Alex Benson and George Hull give their side of the story in this exclusive interview with Resident Advisor.
Two months since the festival that bankrupted them, Bloc organizers Alex Benson and George Hull are giving their side of the story.
In a written statement released this week, Benson and Hull give a fairly detailed account of Bloc 2012, from the weeks before the event itself to the administration process that followed. In short, they say that all of the problems undermining the festival stemmed from London Pleasure Gardens not being the venue it had said it would be.
Hull and Benson maintain that the festival was not oversold, but since huge parts of the venue were unfinished (including things as big as The Hub, a 2,800 capacity space that should have housed one of the main stages), too many people congregated in a small portion of the otherwise massive space, which led to overcrowding. They did what they could—even stopping the scanning of tickets to ease overcrowding at the entry points—but ultimately could not adjust to the circumstances and had to cancel the festival.
Perhaps most importantly to many Bloc attendees, the statement addresses the issue of refunds. Bloc's administrators have provided a form that should help ticketholders claim a chargeback from their banks, which is the only method of being reimbursed.
The statement also says that Benson and Hull were first advised by the administrators not to speak publicly about the cancelled festival, as this would compromise the administration process of the company and complicate things further. They begin by apologizing for being silent so far.
In this exclusive interview with Resident Advisor, Benson and Hull touch on many different parts of this issue, from the decision to leave their last venue at Butlins Minehead Resort to their speculative plans for the future.
So how's your summer been so far?
Alex Benson: Yeah, a bit of a weird one. But better these days. Mainly we're relieved to finally be chatting about this. We usually engage with our fans all the time, and when that gets pulled a way, you're losing what you are, there's no way of representing yourself in the public domain. One of the worst things has been being unable to have a real say, to make a statement and engage. In that way I'm in quite a good mood.
George Hull: It's going fine, we're just getting through it, and yeah, we're relieved to be in a position to discuss this stuff. It's been... painful. Painful is the word.
AB: The administrators said that things were going relatively quickly, but these two months have felt like an age... They work on a different timeframe, a legal timeframe...
OK, after reading your statement, my main question is this. When you've got a successful festival you've been running for a few years, and you move it to a new venue that's never been used before, a lot of concerns will spring to mind. What were those concerns for you guys, and how did London Pleasure Gardens deal with those concerns?
AB: The biggest concerns were definitely not whether it would be built on time. We came on board so early; we had a contract in October of 2011. The structures that would be in place, we were told did not have a huge lead time to be built.
GH: Finding venues this big isn't actually that easy. London Pleasure Gardens demonstrated a real need for venues of this size in the capital. We were invited to be a flagship festival, we were thrilled. It honestly looked incredible. What they planned to do was turn a disused piece of land into a spellbinding extraordinary destination. A venue for the arts. It was autumn of last year, it seemed perfectly plausible that that was possible, we had no reason to believe they wouldn't build it. Then they were loaned £3.3 million pounds to spend on it... I mean, there's always a chance the sun won't rise in the morning, but it wasn't a realistic concern because of the amount of time and the amount of money they had.
AB: And also the other clients they had—Cocoon, Secretsundaze, Mulletover—and the public backing they had. It all created a very positive atmosphere. With 20/20 hindsight you'd have loads of concerns, but they only become crystal clear after the fact. At the time, they had a full Olympic program booked in, loads of huge club events. To us it seemed like we'd got our foot in the door of London's next big thing and we were thrilled.
GH: If you think about the fact that it had the backing of the Mayor's office, Boris Johnson had personally given it his seal, nothing about it looked liked it wasn't going to work. It was only as we got deeply into the project that it became increasingly evident that there would be problems. Only in the last few weeks we discovered things that were significantly different from the original vision.
You said that in the weeks leading up to the date, you knew LPG wouldn't be what had been promised, but you didn't have the financial ability to postpone, to cancel, to sue—to do anything other than do your best with the festival as planned.
AB: Well, and we absolutely wanted to deliver what we'd promised, we wanted to do Bloc as had been advertised. A company like ours wouldn't have been able to postpone it, and besides we still felt we could deliver.
GH: If we'd been Live Nation or AEG, we could just take a 2 million quid hit, but we were in no position to do that. We wanted to make it work and did everything we could to deliver it.
AB: Apart from anything else, you're absolutely thinking all the time that everyone that got behind you for the move, that eventually got swung around, you don’t want to pull the carpet out from under those people. You don't want to take that brilliant idea and puncture it.
