Bloc Weekend 2012 held so much promise: a line-up comprising the world’s best electronic music artists (and Snoop), a newly renovated venue and the rather exciting prospect of being able to party on an 80-metre ex-Communist warship – all curated by the team behind Glastonbury’s Shangri-La.
However, events took a sour turn on Friday, when the event was shut down in the middle of the night due to ‘crowd safety issues’ (according to a preliminary statement on Bloc’s official website), leaving thousands of disgruntled festival-goers stranded on an industrial estate in South East London. So, what went wrong?
It was clear from boarding the DLR at Bank station that Bloc Weekend was a sell-out; almost everyone onboard was on their way to the event and as we dismounted at Pontoon Dock at 8pm, we were greeted by a dense, slow-moving entry queue. After finally finding the press entrance (which was not signposted), we flipped open a map and it was clear from the outset that all was not well.
Despite there being eight stages listed, only seven were marked on the map, with the Laderaum stage (headlined by World Unknown) nowhere to be seen. It was also obvious that the music stages were heavily concentrated on the site’s east side, with the site’s west side comprising just two bars, a set of portaloos and a few art installations. This huge, empty space was unnecessary and could have held at least two or three more tents; there was simply no reason to venture over there, unless you wanted to have a cocktail or a quiet few minutes to yourself.
Upon returning to the music side of the site, we were greeted by an extortionately long queue to get onto the 700-capacity MS Stubnitz. Glancing up at the ship’s top deck, which was already bursting at the seams, it was obvious that the vast majority of the people queuing were never going to be able to get onboard and it appeared that the stewards were implementing a one-in, one-out policy.
Puzzled, we moved along to the main arena to catch Amon Tobin, and were greeted by a similarly long queue. Fortunately, our pleas of ‘we’re press’, combined with the flashing of our black and yellow wristbands, was enough to sweet-talk the steward into letting us queue jump and we ran into the tent expecting a heaving crowd. However, what we were greeted with was a tent at half-capacity; there was clearly no communication between the people on either side of the tent flaps as the queue could easily have been disbursed by letting a couple of thousands punters in. It seemed very odd that there was no free-range access to the tents, with just one entry and one exit point, thereby creating a queuing system and a bottleneck around what was the busiest part of the site anyway.
After Amon’s show, we perused the rest of the tents, one of which was a fairground ride with a tinny sound system projecting the music to about 50 people within a 10 metre radius. All the tents had equally long queues and it became startlingly clear that, combined, the tents were never going to be able to hold everyone on-site. The most touted reason for Bloc’s failure has been one of over- capacity, with the unfortunately named organisers Crowd Surge overestimating the number of people that could fit in the London Pleasure Gardens. Now, the number of people on-site would have been perfectly fine if there had been more music tents and if these tents were distributed evenly throughout the site. Instead, what the organisers had done was squeeze the tents into 30- 40% of the site, thereby creating a bottleneck where thousands of people were jostling to see people perform, leaving the majority of the site practically deserted. The space had simply not been utilised correctly and as we moved round the increasingly crowded tent area, we heard many people complaining about how they had been queuing for ages. The mood was turning decidedly sour.
What we were also struck by was the lack of stewards. There were a few dotted around, but not nearly enough to deal with the hoards of people on-site, and as the night progressed it was obvious that they were overwhelmed. We encountered one doorman at the exit gate of the Carhartt tent fending off groups of people that were attempting to avoid the entry queue, which snaked round the entirety of the tent. He relented to our press pass powers and, as earlier, we emerged in a half- empty venue to the sounds of Mosca.
It was when we emerged from the Dome at around 12:30am that we learnt the place was being shut down; very poor timing, as there were was then a mad rush for the DLR, which was on the verge of closing. We managed to jump on a shuttle bus, which our tickets had told us would take us to Liverpool Street, but in fact dumped us at Canning Town, where we were again faced with a closed tube station alongside hundreds of other festival-goers. It was then onto an unpleasantly packed nightbus into Central London that we had to board, as taxis were few and far between (not to mention pricey).
There have been rumours abound on the Twittersphere about failing ticket scanners, glitches on Crowd Surge’s website that allowed people to print off multiple tickets and of artists being forced to stay on-site until 3am – none of which I can comment on. However, from being there on the night, it was clear that failed for three key reasons:
2) Under-utilisation of space
3) Too few stewards
The Metropolitan Police later released a statement claiming that the festival had been shut down due to ‘people hiding under cover during the showers’, rather than over-ticketing. I can categorically state that this was NOT the case, as there was not one drop of rain from 8pm when we arrived on-site to 1am when we were told to leave the premises. To add to the bizarre cover-up, Bloc Weekend’s official Twitter account glossed over the ensuring chaos, with a preliminary statement from the organisers offering no apology, simply telling ticket-holders not to come to the site on Saturday.
It’s too early to tell whether Bloc, Crowd Surge and the London Pleasure Garden can recover from this debacle, but what is clear is that this was a classic case of ambition over substance.
Words: Wendy Davies