Please start by listening to this brief BBC interview.
I should state again upfront in text that not only have I never taken one single penny, directly or indirectly, from Doune the Rabbit Hole in salary, fee, dividend or expenses (nor from concessions etc), I have put in over 300,000 of personal money, all my retirement savings, to help pay debts.
I have also put in thousands of hours of unpaid work.
I will also state, I think the first time I have made this public, that some years ago (when I had money) I put 90,000 into the Eden Festival to save that festival also from bankruptcy.
I have always believed strongly that society needs more social interaction, and that the increasing isolation of people as consumers in their own living rooms causes a great deal of harm. Community, shared experience, family and plain having fun together are extremely important to me, and always have been. That is why I have been involved.
This is the most personal article I will ever have published or will publish. It is about a campaign of hatred and blatant lies that has caused a great loss to many other people and messed up the holiday hopes of hundreds of families and children, for which I simply cannot apologise enough. I am the target and so many others have been collateral damage.
But it is also a story with much wider resonances that I believe makes it worth your reading – about corporatism, political power, authority, the power of lies, and the desire to destroy something beautiful.
It has had a devastating effect on many people but including on me personally and on those close to me.
I therefore hope it is worth your reading.
Long term readers of the blog will know how important the Doune the Rabbit Hole Festival has been to me since it was started by my son Jamie in 2010. It has now been closed down by an orchestrated campaign of falsehoods which devastated ticket sales.
The Scottish media – including the Herald, Daily Record, Sun, Courier, BBC and STV, have each dedicated at least three times as much space to attacking the Doune the Rabbit Hole Festival as they have to Baroness Michelle Mone taking over 30 million of profit for dumping dodgy PPE on the NHS and disappearing out of the country on her private yacht.
An extraordinary alliance of “progressives”, including the union BECTU and social media such as the Bella Caledonia website and scores of SNP troll accounts, campaigned actively and successfully in combination with the MSM to close the festival down.
Doune the Rabbit Hole specifically aimed to revive the original spirit of festivals and avoid corporatism and rip-off. Just how horrible many so-called festivals have become, is extraordinary to me. Many “festivals” are commercial urban park concerts. Few people realise that Live Nation, which dominates the industry, is a Saudi music-washing effort. Several festivals that were independent, like Belladrum on which we used to model ourselves, have become corporate and changed atmosphere to hard, expensive sell inside.
I have written about Doune the Rabbit Hole frequently here. This is from a March 2020 article.
I have written before about why we do the festival. It is about lifestyle and community, about creating a nicer, kinder world for a short time in the fields on the edge of the Highland Line. Doune the Rabbit Hole is a conscious attempt to maintain the communal values of the earliest music festivals, and the experience is very different from that of the large commercial ones. It is a family festival not just in the sense of being family owned and run. Under 12s come free and there is a huge amount of time and other resource devoted to providing facilities and entertainment for them. The very presence of so many children is important to the sense of being a community, not an audience, as is the extraordinary age range of those who come. There is no dominant age group. Pets are welcome and lots of people bring them.
The finances of the festival are a huge challenge. The fixed costs of the required infrastructure – fencing, temporary roads, water, stages, lighting, sound systems, toilets, tentage, signage, security, first aid and more – are colossal, amounting to over £400,000. This is why many of Scotland’s camping festivals, including Wicker Man and Electric Fields, have closed down in recent years. In the modern age, much of that is mandated by the authorities, for example we would be much happier without six miles of fencing. That is before you pay the musicians. Live performance rather than selling recorded music is nowadays a much higher percentage of a musicians’ income, and the cost of leading bands has increased exponentially in real terms over the last couple of decades. Plus, as a matter of principle, we pay all the musicians, including those looking to break through, of which we have masses.
Ten years of trying has proven to us that the only way a camping festival can survive financially is to reach a size of about 8,000 people, due to the fixed costs. You can imagine the challenges of attempting to grow the festival to the size needed, with all the infrastructure required to keep that many people entertained, safe, fed, watered and with clean toilets (and having the cleanest toilets of any festival is very high on our priorities), yet at the same time retain the community, family, non-commercial and above all friendly atmosphere. I hope that this link might take you to the public reviews on Google. My feeling was last year that we achieved this atmosphere for the visitors but not for the crew, who were over-stressed. I am spending a lot of time on how to make the community work for everybody and keep the finances together, while avoiding commercialisation. We are always very keen on keeping bar and food prices down to ordinary, non-festival levels and making sure that people never feel ripped off on site.