You maintain the event wasn't oversold, but that's considering the intended capacity of the venue. Given the fact that the venue wasn't finished, were there too many people per square meter?
AB: The capacity wasn't compromised.
GH: The whole site is 60,000 square meters - it’s huge. We were well within the license. The problem was that everyone chose to congregate in the northeast corner where the festival had ended up, and the reason for that was that much of the site wasn't finished.
AB: The admissions problem may well have also contributed to the numbers.
Right. At 21:00 you stopped scanning tickets to ease the overcrowding at the entrance, and you say you'll never know how many people got in without buying a ticket. If you had to say, do you think that's a marginal number of people or might it have been fairly significant?
AB: This is going to be an annoying cagey answer, but we can't speculate because we don't know the facts and who knows? This is one of the reason we've taken a long time, because we have to be really sure about what we can and can't say.
GH: Various people drew various conclusions. We don't know because we don't have any data. To give you my personal feeling, I honestly don't know. Some people thought thousands, some people think it wasn't that big a deal.
AB: It's a question people can answer themselves. If they know someone who got in without a ticket, then they know. Unsurprisingly not many people have come forward.
GH: You don't get groups of people coming forward saying "yeah, I broke in" so it’s impossible to get a proper feel for the weight of this, because no one's prepared to admit it. Honestly, things like that, it all filtered down from a general difficulty associated with trying to operate an event on a site which is not what was described, what was contracted. Lots of problems were indirectly caused by the general malaise, the general environment.
Going back a bit, what was the main reason you left Butlins?
AB: We were always sold out a good eight to ten weeks in advance and there was a culture clash between Bloc and Minehead, two very different organisations, different groups of people. I think when we said we'd go to LPG, Butlins breathed a sigh of relief. All Tomorrow's Parties has also parted ways with Butlins, who are a family-oriented company. There was a misperception that it could carry on there for years, but it couldn't. The way we saw it was that we were absolutely blessed to have three events there but we needed a more sustainable way to do Bloc.
GH: Bloc had to spread its wings. It wouldn't have carried on, wouldn't have survived. The capacity was simply too small - the fact that when we did it in a bigger venue it tripled in size shows that it clearly wasn't big enough. Also practical things, the main stage wasn't big enough, the ceiling was too low.
AB: We were missing out on a lot of shows.
GH: Big shows with big backdrops like Amon Tobin or Chris Cunningham, we couldn't do it because it wasn't big enough. It wouldn't have lasted there, it would have withered and died and this seemed like the perfect option.
What's your next move?
AB: We still feel that this is relatively early in the history of a promotion like Bloc. We've taken onboard a lot of criticisms; we've humbly taken them on board, which people will realize is a difference from the usual Bloc character. We still feel that we can deliver something special to these people. We don't think this needs to be the end. We’d like people to get behind us, we hope they will.
GH: We've done this for ten years, we've learned more this year than we have in the other nine. I think we're actually in a very strong position to be good at it. Festivals go bust all the time. This summer a lot of them did badly because of the weather. Usually when they go into administration it’s because they didn't sell tickets or there's not a lot of interest. So this is an extraordinary kind of bankruptcy because we sold out the festival and there was a huge amount of interest.
AB: We don't want to lose that. We want to take that interest and in the future take another crack at what we wanted this festival to be. That would be a personal dream.
GH: In the short term, what we want to do is put on some really good techno parties, which is all we ever really wanted to do. I don't know when they will be or where they'll be but we want to deliver some decent events in the future.
AB: And we're really keen to make it up to everyone as well.
Is there anything else you want to add?
GH: Yeah, I think it’s a shame that LPG didn't work out. I think it’s devastating for everyone involved, not least us, that the whole thing failed. However, one of the positive consequences that may come out of it is the very fact that the venue was made available to promoters, the fact that we were offered this late-license venue, for 15,000-capacity events, even though they never happened, just the fact that it was offered up demonstrated that the market has increased in size, whether it’s some kind of resurgence in electronic music, whatever, we've kind of shown, not just Bloc but all of the other promoters that had dates booked at LPG, the audience is there, the support is there, there's a lot of interest, thousands and thousands more people wanting to attend these things than London has the infrastructure to support. We’ve kind of demonstrated that this is a really big thing. It’s a lot bigger than it was when we started out.