It’s been a terrible week for Bloc.
The UK festival brand was embroiled in controversy last Friday when co-founder George Hull announced that he was quitting the rave promotion business because today’s young clubbers are too “safe and boring”.
Ravers who had paid to attend the final weekender at Butlins and Bloc’s countless club nights over the past decade took issue with Hull’s criticism, which spanned everything from requests for Wi-Fi and vegan meals to “safe space” policies aimed at curbing harassment in clubs.
Despite the recent festival being announced as Bloc’s last, the brand intends to carry on with a “super club” in London’s Hackney Wick. Bloc was quick to distance itself from Hull’s comments with a short statement posted to Twitter, but bad blood and uncertainty remains. Last week’s furore was just the latest round of negative publicity for Bloc, following the high-profile cancellation of their London festival in 2012 and controversy surrounding the lack of diversity on the 2015 line-up.
To find out how Bloc intends to recover from the “spineless hipsters” debacle and address criticisms from Bloc attendees and DJs alike, FACT spoke to Hull’s business partner Alex Benson in his first interview since the Spectator piece appeared online. The discussion also touched on many ongoing debates within club culture, from booking policies and safe spaces to licensing regulations, so we’ve decided to publish the interview in full.
“I was fucking livid about the Spectator article. I thought it was totally boneheaded”
Did you know that George had written the piece for the Spectator before it went up?
Yeah, I knew that he wanted to pursue a career in freelance journalism and I knew that he was going to write a cantankerous old man piece for the Spectator, which he intended to be sort of funny and provocative. It wasn’t particularly funny. We discussed it and I said that it wasn’t something that was going to go up via Bloc, but I respected his right to publish his own views under his own name. I mean, he is an independent person.
So had you been aware of his frustrations prior to the piece being published?
The thing is, he hasn’t been walking around Hackney Wick muttering under his breath about the youth of today, walking around Dalston hitting people’s ankles with his walking stick or anything. You’re going to think, “Yeah, he would say that,” but I think that what we’re looking at in the piece is quite a lot of manufactured old man rage. A bit Victor Meldrew.
You’ve obviously known him for a long time. Did you feel personally upset by what he said?
Yeah. I have known George for quite a long time. We haven’t just started working on Bloc together, he’s been one of my best mates since I was about 10. We’ve been through an awful lot together personally and professionally over the years and yes, do you know what, I was fucking livid. I thought it was totally boneheaded, all of the stuff in it. I thought that it didn’t really reflect what George felt, and it certainly didn’t reflect what Bloc felt. I just wanted to wring his neck, really. It was a very, very frustrating period in our professional and personal relationship.
Is George still involved in Bloc or has he left the company?
He is still involved but he’s taken a bit of a back seat from the music promotion stuff. We do an awful lot of stuff round here at Autumn Street – run a lot of studios, obviously the festival, but not any more. There’s a lot that goes on at the club. He’s not going to be so front line for a while.
Did you feel like what he said was disrespectful to a lot of the people who have stuck with Bloc through trying times?
Bloc’s gone through two really distinct periods, or it has done for me. There was that period initially building it when we were getting started in our early 20s, when it was building up momentum, it was all coming together and there were fresh audiences. And we took it up to the point in 2012 where it just supernova-ed and it all collapsed.
And then the second period began when we opened the club in London and gradually brought back the weekender. But we were so – and I say we, I want to emphasise the we – we were so grateful when not only people came back who had known it from the first period, but when fresh fans started coming who were only dimly aware of Bloc’s past. There were people starting to go to clubs who maybe weren’t at the Pleasure Gardens [site of Bloc’s 2012 festival, which was shut down on the first night] but heard about it as quite a big deal, and they were prepared to give Bloc a try. And we were so grateful, and that is the word – grateful. And I publicly said it so many times: thank you.
It’s an inherently unstable business, music promotion, and improbably we rose up to that enormous event which went completely wrong at the Pleasure Gardens, and then even more improbably, everyone gave us a second chance. We were so aware of that. And that’s why I have been so stung by George putting that out, because it’s just contrary to how we feel.
Would you disagree with what he said about young people being “safe and boring”?
It’s a non-discussion, it’s totally bollocks. What’s the general argument, that young people don’t swing as hard as old guys? Where do you even start with that? It’s like talking to a drunk old man in a pub. I genuinely find it a bit of a meaningless discussion. We work in raves, putting on dance events for young people. As you will have noticed, as I have observed in the years I have been doing it, things tend to change. Every two or three years there’s a new style, there’s a new generation, there’s a new theme.
Even while we were doing it there was a big transition to having an online presence. When we were doing Bloc when we were younger we had to drum up shitloads of interest by riding around on our bikes and giving people flyers. Then you move over to having an online community and you can talk to them direct. That’s a pretty big change, and that all happened while we were doing it, and there continues to be an influx of new young people who have new young ideas. That is entirely non-controversial, and a lot of them come to Bloc. How fucking cool is that?
