The Tumultuous True Story of Bloc Festival

This was the U.K.’s best loved electronic event for five years—but then catastrophe struck. On the eve of its final weekender, the founders explain what went wrong, and what’s next.

Photographer Conor O'Leary
March 11, 2016
The Tumultuous True Story of Bloc Festival

Situated directly between hardware stores, and the looming, silent grandeur of the now largely unused London 2012 Olympic stadium, lies a converted warehouse that contains the offices of electronic festival Bloc. Both 32 years of age, founders Alex Benson and George Hull (above left and right, respectively) have already been running Bloc for over a decade. After a dramatic ten years putting on largely brilliant—and then once, almost catastrophic—dance festivals, last month they announced that this weekend's event, at a holiday camp in the small British seaside town of Minehead, will be the last ever, with the pair shuttering the festival to concentrate on building the Bloc club venues and record label.

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From the first Bloc Weekend in 2007, organised when Hull and Benson were just 22, the festival has boasted some of the most forward-thinking artists playing techno, house, electro, dubstep, hip-hop, and the more experimental, mind-melting outer reaches of electronic music. In 2016, it is a defiant outlier in a cluttered British festival scene increasingly dominated by heavily branded corporate names; in particular, the proliferation of expensive, tightly policed one-day festivals in London parks, hemmed in by noise restrictions and absurdly early curfews of 10 or 11p.m. Bloc remains, geographically, musically, and in spirit, on the margins.

That first year, 2007, I traveled to what felt like the apotheosis of British cultural entropy, a Pontins holiday camp in a downtrodden seaside town named Hemsby (in the eastern English county of Norfolk), ostensibly to interview French rap group TTC, who were playing. Sitting on worn armchairs in their damp chalet accommodation, TTC's Teki Latex talked to me about cutting-edge beats and the enthusiasm and style of their fans, the 'fluokids,' who at the time were spinning a French iteration of nu-rave—all while surrounded by something that couldn't have been less fluo: chipped paint, faded signs promising children's entertainment, and a lingering air of faded glory. As I sit with the founders in Bloc's London offices in March 2016 and recall that first festival, Benson pulls up a news story on his laptop: recent photos from inside that same holiday camp, which was sold and abandoned to the weeds in 2008.

After five years of running Bloc, they started to consider moving on again. Benson explains: “In 2011 there was lots of chatter about this new venue in London, being established for the Olympic summer. And because we'd had three very successful festivals at [holiday camp] Butlins, people were knocking on our door a bit, and saying, 'do you want to go up to a 15,000 festival?'” Hull answers the question. “I mean, who wouldn't?” I wrote a detailed report of what happened that night at the time, but the short version is: large numbers of attendees spent several hours in a crush trying to get into a site, London Pleasure Gardens, that wasn't entirely ready, some people got in without paying in the melee, and certain parts of the site seemed dangerously overcrowded, or at least marred by long queues to get into the on-site venues. By 1am on this first night—with most of the night still to go, and the headliners still to play, as well as Saturday's line-up—the event was called off.

Benson and Hull make a persuasive case that they were in control at all times, but the situation on the ground often felt chaotic—finished off with the bizarre scene of thousands of wasted, confused and disappointed ravers left on a sparse trunk-road on the fringes of London. With little more than a brief statement from Bloc in the weeks that followed, the backlash was substantial and often irate. No one was being reimbursed for their £100 tickets—some had spent a great deal more, to travel to London from around the U.K., or even from abroad. Meanwhile (bogus) conspiracy theories circulated about a ticket scam, and speculation raged about what exactly had gone wrong, and who was responsible.

The Tumultuous True Story of Bloc Festival
The Tumultuous True Story of Bloc Festival




Benson and Hull grew up in Norfolk, not far from where they threw their first event in Hemsby, and learned at a young age about how club music can thrive far away from big cities and, well, clubs. In their teens, they began going to free parties in the Norfolk countryside, on beaches, sometimes on private land, or in the 47,000 acre Thetford Forest to the south of the county. These were the vestiges of an illegal (or at least unofficial) rave scene mostly suppressed by the 1994 Criminal Justice Act, government legislation which famously singled out “the emission of a succession of repetitive beats,” and gave police authority to shut down the open-air raves that were playing them. “Some of them would just be one sound system, 50-100 people, mostly just a group of friends,” recalls Hull. “But there were also some that were really pretty big, multi-rig events with 10 sound systems—we did get involved in those, a bit. We got friends in London to bring a sound system, and we got Squarepusher and Radioactive Man to come and play in a clearing in Thetford Forest.” They were 18 at the time.

