The UK Festival Awards & Conference 2014

UK: Following a record-breaking response and an impossible level of caffeine intake on our part, the sold-out UK Festival Awards and Conference respectively celebrated and incisively analysed the state of the UK festival industry, with only a couple of snafus along the way. And I’m grateful for said snafus, because I just got to use the word ‘snafu’ three times in the space of two sentences.

In spite of some technical hiccups involving onstage monitoring and fickle microphones, the Conference sessions managed to provoke comprehensive and engaging discussion on various issues pertinent to the industry.

The Pills, Thrills & Keeping the Punters Safe panel – whose purpose was to discuss methods of harm reduction and the suppression of criminal elements at festivals – kicked off the proceedings. Richard Church, Showsec’s Regional Manager for the Midlands, asserted that “Now is the time for the police to hand over peripheral duties to security firms [at festivals]”. Intelligence, Investigation & Security Consultant Cameron Addicott ostensibly concurred, adding that “Sharing information [between security and police] is a good thing, but it has to be a two-way street’.

Durham University’s Professor Fiona Measham revealed research pertaining to the proliferation of legal highs, the purity of various illicit substances, and the most popular narcotics at both dance clubs and festivals. In the latter case, MDMA was – perhaps unsurprisingly – believed to be the most widespread in both spheres, supposedly accounting for 29% of all drug usage in dance clubs (excluding alcohol), and 22% at festivals. The purity of ecstasy pills was purported to have increased by a factor of five in half a decade, posing additional challenges for security and medics on-site as festival-goers are unknowingly putting themselves at increased risk.

Concurrent with this trend, in the last year there have been approximately 80 new varieties of ‘New Psychoactive Substances’ – colloquially referred to as ‘legal highs’ – many of which have associated dangers that exceed their illegal counterpoints. Measham commented that “Pharmacologically, festival-goers do not know what they’re getting”. The most viable prevention strategy for drug dealing and organised crime is a combination of “information sharing and covert operations”, according to Church.

The Fat Bottom Line panel comprised a debate on how to make the most of lucrative secondary revenue streams, touching upon cashless RFID systems, VIP camping, and cultivating year-round communities in order to foster brand loyalty and boost merchandise sales. Jon Sprank of iZettle’s assertion that onsite card payment facilities caused a 30% boost in sales was indirectly expanded upon by James Cobb of Crowd Connected in the following panel, who stated that “the time for a fully cashless festival is now”.

Data driven

Multiple speakers on the Disruptive Innovation panel agreed that connectivity issues – necessary for RFID systems and social media initiatives to function – would hopefully be solved within the next three years. Optimistic maybe, but with the exponential acceleration of technological advancement then who knows? In three years we could be living in a retro-futuristic dystopia in which cybernetic augmentation and the hegemony of faceless interplanetary giga-corporations has altered the human condition beyond the comprehension of individuals existing in a pre-singularity milieu. So yeah, we could have festivals all connected and stuff around then.

Attempting to prevent this kind of bleak post-apocalyptic future was the Powerful Thinking panel, discussing ways in which the festival industry can curb the ever-present threat of climate change, whether that takes the form of lobbying for legislative change or somehow incentivising a reduction in carbon emissions of their audiences. Melvin Benn (Festival Republic) and Katie Maddison (Bestival) disagreed on the impetus for this sort of change, and whether it originates from their audiences or not. Benn opposed the notion that it did, although this disagreement may have stemmed from the fairly sizeable differences in the demographics their respective festivals attract.

Powerful Thinking

Following a drinks reception and a pretty banging sit-down dinner, Huey Morgan took to the stage to host the Awards ceremony. Facilitated by an open bar, the atmosphere was jovial, convivial, insouciant, and other ridiculous synonyms for ‘friendly’ and ‘carefree’. Although maybe that was just my interpretation because I wasn’t up for an award and was more preoccupied with getting white-girl-wasted on complimentary cold ones.

Highlights of the Awards included Pete Doherty sending a video acceptance speech for the Libertines’ Headline Performance of the Year accolade, Rob Da Bank being presented with the Outstanding Contribution to Festivals award from his hero Michael Eavis, and said hero’s nifty and entirely incongruous shorts. Michael Eavis himself – along with his daughter Emily – accepted Glastonbury’s award for Best Major Festival.

We Are FSTVL – whose name Morgan failed to pronounce properly – took home the award for Best Medium Festival, and V Festival were granted the prestigious designation of ‘Best Toilets’. The organisers of Live at Leeds were at my table, so shouts out to those guys for winning Best Metropolitan Festival.

The entire list of winners, as well as a full photo gallery of the UK Festival Festival Awards and Conference can be viewed here.

Header photo credit: Patrick McCumiskey
All other photos by Sara Bowrey and Pete Corkhill