Back when I started working as a stagehand, the summer festivals were my ultimate goal. My girlfriend at the time and myself would often attend Rock Werchter, despite the fact that neither of us really enjoyed the intense heat, improvised toilets and trash all around. I guess you could say we just didn’t “get” what festivals were all about.
Now I’m 27 and nearing the end of this year’s edition of summer festivals to work at. I was involved with several locations but the most prominent were Graspop Metal Meeting and Rock Werchter 2012. I’ve been doing both for 5 years and more and I’ve seen them both evolve and grow, move to different locations and add stages where they could. But mostly, I’ve seen the backstage areas change, security get tighter and the appeal of working at these prestigious festivals, dwindle.
Graspop still has that “local festival” vibe. It’s call that way because it evolved from a family festival to a metal meeting without changing names, in a successful attempt to find a hole in the live-music market. I had the privilege of being there almost every day from the construction of the stage until the site was nothing more than a meadow again, starting its yearly recovery from getting trampled and soaked with beer, urine and whatnot.
Most of the management and volunteers are from the area and all know each other, so the atmosphere is generally friendly, with an open bar at the end of every working day, favors if you kindly ask for them, and so on. Despite this, you can tell international management is slowly taking of from the way how the stupidest rules are enforced, to keep check on things like food consumption. It is made very sure that we don’t get to eat one crumb more than we can live off unless we pay for it, using shit like tickets and dispensers that work with bank cards.
Other than a single followspot job for Ozzy Osbourne and friends, I didn’t have to work much during the festival itself so I was free to run stage to stage with my girlfriend. Sleeping on the “regular” campsite was a little odd at first, but it was nice to experience the music from the other side of the fence for once, without having to keep an eye on my watch for load-out.
Where Graspop is slowly rising from its roots, Rock Werchter was bought by Clearchannel and has since evolved to a money-making machine. Walking around the site that is cut off from outsiders (which will take you hours), it’s easy to mistake it for a prisoner camp. Double fencing, security, checkposts, and get this: bar codes. At Graspop, showing your wristband might suffice, but not here.
Here, you are sent an email in advance, containing a link to a website where you have to provide your registration number. I’m sure they check it with the police before confirmation, after which you get a barcoded wristband onsite. On that same band is a series of numbers, telling security checkposts where you are and are not allowed. And, to top it all off: If your wristband has a ‘B’ on it, you are entitled to sandwiches, coffee and 2 drinks. If not: Pay for overpriced food or fucking starve, worm.
Needing toothpaste, I was scanned twice and got checked 8 times on my way from the crew campsite and back. One of my colleagues refuses to work at Werchter because he feels like an inmate there, and I can’t help but agree. We are treated like cattle, with security put in place to tell us which side of the road to walk on. Ironically, an estimated 70% of the crew are security so most of the people it has to boss around are security itself.
Actually, that’s not true: They might think they are security and their shirts might say so, but in reality they are called stewards. Until they pass some psychological tests they are allowed to do nothing more than inform you of the rules. They can’t stop you, search you, or boss you around. You may ignore them as you will, and the worst they can do is call the real security. But since they aren’t informed of this, they’ll never allow it.
Also, they are all volunteers. All of ‘em, and the bar personnel too. Rock Werchter runs on volunteers and while getting fucked for another truckload of profit, they work for a meager thankyou and free one-day ticket.
All this, combined with the fact that I’ve been working there for years and get called back for a thorough check of my wristband every damn time security changes shifts, breeds a certain arrogance in me. I am directly involved with the actual music and they’re mostly just getting screwed in every legal way, and it is damn hard for me to respect their authority as they stand there pointing.
The security system might be slightly more effective if it actually worked. The recognition program is very poorly coded and faults are more a rule than exception, which means that loopholes and backdoors are used constantly and responsibility falls upon the people there, once again. That so-called security that isn’t trained for this kind of situation eventually has the last call regarding who gets in and who doesn’t. Needless to say, despite our standard explanation that our passage is essential to the festival itself, we’ve spent hours and hours sitting on our asses, waiting for some issue to get resolved.
Where was I.
So yeah, festivals are fun to work at. We might get treated like cattle but the atmosphere among colleagues is great and after work, we spend our time watching our own work as the next band makes the stage come alive. From the first minutes you can sense a cheerful atmosphere among the guys that even the occasional social tragedy can’t break. It’s a bonding experience really, one that team building events will never come close to.
The Werchter week was topped off by a Monday of Mondays, as we still had to break down lights and sound in several locations. After 5 days of poor sleep and accumulating injuries, we dealt with a company famous for stressful situations and insanely stacked trailers. And in all honesty, I think we did rather well. It got nice and rough and when we thought it was over and we could go home, we were told to continue on for another 2 hours. It quickly became clear who had it in him and I don’t want to blow my own horn too much, but I’m glad I didn’t end up folding, so perhaps I’ll be there again next year.