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Having both organised club nights at university, they ended up living in Brighton together, putting on parties under the name Bloc. “By then we were really scheming,” Hull says, “wondering if we could actually earn a living out of this.” So they called up Pontins, “put on our most grown-up, middle-class accents,” and just about got away with it—Autechre headlined, and the festival sold out. After two years at Pontins they upgraded to the larger, and much less decrepit holiday camp of Butlins in the south western U.K. town of Minehead. Over those first five years, they hosted artists including Hudson Mohawke, Skream, Salt-N-Pepa, and Flying Lotus. This year's festival continues in a similar vein, with headliners Thom Yorke and Four Tet playing along with techno titans like DJ Bone and Jeff Mills, as well as Floating Points, Holly Herndon, and Evian Christ.

Part of the appeal of three days of hedonism and cutting-edge music in a holiday camp is that it always feels faintly subversive and incongruous. Here are these peculiar relics from a failed utopia, built for the 1950s nuclear family, before cheap flights changed the way British people take their holidays—and before anyone had even thought of Berghain, trap, or gin and tonic in cans. But while the beats and some of the narcotics have changed, music-themed weekends at British holiday camps have a rich (if largely forgotten) history: going back to the 1970s and ‘80s, with northern soul weekenders, which also hosted the cream of late ‘80s acid house. “They're a bit less square than people give them credit for,” Hull says—and it's a slick operation, to boot. “They'll be packing up the darts weekender, turning what was a seated arena into a dancefloor for us—and then after we're gone it'll be [the British school holiday] and all the families turn up. It's quite impressive how they manage it.”

The Tumultuous True Story of Bloc Festival
The Tumultuous True Story of Bloc Festival
“Part of the appeal of three days of hedonism and cutting-edge music in a holiday camp is that it always feels faintly subversive and incongruous. Here are these peculiar relics from a failed utopia, built for the 1950s nuclear family, before cheap flights changed the way British people take their holidays.”

Sitting drinking tea in Bloc’s cozy attic offices, above the club that now bears their name, we eventually wheel around to the inevitable: 2012, and what went wrong. Things are much clearer with hindsight, and the simple explanation is that the venue, London Pleasure Gardens, promised to be a well-managed, well-prepared, and successful new venue for a series of summer 2012 events: and it wasn't. What was previously a disused wasteland by the River Thames, was to be run on a short-term basis by Shangri-La, the team responsible for running the widely acclaimed after-hours section of Glastonbury Festival. The site exemplified the manic spirit of regeneration, urban development, and wild spending of public money that dominated London in the run up to the £9bn 2012 Olympics.

“I can't even tell you the enthusiasm in the run up to the Olympics.” recalls Benson. “I don't make any claims to any wisdom at that time, obviously; but looking back now, Olympic fever was everywhere, and Glastonbury was at the peak of its cool, so if you're some fuddy duddy on Newham Council, and someone calls to say ‘we want to do Glastonbury in Newham,’ they'd be like 'take my fucking money,’ which they did. To know someone's managed to get that funding, with the licence in place is—in terms of checks and balances, for credibility, that was a huge persuader for us. We then switched our attentions to doing what we do best, which is programming, booking, marketing, hyping that festival. So we booked Snoop Dogg, we booked Orbital, and it started to fly.”

But all was not well with the site. As July's official opening of London Pleasure Gardens approached, it looked worryingly unready. They were running into issues—there was contamination in the ground, asbestos, so the whole site had to be capped with a layer of aggregate, at great expense. With about two weeks to go until Bloc 2012, with over 10,000 tickets sold, it became clear the second stage on the site, a 3,000-plus capacity arena, would not be ready—the entire site would have to be redesigned, with a tent replacing the half-built second stage, next to the main stage. "In hindsight it was a shit place to put the tent,” sighs Hull. “It should have been on the other side of the site. And then you combine that with a number of other things that ought to have been ready, and a failure in the admissions systems…in the dying weeks, the whole thing was scrambled.”

After three or four hours of a sporadically intense Friday night, with an increasingly inebriated and unsettled crowd of thousands coming up against bottlenecks, Bloc took the decision to evacuate and ‘soft close’ the site, stage by stage. Hearing it from Benson and Hull’s point of view, it's hard to argue with the safety-first decision. Weighing up the distress caused by a ruined weekend and a lot of wasted money against the risk of continuing was only ever going to lead that way; they don't mention it specifically, but it's worth remembering that the tragedy at German electronic festival Love Parade, in which 21 people died of suffocation, had occurred only two years earlier.

