In late May, I received an email that read: “10,000-capacity, three-day, camping-only test event. Moshing allowed.” I can safely say in all of my time at TPi, I’ve never replied to a PR email quicker. The thought of seeing and hearing some of the UK’s best rock and metal bands on stage, after 15 months away from live music, was one I simply could not miss.
At the risk of stating the obvious, Download Pilot was part of the second phase of the government-backed test events that looked to build evidence on the effect of bringing larger crowds together. The handling of the results of these test events has been scrutinised in recent weeks due to the government’s reluctance to release the data. However, as important as the wider implications of these projects are, TPi was keen to get on site and hear from the men and women who got to break ground on the first UK festival since the onset of the pandemic.
Rocking up on Friday morning, in the pouring rain, TPi was ushered toward the press accreditation following Download’s extensive testing protocols, which involve uploading results of both PCR and a lateral flow test to the festival’s portal. After completing the formalities, TPi was on site, surrounded by 10,000 of the loyal Download family.
Despite the miserable weather, from the person running the front barricade, to the audio engineer at FOH, never has there been a happier festival site. This truly felt like a moment in history, and what better standard bearers than a handful of British metal and rock bands who had been starved of a live audience for the past 15 months?
The general feeling was best described by Frank Carter [of Frank Carter and the Rattle Snakes] as he corralled the loyal test subjects into a large circle pit around the FOH tower. “This is how you put on a fucking festival,” he shouted. You’re not wrong Frank, you’re not wrong.
“It feels like we’ve gone from one to 1,000 miles per hour in a very short space of time,” stated Download Events Manager, John Probyn. Having worked for Festival Republic’s Melvin Benn for the Sefton Park test event [see TPi’s June 2021 edition] he and his team were given the green light to pull together the pieces for the Download Pilot, just three weeks out from the event. “The short turnaround was a challenge, but we had the advantage that I know the site very well, having worked it for almost 20 years. I was also able to bring back many of our regulars who work with us each year and have a great relationship with the local authorities.”
One of the first calls Probyn made was to the Chair of the Safety Advisory Group and the Director of Public Health. “It was imperative that we had their support every step of the way,” explained Probyn.
When it came to setting up the team, Probyn joined forces with Luke Cowdell to divide the responsibilities. “I sat down with Luke to go through budgets and we decided who would look after what.”
Speaking candidly, the one advantage with the current state of the industry was that there was no shortage of kit or crew. The supplier roster included SSE Audio overseeing both stages, Siyan handling lighting and video on the main stage, and Colour Sound Experiment on stage two. “It was overwhelming, both at the Sefton Park event and Download Pilot, with desire for contractors to work with us and to go that little bit further to make the show a reality,” stated Probyn, thanking those that helped make the event a reality.
With the amount of willing participants opting to join the historic crew, TPi asked Probyn if he’d seen any evidence of people not wishing to return to the events industry. “On this project we were able to bring back most of the familiar faces, such as Production Manager, Neil McDonald,” he stated. “Those who want to come back will return to the industry, but for those who don’t, there is always a lot of new blood wishing to join this world – it’s just a case of knowing where to look for them.”
Probyn referenced three students from LIPA who had been brought on to work the Sefton Park show and, due to their keen attitude, were then brought on to work Download Pilot. “We had all three of them in the COVID Compliance department making sure all crew and contractors were following the guidelines,” he explained. “In their downtime, they also got to help our team with the general festival infrastructure.”
THE FIRST BLOOD HAS BEEN DRAWN
Looking after the audio demands for both stages was SSE Audio Senior Hire Manager, Dan Bennett. “The artist advances we received on the audio side felt incredibly normal,” he chuckled, making the point that these were metal bands, so expecting large drum risers and backline is something of an occupational hazard. “It’s good that here we have a true test event to prove we can still do this, and do so safely,” he said.
“A great deal of our staff are still on furlough,” he stated, explaining that it had been a rather busy few months for him, having to oversee everything from small dry hire packages to streamed events and residencies on top of his usual clients.
