Accreditation in a former mobile chlamydia screening unit disguised as a train carriage? A swimming pool under a roof supported by the ribs of an old boat? If the Wombles ran a festival, surely it would be on Wimbledon Common, but this is Lancashire’s Beat-Herder, a festival with a purpose to repurpose, and immerse their audience in…a laundrette?
We caught up co-founder, Nick Chambers to find out more about its development from the free party scene to regular sell out, with the audience experience at its heart from the beginning, as Chambers explains.
“If you took it way back when to like, the amoeba in the pool, I guess it was going camping in the woods with a cassette player with Dreadzone on one side and Zion Train on the other, or something close to that with six or eight people. Then the next time, some other people wanted to come. Literally from that point, I guess, we slowly had more people coming. When we started, in our late teens, we were all interested in design as well as our music. We were making geodesic domes, we were making tents, we were designing speakers, and that all amalgamated. At the time, the free party and illegal rave scene was a seat of the pants, by text message party that went live overnight and then dissipated. It was very DJ-centric, in a dark field or a dark place with a tarpaulin over a DJ, whereas what we were doing was looking outwards from that and trying to be all about the people that were coming and their experience. Not with an onus on doing what other people weren’t doing, but it just felt normal to do as much as we could for the people that were going to take the time to come and be at our event. So, we’d make sure we had a massive fire, we made sure we had a tea Urn and a little café, we had structures, we put lighting up. Then we got into making installations, for the sort of 20-year-old market, and things to play with, things to do, as opposed to either dancing or you’re sat in the dark, on the floor. We were trying to get more amenities there for people.”
After building what became the Toil Sound System, success and growth led to the realisation that things had to change.
“We ended up starting Beat-Herder mainly to keep going because basically the parties had got that big. At one point I remember being together and looking around, thinking it had got to a point where we don’t recognize the friend of a friend anymore. It got like maybe four or five degrees on it was their friends and someone else, which is fine, but it felt that it had gone far beyond the immediacy of friendship gfriend of a friend anymore. It got like maybe four or five degrees on it was their friends and sroups, if you like. It had gone to a scale where if we wanted to keep it safe for people and feasible to do without great risks then starting an event with a licence is the way forward. In 2006 Beat-Herder it became that, which was great because what we did was we brought together all the people that we would put events on with to run different stages and it brought everyone into the fold of being part of this event.”
Of course, steps into the real world take investment, which had to be earned, and a site, which had to be found.
“Our great epiphany was to get a catering trailer, to go to festivals, to work at them. We went to Download festival, grilled paninis all weekend and we raised enough money to pay for the mainstage at Beat-Herder.”
And the site?
“We spent the year looking around for a site to continue and, as last chance, we paid £35 for a three-inch square advert in a periodical called the Farmer’s Garden, which is about as obscure as you can get. In that little box,
all we did was put ‘Land required for wedding party’ and a phone number, and that was it.
“The number of calls that we got was unreal, every farmer in the region obviously rubbing their hands, thinking here’s an earner. And it was quite heart-breaking, we spent weeks over time visiting this farm, that farm but lot of them were on crazy hillsides, or on roads that you just thought, for ingress and egress, there’s no way to get people in and out, one overlooked some houses, it went on but the mummy bear porridge never existed. It was like, we’re never going to get this place, it was really disheartening.
“I think about maybe two weeks after we’d toured 100 farms over a couple of months, we got a call, it was out in Lancashire and I thought, well, that’s quite a way away. But it was bizarre because three of us were working on a plumbing job in Blackburn, so we were commuting that way every day, so we said we’ll call in on our way back. We did and it was at Dockber Farm. And [the landowner] John wanted us to use, for the party, the field which is now the camping field. But it had woodland, which was behind us and we said, What were you doing with the wood? “
It’s at this point where we should perhaps say simply that the price quoted for use of the chosen plot was probably over market rate and, we suspect, designed to be a little off-putting. But the price was agreed and paid there and then, so the great and good of the Yorkshire free party scene crossed the Pennines.
As well as developing their events skills, the 6 Beat-Herder founders had built careers in trades around the construction industry, coupling this with a hands-on approach to the site build is something that has stood them in good stead when it comes to building their event and the great relationship with their landlord.
