Exclusive: For 23 years Geoff Ellis ran T in the Park. The event put Scotland on the festival map and created a market which has transformed the country’s music scene – until it all came to a messy end last year. But you haven’t heard the last of him.
It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Geoff Ellis. For 23 years, Scotland’s pre-eminent promoter organised the nation’s largest outdoor event, T in the Park. The music festival, which began from humble beginnings in Glasgow’s Strathclyde Country Park, before moving to Balado in Kinross, (where it spent most of its years happily drifting by on the cool vibes of era-defining music), came screeching to a spectacular halt last year, beset by a long and painful sequence of very public planning obstacles, a whiff of funding scandal and, tragically, two deaths which overshadowed the already beleaguered event in 2016. You only have to Google T in the Park and “oil pipeline” or “ospreys” to see the forces ranged against Ellis and his company, DF Concerts.
Officialdom came knocking at the door and it proved to much for the company to bear; despite putting up a noble fight the regulators drew their conclusions as to the safety and environmental viability of an event that annually saw 80,000 people harmlessly bopping along in a field to the likes of Courteneers. And that was that. I speak to Ellis after many months of trying. He’s been busy on his new ‘concept’ festival TRNSMT, which welcomed 120,000 revellers to a non-camping event on Glasgow Green in July; if I expected to catch Ellis in a downbeat mood regarding everything that’s gone before him, I am quickly proved wrong. He is positively upbeat about the prospects of hosting TRNSMT again next year, but does sound chastened from his experience of this year having to cancel what he proudly calls the UK’s ‘longest-running music sponsorship programme’ (the ‘t’ in T in the Park was, of course, Tennent’s).
Ellis has already ruled out T in the Park for 2018, and I ask whether that’s it, for good. “I think what we come back with will be something very different,” he says. “If you take two years out of the market and you go back in you probably want to refresh everything. That’s not to say we won’t be back with a camping festival; at some point we will be back with a camping festival but we’re not jumping up and down to do it in 2018. Whatever we do in the future I think we will probably aim it at an older market as well.” So, you had a good run, I inquire further? “We did and we created some brilliant life-affirming moments for people and I think we put Scotland on the map, musically,” he says. “If you remember there were only two festivals [Glastonbury and Reading] in the UK when we started T in the Park and almost everybody said we would fail.”
He adds: “At that time there was no real outdoor [music event] – there were a few outdoor concerts in Scotland but not many – it was because people didn’t want to take the risk. Prince had played, Michael Jackson had played, there’d been some big stadium shows but only ones that were slam dunks.
“Everybody felt people in Scotland won’t go to an outdoor show if it’s raining; we showed that people would come out for it and not only that they will come and camp. We created a festival market in Scotland and now there’s a lot of festivals.”
He says: “You get people working in culture now for the last five or six years and they don’t know what the landscape was like back then. I’ve got staff who weren’t born when we did the first T in the Park so the landscape was Barrowlands, the SECC and King Tuts at that point, and the odd stadium show, but certainly not every summer. Now, you’ve got two, minimum, five maximum, stadium shows, you’ve got TRNSMT, Summer Sessions and a raft of smaller outdoor festivals. Some are 5,000 and some are 20,000. They all happened because T in the Park broke the mould; we’re immensely proud of what we achieved and there’s a lot of love for the event.”
I ask how bruising the whole affair has been. Balado was T in the Park’s home for 19 years and most of the objections over the years were largely behavioural-related, with the 16-18-year-old revellers, in particular, who treated the music as a backdrop to basically having a party. Then came the behemoth that was the HSE (Health & Safety Executive) in 2014, which deemed an oil pipeline passing underneath the site to be at risk of exploding, despite no previous recorded incidents (Ellis says the BP Forties Pipeline also passes underneath Aberdeen airport runway and a school).
