Coming soon to a music festival near you: the wristband racket


In years past, a conference dealing with music festivals would attract a small crowd of raddled old promoters, eager-to- cash-in farmers, a few shady types, and the occasional oddball struggling to speak sense amid all the shouting about profit margins.

In contrast, last week London’s 02 saw “1,000 delegates comprising the largest and most senior group of UK and European music festival industry professionals ever assembled under one roof” at the UK Festival Awards and Conference 2009. Given that Irish music festivals now have a significant UK input, what went down at the O2 could affect next year’s Oxegen and Electric Picnic.

Of course, the elevated status of the Music Festival Conference is down to the irrevocably changed music economy. More bands than you imagine (including a number of headlining acts) stay afloat only thanks to the money guaranteed by the summer festival season. As such, the multibillion-euro festival industry wants to protect itself from encroaching criminal threats.

A few years ago I was trudging my way to the Glastonbury site. My ticket was to be picked up at, say, Gate F, which was still a half-hour trek away. A couple of people around me (obviously criminal masterminds) simply pulled down the wire and walked straight onto the site. Naturally I and many others followed.

Try that now at Glastonbury and you’d be confronted by a towering wall and scowling security men. The Glastonbury Wall is always a horrible sight, but if it means you’re not to going to be trampled underfoot, or to have to queue for four hours for everything because of the freeloaders, then so be it.

Festival crime is now a major issue for promoters, though you won’t find them handing out press releases about it. It includes the pillaging of tents, personal theft, and ticket forgery by trained criminal gangs who know what they want and how to get it.

The conference’s “Criminal In-Fest-Ation” forum heard some startling evidence from Reg Walker of Iridium Security, which looks after security at several major festivals. Walker spoke about how 100 phoney wristbands had been seized at this year’s Reading Festival. What worried him was the high quality of the fakes, right down to the barcodes. “They’re highly convincing and virtually indistinguishable from the real item.”

According to Walker, a criminal gang staged a “test run” this summer of these fake wristbands. Now that they know the lie of the security land, they plan a major swoop next year.

“The amount of effort and expense they have gone to means it is not commercially viable to produce these in the hundreds,” he said. “I believe it was a test run and that next year there is a plan to manufacture them in the thousands. One or more of the major festivals is going to get hit unless we deal with this now. This is the most serious problem and the most serious challenge we face in 2010.”

The fakes are surprisingly easy to fabricate. Either you get the wristband design ahead of time from an insider, or simply arrive early, get one of the first ones handed out and turn around the fakes in 24 hours.

There are public order issues if fake wristbands are mass-circulated. As there is no apparent way of distinguishing the phoneys from the real thing, 60,000 people could descend on a site that is only licensed (and has the water and sanitation facilities) for 40,000. And even if the promoters close all entrances when the 40,000 limit is met, that could still leave as many as 20,000 genuine punters fuming outside.

Part of the blame lies with the punters who buy counterfeit wristbands from touts outside festivals. (A well-known tout trick is to trawl nearby pubs while the festival is on and “sell on” wristbands.)

It’s hard convincing some fans that buying a wristband at a knock-down price from someone “who had to leave in a hurry” is helping organised criminals. With festival tickets so expensive and selling so quickly on their release – coupled with a certain amount of peer pressure to get to the festival – you can see why this is a lucrative market. The solution: stick to the official websites and accept no substitute.