“Whilst we were setting up the night in the woods, we were getting visited by different people, people that were there with the land. And I think when he’d seen us putting everything into making stuff and clearing out all the windfall branches to make a dance floor area or making a little firepit – basically, they’d seen the graft that we put in the hard work. The same way, doing the festival of 20 years on is when people see you putting that in, they reciprocate, it bounces round people. So where we’ve done that on site, they’ve let us put in a stone circle, they’ve helped us do it; we’ve made The Ring, which has got, I can’t remember the figure exactly, but I think it’s close to 80,000 tons of earth there to make that mound.”
We were wondering at this point, as you may be, about the whole ‘wedding party’ thing, and at what point the farmer realised that there wasn’t a wedding. The simple answer?
“I think when he saw the number of cars that were coming into his land”
So we move on, to growth and the look and feel of today’s Beat-Herder, which has expanded well beyond the stage in the woods to a multi-stage, multi-day event with camping.
“The festival is very much an extension of what we started with, and it’s remained true to that, as much as we could, it’s still the same, to give people a real break and I guess, let go in a way.”
Moving out of the free party scene, gaining a licence and a permanent site has had its advantages too, in terms of time, money and energy invested:
“We have the knowledge that you’re allowed to be doing what you’re doing, so you can put more time into things. Let’s take The Fortress, for example, when we when we initiated and conjured up that venue, there was an internal tug of war. It could have been an off the shelf venue, like the whole festival could be off the shelf. You can hire a marquee, you can hire the sound system, the lights and you’ve got the fundamentals of the venue. But what we’ve always tried to do and what we’ve done throughout the festival, at the turn of a corner, or even down a little tunnel or being stood on top of a car anywhere is to not just to use the bands or the DJ and the visuals to take people away, but we’re using the actual venue itself to put you into another place. That [immersive environment] helps people, it’s always theatrics to be in a wild, different environment… with flames coming out”.
With a site featuring a fortress, a stone circle, a small village in the woods, a swimming pool, a network of venues accessed through an underground tunnel, including a laundrette, we wonder about the inspiration behind the designs:
“It’s a diverse group, between the six of us, I did landscape gardening was a plumber, a painter and decorator, a joiner and an electrician. So that skill set gives us the ability to do anything.
“There’s a couple gone to University; I studied photographic art, but I also used to manage record shop, so that skill comes in as well as doing the landscape gardening.
“One of the ways that we do stuff, we do like trade work, we get involved in a lot of buildings and we do a lot of salvage. I keep talking about The Fortress because it’s easy and everything on that fortress has come out of skips.
“What we’ll do throughout a lot of the year is constantly collect and look, or someone will ring and say, ‘Guys, I’m due to do demolition on this building, we’re pulling out loads of bobbins or we’re pulling out loads of pieces of wood or something. [We end up] amassing, a particular material or something, and then we’ll go ‘Right, OK, we’ve got this, what can we do? “
“So, the laundrette, when you look at that, they’re all from scrap yards. But what you’ve got there, for five or ten quid each, is these washing machines that you’re building with. And when you finish with them you can go back to a scrap yard, and you can collect them for the next year.”
“You can go two ways: one way is ‘we want to build this, how do we do it?’ And the other sort of ethos says ‘Well, let’s get a lot of things, I look at it and think, what can we make out of this?’ And that’s the easier way because you’ve already collected what you need, you’ve already got that to hand. “
Of course, no festival is complete without a swimming pool, which was a secret that could never be kept for ever, the design for which came from the acquisition of the ribs of a ship’s hull around a decade earlier. Over half an hour into a conversation about Beat-Herder, this makes complete sense.
From tape players in the woods, through free parties to the current Beat-Herder, line up have obviously changed. We wonder who they no have in mind when booking.
“It’s a funny one because, Look a look at what we’ve done this year, you’ve got High, Alan Fitzpatrick and Kink in the woods, cutting edge producers, very now. But then on the main stage we’ve got Chic, The Wailers, Hot Chip; world class acts totally different and. It’s a tricky one because you’re booking for everybody, literally all ages.