Another thing that was annoying about the article, is that if you read it you’d think that George is about 62. He’s not obviously, he’s 32. We come from Norfolk, we lived out in the countryside and we started going to pit parties in our mid-teens, so we’ve been out raving for quite a while. But when you get a little bit older you’re not necessarily on the front lines in the same way. But we’ve been gifted this second look into frontline clubbing by running a venue and by keeping Bloc going for as long as we have, so I actually see week in, week out what the people are like who come to the clubs. Yeah, we have some nights that have older people, but we have a busy club full of people who are probably, I would say, in their late teens, early 20s, and they’re packing the place out. So of course they’re going out.
“I hope that people recognise this as a temporary blip on an otherwise positive trajectory”
One thing we noticed at Bloc last weekend was that a lot of the line-up is geared towards techno – Bloc is a techno festival, and that’s what its roots are. My observation is that a lot of young people are more interested in emerging genres like footwork, grime and Jersey club. We felt that maybe there wasn’t as much of that at Bloc as young people want. Do you think that the lack of those genres is a reason why George thinks young people aren’t having a good time?
So what you are asking is because we’re not representing what they want to see at Bloc they’re not turning up at Bloc, is that right?
Yes. Our take was if there had been more of these emerging genres there might have been a lot more young people there.
Sure. You know the piece was written before the festival didn’t you?
So that’s actually pretty important. When George was at the festival he actually had a really good time, and really enjoyed seeing loads of new people there. So that’s another really annoying thing about the whole piece coming across like that. I would like to represent as much stuff as possible at Bloc. We are human after all. When we programme stuff, I programme stuff I love, I programme stuff I’ve heard about. Unlimited. There is only so much that I know about though, I am me. We do have quite a commitment to emerging stuff. We did the R&S vs Boxed stage, that was pretty cool – Mr Mitch, Logos, representing a new generation of grime producers. I take your point. I mean, a breadth of programming is always good.
This leads into my next question about the superclub you say you’re building. Is there anything more you can tell me about how that’s going to work?
We brought forward the announcement of that earlier than I would have liked to. At the moment, the property acquisition, the licensing and the planning stuff is just too commercially sensitive to go into details publicly. I hate being cagey about stuff, especially in the context, but that’s just the case. If I was going to tell people what it would be like, it’s going to feel a lot like our Autumn Street venue – but more so. We’ve just had a really brilliant experience with the club because, remember that frontline thing I was talking about before? You get to meet a lot more people than you would doing a festival – promoters, clubbers, artists – it’s week in, week out. We’ve had a really good ride of it and it’s something I really want to develop, and I see that as being a lot more – it’s almost been more hands-on than the festival in a way, because you’re there refining it, week in, week out.
Is the programming policy going to be diverse and broad? I would look at something like Corsica Studios as being the benchmark for forward-thinking London clubbing.
Corsica is a brilliant venue, a real inspiration. Yeah, definitely, I would want to make the programming as broad as possible, but the way that we do that is by working with as many different promoters as possible, and I would urge anybody who wants to do a night at Autumn Street – it’s not just a house and techno club, we’ve had a really wide range of stuff here. We had A$AP Rocky here once with Boiler Room, and we’ve done Boxed here quite a few times. I would really open up our venue to any promoter and any style, so long as it’s interesting and people want to see it.
Earlier today the Guardian published a piece which seemed to indicate that most young people would rather stay in than go out to a club. It paints a pretty bleak picture. How do you think that you can make a success of a new club in what seems to be a hostile climate?
This is my specialist subject at the moment. Creating a successful club in London involves an enormous amount of work – I would say three quarters or more of the work you put in is on negotiating the licensing and regulation. That’s the most important part, keeping the doors open. I wish it wasn’t the case, but the programming and all of the great stuff that people come to enjoy has to take a back seat while you put all your energies into keeping the doors open. Once you’ve done that and you create a successful, welcoming, inclusive, functioning infrastructure, then you can begin to take a few risks creatively, because apart from anything else, in London specifically at the moment there are not a lot of venues.
There are more people who want to go to the venues than the venues themselves. So I would argue in order to create a successful venue, you have to be dry, square, boring and a bit old. You’ve got to go and talk to your local policeman, you’ve got to understand the way licensing authorities work. You’ve got to get to know your neighbours really well. It’s only on those foundations that you can build a sustainable space that you can present the music you love in.
“We made a mistake [by not booking enough female artists], it was foolish. We were very conscious in the programming this year”
One of George’s comments which people were particularly upset about was his dismissal of safe space policies aimed at reducing harassment. What is Bloc’s official stance on that?
