The North Hits Back: Band boycotts over festival misconduct proves that there is an appetite for change

With Hit The North festival descending into shambles, Jenessa Williams examines fan and artist involvement in the backlash surrounding SSD.

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What happens when a festival loses 85 percent of its bands? Not because of Covid or awkward travel restrictions, but another kind of malaise: poor working conditions and allegations of sexual misconduct, creating an environment in which fans and music industry staff alike have had enough. For SSD promoters, last weekend’s Hit The North festival was nothing short of a PR nightmare, demonstrating the climate of accountability that music fans are rallying for.  

It’s a story that stretches back over a significant period. One of the largest independent live event promoters in the North East, SSD have been embroiled in criticism since March 2021, when former staff members used employment website Glassdoor to accuse SSD’s managing director, Steve Davis, of various misdemeanours including underpaying workers, creating hostile environments and various instances of sexual misconduct. As a result, the main SSD Instagram was hacked, and the Glassdoor testimonies were shared on the platform, creating a whirlwind of local and national press.

Though the company denied any allegations and promised an independent HR investigation, Davis resigned in April 2021, citing the effects of “trial by social media” as hugely detrimental to his family’s wellbeing. The reigns of the big upcoming ‘This Is Tomorrow’ festival were handed over to a different promoter, Kilimanjaro, but fans were dissatisfied to find that SSD remained involved as a sub-contractor, obscuring their involvement by deleting comments and blocking users who reached out for clarity.

Thought by some fans to be intentionally duplicitous on SSD’s part, mass confusion and frustration ensued. Though some bands did drop out of This Is Tomorrow, acts like Sam Fender were called out for continuing to play, seemingly doubling back on initial statements separating themselves from SSD. As Fender would later state, SSD’s involvement was also unclear for bands, embroiled in legalities and complications that would made it difficult for them to reasonably pull out.

With all this in mind, it makes the mass boycott that greeted SSD’s latest event – last weekend’s Hit The North – even more notable. Released on October 22 via SSD’s Facebook page, the independent HR investigation finally concluded that SSD “could and should have done better” to create fair business practices, but also stated that “no evidence of racism, misogyny or sexual misconduct was found against the managing director.” However, the ill taste of ambiguity that lingers around both statement and company — casting unhelpful narratives around victims with the throwaway conclusion of “people can draw their own conclusions” — led many to feel that nothing had changed at all. On the day of Hit The North’s happening, bands dwindled in real-time, pulling out with an array of statements that all cited different degrees of frustration with the company and their practice. In the end, the remaining sets boiled down 16 sets by 12 bands – including Aussie headliners DMA’s, who still managed to draw a sizeable crowd.

Given the maelstrom of change and fragmented communication that surrounded the festival, fans were understandably left in a difficult position. Many praised bands for pulling out, while others were critical of those who had months to withdraw but did so on the day of, suspicious that they might be simply performing virtue as a means of avoiding backlash themselves. Many were simply angered to have been deprived of a day of live music that they had paid for over two years prior, given the event’s pandemic rescheduling.

Without the full individual context of each artist, it’s near impossible to know the exact position that they were put in, financially or morally. As Fender’s earlier explanation alludes, withdrawing from an event can be more complicated than simply not turning up, and with pandemic impact still hitting small bands the hardest, the losses of defaulting from Hit The North would have been unrecoverable for some. Maybe it is true that some artists simply didn’t know, or care; both bands and managers do need to be more responsible when it comes to clueing themselves in on the people they’re dealing with. But it’s also distinctly possible that many held off announcing until the day of as a means of actual solidarity – creating a wave of last-minute difficulty that the festival wouldn’t be able to simply sweep under the rug.

So what can we learn from this? At the very least, it seems that the North-East has had enough of sub-par music industry conditions, and is willing to make notable sacrifices for it. Newcastle Feminist collective titsupontyne have been co-ordinating the charge for accountability and reform, while events manager Cole Gilroy has set up a GoFundMe page in regards to Hit The North specifically, helping artists to recoup losses they might have incurred from the boycott.

In the absence of trust in one of the region’s supposed leaders, the community are pulling together to rally for a better future, with the seeming support and acknowledgement of the wider music industry. When ‘This Is Tomorrow’ went ahead, Nadine Shah chose to play as an act of defiance (“I refuse to let there be – yet again – another female not present on a main stage.”), while Fontaines DC donated their appearance profits to Women’s Aid Newcastle, drawing a mixed bag of fan contentment and critique. Either way, the conversation that has been opened up around the infrastructure and working environments of live events are the first step towards making them more accountable and transparent for fans.

In tough economic times, especially, there is no pleasure in seeing a live music business fail. But there also can’t be extra-special sympathy for a company that claims to have learned from their mistakes but haven’t actually listened to the fans, bands and workers who are telling them so clearly what change they need to see. Only time will tell if SSD can recover their reputation, but the mantle has been laid down; until the show is safe for everyone, it simply can’t go on.

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