Amid this packed schedule, Bennett was pleased to pick up the call from the Download team. However, as this was a one-off event, the SSE representative explained that they were unable to bring people back from furlough, meaning that along with designing the PA systems, Bennett was also overseeing crew booking, trucks and crew calls. “It’s been all hands on deck for the past few weeks and I even pulled in my wife to help put together the band booklets.”
For both stages, L-Acoustics was the system of choice. As the configuration for both the stages were new for this year, not to mention catering to a much smaller audience, a brand-new system design had to be created. For the main stage, the hangs comprised four K1SBs, 12 K1s and four K2s, with a side hang made up of 12 K2s and 12 KS28s per side. Meanwhile, on stage two, under the big top, there were 10 K2s with three KARA on the main hang, with two delay setups on the king poles to “give better coverage at the back of the tent, which can often be a tricky point for audio coverage”. For stage wedges, the main stage used d&b audiotechnik M4s, while L-Acoustics X15s were selected for stage two.
With a selection of COVID-19 protocols both backstage and at FOH, including social distancing and cleaning for desks, Bennett outlined some of the extra measures he’d put in to increase safety. “Despite masks and PPE requirements, communication has not been as bad as I’d predicted,” said Bennett, explaining that he’d also put in some protocols to avoid people needing to have to get too close to speak to one another, deploying a more extensive talk back system for the crew.
For control, on the main stage, SSE provided an Avid SL6-24C with a Yamaha CL5 on the stage. Aiding Bennett in FOH duties was a previous TPi Breakthrough Talent Award winner, Oli Crump. “When I got the call asking if I was available, I didn’t quite know what to do with myself,” he stated. “I was initially worried that I might have forgotten how to do it all, but it all came back quickly enough once we got started.” The Audio Engineer went on to explain that it was “an amazing experience” to be back at FOH after such a long time. “I felt very honoured to be one of the few crew working that weekend and hopefully the research from these shows will pave the way for us all to get back out there as soon as possible. Huge thanks to Dan Bennett and the rest of the team behind the scenes at SSE Audio – they’ve been working hard on this for months and it made our lives very easy on site,” he said.
“The first blood has been drawn with this one,” enthused Bennett, giving his final thoughts on SSE Audio’s involvement. “All our equipment is returning to the yard, but now it is prepped and show ready, so we’re able to answer the call wherever that may come from. It has been an honour to be part of the biggest show the UK has seen in the past 15 months. The fact we were chosen has given us such pride and I tip my hat to Melvin Benn and the Festival Republic team for making it happen.”
‘THIS IS WHY WE DO THIS JOB’
Prior to doors officially opening and the eager 10,000 descending on the site, TPi grabbed a coffee with Siyan Lighting Project Manager, Steve Finch and Video Project Manager, Mark Baruch. “Although this is not the traditional main stage size for Download, it’s the same Supernova Structure from Serious Stages that we’ve used for Latitude, so it’s a structure we are more than used to,” began Finch.
With this being a test event, the Lighting PM made no secret that keeping budgets sensible was of paramount importance. “The goal was to produce a rig that would fit the needs for the vast majority of the bands,” said Finch. He continued by listing the various pieces of kit at the bands’ disposal, which included Martin by Harman MAC Viper Spots, Robe MegaPointes, Vari-Lite VL Washes and SGM Q7s. “The Q7s are not only great as a strobe but work really well in the daylight,” enthused Finch. “Metal bands seem to love the look and impact of them.”
For control, an MA Lighting grandMA3 was set up at FOH, which was able to run MA2 software if needed. Despite two of the headliners – Bullet for My Valentine and Enter Shikari – bringing their own desks, for all the travelling LDs using the house console, the team at Siyan implemented a stringent cleaning routine. “We have people rotate through FOH,” explained Baruch. “We set up the first person on our Depence² suite and then they move to the desk after the surfaces have been cleaned.” The two Siyan representatives explained how the flip-flop between the two stages was a godsend as it gave them more time to get everyone set up and in a safe, timely manner.