Artistically, I think we succeeded. Doune the Rabbit Hole was a beautiful experience. The Herald’s review of the 2022 Festival called it “the most relaxed of festivals” and concluded:
the self-proclaimed ‘Scotland’s biggest independent festival’ has proved it is a crucial part of the nation’s festival scene, after pandemic-related postponements in 2020 and 2021, with a tasty recipe of relaxed, family-friendly fun, cutting edge new music and established names.
I believe uniquely among music festivals of this size, Doune the Rabbit Hole had no permanent police presence, because the police deemed it unnecessary. Over 14 years, Doune the Rabbit Hole witnessed a total of eight arrests, six for drug dealing and two over matters unrelated to the festival. Most commercial festivals have at least that many arrests every single day. There was never a single fight in the bars, even though they opened until 3am.
I treasured this description of her first festival experience by Nicola Biggerstaff:
The thing that immediately struck me was the relaxed nature of our fellow festival-goers. Knowing only of the hundreds of thousands-strong Glastonbury crowds and the horror stories of the Astroworld crush and the lack of crowd control at Wireless, I was blown away by the chilled-out atmosphere hanging in the air, almost conflicting with the now soaring heat. With my history of anxiety, I was worried about being looked at, being judged, if I was wearing the right thing. I was immediately put right at ease by the array of characters who passed us by without a care in the world. Mad Hatter’s, inflatable T-Rexes, men in flowing skirts and women in suits, families in hiking gear and everything in between. Glitter, neon face paints, bandanas for miles. I had no reason to worry, I could breathe freely. By the first evening, we had given up on make-up and could not have cared less about it. All we needed on our faces was a smile, and a wide-eyed admiration of those who continued to adorn themselves in the forementioned for the duration of the weekend.
Robin McAlpine’s analysis of Doune the Rabbit Hole also summed up precisely what it meant to me.
Finally, what is it that makes people that go to this festival so often reach for ‘friendly’ as the first adjective to describe it? Why does that sense stick with us so much? The answer is because that’s the culture which is created. You smile at strangers when you pass because they smile at you. You help people or start conversations with them because someone else did it for you.
I’m pretty sure these aren’t ‘particularly nice and friendly people’ – it’s not a weekend based on genetic selection or anything. It’s the expectations we set ourselves when we arrive. We expect to not mind taking the ten seconds to stop and say hello, or to pick up something someone has dropped for them, or to tell someone that they look great. So we do.
Happy moments which are out of our normal reality are messages from ourselves to ourselves about why we should not accept our normality
Why are those expectations not ones we hold the rest of the time? What is it that gives us permission to be better people at this event than we might be day to day? I think the main answers are community and time. No-one is rushing, things will wait and if they don’t well that’s not a disaster. You don’t have ten things you have to do with time to do only six.
And you are instantly in a community, one that is going to share much of the same experiences over the weekend. You feel together because you are together.
The key points were that there was no corporate sponsorship or advertising, bars and catering were ordinary prices not “festival prices”, children’s tickets were always free or a token cost and until 2022 children’s drinks at the bar were free. Once inside the festival, all activities were free, there were no extra costs.
After years of financial struggle, in 2020 we finally seemed to have broken through to a size where the festival would stand on its own two feet. With a line up featuring Public Enemy, Belle and Sebastian, Bill Bailey, John Cale and Kate Tempest, we had sold two thirds of the tickets with three months to go, (having always sold over half the tickets in the last six weeks).
In 2020 we were projecting a £300,000 profit which would then set the company up with a reserve against future bad weather years.
Then Covid happened.
Lockdown regulations came in causing us to cancel, just three weeks before the festival, with almost all the infrastructure and artists booked and large deposits paid. The net loss from that Covid cancellation was about £350,000.
