Beat-Herder Festival co-founder Nick Chambers on a 'magical' return to the Ribble Valley
Have you heard the one about Beat-Herder being sold to Red Bull for £20m?
Co-founder Nick Chambers has.
"Someone told me that they overheard someone on the train last month saying that they knew the people who run Beat-Herder and they'd sold the festival to Red Bull for £20m. Who is this person? I mean that is just not true."
The Beat-Herder jungle drums do tend to grow louder at the start of every festival. 'This is definitely the last one.' 'The lease on the lad has run out.' The neighbours are putting a stop to it.'
Who better to put those rumours to bed than a laughing Nick.
"There's never an issue with it being the last one or anything like that, ever."
Music to the ears of all those loyal and passionate herders whose summer revolves around that magical mid-July weekend.
But that's not to say it's been easy putting on a festival up against the backdrop of a pandemic; far from it.
"It's been a rollercoaster," Nick said. "There are lots of different aspects of what makes a festival. If you just look at us, we have international artists, so we were thinking, do we need to just focus on the UK acts – which is great – but at the same time it's great to offer people things that aren't that close to them, and to enrich the culture of the festival as well.
"Then you're thinking about the crew who help put the festival on, coming over from France, from Malaysia, from America, and then you're onto the suppliers. Every component, every cog is so vital – when you take one out it's like, 'Oh God!'
"The worst thing was worrying, not just about ourselves, but all the different companies involved. Is the staging provider going to survive, are all the companies we work with going to stay afloat? It was awful – not selfishly – more, 'Oh God I hope they're ok'."
The party went on though, and what a party. A breathtaking 15th birthday celebration that Nick believes may well have been the best Beat-Herder yet.
"After the utter despair, which we shared with everyone during lockdown; wondering when we could all get together and share some music. To be able put it on this year, not just with the weather we had, but the energy people brought to it; from the crew and the people who run the venues and put the show on, it felt like people were recharged and driven to make it the best, to make up for the time lost.
"And then the people that came, threw themselves right into it. And all of it culminated in…just goosebumps. We're so busy organising the event around the outside, putting on the greatest show we can think of, and it’s one we can't actually go to. I take care of the majority of the bookings, and some of the aspects of the festival management; so come Sunday, it's much more relaxed for me because all the artists are in. So, I walk around the festival to actually get a feel of it.
"I ended up nearly crying, with full-body goosebumps. And I know I say this every year, but I think it did feel more special this time. It had the backstory of course; so people's anticipation and expectation was off the scale, but it really did, and I'm not downplaying all the other 14 Beat-Herders that have been; they're all amazingly special, and they each have a different thing about them. But this one was super special."
And to think, if it hadn't been for a burger van, a panini press, and some good old-fashioned northern gumption, the world may never have been served a slice of Beat-Herder heaven.
"We travelled down to Download Festival in a catering van, and were there grilling paninis,” recalled Nick. “With the proceeds, we managed to secure enough money to buy the main stage for the first Beat-Herder.
"It was a little main stage at the bottom of the field, similar to what we have now in the ring. Very small. It wasn't a big colossal thing. The woods were set out differently as well. Everything was a learning curve. We didn't understand backstage areas or anything like that. At the first Beat-Herder, one of us, and I won't mention their name, was checking tickets at the gate and he fell asleep on a chair. People were just walking in.
"The ticket office was actually a caravan then as well. We were that rushed, we never put the back legs down, and so whenever someone came to buy a ticket at the back window, as you went to see them the caravan tipped up. It was just ridiculous."
A lot has changed since then, but one constant that has remained is the collective behind the madness; six schoolmates from Yorkshire. A mixture of joiners, plumbers and electricians, who, inspired by pilgrimages to Glastonbury and road trips through the Canadian Rockies searching for free parties, dreamt big.
They remortgaged Beat-Herder HQ – a terraced house in Keighley – chipped in £1,000 each, and despite losing £20,000 on that first event, carried on dreaming.
"Having to go so far south for a festival, it was like, ‘Why isn't there one up here?’ At that time – the free party scene in the north was just tarpaulin over a DJ. That was it, that was all you got. You went and it was a field, or it was a reservoir, or a wind farm somewhere, and it was all DJ centred – and we looked at it the other way round.
"We made sure there was a fire for people to keep warm. We made sure there was tea for people to drink – full Burco boilers and everything – and a little cafe. And then we'd make stupid art installations to play on, and structures, and we'd light the whole place. Without knowing what we were going to end up doing, we were sort of putting a festival on before we were a festival."
Words cannot capture the essence of Beat-Herder. Believe me, I’ve tried. It needs to be breathed to be believed.
This is a wonderland, immaculately imagined; lovingly (and painstakingly) crafted to transport its inhabitants on a journey of sounds and silliness.
A world where one moment you’re in a church worshipping at the altar of 'Bongo Dave', the next you’re losing yourself in its majestic woodland. It's a place where you can go from sipping a pint of mild in the working men’s club to crawling through underground tunnels; from dancing on clapped-out cars to frolicking in swimming pools; the possibilities are endless.
1,200 ravers descended on that very first Beat-Herder – capacity now stands at 12,000. The numbers may have grown, but its heart still beats the same.
Preserving that level of intimacy is key, believes Nick.
"I don't miss [the intimacy of the early festivals] because we still have it. On paper, people will say, ‘'Why have you got a venue for 80 people, and you've got X amount of crew, and the budget is X amount? It doesn't make any sense’.
“If we went to a board of bigwig business people, they would say you need to get rid of that, and there would be loads of things that wouldn't happen.
"But the fact is they're the bits that make it special. To be able to go down a street in the woods, and turn on your heel into a fully detailed church with Beat-Herder stained glass windows and Beat-Herder carved pews that are handmade; you can't fit 7,000 people watching a headline act in there, but there’ a guy who's rinsing jungle, with a vicar at the front, and there's 117 people going absolute ape, having the time of their lives – you can't beat that.
"The intimacy that's there, and in any of the other 20 plus venues, is exactly what we had at the start, and it carries on."
It’s more evolution than revolution these days; extending the festival to four days, the headline news last time out.
And while the pandemic may be in the rear view mirror, the cost-of-living crisis is taking up plenty of thought space.
“Going to four days was great on a management level – to help us spread out the number of people coming in. There's people wanting Beat-Herder to be a week.
“Beat-Herder does respond to what people want from it a lot of the time. It’s like the beast that we ride, not that we pull with a lead.. A lot of different people want a lot of different things from it. And we can't do all those things at once. It's a tricky one really – I mean the reason we launched tickets later this year is because we were trying to work out what was going on economically. Everything’s gone up, and we didn’t want to take the ticket price up too much; I know there's been a big hoo-ha with Glastonbury's prices.”
As one of the UK’s few truly independent festivals – until Red Bull gets in touch – staying true to their values, and keeping things affordable, matters.
"Of course we do [want to make it as affordable as possible] but that can't be at the risk of bankrupting the festival. It's difficult working out what's going on. Now people are saying touring is getting too expensive, which I know is going to knock on to how much we have to pay for acts, and so it was kind of like a mathematical period of time between August and October. What might happen? What's this mini-budget going to do? There’s all these little intricacies that really affect the festival, and we need to try and work it all out.
"I just want Beat-Herder to continue to stay special and intimate. If it can continue that magic, for more people to come and enjoy, and for people to come and enjoy again, we'd be really happy."
Beat-Herder 2023 tickets are now on sale. For more information, visit www.beatherder.co.uk.