On the topic of incoming crew, Baruch made a point that it was good to see so many of these acts bringing in production elements to make their show look as good as possible. “It’s been nice to see bands choosing to spend money and support the ecosystem to make this show even better. It might only be 10,000 people, but these bands haven’t played in almost two years and are clearly keen to make an impact,” he said.
One of the biggest incoming productions came with Saturday’s headliner, Enter Shikari. Looking after the design for this show was Mandylights’ Steve Bewley and Tom Edwards. “The band knew that this was bigger than just this pilot show and there were a lot of eyes on this festival, so they really wanted to put on a show,” reflected Bewley, reminiscing about his experience with the Shikari camp in the lead up to the festival. In collaboration with long-standing supplier, Lights Control Rigging, Bewley and Edwards were able to pull off a headline-worthy package for the Saturday night.
Having almost finalised some of the looks for the upcoming tour later this year, the Mandylights team were keen to reflect the upcoming campaign while not basing it entirely around those looks. The result was a look that revolved around several diagonal lines, created by 172 Martin by Harman VDO Sceptron 10s. Also on the package were 30 GLP JDC1s and 12 impression X4 Bar 20s along with two Martin by Harman MAC Aura XBs and six Claypaky Scenius Unicos.
“It was very hectic in the first week when we got the call as to how we would make this show work with all the regulations on the stage,” stated Bewley. “We understood that there had to be social distancing measures and we knew we’d be wearing masks.” For that reason, Bewley was keen to keep the team small. The whole band and crew stayed as a bubble for the duration of the project on the bus. “If one person went down, everyone went down.” Bewley and the team even brought in their own console so there was even less risk of cross contamination. “It was notably a very socially distant FOH,” added Edwards. “Most festivals you usually find you’re very cramped next to each other, but that certainly wasn’t the case this year.”
Away from the lights, Baruch discussed the festival’s video setup. “The two IMAG screens we have provided are much larger than you might expect for a show of this capacity,” he began. The package included one camera at FOH, two in the pit, another on a track, and two more pan and tilt cameras on stage. “Due to social distancing, we were unable to have any camera operators on stage, so we had to rely on the remote cameras,” explained Baruch. Jon Grilli handled all the video directing for the IMAGs.
Baruch and Finch provided their closing thoughts on being involved in Download Pilot. “It’s been absolutely brilliant,” stated Finch. “After such a long time not being on a festival site, there is a particular sense of satisfaction being back and hopefully being part of a solution,” added Baruch. “To be in a wet muddy field, surrounded by trucks and people everywhere – this is why we do this job. It’s just so nice to be back doing all of this again!”
LIFE UNDER THE BIG TOP
Meanwhile under the shelter of the big tent, looking after lighting and video was Colour Sound Experiment. Welcoming TPi to dimmer world was Crew Chief, James Hinds. Having already handled the lighting duties at Sefton Park, the team opted to replicate a lot of the setup for the second stage at Download. “Having gone through all the procedures for Sefton, we were very familiar with the policies that we needed to follow to make this one run smoothly,” stated Hinds. “There are several workflows that were replicated here and others that we’ve adapted.”
That consistency and streamlining was reflected with the fixtures too, with returning favourites, including Robe MegaPointes, Claypaky B-EYE K25s, Scenius Unicos, CHAUVET Professional Rogue R1 FX-Bs and GLP JDC1s. “On this stage we are also seeing a few bands bring some floor packages,” stated Hinds. “We’ve got some cold sparks for Creeper’s set and some extra strobes for Sleep Token’s show.” Every element was planned to be at its safest, to give the best possible chance of a successful return to events. With bands and crew having been off the road for such a long time, Colour Sound Experiment provided incoming LDs a wysiwyg file as soon as possible to give them enough time to program. “We’ve also factored in time to give incoming LDs as much time as possible on the desk to familiarise themselves with the equipment,” stated Hinds. “Thankfully, we’ve got very long changeovers due to the flip-flop line up between the stages.”