We offered to refund tickets and everybody who asked for a refund got it instantly. But such was the festival’s reputation that 96% of ticket holders rolled over their tickets to 2021.
The 2021 festival was planned for a few weeks after the announced date for lifting of covid restriction. Again, everything was fully booked and deposits paid. Then the extension of the restrictions was announced, even after restrictions were lifted in England, with no definite end date. Festivals in England were meantime allowed. So was the corporate Transmt festival in Scotland, allowed as an experiment. We on the other hand were obliged to cancel yet again, racking up a further loss of over £300,000.
We had now lost almost £700,000 to covid. Against that, we received a £50,000 bounceback loan and Scottish government covid support of just £90,000.
The Scottish government Covid support to festivals amounted to just one fifth per ticket sale of the amount given to festivals in England, as detailed in this letter from Scotland’s Independent Festivals.
This is an extract from the letter:
In absolute terms, the average grant to independent Scottish music festivals, none of which were allowed to take place in 2021, was just £31,545. The average grant to independent English music festivals which had to cancel in 2021 was £432,380, twelve times the amount. In England even those independent festivals which were permitted to go ahead in 2021 received an average grant of £236,948.
The Scottish Government received equivalent Covid relief funding for the Arts from the Treasury. Simply Angus Robertson decided to heavily prioritise the big arts companies and permanent venues – ie buildings, plus a few specific touring artists.
The Stand Comedy Club received four times the funding of Knockengorroch, a vital node for Scotland’s traditional music, while one theatre in Aberdeen received more Covid funding than all Scotland’s independent music festivals put together.
So by Autumn 2021 we were £700,000 down from two Covid cancellations, continuing to have our staff and overheads costs and, after a second year of cancellation, understandably about 20% of ticket holders wanted their money back – and they all got it.
This left a terrible dilemma. If we simply gave up, there was no money to pay back the remaining ticket holders – it had all been spent on the two cancelled festivals and on refunds. If the event went ahead as in 2019, it could never cover the losses.
There was every reason to believe the festival was long term viable. It’s sales growth had been remarkable and consistent. The “go big” strategy in 2022 was nearly pulled off. Look at this graph and understand that, but for those huge Covid losses, the festival was well on the path to success.
(NB these include day tickets, so they are individuals over all three days, not the capacity of the event)
This graph is the answer to those who are arguing that Independent festivals ought not exist, that the sector should be left to the corporations with big pockets, that you ought not be allowed to run a festival unless you have all the cash upfront. That agenda is now being pursued actively and would knock out all the independents to the advantage of the corporates.
That may make you think about who was behind the massive media and social attack.
We decided to bank on further sales growth and make 2022 much more ambitious, spending over twice as much on artists and aiming to provide big name acts who would pack in the crowds. If we could sell out on a 12,000 capacity, we could cover the carried debt from Covid.
With a lineup including Patti Smith, Amy MacDonald, Belle and Sebastian, The Buzzcocks, 10cc, Sleaford Mods, Teenage Fanclub, Boney M and many more, we were advised by our booking agents and by industry professionals we could certainly sell out 12,000 tickets. So we went for it, putting in a £120,000 marketing budget.
It seemed to work. Early sales were extremely good. We had always sold over half our tickets in the last six weeks, and with six weeks to go we were well over half the needed sales.
Then the expected surge did not happen.
I still don’t fully understand why. In May 2022, the massive increase in people’s fuel bills and the onset of the cost of living crisis certainly had a major effect in dropping sales, but could not be the entire explanation. We also had some bad publicity with local councillors grandstanding over our license application (any music festival has the odd local opponent), but that does not explain it fully either.
We discussed with others in the industry. Everybody was experiencing lower ticket sales. Everybody was also experiencing higher costs post-Covid – fencing, stages, toilets, trackway etc had all bounced up by about 40% post pandemic.
But many in the industry reported a tendency for people to put off ticket sales right until the last week, after two years of cancellations. So we decided the late surge would just be later than usual.
With a week to go, having lived at site now already a couple of weeks during the build, sales were still not picking up, and it was now too late to cancel. Life became really unpleasant. Money was lacking to pay people for essential, safety critical equipment and operations, and I found myself cashing in all my pension savings and paying for these things direct.
