Grey skies, muddy fields and an incredibly expensive hangover. Did this weekend’s Beacons Festival live up to it’s pre-match hype and prove a worthy successor to the critically acclaimed Moorfest? Or did it sink without trace beneath a muddy Skipton field?
In many ways I have been dreading writing this review since my arrival at the site of Beacons Festival 2012 on Friday, a short hop from the North Yorkshire town of Skipton. Under normal circumstances this would arise from knowing that another great event was over and that I would be home again, scraping mud from my boots and wishing for the crowds to re-assemble for just one more midnight singalong. Not so with this year’s Beacons. Never have I been so glad to be away from an event.
It is genuinely hard for me to write a negative review of any festival. Usually there is some endearing quality which could make up for any shortcomings, but having sat staring at a blinking cursor for several hours this morning I am still struggling to find the positives in what was unashamedly a cash-cow event. Beacons 2012 was designed it seemed to cover the losses from last year’s cancelled festival with a tokenistic and disjointed peek at the great Northern music scene presented almost as an afterthought.
Arrival at the site gave me my first glimpse of just how badly organised this festival was to prove. Having been dropped off in a taxi at the designated area I was informed by the stewards that they had absolutely no idea where I was to go to pick up my pass, and no practical way of finding out. The best advice they could muster was a mile long walk down a narrow country lane to the other end of the site (whilst helpfully informing me how dangerous the local drivers had proven to be on this route) and asking that should I be hit by a car, I would promise not to sue the organisers. As I will explain in more detail later, this festival had the feeling from this point onwards of being a potential death trap; public safety seemingly low down on the organisational list of priorities.
Having finally gained entry to the clearly porous perimeter I crossed a field to set up camp and came across a closed cafe with a sign proclaiming ‘Cafe will not be opening due to festival mis-management’. This was an ominous sight, and worse was yet to come.
The site itself was divided into a camping area and an ‘arena’ where the marquee based stages formed a ring around a vast and mostly empty central area. The stages played a mix of music and an attempt to cater for all tastes was evident, though the line-up was for the most part relatively obscure and so many just wandered until they found something they liked. In the centre of this arena was a huge and welcoming tea tent with attached dressing up space and the official merchandising area. This was where I was to find possibly the most outrageously inappropriate piece of festival merchandise I have seen in many years of mud-fuelled adventures.
A t-shirt on sale at the Village Bookstall for ÃÂ£10 bore an image of Rihanna (a high profile victim of domestic violence) with the legend ‘I’d hit that’ underneath and an image of her assailant, Chris Brown, on the back. When I first sighted this a small crowd had formed around the stall imploring the vendors to take the t-shirt off sale due to the offence it was causing at the allegedly family-friendly festival. The response they got was that the shirt had been made by the suppliers who made the official merchandise and so they were obliged to keep it on sale. Showing a complete disregard to the feelings of those protesting its presence, the objectors were told that they welcome to buy a different t-shirt if they wished. I asked at the production office for a comment on this revelation that their officially sanctioned festival merchandise was apparently advocating domestic violence and the response I got was outwardly sympathetic, although the offending shirt remained on sale for the entire weekend.
Lucrative exclusive vending deals were in evidence throughout the site and this (added to the shocking scarcity of even the most basic facilities for sanitary hygiene) was a clear contributor to what could be described as a miserable overall atmosphere. The evidence that this festival was nothing more than an event designed to extract as much money from punters as was possible in a short space of time was all pervasive, and at its most visible on the entrances to the arena. Security guards (who were in notably short supply for such a large site) frisked those entering the arena with a fervish vigour worthy of Stalin on the hunt for contraband alcohol. This searching was, by their own admission, to protect the financial interests of the bar companies who had paid a high premium for their exclusive pitch. In their thoroughness to protect the interests only of those who had paid for the privilege however they apparently turned a blind eye to the equivalent of Columbia’s GDP that was rapidly disappearing up the great and good noses of the hipster scene, and on several occasions I watched these same security guards joining in.
This was the first time that I have been at such a large event and had genuine concerns for my safety and that of those around me. The few emergency exits that did exist were often located behind bolted fences and in an emergency would have attempted to squeeze 5000 people single file across a plank of wood placed across a beck and back into the campsite. The campsite itself seemed to have little in the way of fire safety provision and eventually became so overcrowded that latecomers were forced to set up their tents in the car park amongst the vehicles. And then of course were the aforementioned lack of sanitary facilities.
In the arena itself, there appeared to be no obvious water points despite there being a legal obligation to provide drinking water at licensed venues. A little digging amongst some of the site services crew revealed that this was to favour the vendors who were selling bottled water at a premium. On the campsite the water points were scarce and poorly signposted. Should anybody have attempted to bring a bottle of water into the arena they would have found it removed from their pocket and slung into a bin at the security checkpoint.
The toilet provision at this festival was the worst I have ever seen at any event, large or small. There has been much talk in the past few weeks about the lack of available facilities due to the demands of the Olympics, but this was known well in advance and should have been considered long before the weekend itself. On Saturday signs began to appear on the overflowing facilities that did exist proclaiming that more were on their way. By the close of the weekend this had still not been adequately sorted out. Those who faced large queues for such unhygienic facilities (with little opportunity to wash their hands afterwards) would have been interested to note a key hanging around the necks of the top-level production staff who had ensured that they had ensured a pristine facility for themselves (by keeping it locked at all times), whilst sending out messages to everyone else, staff and punter alike, that they “understood” the problems and were dealing with it as a matter of urgency. Had they been forced to handle the same conditions as those who were paying their wages, I suspect they may have attempted to resolve the situation with a little more urgency.
I am aware that I am putting very little focus on the bands in this review. This is a deliberate omission as I really wouldn’t want to associate any of their names with this event for fear of this having a negative impact on their careers. It is worth stating that most of the bands I saw during the course of the weekend were excellent, and they alone provided what little positive atmosphere there was. I will also say in suitably cryptic form that the highlight of the weekend for myself was a band who will be headlining the BBC Introducing stage at next weekends Reading and Leeds fests. I would encourage people to do a little research and head over to catch them if they are attending. The bands on offer were the single positive aspect of this event – given the way that everything else had been organised I was half expecting Paul McCartney to appear and give Hey Jude a second crack. It is also worth mentioning that despite some awesome performances, many of the bands that I spoke to throughout the weekend told me of the difficulty they were having in actually being paid their prearranged fees by the festival management.
Anybody mounting a defence of the organisation of this event might try to state that this was a first attempt, and that any teething problems would be put right by next summer (though I sincerely believe that having likely recouped the costs of the cancelled event last year they may choose to take the money and run). This might be a valid argument were it not for the fact that Beacons shares much of the same production crew of its predecessor, Moorfest – this being the festival that made it into NME’s top 30 festivals and also The Guardian’s “top ten festivals to visit in 2009″. One of the organisers is also the man behind Leeds’ A Nation Of Shopkeepers – a venue notable for its attention to detail and unerring ability to gauge the needs and desires of the scene in which it exists. There is always a temptation to blame organisational failings on the weather, but with muddy festivals being a mainstay of the British summer experience, organisers of any outdoor event should be well aware ofÃÂ this and plan ahead accordingly.
People’s perception of any event will always vary, and many (especially first-time festival goers) will come away from Beacons with fond memories. By transplanting an existing Leeds-based group to a field in the height of the summer holidays, there is at least the guarantee that you will have familiar folk around you to share the weekend with. My final thought for anyone who wants to see what a real, independent festival should look like would be to travel a few miles down the road to Beat-Herder or a little further still to the award winning Kendal Calling, and then look at this festival again with an enlightened set of eyes.