It’s amazing how much more quickly bad news spreads than good news. For a week at the start of August, music news outlets across the country were busy picking over the carcass of Hope And Glory Festival after its disastrous outing, and subsequent cancellation, at William Brown Street and St. John’s Gardens. Perhaps it was a slow news day, but reports of the festival’s sub-standard organisation spread like wildfire across the net, reaching as far as Spain and the United States, and even making it on to the hallowed turf of North West Tonight. With barely disguised mirth, social media’s army of amateur sleuths kicked into gear to unearth the records of TinyCOW Events, the company behind the festival. Thankfully, the weight of this scrutiny has allowed the thousands of Hope And Glory ticket holders to make some headway in securing a refund, and has shed some light on the shoddy practice at play. The finger pointing, however, still looked far from being resolved as we went to press.
Let’s be candid for a moment: Hope And Glory Festival was a fiasco, with potentially dangerous consequences for the crowds who’d paid the best part of £90 for a ticket. It was also, from its inauspicious beginnings to its sorry end, an exercise in awful customer service (how anyone thinks that the words “no festival today” tweeted a couple of hours before doors constitutes a satisfactory way of cancelling a festival is beyond me). Let’s also not forget that Hope And Glory was very nearly a success, selling somewhere in the region of 10,000 tickets for a two-day event. Regardless of what you think of the event itself, that is no mean feat for a first-time festival in Liverpool. It was an event that was clearly not aimed at me, so my misgivings about its tone, branding and positioning are neither here nor there: what matters is the sequence of decisions that led to it placing its customers in danger.
Festivals are massively complex concerns, with a raft of logistical components in play that festivalgoers just don’t see (if things are working correctly). Things can, and often do, go wrong – but it’s how festivals and their production teams react to them that is important. In this month’s magazine, we’re glad to be redressing the balance in some small way with a few examples of well-executed festivals from around the country: Kendal Calling, a 20,000 sell-out in its 12th year; the excellent family-oriented qualities of Deer Shed; and Pride, which ran like clockwork on the same site as the ill-fated Hope And Glory. Festivals are so popular because they can provide those rare moments that transcend normal gig-going experiences, and good practitioners are aware that they are facilitating those experiences.
It’s a shame that things going all to plan just isn’t newsworthy – and an even greater pity that events like Hope And Glory can have such an adverse effect on people’s opinions that it’s become open season to criticise festivals when they go slightly wrong. I have a lot of sympathy for the organisers of Boomtown Fair and Y Not festivals, who have been caught out by weather conditions and technological failures at their events this summer. Often, these mishaps are out of their control, but still threaten to derail the work that so many people have put in over months in advance. That’s what makes it such a risky business, but one with such high rewards.
We’ve become used to seeing lots of large-scale events in recent years, so much so that it often feels like Liverpool is becoming a kind of ‘festival city’. There seems to have been some kind of gold rush for the city to be seen as having something happening all the time, with the result that quality control standards have slipped. I’m yet to be convinced that the eyesore of the Pier Head Village and Hope And Glory’s ham-fisted age of empire aesthetic bring anything of value to the city. When you look at the cultural offer that the city has developed since 2008, centred around some classy free events that use the city as a canvas – LightNight, Africa Oyé and LIMF, for example – it really is a puzzler. In a bid to be seen as a ‘happening’ place, we’re at risk of cheapening not only our cultural assets, but certain areas of the city as well (is the Pier Head’s UNESCO Heritage Status, with its graceful clash of old and new, really worth risking for a poky fairground?). Quality is most definitely better than quantity.
There’s no doubt that the region’s cultural renaissance has been on an upwards trajectory since the 2008 Capital Of Culture year, taking our sense of civic pride skyrocketing with it. I don’t know about you, but I’ve become rather fond of the occasional promenade of giants and spiders through our streets, and how the city’s great parks have been re-tooled as splendid theatres for communal enjoyment (the re-modelling Mathew Street Festival into LIMF has been particularly positive). This year’s Sgt. Pepper At 50 celebrations (largely hits with a few misses) were further proof that the city knows how to put on a show – and it was undoubtedly with those successes in mind that Culture Liverpool, a branch of Liverpool City Council, were awarded Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation status for the period 2018-2022. With the £250k pot of money that comes with this status, and with extensive plans in place for next year to build on the legacy of 2008, we can expect these large-scale spectaculars to continue.
But, it does beg the question of whether we should be looking to our City Council to be our culture generator. In this age of austerity, you can hardly expect any regional government to look a gift horse such as this in the mouth – particularly in light of the IPPR North think tank’s latest research which suggests that arts in the North of England are underfunded to the tune of £691 million. Yet, we still must ask ourselves if the policy of continuing to facilitate eye-catching spectaculars for short-term enjoyment is really a good use of these public resources. There must come a time when we look beyond the glitz of being a place where stuff happens, and try and turn into a place where stuff is made. Especially if the alternative is to give away the keys of the city to people like Hope And Glory.
The challenge for 2018 and beyond seems, to me, to be in laying down some foundations that ensure there is a more robust environment where the ‘culture sector’ supports itself; where we stop eulogising about ourselves, and make a better place for those coming after us; where we create a place that looks to place art and culture at its very core, and use it to fuel prosperity. That would be the real legacy of 2008.