Labouring against costly concerts

In which Labour councillor for Rochester West Alex Paterson examines what might be going wrong with the Castle Concerts.

I’d like to think that I’m not a frustrated anything.

By that I mean that, unlike so many in the current Tory administration, I’m not a frustrated businessman looking for a bigger budget to play with. I’m not a frustrated teacher who thinks they can show local heads a thing or two about running a school. And I’m not a frustrated impresario trying to put on a show.

I’ve always been suspicious of those people. Which is, I think, always a good starting point.

Of course, life experience is a vital part of being a councillor, but only in so far as it informs the scrutiny you are able to put the officers (whose job it is to actually do these things) under. 

Whether it’s because of my background in newspapers or just a knack, one thing in life that I’ve found I’m particularly good at is asking questions. More importantly, I’ll listen to what I’m being told and, if it doesn’t address the question, I’ll ask another until I get an answer.

It sounds simple enough. But if it’s so simple, why do so few Tories on our Overview and Scrutiny committees ever do it?

A case in point is the Castle Concerts debacle of 2018, with its arbitrary ban on concertgoers taking their own drinks in to pop concerts, yet free to get drunk as a lord on champers at the classical proms. A spontaneous boycott by miffed music fans, and then, surprise surprise, the £300,000+ loss sustained by council taxpayers when sales flopped.

Apparently, despite the event ticking along for eight years and with the drink ban the only discernible difference in its ninth iteration last year, Medway’s “minister for fun” Cllr Howard Doe still has no idea what went wrong.

Now whether it’s the drink ban directly, or the bad publicity it caused, or even the boycott it led to, you don’t have to be a genius to spot what the constants are (apart from Jools Holland) and what was the variable. 

Indeed, I’ve seen squirrels on nature programmes negotiate feeding stations with more complex problem-solving requirements than this poser.

We’re told one issue was the clash with an unexpectedly long run in the World Cup for England, which I’m sure put off hordes of Ronan Keating fans who might otherwise have snapped up tickets at the last minute. 

Of course, the World Cup wasn’t a factor when it was also held in 2014 or 2010, nor were the European Championships which slotted in to 2012 and 2016 – or indeed the rather popular London Olympics. That’s because this “reason” is poppycock. A red herring to avoid admitting the inconvenient truth.

In fact this farrago is such bunkum and balderdash that this year’s concerts have been scheduled to coincide with the semi-finals and finals at Wimbledon. So either the organisers are cocking a snook at the hard-learned lessons of 2018, or they know that it was a total crock.

No doubt some will claim that this is the 20/20 vision of hindsight. Untrue. In fact the record shows that my first act as the new councillor for Rochester West last March was to bring this very issue before the Regeneration, Culture and Environment Committee before it was too late. 

And we Labour councillors warned about the boycott and we demanded to see evidence that officers’ hands were tied. And answer came there none. Well. Not quite.

You see, when you can’t admit the real rationale (making money at the bar) you’re forced to spout all sorts of claptrap in the hope that someone buys it. And there are no better customers for buying BS than obedient Tory backbenchers.

So the committee was treated to a litany of wild tales including a particular favourite of mine about the terror threat from bombmakers and bottled liquids (though apparently terrorists don’t work weekends or are repelled by classical music and Union Flags being waved, since the proms event can still be awash with glass bottles of fizz with a devil-may-care insouciance towards ISIS).

All the while, Tory members of the committee forgot their duty to residents and instead pledged fealty as usual to Cllr Jarrett and senior officers, with timid questions and childlike credulity at the nonsense they were being spoon-fed.

Is all this just talking Medway down? Of course not. Do I pretend to have all the answers? Not at all (remember, I’m not a frustrated concert promoter). Does it matter? Absolutely.

A natural human response to failure should, at the very least be to try again and fail better. Instead this week it feels like history might just repeat itself. And at what cost this time?

A big name act. Great. 

Inconsistent drinks policy still in place. Boo. 

Tickets £55 each. WHAT?

As followers of this august online publication and its social media feeds already know, this makes Jess Glynne’s Rochester soiree pricier by some margin than her other gigs in Darlington, Bude, Wolverhampton, Nottingham and Swansea. Why? Because Medway’s worth it?

The social media comments sections are already awash with music fans who feel they’ve been cheated and priced out of Castle Concerts completely. 

I agree. There aren’t many acts I’d shell out £100+ for a pair of tickets to see (although I am absolutely not advocating for Mogwai or Godspeed You! Black Emperor as Castle Concerts headliners).

I sincerely hope the concerts are a success this time round. If only to repay the astronomical losses of last year, but also because Rochester really should be able to make a decent fist of this.

But the early signs are not good, and if Tory councillors haven’t asked the difficult questions yet, they aren’t about to start asking them now.

Alex Paterson is a Labour councillor representing Rochester West.

3 Replies to “Labouring against costly concerts”

  1. We went to see The Aussie Pink Floyd last summer. The concert was superb but the young lady introducing them, and attempting to whip the crowd into a vocal frenzy for atmosphere, couldn’t get their name right and patently had never heard of them. She had no rapport with that crowd at all. Unfortunately, my husband and friends missed half of the concert going to join the 30-40 strong queue for drinks due to the alcohol ban. Practically everyone in the queue was a ‘trouble-making’ 50-70 year old just trying to buy a few overpriced beers on a warm summer evening. My husband was gone for 25 minutes each time to get drinks at one of the 2 bars available. It spoiled the night for him. If Medway council insists on the ban, I suggest they organise more bars so that folk who’ve paid over the odds for their tickets can be served more quickly. Great article, by the way Chris.

  2. If the concerts are going to cost Medway residents another £300,000 what is the point? The different rules for different concerts is divisive. I will keep up my boycott until the drink rules are the same for all concerts.

  3. If the assumption is that the main objective of the Castle Concerts is so the council can get revenue to fund key services, then it is completely unacceptable to make a loss at all. Otherwise we may as well not bother and save the area the disruption.

    Looking at the Jess Glynne tour this appears to be one of the most expensive days on tour, but as mentioned on Twitter the Nottingham venue has a similar capacity, a venue that lets you bring alcohol in and the money raised goes to a community cause (looking after the forests), and the tickets are £10 less – admittedly more like £5 as Medway Council don’t charge a booking fee but most venues do.

    The suggestion from last year was that the council had overpaid (and perhaps significantly so) for some acts, and it doesn’t appear from the pricing that’s been announced that they’ve rectified that – instead hoping that the customer will pick this up. I think the council need to consider whether it makes sense for them to book acts and the venue setup, or whether it would be better to let someone else run the events who has a better idea of what market rates are.

    On a personal level I would love it if the acts included Mogwai or Godspeed, and I’d also like it if there was something for the local community or anyone who isn’t 40+ (Australian Pink Floyd, Jools Holland, Ronan Keating, UB40 and the classical concert are not really events for younger residents).

    On a final note, as Alex mentioned the drinks ban but excluding the classical concert makes no sense – it should be one or the other.

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