“Sometimes it’s easier to think and look at it for each venue, that’s an easier way to get the recipe, but. Well, yeah, I guess the tricky decisions [are] the main stage, the headline acts. It’s quite odd, because lots of people say it does not matter about the music; you know, if you had an old, old 45 on repeat all weekend, we’d have a great time because it’s about going through the venues and exploring. The people that have been two, three, five, ten times know that they’re coming regardless because they know what we’re about, what we put on. Some people hold out and get it from the billing. I think if you look back over all the years of Beat-Herder it’s always had the mixture of the old and the new together. Sometimes that’s a hard thing to get across to agents. “
We wonder what proportion of tickets are sold to regulars, those people that ‘get it’ and book simply because it’s Beat-Herder.
“February, March, when we reveal the line-up, when the harshness of winter has hopefully passed and people are thinking of coming out, I think we’ve generally sold over 50% of the tickets, pretty much, which is strong. This year might be different, ‘22 was a massive anomaly, I don’t think anyone was starting from scratch with sales, so I think it’s going to be an interesting year.
“People are talking about the cost of living, and I understand that it’s going to be hard but at the same time, and I think this came [several] years ago when people were saying that people, haven’t got much money now. But then that ‘it’ll be okay’ voice in your head says that people might not be going abroad, so that leisure pound, if you like, is going to stay within the UK, and what better weekend to have than a festival? I don’t really feel too pessimistic about it.
“I’ve drawn on this for four years, but I think there’s almost like a tractor beam, like a gravity, to go to where people of similar mind are going to be. Perhaps strangers, but they’re enjoying what you are. And the draw of that for me feels as old as time, like a primordial want and a need to go and be with other people. More so from being in lockdown, that exacerbated that need to go out and I think this year more than last year it’s going to be much more so. I think maybe in 2022 people had got into a habit of not going out, even though you could. But I do think things will pick up [in] 2023, I’m very, very hopeful and optimistic about it.
“I do think we’re blessed, being fully independent with people wanting to come and generally bringing a friend. I don’t think we’re very business minded in that way, we keep an eye on it, and I can’t say it’s not driven by money because it’s vital to keep the festival progressing and existing. “
Back to the overseas trip vs. domestic tourism point, we wonder how festivals might be becoming part of our tourism landscape as well as our entertainment sector.
“I think a lot of people do that; I see that a lot. I do the social media [so] I’m fully immersed in people’s comments, I can get an indication and inclination of what people are doing and talking about. When we launch tickets at the beginning of October, I can see what people were saying to each other in there within the threads. ‘Oh, we should do this before we got to there. It’s my birthday or that weekend. Or we should do this for whatever occasion’. It’s not purely ‘this band’s playing, let’s go.
“Look at the strengths of what the UK has; obviously there’s engineering and science, but culture, in terms of the world looking at what goes on in fashion and music, plus festivals, it’s the world leader.”
Having visited Beat-Herder in 2022, it was more than apparent that this carefully crafted site stands out in our world class festival landscape, built by a team that has applied existing skills whilst acquiring and developing new ones over time. Hard work has met with good luck at times, that initial search for a site seems to have paid dividends with a landowner that trusts in some fairly ‘out there’ initiatives:
“Like I said, without the trust of the landowner to say ‘yeah, you could do that, put a church there, put a garage there, put a hotel California there, build a bar’. We’ve been really lucky, but I think people have looked at what we’ve done at our outlook on it, our ethos and the effort that we put in. We had DBN Audile doing the sound, they’ve always said, and this applies to the electricians and everyone, when they’ve seen us out there in the mud through ‘til two in the morning, that it really drives the crew there because they see they see that from us. We’re not having a coffee and asking people to work harder, we’re out there doing it, and I think it means a lot to people to see that. We’ve developed what we feel are logical ways to do stuff, how we feel the right way to do it is.”
We end where many Beat-Herder journeys begin, at accreditation:
“The accreditation train carriage? We got that for free, it was from somewhere within Bradford Council. It was actually a mobile chlamydia screening unit that they didn’t use anymore. And we converted into a train carriage for accreditation.”
We’re left pondering whether Mobile Chlamydia Screening Unit should be the name of a band that we’ll never get around to forming or just an album that we’ll never make. Readers will be pleased to hear that the presence of a church within the current Beat-Herder set up has led to a few unofficial on-site weddings, thus honouring the original advertisement in the farming press.
Like the Wombles, Beat-Herder’s founders work on the principle of making good use of the things that they find, things that the everyday folk leave behind. There’s craft in its creation, born of a skillset unique to the event, a feast for the senses where closer scrutiny reveals delightful detail.