing drug laws. CAA agent Maria May criticised what she sees as a “double standard” towards drugs in EDM, which she acknowledges are “part of our culture”, and said she’d like to see an “industry standard for things like crowd control, free water and cool-down areas. I’d like to know that if I’m going to a club there are some measures in place for if people get into trouble.”
Tommy Vaudecrane, production director of the Paris Techno Parade festival, blasted France’s “terrible drug policy” and called for a “more mature approach” to preventing drug deaths, including facilitating the testing of drugs to ensure they don’t contain any potentially fatal adulterants. “We don’t have any testing at events,” he explained, [and] you have to be careful in what you say, because if you give information about a specific drug you can be [prosecuted] for inciting people to take it.”
Front-of-house drug, or pill, testing is already in force at events in the Netherlands, Austria and Spain, explains Jon Drape, managing director of Ground Control Productions, whose clients include the Parklife Weekender, Kendal Calling, Live from Jodrell Bank, Lollibop, Festival №6, The Warehouse Project and Snowbombing, and is a “no-brainer” for dance music events serious about minimising the risk of drug-related deaths, he tells IQ.
“I’d like to know that if I’m going to a club there are some measures in place for if people get into trouble”
“Unfortunately, I’ve had to deal with the aftermath and effect of having a drugs fatality” – there were two deaths from PMA-laced ecstasy in 2015 at The Warehouse Project – “and all you want to do is make sure it never happens again,” he says. “I’m sure everyone in the industry will be looking at it [pill testing].”
Kendal Calling, which took place last weekend, was one of two festivals to introduce pill testing this year, following a similar trial a week earlier at Cambridgeshire’s Secret Garden Party (SGP). Both festivals, with the full cooperation of local police forces and public health authorities, partnered with drugs charity The Loop to allow festivalgoers to test drugs at the gate to establish their content.
“We’ve been working for six or seven years with [The Loop co-director] Professor [Fiona] Measham, who has been researching the use of illegal drugs for three decades,” Drape continues. “We started by interviewing festivalgoers about what they consumed, and also did some testing of urine samples to see what drugs they had consumed. It gave us an interesting picture about what festivalgoers were up to, but didn’t give us any way to reduce risk.”
Drape says around 25% of those who tested their drugs at both Kendal Calling and Secret Garden Party opted to bin them after discovering their content. There were 80 “substances of concern” discovered at SGP, including extremely high-strength ecstasy, ‘ketamine’ that was actually an antimalarial and ammonium sulphate – used as a soil fertiliser and insecticide – sold as MDMA.
“Drugs will get onto the site, so it’s our responsibility to make sure people remain safe”
“Drugs will get onto the site, so it’s our responsibility to make sure people remain safe,” says Drape, who adds he’d like to see a similar system introduced at dance music-focused Parklife.
Prof Measham says its Multi Agency Safety Testing (MAST) can “help people make informed choices, raising awareness of dangerous substances in circulation and reducing the chance of drug-related problems occurring” and describes it as “an important innovation that we know can reduce risks and potentially save lives.”
She adds that “other countries in Europe have had testing services like this at events for years; the UK is just catching up, and we are pleased to be part of that evolutionary process”.
While pill testing is, as Prof Measham says, well established in much of Europe and gaining ground in Britain, groups pushing for similar schemes in other major touring and festival markets – notably North America and Australasia – have run into stiff opposition.
“Other countries in Europe have had testing services like this at events for years. The UK is just catching up, and we are pleased to be part of that evolutionary process”
Melissa ‘Missi’ Wooldridge, the director of Denver-based charity DanceSafe, estimates that her organisation tests drugs at fewer than ten US festivals each year (with Backwoods in Oklahoma one of the notable exceptions), and Insomniac CEO Pasquale Rotellas said in his Reddit AMA that it is unlikely to change any time soon: “Unfortunately some people view partnering with DanceSafe as endorsing drug use rather than keeping people safe, and that can prevent producers from getting locations and organising events.
In Australia, meanwhile, the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation is risking prosecution by pushing ahead with plans to introduce pill testing at a number of upcoming Sydney festivals, despite the New South Welsh government declaring the project to be illegal.
In addition to its testing advocacy, DanceSafe is currently lobbying for the scrapping of the US Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act (formerly the Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy, or RAVE, Act), which it says dissuades many event promoters from providing “basic safety measures (ie free water, cool-down space, drug education materials, even the presence of DanceSafe!)” for fear that their presence “prove[s] that they know drug use is present, and make them vulnerable to prosecution”.
Speaking at IMS, Mark Lawrence, CEO of the Association for Electronic Music (AFEM), says a priority for his organisation is to “lobby for change in the legal and political environment for promoters to raise the level of harm reduction they can publicly achieve”. “For the first time in the two years I’ve been at the association, everybody has realised that poor standards of harm reduction and lack of ability for promoters to be open about drug testing or education impacts the entire industry,” he commented.
“I think we need to show drug use exists, and it’s a problem, but that it’s not linked to music or culture – it’s linked to government policy”
There is, of course, no silver bullet – pill testing included – to stop drug deaths at live music events: a significant minority of festivalgoers, especially those at EDM events, are always going to take drugs, and everyone reacts differently to their effects. But pushing for positive change at a governmental level and fostering a culture of openness between promoters, patrons and police and local authorities, as exemplified at Kendal Calling and SGP, is a start.
“I think we need to show [drug use] exists, and it’s a problem, but that it’s not linked to music or culture – it’s linked to government policy,” said Vaudecrane.
“We need to work with organisations to set up a global electronic music policy that includes harm reduction, by saying, ‘Yes, we have drugs, here’s how you take them if you’re going to take them’, and warning people: ‘This is a bad product, don’t take it.'”