This was just so unbelievably bungled. Of course Bloc stands for all the intentions of the safe space ideology. Of course. We want to try and create the most welcoming, inclusive environment, where everybody feels comfortable reporting any activity that makes them feel uncomfortable. Of course we do. I think George was getting confused with the safe spaces policy as it applies sometimes to academic discussions, as opposed to the very sensible guidelines that are laid out about how we interact with each other in nightlife.
George is the chair of our local Pubwatch scheme, and some friends of mine run the Good Night Out campaign. Some people from Good Night Out came to our office and we had a discussion about it. One of the key things they were doing was offering training to staff to help understand any complaints about harassment that were coming through. An eminently sensible policy, and one any venue would want. So George made time at a meeting with all of these license holders to introduce the guys from the Good Night Out campaign and their training programme. George has interacted with and supported this sort of thing before. Why he would then choose to deride it in an article, I do not know. But he’s on the record as doing the right thing at a different time.
Obviously we feel very strongly that we don’t create a space where anybody feels uncomfortable or harassed. We talk to people a lot about their experiences and we do feel as though Autumn Street represents a safe space from some of the shit that can go on in other areas of nightlife. People do feel as though they can report things that go wrong, and I would encourage anyone publicly, if you’re at Bloc and something does happen along those lines then you should report it to the staff, because they are briefed to take it very seriously, and if they don’t I will hear about it afterwards, because it’s simply not acceptable.
So do you have safe space guidelines written up for the club?
I’ll be honest with you, no, we don’t. But obviously it’s something that we’re going to see to learn more about and I am engaging the Good Night Out guys to do that training with our staff. The training will happen as soon as possible. In terms of published guidelines I don’t want to do anything disingenuous and draft up a safe space policy overnight, because the thing about the training for the staff is that we’re doing it anyway.
In terms of a published safe space policy it’s something I am going to talk to the team about and find out about, because we support it and believe in it, and people need to be reassured given what’s gone on. I think it’s also worth pointing out that in terms of creating a safe space within Bloc, that’s something that we have always implicitly been committed to. We run a really tight security team, really tight management team, we promote LGBT nights here – we proactively seek to create that environment, whether it’s been published or discussed, that is something that’s been inherent in the team, right from the start. It’s pretty obvious if you know what kind of place Bloc is, the kind of people that go there, the kind of music that’s played here – that environment has to be a place that doesn’t tolerate any kind of harassment or discrimination, of course. So it is something we push for behind the scenes.
As well as the fallout from the 2012 festival, Bloc has had to deal with criticism regarding the lack of female artists on last year’s bill.
Yeah, I’d like to point that out as an example of where we’ve studied and listened to feedback and responded. I admit publicly that we made a mistake, we blindly walked into that, it was foolish. We really were very conscious in the programming this year and I think a lot of people noticed that we had been criticised, taken it on board and changed our behaviour in the future.
A lot of people who have stuck with Bloc over the years might read George’s comments as a final kick in the teeth. Why should anyone still have faith in the Bloc brand? What would you say to show Bloc attendees you still have respect for them?
I think it is fair enough to point out that there have been some high profile slip-ups and things that have gone wrong, but I would contrast the mistakes – and believe me, they are mistakes – with the tremendous amount of activity that Bloc undertakes. The club is open every weekend, [we’ve] been smashing the festivals out for years, the music studios are running seven days a week, we’re pretty active on social media, we’re out and about, we never shy away from interview requests. We do a lot that people respond to positively, and hope that people respond to positively. We are human after all.
Bloc is an institution built around four days of people completely having it in a “hi-de-hi” holiday park. It’s a bit of a weird institution. Unsurprisingly, every now and again we are gonna slip up. I hope that people recognise it as a temporary blip on an otherwise positive trajectory. In terms of the future, what I want to do is keep George out of the fucking press, I guess. I should also say for the record that George is fundamentally a decent guy and I’ve known him for 22 years. He can be annoying, there are so many times I’ve wanted to wring his neck, and there were occasions when I was glad I didn’t wring his neck so that I have an opportunity to wring his neck now. He’s been very annoying in this instance, but I don’t want to see my old mate dragged out in the press.
Bloc is incredibly grateful to everyone who came to the festival, who comes to the club and supports us. There is no atmosphere, despite what was in that stupid article, and no resentment towards the people who have supported us, who constantly reinvent us, who make Bloc what it is. When people go to Bloc and they have a great time in the crowd, with their friends, that’s not made by me or George, that’s made by them. I just want people to recognise that those views don’t represent what Bloc is or about, and [hope] people have a better understanding about what Bloc is about themselves, rather than read about it in some magazine somewhere.
Do you feel raving in the UK has a positive future?
Absolutely, because things will always be reinvented. Raving is a universal human need and desire. People have done it since time immemorial. Collective affirmation, loads of people, standing in a room, loving each other, screaming, shouting, dancing – it’s not going anywhere. If it was gonna die out it would have died out a long time ago. No, it’ll just change and evolve, and we look forward to being a part of that if we can.