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"It was reported as this chaotic situation,” says Hull: “you know, 'police are shutting it down,’ but actually what happened, is a group of event management professionals enacted an evacuation plan, and did it in a methodical and professional way. And over a period of about two hours, took about 15,000 people out of a festival site, slowly, without any panic, and no one was harmed. It was just a really shit night out, rather than anything worse." Hull and Benson seem wary that they might be seen to be making excuses, and every explanation in their defense is accompanied by another apology and expression of culpability. "I hate splitting hairs about it,” says Benson, “because I feel fucking bad about it, we both do. We're very very aware that it was us that called people there, we'd never want to shirk that at all.” The question of apologies and blame was a vexed one in the weeks that followed. Bloc kept quiet, and speculation about what had happened got wilder, and the online response angrier.

Administrators were called in, and Bloc's only remaining asset was an insurance policy, in the event of cancellation. “Like all insurance policies, it had an awful lot of exclusion clauses—and one of them was that if we admitted culpability for it, then we as directors wouldn't have been able to claim the insurance. If we'd come out and said ‘we're really sorry,’ we would have stopped the company being able to realise this asset, so that it could pay people back and essentially cover its debts.” He pauses. "We're not, you know, psychos. Obviously we wanted to apologise."

While Hull and Benson waded through the bureaucracy with the government administrators, a friend got in touch to suggest they take on a warehouse he had the lease on in east London's Hackney Wick. Having lost all of their personal savings, and with nothing to work on, they set about trying to turn the warehouse into a club venue. “We set it up on a credit card. We pulled in loads of favors from mates, we had to soundproof the ceiling, rewire it, bring it up to the most basic levels." The administrators were satisfied that Bloc could start trading again, and that they could finally make a public statement of apology, and they had their first party at the Hackney Wick venue on New Year's Eve 2012. Built around the club are 30 music and workplace studios, and they have plans for 30 more, with the warehouses in Hackney Wick as a blueprint: using Bloc to develop new club venues, somewhat against the tide in London, where the last few years have seen a succession of club closures.

The Tumultuous True Story of Bloc Festival
The Tumultuous True Story of Bloc Festival
“No one likes the idea that promoters are gambling with your money, but the alternative is that they’re run by very large, faceless organisations”—George Hull

Having apparently pulled off this exercise in brand detoxification, and re-established themselves at Minehead Butlins, they're ready to wind up and concentrate on the London clubs, and the label: after a string of EPs last year, this month sees the release of their first full length, Bristol producer JoeFarr’s debut album Sense of Purpose, an infectious collision of some of the more experimental and more straight-up, floor-filling techno sounds heard at the festival. Won't they miss it, after all these years? "The weekender is a wonderful thing,” says Benson, “But we have done it nine times. So is there anywhere else to go with it, at Butlins? I'm not sure—and it does represent an absolute, banging great liability. And it's all on our heads." So maybe you don't need that annual festival of risk?

"Exactly,” says Hull. “Barry from [U.K. alternative festival] All Tomorrow’s Parties said running a festival was like going to the races, and of course no one likes the idea that promoters are gambling with your money, but the alternative is that they're run by very large, faceless organisations, sponsored by [British department store] John Lewis, like the [Virgin Media-owned] V festival or whatever. And people fetishise independence and authenticity, but unfortunately you're kind of a stakeholder, as a ticket holder to an independent music festival—we've shown that, we've laid it bare. Bloc's still pretty raw, compared to a lot of dance festivals—at a time when it seems to have become sort of expedient to have them in city parks in the afternoon, with a curfew at 10pm."

"Yeah, when the fuck did that happen?" laughs Benson. "That is absolutely out of this world, that the biggest dance festivals happen in the afternoon. Sip a few bottles of Magners cider, stand in [east London's] Victoria Park, have an edgy brand experience."

"This is the first year we've actually had people complaining that there's nothing on during the day, at Bloc,” says Hull. “And that's true, there isn't much on in the day. But, it's a festival of dance music—it is supposed to happen at night. In the daytime, if you're not on another planet, you should be asleep! Bloc feels like this thing from a different era, being there at 4 in the morning, blinded by lasers, staggering around...” he smiles. “That's what it is to me, anyway.”

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Bloc Festival runs March 11—13 at Butlins, MInehead, U.K.
The Tumultuous True Story of Bloc Festival