Flanking the stage for the weekend were two ROE Visual Black Pearl LED screens. “We brought 270 sq m of the product this year and have been using them for a number of temporary installs,” said Hinds. “With the huge amount of TV and small studio work, it became imperative for Colour Sound Experiment to invest in more small pixel pitch products.” Feeding the screens was a Resolume media server.
Like the main stage, there was a mission to reduce the number of people on stage and therefore six robo cameras were distributed on the stage with only one operated camera in the pit.
Hinds was complementary to the protocols in place. “One thing the crew asked for after Sefton was a hand-washing station,” he commented, explaining that working on a stage meant hand-sanitiser stations didn’t quite cut it when trying to keep clean after a busy load-in. “There’s now a station by catering and it’s one thing I hope remains even after COVID.”
CHANGING OF THE TIDE
While at the second stage, TPi also managed to spend some time with the team from the Music Consortium stage crew and Stage Manager, Alice James. The reason TPi was so keen to speak to James and her team was that she was leading an all-female stage team – a first for the UK festival industry. Her team comprised Crew Chief Ruth ‘Splodge’ Lodge, Rhianne Cheetham, Iona Chard and Georgia Wren. “Having worked in the industry for 15 years, this is the first time I’ve seen an all-female crew work a stage and it’s brilliant,” commented Splodge.
One of the young members of the stage crew, Georgia Wren gave her two cents on being involved in this ground-breaking team. “I remember I worked at Leeds Festival a few years ago and it was a big thing that there were two girls on the main stage in a team of 12. It’s so good seeing everything starting to snowball and becoming a much more recognised profession for women to be getting into.”
James, who is also an Event Management lecturer at BIMM in London, expressed her optimism for seeing similar diversity trends just by the demographic in her classroom. “There is definitely a shift and one of my classes of 25 now only has four boys – a notable change in what you might traditionally expect. I think once those people have worked through the ranks, what we have seen at second stage Download this year will no longer be noteworthy but the norm.”
CABS, CABLES AND COLLABORATION
The fact that this was a test event did not dampen the various acts’ wish to put on a proper show, which included vast instrumentation. Backline supplier for the festival was STS Touring. “This year, we were mainly contracted by bands that wanted to cover their artists’ endorsements and supporting British Drum Company and Marshall Amplification with stock on site,” stated STS’ Richard Knowles. “Being involved in the first major festival in the UK since the COVID-19 pandemic was a real privilege and a brilliant experience. The atmosphere on site was fantastic and there wasn’t a single tech, crew hand or member of staff that wasn’t happy to be back at work.”
Knowles explained how traditionally at Download, their usual customers are international acts flying in and therefore, as Download Pilot was made up of British-only acts, they were not expecting to do a lot of supply work. “Most of the hires we took on were additions to fill out the bands’ stage set, or emergency kit to replace broken or forgotten items,” he explained. “We also took some sales stock from our sister company, Tour Supply UK, so bands had the back-up service for the usual consumables and spares we carry in our backstage cabin.
“Download Pilot was incredibly well organised and run,” he added. “It was amazing what was achieved in such a short time frame. The additional procedures we had to go through for accreditation were extremely well managed on site. Everyone was really on top of what they needed to do, which made for a great atmosphere. The fans need a big mention, too. Even though it was a smaller line-up, they really got behind all the bands.”
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE FUTURE?
“I’m certainly not taking my foot off the accelerator, especially if we’re looking ahead to the August bank holiday,” asserted John Probyn when TPi asked that inevitable question – what does the future hold for the 2021 festival season? With the latest news that more festivals have been granted test status such as Latitude and Tramlines, it seems that lessons learned from this format will be taken into the next round of events. As always, we’ll have to hold tight to see what the future holds, but Download Pilot made it abundantly clear what the live industry is fighting for. Hopefully we’ll all soon be able to share stories of what it was like when you first felt that sound of the PA going through your chest and the roar of the crowd.
This article originally appeared in issue #263 of TPi, which you can read here.
Photos: Oli Crump, James Bridle, Matt Eachus & TPi