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Making festivals accessible: Chase Park Festival, Gateshead – Alistair McDonald


Chase Park Festival is one of the UK’s most inclusive festivals and is one of very few to have been awarded Gold for accessibility by Attitude Is Everything. This week’s blog post by the festival’s organiser, Alistair McDonald, gives some background to the festival, lays out some ideas for best practice around accessibility, and offers some more general advice to people looking to run events. The blog post is based on a telephone interview with Alistair McDonald by Emma Webster on 13th October 2017 as part of the UK Live Music Census project, and can also be found on the project’s website.

Chase Park Festival is the North East’s festival for everyone and is one of the UK’s most inclusive. We started Chase Park Festival in 2010 after being asked by the Chase Park Neuro Centre to run a music festival. One of their patients was a young drummer who had been left severely disabled following an accident. Even though we didn’t know anything about running a music festival, the Centre wanted us to help bring music back into his life by starting a festival in the park next door. I was working for a provider of neurological rehabilitation at the time so with my colleagues helping with accessibility issues, favours from musicians, and advice from Generator’s Jim Mawdsley, we were able to put on a festival which got a thousand people through the gate in its first year and was a real success.

Chase Park 1Each year the festival has grown in scale and scope. This is partly because word has spread—we now get people travelling from Scotland and Northern Ireland—but also because we need to show one of our main funders, Arts Council England, that we haven’t just sat back and carried on doing the same thing over and over again. We have had such great support from the Arts Council; in fact, without their funding it would be really difficult to run Chase Park Festival because they help us to afford to put on bands that people want to see.  We’re not putting on opera or classical music or the sort of stuff you usually associate with getting Arts Council funding; we’re putting on bands like The Coral and Ash. But the Arts Council is all about trying to get more people to engage with the arts, and because disabled people don’t already engage with the arts as much, the funding is to increase access to the music.

The Arts Council also want to help support artist development, which is something that we’re also committed to. Our second stage is for young disabled bands, for example, and since 2015 we have been working with the Percy Headley Foundation to help enable aspiring disabled musicians to get more performance opportunities. While a lot of young musicians start in pubs and then work their way up through small venues and then on to festival stages, some of our young bands just don’t get those opportunities. We even had one band playing their first ever gig on our festival stage last year and so we want to help to develop opportunities for these bands so that that doesn’t happen again; so that they can develop their stage craft before appearing on the same bill as The Coral and Ash! One of the ways we are doing this is by using Generator’s talent development model, where successful artists share advice and experiences with young bands, and developing it into a model for people with disabilities. To make the model work, we’ve got to make sure that it’s tailored for people with different needs, so we’ve been working with a number of different groups in the disability sector, sitting down with people who understand about the needs of people with autism or Down’s Syndrome or mental health issues or whatever, to make sure that the sessions work for that particular group.

Chase Park Festival 2017

The Coral at Chase Park Festival 2017

I really want people to know what I know, and to want to know what I know. It shouldn’t be ‘best practice’, it should just be what everybody does. Anyone looking to start a festival of any type should understand that it’s all about developing relationships and partnerships with organisations and funders who get what you do and who share your passion. You need to invite people along to your events, get them to talk to your performers and audience to see what a difference your venue or festival makes to their lives, and to get them to understand the barriers involved.  Having good relationships with such people affords the opportunity to be able those sort of conversations that lead on to other things. Get them on board and they and other partners will help to promote your work on your behalf, so don’t shut your mind off to learning about new things and meeting new people. With the Arts Council and the music industries, for example, I spent time talking to people and trying to understand what they’re all about. In the case of the Arts Council it was me trying to understand what it is that they want to fund.  Originally I had put it my application that musicians had offered to play for free, but the Arts Council wants musicians to get paid, so that wasn’t a good thing to put in at all!  You also need to find people who have a similar sort of passion and a similar sort of drive to you and run your ideas past them. I used be to a trustee for the accessibility charity and campaign group, Attitude Is Everything (AiE), for example, and I still keep in close contact with them. This allows me to find out about their new initiatives such as the accessibility toolkit for small venues and their plans to develop a network of accessible venues, all of which will be really useful for the young bands that we’re working with.

