Wednesday, 1 April 2015

It's not our fault-fest - how and why Alt-Fest failed

The Alt-Fest saga started in autumn 2012 with a website and social media campaign. Set to take place between 15-17th August 2014 near Kettering, the organisers Dominic and Michelle Alesworth claimed that it would be both the biggest alternative and crowd-led festival in the world with 50 thousand patrons. Alarm bells should have started ringing back then – mainstream festivals are rarely that big, and no festival at all starts off that big never mind an alternative one.

The organisers built up an illusion of the fans being in control. They conducted polls and let people vote for the bands they wanted. They created this vision of a four-day utopia in the English countryside, the dream festival that the UK alternative were desperately seeking. After months and months of being fed their vision they told us that everything was in place an amazing line-up was announced – all they needed to do now was fund it. That's when they turned to Kickstarter.

The seeds of the dream had been firmly implanted in the minds of the alternative community and a target was set to raise £30k. That's right, just £30k to start a festival aiming to attract 50 thousand with over 30 bands already booked, before any ticket sales. You don't have to be an expert to see that it doesn't add up. The already brainwashed scene donated twice as much in return for promised tickets and merchandise for their ultimate festival – one that wouldn’t materialise.

As the months passed they continued to drip-feed us with daily updates on how well the festival was progressing. They continued to book more and more bands until the point when almost every active name in the Goth and industrial scene was playing. Marilyn Manson was announced as a headliner. Even those who believed from the beginning started to think it was getting too big for its own good.

Ticket prices increased as organisers claimed they were close to selling out. They were lying, even after reducing the capacity to 15,000. The creditors report states that just days before the event they had only sold 7,500 tickets. They had known since at least March that the festival wouldn’t be viable, but they continued to play everyone along despite a £1.7 million shortfall.

The creditors report places most of the blame with production company SWG. They withdrew the provision of site facilities at short notice because of low ticket sales, without giving Alt-Fest organisers any other options or time. SWG also acted as a festival consultant for Dominic and Michelle. From the beginning they vastly underestimated production costs and failed to include many others. They calculated the overall cost to be £400 thousand. When organisers realised they brought in Gill Tee, a festival expert who recalculated costs at over £700 thousand.

As early as February 2014, Alt-Fest organisers were looking for alternative sources of capital to rescue the festival. A 30 page business plan was  constructed and sent out to potential investors. Nobody would commit because they had either no experience in the festival market or the alternative scene. This was when they decided to go against their ethos of being independent and crowd-led and seek funding from large corporations that dominate the festival industry.. They were unsuccessful. After this they pursued private investors and wealthy individuals, before reaching a verbal agreement for a sum of £400 thousand. However, the  investor was unable to raise the capital in time.

According to Chris Dredge, a member of Spawn Of Psychosis – a band booked to play at the festival, communication from Alt-Fest and SWG was poor and inconsistent from the beginning. There were early indications that things weren't going as they should: “We started to wonder if things were going to plan when we were not really hearing much from the organisers.” Dominic told Dredge that band members' plus ones would require full price tickets and would not get VIP access, but the production company had arranged discount tickets for plus ones as well as VIP access on the days that bands played. It seemed to Dredge that Dominic and Michelle were no longer in the loop: “ The impression we got from the production company was that Dom and Missy were no longer involved in the organisation and that their idea of how things would work was very different from the production company's.”

“It failed because they forgot what it was they set out to do,” says Dredge. He thinks they tried it to make it too big too quickly. “It was made up of underground bands and a few headliner acts, but then they just added more and more to it. The truth is that they got over their heads far too quickly, and everyone quickly forgets that it was the underground bands who made the festival, and made up the bulk of the lineup.” He believes that if they kept the original lineup without trying to get too big it would have gone ahead: “Thats what Alt-fest was meant to be, thats why I believed in it, the original line up could have and should have worked.”

It's what happened next that really damaged the alternative community and the reputation of crowd-funding. Word that the festival wouldn't take place was leaked by Simon hall of metal band Beholder. The news quickly went viral with more bands confirming it and ticket-holders becoming increasingly anxious. Any word from Dominic and Michelle? None. This was after almost two years of support from the scene. People had given them their trust, faith and hard-earned money for so long, but the organisers didn't even have the decency to tell people the truth, even after it leaked.

It was 24 hours before any official word, which only said there would be a further announcement, without explaining anything. It was over a week later that they released a “comprehensive statement” which didn't give any answers at all. They took no accountability for what happened. On top of that they lied about refunds and totally failed to mention those that had the most faith in them – the Kickstarters.

Those most devoted to the scene are the ones that have been ripped off the most in this crowd-funded disaster. When a project is funded successfully it becomes the creator's responsibility to deliver the goods. This is where it all becomes a bit of a grey area. Alt-Fest had given the ticketing responsibility to Clubtickets, and Kickstarter backers redeemed their tickets from them. Even though not everyone received their physical tickets and the festival didn't take place, technically Alt-Fest had met Kickstarter's terms.

Dredge was also a Kickstarter backer. He made a pledge of £110 in return for the dismembership package, which included a full weekend ticket with camping, and exclusive back stage access as an extra. As someone who had faith in the festival from the beginning, Dredge is disappointed with the way backers have been treated: “The backers have not be treated very well, no one involved with the festival has. The information that came out was very vague, and most likely held back by legal tape, but to those who are watching, wanting answers, such things were not comforting or helpful.”

I contacted Kickstarter to ask them about Alt-Fest and the loopholes in their terms and conditions that can leave backers vulnerable: “There's risk inherent in creating anything new, but the system overall works remarkably well. Ultimately, backers decide which projects to fund, but the long-term health and integrity of Kickstarter drives everything we do.” It didn't answer any of my questions.

When a crowdfunding service has reached such a scale, providing a platform through which individuals can rake in millions from the public, it's irresponsible for the provider of the platform to rely on the gut feeling of the backer to decide the credibility of projects. Kickstarter and other similar services need to put some kind of safeguarding in place to stop the public putting their money in the wrong hands.

Debra Penny was a ticket-holder and she visited Boughton House, the place Alt-Fest was supposed to take place on the weekend it was supposed to be happening. She arrived to find a half set up festival, and assumed it was for Alt-Fest. After speaking to estate staff it was revealed that they were setting up for another festival that was due to start before Alt-Fest was due to finish. It was also revealed that organisers hadn't properly booked the estate and hadn't been granted a licence by the council. She received messages after making her findings public. “Dominic void started privately messaging me in a threatening fashion,” she said, but claims to have now deleted them.

Thousands of people are still owed money. Some people have been able to claim charge-back from their banks, but not everyone has been so lucky. Christy Robertson paid through the deposit scheme and hasn't been able to get any of her instalments back. “I have still only received half of my money because I paid through the deposit scheme and none of my monthly instalments have been given back.”

Everybody involved is responsible for Alt-Fest's failure. The organisers were inexperienced, and SWG took advantage of this. It may have been SWG that provided incorrect costs and pulled out at the end, but it was irresponsible of the Alesworths to play with so much money with no experience in the industry. They should have sought estimates from more than one company. They should have been honest as soon as they ran into financial difficulty, instead of leading people on for many more months and continuing to sell tickets for something they knew probably wouldn't happen.