How To Come Back From The Brink Of Festival Failure

Article by: Manu Ekanayake

Fri January 15, 2016 | 00:00 AM

Promoting a festival is all good when everything goes right. You’re probably going to be reap lots of benefits, such as money (a little, at least), kudos from the community, or a decent after-party or two. But when it all goes wrong, you’re responsible, legally and personally – and that can mean you lose a hell of a lot of money, as well as the reputation and relationships that could help save you from disappearing into festie obscurity.

That’s just what happened to electronic music festival Bloc back in 2012, when its big weekender event (featuring the likes of Snoop Dogg and Orbital scheduled to perform) was cancelled just hours into its first evening during its debut on the London scene, after ten years of running events mainly at Butlins, in seaside town Minehead. The debacle even made the UK’s national press – it was very nearly a serious disaster with dangerous over-crowding issues stemming from the venue, London Pleasure Gardens, not being completed on time and to the promised standard.

Despite their experience as promoters, Alex Benson and George Hull found themselves in a very difficult situation during a time when the Docklands area of London was being developed and promoted ahead of the Olympic Games. The venue they were working on with the weekender wasn’t finished in time for the event, but they decided that it would be worse to cancel the whole thing than to let it go ahead and face possible failure. George told The Independent last year, "There were niggling things, like, ‘Hold on, why isn’t the venue finished yet?' Even six months before it was due to happen. When you have a situation when it’s endorsed by the council and the licensing authorities and Mayor’s office and we knew the money was in place, it was just a case of getting it done, we had no reason to believe it wouldn’t be done in time... until it was too late, that’s the bottom line."

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Photo by: Jake Davis

As a result, thousands of revellers were left waiting in lines that didn’t move for hours. Inside the venue, people complained of difficulty moving from one stage to another, which led to bad vibes all around. Outside in the lines, tempers frayed and the air was heavy with aggression and annoyance. It all went wrong and the superstars scheduled to play, like Snoop Dogg, Orbital and Battles among many others, had their performances cancelled. It was a disastrous state of affairs, and word soon spread throughout London’s party community, online clubbing publications and into the mainstream press.

It was a promoter’s worst nightmare – and Bloc’s co-founder Alex Benson still calls it a "cataclysm" when asked how they came back from "what was basically a negative position" to running a successful weekend festival once more in 2015. Bloc returns to Butlins, Minehead on 11-13th March 2016, for the second time since 2012’s nadir. With a line-up of huge stars like Radiohead’s Thom Yorke playing live shows and musical dynamos like Four Tet, techno kingpins Jeff Mills and Carl Craig and house music heroes like Omar-S and Tama Sumo, there is no doubt that they have weathered 2012’s storm. 

But what bought Benson and Hull back from the worst moment of their professional lives? "We couldn’t be scared of taking something on, or we ran the risk of never putting on a party again," Benson recalls. That "something" was a venue: Autumn Street Studios, which they opened in the then up-and-coming Hackney Wick, East London in late 2012, just five months after their festival nightmare. At Autumn Street, they went back to their roots. The duo started out promoting Bloc club nights for 500-odd people in Brighton all the way back in 2002, before the popularity of their parties led to the conception of a weekender for 2,000 people, first at Pontins in Norfolk in 2007, which moved to Butlins, Minehead and increased its capacity (and booked bigger talent) every year until 2012.

With Autumn Street they had decided to return to "something we were sure we could deliver – we were sure we could do parties for 5-600 people, so that gave us confidence to begin rebuilding our reputation – because that’s what you lose most," they said. Their venue helped them achieve financial stability after going bankrupt to the tune of £2million.

At the same time as their bankruptcy, Benson and Hull saw an opportunity. They explained, "there was also this warehouse in Hackney Wick where the previous leaseholders had also gone bust. No one really wanted the lease, so we thought we’d try our hand at it – we got a TEN [Temporary Event Notice, which allows a premises to be temporarily used for licensed purposes] for it, invited [underground club night] World Unknown for New Year’s Eve 2012/13 and eventually managed to get a full license – that was our way of getting back into the swing of things." It also houses 18 commercial tenants, which provides a steady income for the partners. 

While going small-scale was fundamental to Bloc’s return, other factors saw them play to their strengths too. One was media – "We were so infamous that even changing our Facebook picture got us an insane amount of attention, everyone wanted to know what we were doing – and that definitely got us more attention than the average party," Benson admits.

The response wasn’t all positive, though. "We put on a party on Friday [in March, 2013], we put on a party on Saturday and on Monday a lot of people gave us a lot of shit online. We put on another two parties the Friday and Saturday after, and eventually people just don't have the mental energy to keep on at you. And all that's left is the parties on Friday and Saturday that people enjoy."

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Photo by: Jake Davis

So after a year of booking solid underground talent, with whom they had pre-existing relationships, their brand had been rehabilitated. "We weren’t the guys whose festival got cancelled; we were the guys who did 60 great parties at a new venue," says Benson, still sounding relieved. "The whole process had a kind of structure of redemption; of going back to doing something that people knew about and wanted us to do."

And in September 2014 their venue was re-christened Bloc., in tribute to the fact they were granted a permanent venue license. Simultaneously, they had just spoken to Butlins about returning there for 2015. 

So Bloc's phoenix rose steadily from the flames. A lesson for all festival promoters, as the old adage goes: “Be nice to people on the way up because you’ll meet them on the way down.” Benson and Hull’s dedication to their events together with the artists, agents and managers they worked with was undoubtedly part of their return to popularity. It also helped massively that they engaged with the community they’d built, refunding all their customers and maintaining transparency throughout their ordeal.  Going back to basics was also a crucial decision from the two men and Bloc will return again to Butlins, Minehead on 11-13 March this year.

The rise, fall, and rise again prove that even a seemingly career-ending incident can be turned around with some hard work, good spirits and honesty.

More info about this year's festival, here: