This week for inFrequently Answered Questions, we decided to take a look at the Castle Concerts held in Rochester each year. This year, the events ended up causing a loss to the taxpayer of over £300,000, so we decided to ask some questions. Instead of asking every councillor about it, we asked relevant portfolio holders, the councillors for the part of Rochester where the concerts are held, as well as other, non-council voices.
As usual, we told each that we would publish all responses entirely unedited. That is what you will find below, in the order their responses were received by us.
Q1. With reports that the Castle Concerts made a loss of over £300k, what is an acceptable financial loss for the Castle Concerts?
Q2. Are the Castle Concerts an effective way for Medway Council to improve the local cultural offer or the resources be better invested elsewhere?
Continuing his run of being the first responder, Cllr Tranter sent this along:
No loss is acceptable, of course. Normally the team do an excellent job, but I know from many years of experience in this industry it is very difficult to always get it right. However, after the events are over it turns out there are dozens of experts who know exactly where it went wrong. Strange that.
The castle venue is a difficult size in some ways; big enough to need very costly staging, sound and lights, yet not quite big enough to be able to afford some of the acts we would ideally like.
I think the castle events have made a wonderful contribution to the local culture offer over many years, but like everything in the world of entertainment we need to look at changing customer tastes and of course be very careful with how we risk public money going forward. The team will be doing just that when planning for 2019.
Cllr Stuart Tranter, Conservative, ward councillor for Rochester West
Next up, Cllr Andy Stamp, opposition portfolio holder for Regeneration and Communities, had this to offer:
Clearly Medway Council should be aiming to make no financial losses whatsoever on the Rochester Castle Concerts, particularly when vital front line services such as Sure Start Childrens’ Centres and Youth Services have been cut so significantly in recent years. With new events there is often some uncertainty around projected costs and turnover, and it can take a few years for events to establish themselves and break even. However, the Castle Concerts are a well-established annual fixture in Medway’s events calendar which have been running for many years. This makes this year’s £305,000 losses all the more difficult to accept.
The Council’s controversial decision to ban alcohol being brought into the venue undoubtedly led to some people boycotting the event, which is likely to have affected revenue. The inconsistency in applying the drinks ban only for the “pop” concerts and not the Proms only fuelled residents’ anger and dissatisfaction. The World Cup may have also been a factor on one of the nights. However, the fundamental ingredient to any successful music event is the acts which are secured and the Council must work hard to ensure that there is sufficient demand for the acts on offer and that the line-up reflects changing tastes, as well as Medway’s changing demographics.
The Council should continue with the Castle Concerts in future years, but the event does need to change and evolve to prevent it from becoming “stale” or predictable. There should be a renewed focus on obtaining additional sponsorship for the event (which the opposition Labour Group has long called for) to help cover the costs of the Castle Concerts. In addition, the Council should review the alcohol ban whilst also conducting some further market research, in order to ensure that the line-up is relevant. This will help to prevent future losses.
Cllr Andy Stamp, Labour, Regeneration and Communities Spokesperson
Cllr Tranter’s opposition ward colleague, Cllr Paterson, sent along this response:
I do not think it is acceptable for the Castle Concerts to make any loss whatsoever. It is a fantastic venue and there is no reason for it not to be a success.
At a time when the Tory administration has slashed vital services such as universal access to Sure Start Children’s Centres, it is disgraceful that they try to give the appearance of being penny wise while also being so pound foolish.
The loss sustained was equivalent to handing more than £25 of taxpayers’ money to each and every person who bought a ticket.
What is worse is that one of my first acts as a new councillor was to warn members and officers that the daft and inconsistent alcohol ban introduced this year had provoked a boycott which was likely to lead to precisely this outcome. Instead of heeding this warning and scrutinising the flawed rationale, as usual Tory councillors meekly rolled over and accepted it.
At the next meeting of the Regeneration, Culture and Environment Overview and Scrutiny Committee I introduced a member’s item calling for a more co-ordinated approach to Rochester’s heritage and cultural offering. Again, Tory councillors dismissed this out of hand.