A long legal wrangle ensued, forcing DF Concerts to eventually leave its home and find a new site – private land at Strathallan Estate in Perthshire; it was a huge blow to the company, which had bought some of the land at Balado and considered it to be ‘home’. Ellis doesn’t mince his words when it comes to the HSE; he is still furious with the organisation for having intervened in the way that it did. “It’s been the most trying time of my professional life,” he says. “I think that’s true of everybody involved in the company as well. The people who I would blame – and who I do blame – is the HSE. “I’ve not met one person outside HSE who thought they were reasonable… the risk is infinitesimal that it could blow up; an independent report into the pipeline concluded that there was a likelihood of failure at one in 4.5 million years, so you are as likely to be eaten as a dinosaur – you’ve more chance of seeing Marc Bolan’s T-Rex.”
No one could have foreseen – having fought and lost a very public battle with the regulator – that DF Concerts would soon find itself paralysed by another planning row. An objection was received about the potential danger of the event to a pair of nesting ospreys at Strathallan, which forced Ellis and his team to go to what he calls ‘full planning’.
Where discretion may have been exercised by a local authority keen for a large event to take place in its area – with all the economic benefits that brings (T in the Park was worth around £15m in that regard) – there was no getting around EU legislation relating to the ospreys; it triggered a full planning decision which essentially had a snowball effect, unleashing a vast array of environmental conditions that DF Concerts had to satisfy, including not only ospreys but local kingfishers, bats, the list went on.
The term ‘red tape’ is clichéd but apposite, listening to Ellis recall some of the hurdles he had to get over to manage an already difficult transition to a new site.
“We wouldn’t have gone to Strathallan if we had known that was going to be the case; having to go through full planning consent, if you’re a music festival, there’s no way you’d ever do that because you’re so scuppered,” says Ellis.
“Ironically, most of the things we had to do because of full planning had nothing to do with the ospreys. We had to build a kingfisher habitat because some of the work we were doing to put a bridge in could have made that area of land unsuitable or unattractive to kingfishers; the landowner was saying where are these kingfisher, they don’t exist? But the planner said if the kingfisher wanted to nest there it couldn’t. You have to build a habitat somewhere else even though the kingfisher weren’t going to use that habitat.”
He adds: “Another one was we were putting in foundations for a bridge and someone working for one of the bodies involved in the planning process found what they thought might have been a bat dropping. Work had to be suspended for two weeks whilst they went off to analyse this bat dropping to see what type of bat it was and whether it needed additional protection; two weeks later it came back and it was a caterpillar shell. It wasn’t even a bat dropping, meanwhile we lost two weeks of work and our costs went up. That was how petty some of the things we had to deal with.”
Yet an other arose when planning officers stipulated that the bridges the company was putting in to cross water courses had to be of a certain height, to withstand what Ellis calls a “once in a 200- year flood risk” and also to allow wildlife to pass under, leading to the company spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on the “most over-engineered bridges ever”.
“I think a giraffe could have passed under a couple of them. We were like, ‘****** hell, we’re trying to put a pop festival on here’.”
The Strathallan events in 2015 and 2016 were also beset by horrendous weather, which was further impacted by a boundary line planning rule which forbade drop-off transport to come within a mile-and-a-half of the site, meaning revellers were traipsing through the mud and the cold; the costs all the while were becoming “unsustainable”, leading to the eventual cancellation, according to Ellis. The one thing he seems quite genuinely proud of – amid all the chaos – was an unexpected sideline in osprey monitoring, for which he had hired the world’s leading expert in the species. “There were no osprey better protected anywhere,” he says.
“They were monitored 24 hours a day – they were probably the most studied pair, arguably more studied than the ones at Boat of Garten; I’ve got logs which can tell you exactly what time the male osprey went to get fish, how long it took him, what time he went to the toilet, I could tell you if he was slightly constipated one day because he’d maybe got a little bit later to the food, it was literally that level of detail. The ospreys thrived; they raised two chicks on both occasions.”