Various organisational tasks were falling behind for lack of ability to pay people to do them. On top of which my son Jamie, the guiding hand behind the festival, was hospitalised with severe Covid and had been out of action for a month.
In previous years, in the last week we had been getting in £20,000 a day in ticket sales. In 2022 we had nothing near that, so the cash to pay for things was just not arriving.
Astonishingly, in 2022 we sold virtually zero tickets on the gate for the entire festival. This was unprecedented.
The Festival runs its own bars and these could be relied on for £250,000 (indeed!) profit once the gates opened, but getting to that stage was a nightmare.
I contacted everybody I know who might be able to chip in something, explaining that many families and children would lose their holiday if we cancelled. I think at this stage I can reveal that the one person who put his hand in his pocket and gave a four figure donation was Alex Salmond. There were also contributions from other family members.
We had frequent meetings with the management team about the dire situation. There was certainly nobody on the crew side of the fencing who did not know about it. It was incredibly stressful for me, dealing with companies demanding full payment immediately or threatening to not deliver or to withdraw services and equipment.
I also had to deal with numerous bands’ agents. In all of this I was just acting as a stand-in for Jamie, who remained very unwell although he dragged himself to site. I had scores of conversations with agents where I stated, openly and honestly, things like:
“Look, I am really sorry. We just have not sold enough tickets. I just cannot make you the final payment of £x before the artist goes on. No, I just don’t have the money. The Festival has made a loss. I am not going to bullshit you, I can’t promise we will ever be able to pay it”.
Frequently, these conversations concluded with the agent stating that the band/artist would therefore not perform.
Here is the heartwarming bit.
Every single artist did perform. Nobody refused to play. That goes for even the biggest of names. One artist actually said to me directly “These are my people, this is my community, they have come here to be entertained.”
I am very aware that not every artist, particularly those smaller ones without agents, may have gone out to perform in the knowledge that their fee was in danger. I am extremely sorry for this, and should have been more careful to make sure the situation was understood. It was not deliberate omission, everything was such a whirlwind.
Due to a simply incredible “the show must go on” attitude by artists and crew, we got through the weekend very successfully, and as the reviews show I think the festival goers had a wonderful time. The subsequent debt was appalling. When everything was added up, it seems the £600,000 debt we had gone in with had increased to over £800,000 as a result of our efforts to “go big” to get the debt cleared off.
I simply cannot get over to you the terrible feeling that this was. Some of those owed are small businesses and minor artists. Some are individuals. Having been running the festival for so many years, a significant number of those owed are personal friends of Jamie or myself.
I would also stress how astonishingly little rancour there was at first. A great many of those owed money were incredibly pleasant about it. There was much understanding that the basic problem was Covid, which had collapsed so many businesses. People could see for themselves that ticket sales were not what they needed to be. Nobody seemed to believe that anybody had run off with a huge pot of secret money.
There was now a huge decision to make. We could either close down the festival for good – which after this traumatic experience was extremely tempting – or we could go on with it. We were still on a trend of long terms sales growth. There was immediate, high demand for 2023 ticket sales.
The deciding factor was that, if we simply closed down the festival, not one of those people and businesses owed money would ever get paid.
We decided to go ahead with the Festival again in 2023, using the parent company. Doune the Rabbit Hole Ltd was put into liquidation to seal off the debt, but with an agreement with the liquidator that any profits from 2023 and future festivals would go to the liquidator, until all creditors had been paid off in full.
We believed we could pay off all the debt in three years, and starting with a financial clean slate for the 2023 festival we were confident all would be OK. Early ticket sales were very strong.
We were also promised a donation from a “White Knight”, a major corporation, of at least £600,000. Various practical arrangements were required to put this in place, including receiving approval from the charities regulator of a plan to funnel the money via a grant giving charity.
Everything was set up, including with the charities regulator, and the money was supposed to arrive in the bank account by end October 2022. But it never did arrive, in quite extraordinary and still inexplicable circumstances that would be an article in themselves.
This was yet another emotional rollercoaster, but just put us back to the idea of a three year plan to pay off the creditors.
