A decade of rock music on the field
Of all the places you would expect to welcome 3,000 young people in to mosh, crowdsurf and sing their hearts out in front of their favourite bands, the Queen Elizabeth Country Park on the outskirts of Petersfield would be right at the bottom of the list.
For 10 years, Butserfest has met the demands of young people to get up close and personal with their rock heroes, and has grown to become a milestone in the UK’s festival season. This is all while banning use of alcohol and drugs on the festival site.
This year’s incarnation of the festival, held on September 10, is wet when I arrive. What was once a lush green field is now a plain of muddy carnage, and there doesn’t seem to be a single ray of sunshine on the horizon.
Nevertheless, there are still scores of fans smiling ear-to-ear as they enjoy the likes of alt-rockers Young Guns, gothic punk troupe Creeper, and headliners Mallory Knox.
The biggest grin of the day, however, belongs to the festival’s founder: East Hampshire District Council’s leader, Ferris Cowper.
‘I always get here early, and I like to see the queues before the gates open’, he says.
‘There’s always a queue even though everybody’s already got a ticket and they know they can get in. I tend to just watch the queue because the kids are there laughing with their mates, and they are having a blast.
‘What could be more boring than running a council?’
He laughs: ‘It’s true, and that’s because half of the time I can’t see the effect of what I do.
‘When I stand beside that queue and look at those kids, I think about how we made that happen and we gave them those smiles and those laughs.
‘The first time I saw that, I thought that this is something that we have to keep doing.’
When he became leader of East Hampshire’s council, Cllr Cowper sought to align a need to bridge the communication gap with the younger generation in his district with one of his most passionate hobbies.
He explained: ‘There were a couple of things that all came together all at one time. I’m a rock ‘n’ roll drummer and the band that I run and play for do a lot of functions and get a decent fee income.
‘One of the things you get very early on when you become leader of the council is that “younger people”, in the widest definition, say ‘well, you’re not really doing anything for me, why should I vote?’ or ‘I’m not sure why I’m paying all this council tax, what are you doing?’
‘I was really conscious of that, especially having brought up two daughters in the area, and I felt that way myself as a parent. So I thought “why can’t we put on a music festival?”, because there aren’t any in the area.
‘You’ve got the Isle of Wight, but that’s a bit of a hike if you haven’t got a car, and ditto for Reading.’
With a gap in the market becoming seemingly more evident, Butserfest was born, but its inception wasn’t without the inevitable speedbumps.
‘The first of the biggest challenges when we started Butserfest was choosing the right bands. At that time, it was still run by the council, and my officers and I were an age bracket away from the actual target customers at the gig, so that was quite tricky.
‘The second thing was paying for it, that was always a challenge. Because there’s no alcohol, most of these festivals make a huge amount of money on beer tents. We also had to be careful of the ticket price because of our target age group. In the early days, we were charging £10, now it’s only £20. We’re not going to make the money on the ticket sales or on alcohol, so it’s always going to be a funded gig.
‘We started trying to get some sponsorships, so figuring out how you get sponsors in was the second big problem. However, here we are, 10 years on, and we’ve cracked pretty much all of that now.’
Butserfest 2016 boasted a bill packed with more than 30 bands across three stages, but back in 2007 less than a third of that number occupied a single stage, led by one-hit wonders Elliot Minor.
‘Elliot Minor are a great band,’ Cllr Cowper enthuses. ‘They were really entertaining and they were great fun to work with. They helped us get the whole thing started. Right back then, I even did some of the compering!
‘I wouldn’t say we were amateurs, but we were very much finding our way through how you do this. The first year was a success so we thought we would do it again, and we gradually acquired some sponsors and the bands got bigger.’
The following year’s bill was topped by You Me At Six – a band who have gone on to top the album charts and conquer arenas around the world. Despite its expansion over the years, Butserfest hasn’t followed a similar trajectory, but a sense of intimacy is still one of the day’s strongest facets.
As word of Butserfest’s unique charm and youth appeal gains national interest, Cllr Cowper finds himself at a crossroads when determining the future of the festival.
He said: ‘I think the big decision we’ve got to take is whether we want to change the venue. The park has a capacity of 3,000, so automatically it’s going to have a local feel, it’s going to be friendly, but we’re not going to get aggravation.
‘We have to face that question of whether we are going to leave it at this level to keep the fun, the friendliness and the local feel yet with nationally and internationally famous bands, or whether we’re going to make it a more Bestival- or Isle of Wight-scale event.
‘For me, we do this as a council for the benefit of younger people who don’t have the money to pay the prices for larger festivals and want to have fun without drugs and alcohol.
‘As long as I’m running this, we’re probably going to keep it local, friendly, affordable and free of drugs and alcohol, just like it is now.’
Butserfest has hosted some of the most beloved bastions in the burgeoning British rock scene over the course of 10 years. Main stage alumni include Don Broco, Funeral For A Friend, The Blackout, Bury Tomorrow and We Are The Ocean, but commercial success and Facebook likes is not the be-all-and-end-all of becoming a fixture at the festival.
Implementing a second stage in 2009 gave up-and-coming artists another notch in their belt, but it’s the introducing stage that has been a truly invaluable platform for Hampshire’s budding young performers.
Having travelled the long and winding road himself, encouraging local talent is high on the list of Cllr Cowper’s priorities.
He said: ‘Because I’m a semi-pro musician myself, I know what it’s like getting good quality live gigs. These days, if you go to your local pub, there’s going to be a DJ or an acoustic act because the pubs don’t have to pay them much money.
‘When you’re running a live band, you’re lugging around £30,000 worth of instruments, amplifiers and lighting rigs, and it’s tough.
‘I can’t bring myself to contemplate the end of live music in this area, so let’s do what we can to stimulate and promote live music.
‘If we can carry on doing that, this is where we discover that East Hampshire, which is famous for its grass and its cows and its sheep, actually has incredible musicians of astounding ability.
‘Because of this difficulty in getting quality live gigs, they don’t get the chance to flourish, so one of the big objectives of the introducing stage is to give them a chance to strut their stuff, to showcase their performance, and we’ll book them again.
‘There are also people out there looking at bands, and who knows, those kids may find themselves with a nice recording contract one day!’
With a record number of ticket sales, food vendors selling out of grub halfway through the afternoon and an overwhelming sense of optimism through the torrential downpours, Butserfest’s 10th outing was one for the books. Even as he reflects on the success of Butserfest over a decade, 2016 is going to take some beating for Cllr Cowper.
‘I think the 10th anniversary would be my proudest moment because we’ve been through hell and high water to get to this point’, he admits.
‘With all of those funding issues and contemplating whether it is the right thing to do, whether we’re spending taxpayers’ funds wisely and whether we’re doing a good thing for the community, you look at a day like today, it rained and nevertheless there’s the best part of 3,000 people out there having a huge amount of fun.
‘Getting here has been an achievement in its own right.’