While there is certainly a place for Castle Concerts as part of that future offering, this year’s shambles serve as a warning that change is long overdue.
Apart from the odd fireworks display funded by cuts to children’s services and a year-long Tory vanity project to mark their 20 years of misrule, Medway Council’s cultural programme is getting extremely stale. That lack of dynamism is hardly surprising, given the demographics of the ruling group, and is unlikely to change as long as they remain in control.
But I am heartened by the innovation shown by local third sector organisations in developing their own events programme with little or no assistance from the council, including the proposed Medway Pride festival next year.
At least Medway Pride cannot be stifled by the dead hand of Medway Tories – the last party that I would want involved in organising any party.
Cllr Alex Paterson, Labour, ward councillor for Rochester West
To mix things up a bit, we decided to send the same questions to others involved in the Medway music and cultural scene, and we are thankful to those that took the time to reply.
My initial thoughts are how can it be possible to ‘lose’ £300k on the castle concerts. I would be intrigued to compare the costs of the production/staging/pa etc against similar events. My thoughts are that someone somewhere is making a LOT of money on the back of this.
My major gripe about the castle concerts has always been the complete lack of acknowledgement of the local music scene. I often argued with Carl Madjitey that I understand the logic behind booking a ‘lowest common denominator’ headline act like UB40 or Status Quo because that guarantees (or has in the past) ticket sales. But why not then fill the undercard with local bands. This would give them exposure to a larger audience and may make people realise what a brilliant and vibrant music scene we have in the Medway Towns. Carl never really answered this. I’m guessing that his ‘deals’ with whatever booking agents he was using were dictating what support acts appeared. I think it sums up the council’s antipathy towards the local scene.
I’m also really disappointed by the portfolio holders response to the loss. Rather than accepting that mistakes have been made regarding the poorly managed alcohol restrictions and the lack of imagination involved in the headline acts, the default ‘don’t criticise us’ narrative kicked in.
I hope that now Carl has gone, changes will be made. I find it very disappointing that £300k can be lost without much analysis and then were told that an important part of our local heritage has to be sold to fund repairs to other parts. There’s a fundamental lack of joined up thinking.
Rob Flood, sometimes Medway music promoter and Rochester resident
Q1. Ideally, zero or return a profit. It’s hard to justify to poll tax payers if it makes any level of loss (hence why it’s not been widely reported no doubt), even if there is a boost to the local economy as a result of these events. It’d be interesting to see what financial benefits Medway got as a result. I would guess either it was minimal or no-one has a clue as, again, I assume any good news would be publicly available. This does beg the question, how did the business case get signed off, if the benefits from previous years were not known? Or have I just not been paying attention (probably)?
Q2. Erm, that would have to be a resounding “No!” from me. I’ve not attended any of these, but I guess I’m not their target audience. Over-priced tickets for sub-standard material (in my humble opinion) would be bad enough but the decision to stop people bringing their own booze (unless it’s bottles of fizz, of course – can’t upset certain people) was ill-conceived and divisive. It smacked of money-grabbing by forcing people to buy drinks only from ‘approved suppliers’, once inside. Just like the worst of other corporate events that do this ‘because they can’. And even with tactics like this, they still make a substantial loss – that takes real talent!
It’s perfectly possible to successfully organise events like this that are better organised, better supported, more accessible and at least cover their own costs. I suggest they ask people who have experience of this sort of thing. I’m sure there are people who would be perfectly willing to advise or do it for them.
Why not have a weekend of music across the whole of Medway ( a bit like a bigger/better Homespun), not just a few ‘high profile’ events in Rochester that just look like an attempt at parting people from their money in return for very little?
There’s a long tradition of live music in Medway but these Castle Concerts are destined to be little more than a sad (and expensive) footnote in its history.
Colin Chapman, Medway music promoter at Careful Now Promotions
How much is too much? When it comes to financial hits, a £300,000 loss on any project would be disastrous for a council in the harsh funding environment experienced by local government since 2010.