All seemed to go very well, and a much less expensive but nonetheless highly enjoyable lineup was put together for Doune the Rabbit Hole 2023. Ticket sales were good. Then from about November 2022 began an astonishing series of media and social media attacks on us, ever mounting in vitriol, and very often aimed at me personally.
Very few of these appeared to be initiated by anybody we owed money, though one or two people we owed money were occasionally co-opted by the media. The attacks originated in what I might characterise as Scotland’s public funded arts sector.
They frequently repeated a series of lies that became unquenchable social media myth. Of these the most pervasive were these two. There are others –
1) That Doune the Rabbit Hole had paid nothing to artists and crew in the 2022 Festival
Whereas in fact we had paid over £380,000 to artists and over £180,000 to crew. That is in addition to over £750,000 to suppliers.
2) That Doune the Rabbit Hole had large debts from festivals prior to 2022
We believe this to be simply untrue. We only know of one company owed a debt from before 2022, and that is a final instalment on a lighting company bill that slipped through the cracks during Covid.
The technicians’ union BECTU has appeared frequently all over the media claiming that Doune the Rabbit Hole has debt from multiple years. We have told them repeatedly that we do not believe it is true. We have asked them, face to face and repeatedly in writing, who we owe money to from before 2022.
Eventually BECTU replied to us stating they could not say who we owed money from before 2022, as it was commercially confidential information. Nobody (bar the single company mentioned) has been in contact with us or with the liquidator to claim to be owed from before 2022. BECTU have just been using it as a tool to argue for the closure of the festival; they have done literally nothing aimed at getting any such company paid.
There has been a constant bombardment of negative stories, often fuelled by BECTU. They have campaigned openly to destroy the festival, calling for a boycott, for artists not to perform, and for suppliers to break their contracts.
One major artist has told us that their coach company had cancelled their tour bus on the grounds that Doune the Rabbit Hole is blacklisted. Two of our key staff resigned because they had been told they would not be allowed on other jobs if they continue to work for us.
Music festivals bankrupt in Scotland with unfortunate regularity. Playground, Electric Fields and Wickerman are all major independent festivals that went bust. None has ever been subjected to this sustained campaign of hatred.
Three independent music festivals in Scotland have announced cancellation in the last two weeks, Otherlands, Midnight Sun and EH32. The post-Covid carnage in the sector, of which we warned the Scottish Government, is unfolding.
In December, January and May, coordinated attacks on Doune the Rabbit Hole were launched across all Scottish newspapers and the BBC and STV. Two of these “coincided” with the very day of 2023 first lineup launch – traditionally our largest sales day – and of our final lineup announcement.
Most of our advertising is online and most of our ticket sales are online, and there have been literally thousands of posts calling on people to boycott the event. These have been positively organised by BECTU, who asked their staff to do it, and by the Scottish government linked troll farms.
It is not just our own posts which have been trolled. Individuals notifying others on Facebook or Twitter and saying that they are going, have attracted numerous trolls telling them to cancel.
The underlying and quite deliberate insinuation had been, throughout, that this is some sort of rip-off and that money had gone missing. This is absolutely untrue.
Well, the campaign has worked. Ticket sales are now so poor we simply cannot afford the infrastructure needed to put the event on safely and in accordance with Council standards.
Over 30 bands have received 100% payment for this year’s performance and many more have received part payment. Many suppliers have already been paid. But we just can’t get it home, and it is not fair to try to sell more tickets when the event may not happen.
So now we have the irony that many artists have been paid to play but will not perform this year, while many performed and were not paid last year.
Because of this campaign to close the festival, those owed from 2022 will now never be paid.
But there is no money left for ticket refunds; people will have to apply to their card issuer. That should work – the card processor holds back 20% of revenue from us, and other independent festivals, as a bond against this happening. But I am extremely conscious that this is not an instant process and many families’ holiday plans will be messed up.
I am sorry there is no happy ending to this story. But that is the unvarnished truth. You will hear much unpleasantness about me this next few days which is not true. I realise some of my decisions did not work out so some criticism is fair, and I accept that. I will try to answer any genuine questions in comments below.
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