In Conversation with Sacha and Jon from Parklife

Photo credit: Daniel Watson

Parklife will return to Manchester’s Heaton Park from June 10 – 11, treating 80,000 revellers to sets from Frank Ocean, The 1975, Stormzy, Boy Better Know and many more across its two sold-out days.

Aside from a multitude of characteristically prescient bookings, this year’s edition has also been marked by its auspicious and cryptic marketing campaigns, further investment into production and hospitality, and sadly, increased security measures undertaken in response to the UK’s recent terror attacks.

Insights spoke with Ground Control Managing Director Jon Drape and Parklife organiser Sacha Lord about the festival’s logistical considerations, its approaches to both marketing and programming, and how to move forward following the tragic events of the past month.

Festival Insights: How has Parklife developed in this last year from a logistical and production standpoint? Were there any particularly significant lessons you learned from 2016’s event that you’re planning to apply this time?

Jon Drape: 2016 was a very smooth running show and it was our fourth in Heaton Park so we’ve learnt quite a few lessons over the years. But we don’t rest on our laurels, and we’ve made some significant changes this year – particularly in the structures we use. We’ve commissioned and built a new tensile stage and audience roof, and swapped out some of our big tops with some of Arena Structures TDS’s – a Polygonal and a TFS 50.

We’ve also invested in some brand new décor, site dressing and set pieces from Decordia.

FI: Ground Control works on several high-profile festivals, from Kendal Calling to Snowbombing. How does Parklife differ in terms of the challenges it presents?

JD: It’s the audience size and it being a ‘metropolitan show’.

Running 12 stages is quite straightforward! But getting 80,000 people in and out of a site safely and efficiently is the challenge. But with the partnership working with Greater Manchester Police, Transport for Greater Manchester and our contractors Showsec & SEP, along with some very detailed planning, we have a plan that works.

FI: Harm reduction organisation The Loop received a UK Festival Award a few years ago for its pioneering drug testing operation conducted at Parklife. Is this collaboration continuing in 2017, and if so has it evolved at all?

JD: Absolutely, the use of drugs is the biggest threat to life at most music festivals, and we work very hard on a whole host of measures to mitigate the threat. The Loop are a very important part of the mix along with our medical team. We’re not introducing MAST testing just yet at Parklife but watch this space for 2018.

FI: Metropolitan festivals always have to consider the effect they have on their surrounding communities, and Parklife established a Community Impact Taskforce in 2015 to minimise its own footprint. Is this still an ongoing initiative? Has it developed in its methods and concerns at all since it was established?

JD: You can’t run a show the size of Parklife without community impact. The introduction of the Taskforce was a step change, and is something that is constantly evolving and improving. Having a separate control centre outside the site, with its own security, cleansing, toilet, noise management and traffic management teams supported by taxi, street trading and parking enforcement teams with a separate GMP presence has been extremely effective and welcomed by local residents.

Last year we introduced the Parkife Community Trust Fund where we raise funds at the festival which are distributed to local community groups and organisations.

FI: This year’s line-up has a number of acts that are beloved but not too ubiquitous, from Anderson .Paak to Frank Ocean and Flying Lotus. Were there any genres you wanted to see represented more on the bill this time around, and is there anyone you’re personally excited about seeing?

Sacha Lord: Well it’s not so much about what we want to see as much as it is what the kids want to see. The hot music when we started Parklife in 2010 was completely different; most people hadn’t heard about grime and now Stormzy is one of the biggest acts in the country, if not the world. We’re always keeping our finger on the pulse of what’s coming next, and have started looking at acts for 2018.

In terms of who I’m looking forward to seeing myself, and this will probably make me sound old, but Chaka Khan. Definitely Frank Ocean too; I’ve seen what he has planned it’s really fantastic.

Thing is, when you have 80,000 people partying on your site you tend not to have a lot of free time to see acts. Unfortunately you have responsibilities, so I spend most of the day in event control, biting my fingernails.

FI: Before any acts were announced for 2017, Parklife took out a numbers of billboards around Manchester depicting a solitary pair of Nikes, which strongly alluded to Frank Ocean being one of your headliners. From my perspective it seemed like a really effective and iconic marketing campaign, so I’m wondering whether you felt that bold and cryptic approach succeeded, and whether you’ll be employing more unorthodox marketing tactics in future.

SL: Well we always do things like that. Unlike the big corporates that go bang and just put the whole line-up out there, we like to tease and play with customers. Quite a few people got the Nike trainers reference, but just as many didn’t. However those who did get it felt very inclined to talk about it.

We’re always looking at pulling different stunts. At the Manchester Derby a few weeks ago, all I was seeing was ‘Wenger out’. As a United supporter I know it’d benefit us to keep Wenger in, so I bought the domain ‘’, had it redirect to Parklife’s site, and paid for a plane to circle over the stadium with the URL in tow.

FI: Your Return to New York VIP section seems to have expanded the festival’s hospitality offerings for 2017. Could you run us through what the space is all about?

SL: Sure. Parklife has grown rapidly, more so than anyone expected. We were a one-day, 20,000 capacity event when we started, and now we’ve sold out two days at 80,000. Last year was very good in the VIP, aside from the rain. Previous to that we’d never quite nailed the VIP and I was always very disappointed by that. This year, weather permitting, it will be the first year we’ve got it 100% right.

There will be a big difference between the customer experience in the main arena versus the hospitality area, not just because of nicer toilet facilities, for example, but in the much better food offering and an old school games arcade.

The full-on party happens in the main arena, but the VIP area is a place to relax with a proper cocktail in-hand. We’ve spent a lot of money on the area this time and it’s resulted in a real New York feel that I’m sure our attendees will love.

FI: Which sponsors are you working with this year, and closely do you liaise with them in determining what form their activations will take onsite?

SL: We work extremely closely with them, we’re very hands-on. We’ve been working alongside our partners for six months on this edition.

Sometimes it’s difficult. I understand that sponsors want their money’s worth and their inclination is to have their branding on everything. We understand that our customers don’t necessarily want that though, and so it’s about finding a balance.

We’ve used a different company this year for sponsorship. It’s been an interesting year for sure, and we’ve been able to achieve things we couldn’t previously.

FI: Mitigating the threat of terrorism is a more pertinent issue than ever for the live events industry, for obvious reasons. Occuring in such close proximity to one of the UK’s recent tragedies, I imagine it must be nerve-wracking to run a high-profile festival right now. Are there any additional security measures you’ll be taking this year?

SL: Of course, and we can’t ignore this. We’ve had endless meetings with counterrorism specialists, and as it turns out we were already doing everything they suggested. However we want to go beyond that. For example, there are talks of having concrete barriers installed on the perimetre of the park in an effort to prevent a car attack.

These atrocities have changed the club, gig and festival scenes forever. We’re dealing with a different monster now. It’s very sad when you want to put a party on and there have to be police with machine guns on the entrances – I mean what kind of time are we living in?

We have got something very nice planned as a tribute to the victims though. I would urge everybody to be at the main stage on the Saturday at 9pm, just before The 1975 go on.

Parklife Festival
Ground Control