For Medway Council, already in the public eye over its £135,000 spend on a roundabout, the £300,000 deficit left by this year’s Castle Concerts underselling looks like another potential source of acute embarrassment.
A variety of factors for the concerts, held in Rochester castle grounds, have been put forward to explain their lack of appeal in 2018, from scheduling gigs alongside world cup football matches, to outdated marketing and picking the wrong acts this time around. A controversial ban on attendees bringing their own drinks to the shows has also damaged public perceptions, with people balking at paying over the odds for drinks after shelling out £30-plus for tickets. The exception made for champagne and prosecco at the traditional end of concert proms also led to accusations of classism and snobbery being aimed at the council.
Class is an important factor when talking about Medway. With an above-average percentage of low earners and higher unemployment than the national average, Medway Council serves a population intensely divided by social class. £30 – 40 tickets to see ‘legacy’ pop acts while, apparently, existing on a diet of prosecco, is something that could only be within the reach of Medway’s higher owners and well-off tourists. When the castle concerts go well, that could pass off without notice, but to lose hundreds of thousands of pounds throws how the council spends money and on who, into question.
From Billy Childish to Lupen Crook, there has always been a blue-collar artistic element to Medway’s most famous musical exports. Where youth centres and schools used to equal out opportunities to learn and play music, now budget cuts to youth services and education mean that working class children no longer have the same access to music tuition that previous generations might have enjoyed. In Medway and nationally, music is increasingly being made on the basis of who can afford to make it, rather than purely on the basis of talent, wherever that’s found socially.
In a situation where school children whose parents can’t afford music tuition are left to applaud the children of those who can, the traditional basis of much of Medway’s artistic talent is being cut off at the root by ideological and financial decisions made at local and national government level.
Grassroots music in Medway is already in trouble due to venue closures and a risk-averse approach to booking bands from the surviving bars and pubs that still put on live music.
The council’s punitive noise abatement measures have had a lasting, stifling effect on local bands’ ability to play within the Medway Towns. In a situation where venues live and die not by how good the music they put on is, but by how loud it is, the ecosystem where local talent finds its audience is in terminally poor health. Could £300,000 have been better spent on promoting local music, or creating opportunities for young people to make music within Medway’s schools and youth centres? Arguably, but then decisions around what music can be played and at which volume cost nothing.
Looking at decisions the council has got right over live music, Craig David selling out two Castle Concerts in 2017 stands out. As someone whose fan base crosses generations, as a late 90s retro R&B act to some and a savvy operator on social media to others, booking Craig David answered a lot of questions about the kind of music that makes for successful shows and who it appeals to. Going further back, Lupen Crook, The Flowing and The Lovedays playing Rochester Castle in 2010 showed the kind of pull that local music can have when promoted properly.
The continuing success of events like the Maidstone Fringe Festival and Canterbury’s City Sound project demonstrates that a savvy pairing of international, national and local acts can be both financially and culturally successful. What is left of Medway’s local music scene is sustained by the enthusiasm and knowhow of a dedicated bands and promoters, so why not trust in the tastes and talents of Medway’s population a bit more and produce a similar cross-pollinating, collaborative event for 2019? Crazier and less profitable things have happened than putting Craig David and Frau Pouch on the same bill. If the council played it safe with the Castle Concerts in 2018 and still got it wrong to the tune of £300,00, then evidently some fresh thinking is required. Booking fresher acts, including local talent and investing in the grassroots of Medway music could be a vibrant and
profitable venture, both for the short and long term future of local culture.
Andrew Day, bassist in Medway band Allfather
For further reading, Andrew’s 2013 article ‘Yr City’s a Sucker: Medway Council fails it’s local music scene again‘ is as relevant today as it was at the time.
We received no responses to these questions from Kelly Tolhurst (Conservative MP for Rochester and Strood) or Cllr Howard Doe (Conservative, Deputy Leader of Medway Council and portfolio holder for Housing and Community Services).