In 2015 we were thrilled to be awarded gold accreditation for accessibility by AiE, one of only three festivals to do so at the time, the others being Liberty Festival and Glastonbury.  To give just a few examples of things we do to make the festival more accessible:-

  • Provide really good information about all aspects of the event. People can get anxious about things like where the toilets will be in relation to the stage, or where the car parks will be, or where the disabled camping is in relation to the exits, and this means that they might not buy a ticket. It’s essential, then, to provide information so that people know what to expect when they go to the event, even down to things like whether there are any steep hills so that people in unassisted wheelchairs know what they will have to contend with. When we moved the festival site to Saltwell Park in 2017, for example, we made a video showing people the site beforehand so that they knew what to expect;
  • Put 2 metre wide trackways around the festival site to make it easier for wheelchair users to get around, especially in bad weather. The trackways should be at least 2 metres wide so that two wheelchairs can get past each other;
  • Accessible toilets should take into account people with more complex disabilities. Hiring a larger portaloo, for example, may not fulfil all of your accessibility requirements because there are people with more complex disabilities who have different needs. People with incontinence, for example, need a place where they can change with dignity. We use Mobiloos, which have hoists, benches and room for support workers, and which only cost £300 a day;
  • Employ BSL (British Sign Language) translators on stage who translate not only lyrics but also vital aspects of the performance like guitar solos and middle 8s, so that Deaf and disabled people get all the other vital aspects of the performance—like emotion, tempo and what’s going on stage—beyond just the lyrics;
  • Choose partners and companies who understand access issues so that staff can cater for the needs of people with disabilities;
  • Price is important: your event should be affordable for people with disabilities. 10% of the population are disabled and some are not in work so they might not have the same level of disposable income as other live music fans. Where possible, carers and support workers should get in free and we recommend that there should be a decent discount for those who self-identify as disabled.

The North East in particular can be a bit of a funny place to put on events.  Everyone I know is a music fan and goes to gigs but there are very few long-standing festivals in the region and North East promoters also struggle. It’s difficult to get people to part with their money.  Either people don’t have it or they want to save it and spend it on large-scale events rather than smaller ones like ours.  In 2017 we had The Coral headlining but it was still a big slog to get people to come; they don’t start buying tickets until they’ve seen the weather forecast. There’s a lot of competition and it can’t just be my Mum opening the festival like it was in the first year. Festivals are now a ‘thing’ that people do and there are lots of them about but at least Chase Park has a USP (unique selling point).  An indie festival at heart, we want it to be as accessible as possible but also as normal as possible. It’s a really laid-back festival so even though it’s an indie festival, we don’t get beer-swigging types coming along. In fact, we’re starting to get a lot of families coming and lots of families of kids with disabilities. We are really proud that 10% of our audience identify as disabled. When you’re on site it can feel like there’s a lot of wheelchairs around but, while it seems like there’s a lot of disabled people at the festival, 10% is actually representative of the UK’s disabled population as a whole. The fact that the number of disabled people on site feels unusual just shows how much they are usually missing from events like festivals.

Venues and festivals shouldn’t be frightened of accessibility; it isn’t a headache and it needn’t be expensive. It’s about opening up music to music lovers who otherwise struggle to get access but it’s also about getting more bums on seats and people through the door. I can’t imagine a life without music; can you?

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2 thoughts on “Making festivals accessible: Chase Park Festival, Gateshead – Alistair McDonald

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  1. We’ve been attending for three years now and are really looking forward to the next one. Not only is it VERY well organised and totally accessible, its the many aspects that make the whole such an amazing day! Everyone from the festival goers to the security staff are so friendly, helpful and laid back.
    Thank you so, so much for making this all possible…….

  2. Really wonderful insight here. There’s no reason that more music festivals and music venues can’t be more accommodating – though there may be costs associated with changes up front, the long term can only be beneficial. Thanks for sharing your experience and insight!

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