The whole debacle will perhaps one day be a study in itself, I think, of how not to regulate outdoor events and festivals. For Ellis, he seems unburdened by talking of his experiences and I suggest it might be quite cathartic for him to speak in front of his industry peers to share his frustrations with the wider world. He doesn’t appear to be a man who wants to be remembered as a moaner and a whinger with an axe to grind; he gave back £50,000 of public money following a controversial relocation ‘grant’ from the Scottish Government of £150,000, for which there was a parliamentary inquisition (the culture secretary Fiona Hyslop was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing).
He is keen to point out the planning wrangle ultimately cost DF Concerts a seven-figure sum, so the subsidy was negligible against the overall bottom line, which ended up red. Although a bruising affair, Ellis’s enthusiasm for outdoor festivals is undimmed, which is inspiring to hear.
He says: “At the end of the day the fight to get through planning for 2015 was a long and arduous one and I never gave up and, I guess, has it made me not want to do things? It’s probably given me more fight but I’m probably more frustrated than I’ve ever been but I’ll not give up because I feel passionate about Scotland.
“If I come up against challenges in Glasgow I keep pushing – because I know the city has an agenda to grow tourism and events. When I was on the board of the Marketing Bureau, I was involved in strategic planning for Glasgow – because I had that role where you’ve got to help push events and culture and everything, so actually I think if I give up what’s everybody else going to do? That’s not good leadership if you throw in the towel.”
Ellis is well placed to comment on the industry and has good insight into how to strike the right balance between regulation and supporting the entrepreneurial spirit which creates events. In March, Brigadier David Allfrey, Producer & Chief Executive of The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, warned at EventIt – the Scottish events industry trade show – that spiralling costs were creating a culture of ‘anti-growth’, which puts a real block on event organisers, especially in an industry where costs have always been high and margins low.
Ellis says he agrees with him (the pair shared the unenviable position of facing perhaps the highest, and spiralling, police charging regimes in the country). He says: “Generally in Scotland within councils and government there’s a will to encourage events. For example, EventScotland is very proactive, and as a country our tourism approach is one of encouraging events, but it needs to go beyond the rhetoric and actually come down to the support. I think support is thought of in terms of, ‘Who do we give money to?’ and, ‘We can’t give money to anyone who’s making a profit.’ It’s sometimes the principle and that can be wrong because the value of art isn’t judged by whether somebody is making a profit by it or not. And we’re all here trying to create events; we’re using our own funds to create events, we’re taking risks to create events. I think a lot of the time people don’t understand what your real issues are.”
We cover an awful lot of ground in our conversation but I’m keen to explore Ellis’s take on the so-called ‘millennial generation’; millennials are considered to be those born after 1980 (a subject highlighted at the recent National Events Conference) and who are apparently ‘disrupting’ the events and festivals sector with demands for different kinds of ‘experiences’ that were perhaps not on offer at events like T in the Park.
With low-cost short haul flights to the continent – making events and festivals in sunnier climes more accessible – there is also a great deal more competition than in years gone by. When Ellis does come back with another camping event, which he assures me he will, he says it will in all likelihood be for over- 18s; as for the term ‘millennials’, he’s happy to steer clear of ‘family friendly’ events which he amusingly associates with ‘bouncy castles’, and sees the change in consumption more driven by greater choice than by any particular fad or foodie trend, or whatever.
“With the last three or four years of T in the Park we were seeing people not coming back year-on-year whereas what used to happen, people did the surveys and said, ‘Yeah, I had a great time, I can’t wait to be back next year’. In the latter years the younger millennials said, ‘Yeah, I had a great time, but I won’t be coming back next year’. It’s not because they didn’t have a good time but because they’ve done it, they’ve ticked the box and they want to go somewhere else.
“As a festival organiser that’s something you’ve got to learn quickly because it used to be about making sure people had a good time and wanted to come back next year. Now it’s about getting a whole new audience.”