Larkin Around At Virtual Awards

The second Virtual Festivals conference was a massive success compared with the first, although the following annual awards ceremony has sparked controversy.

Lifetime Achievement Award-winner Katrina Larkin, who took the prize for building the Big Chill, wasn’t so popular with unpaid creditors when the company behind the event tanked with estimated debts of about £1.2 million ($1.9 million).

Details of Big Chill’s debts emerged more than a week before Virtual set up camp at London’s O2 Nov. 19. Copies of “Festival UK” – a stand-alone supplement that conference co-sponsor Live UK published to mark the event – wasn’t put in the conference bag, presumably because its Page 3 story gave all the gory details.

The few copies that were displayed on a table were gone by 6 p.m.

Rumours circulating in the conference bar said it had been removed because Larkin was upset by the article.

Virtual Festivals’ chief Steve Jenner denies that the magazines were kept out of circulation and says they’d probably all been snapped up by late afternoon.

He said he was so pleased with the supplement, which carried a very positive feature on Virtual, that he was proud to get hold of one to show his father. He said it was never intended to put it in the conference bags.

Live UK editor Steve Parker was unavailable for comment at press time.

The Lifetime Achievement Award was backed by UK trade weekly Music Week, one of the four magazines sponsoring the event, which had run a similar story in the previous week’s issue.

The creditors’ major gripe is that Big Chill allowed suppliers to continue to deliver their goods and services when it must have known it wasn’t generating sufficient ticket income to pay for them. Larkin said the financial situation hadn’t become clear until three weeks after the event.

The creditors have also targeted Larkin for telling the press what a success Big Chill has become – hence the Virtual Award – while major suppliers including Show Event Security, Power Logistics and Eve Trackway are owed about £50,000 each. PRS and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs are owed even more.

London-based restaurant and bar chain Canteloupe Group, which has had a controlling interest in the Chill Fest company since 2002, has reportedly written off a £531,000 claim.

The creditors are also angry because Festival Republic’s purchasing of the naming rights to Big Chill is being reported as a big step forward for the event. Larkin has also moved to the Live Nation-Gaiety Investments company and will continue to run the festival.

Having also bought the naming rights to Norway’s bankrupt Hove Festival and rebuilt the event, Festival Republic chief Melvin Benn would presumably win any Lazarus award for breathing life into dead festivals.

The Virtual Festivals’ website carried a report on Larkin winning the award, although it also allowed postings from those who were critical of her taking the prize.

“It was interesting to hear yesterday at the conference that Katrina is sleeping better since selling the Big Chill Festival to Festival Republic,” wrote Graham Brown, head of PR company Plaster, the morning after the event.“The suppliers she left with invoices unpaid from this year’s festival by putting part of the company into liquidation aren’t sleeping quite so well.”

He said this kind of bad business practice should see organisers not allowed to trade rather than being rewarded with lifetime achievement awards. He called the award “morally abhorrent.”

Brown, who has production company clients that have been hit hard by the bankruptcy, told Pollstar it’s “disgusting” that Larkin is invited on a panel to talk about sustaining a brand.

“Seems that the way to sustain your brand is to bury £600,000-plus of debts on your suppliers by liquidating Chill Fest and simultaneously selling the license to Festival Republic to promote Big Chill, keeping yourself a cushy role as a ‘hippy organiser’ with an idea but no business sense. What are these people thinking about, putting her on seminar panels and giving her awards?”

Jenner has responded by saying the award was decided prior to the announcement that Festival Republic was acquiring the event and certainly before anyone knew about Big Chill’s liquidation.

“It was based purely on The Big Chill’s unparalleled creative impact on the festival landscape over the past few years,” he said. “It is extremely unfortunate that these unsavoury developments have since come to pass and we have nothing but the deepest sympathy for all of the suppliers involved.”

Many felt Jenner and his excellent organisation had been unlucky because events had seemed to conspire against them. Some expressed surprise that Larkin accepted the award.

The others to get on the podium at IndigO2 included reps from Glastonbury (best major festival), Kilimanjaro’s Sonisphere (best new festival), and the splendidly named Croissant Neuf Summer Party, which picked up the greener festival award.

Kings Of Leon took the “anthem of the summer” gong for the radio smash “Sex on Fire.” Florence And The Machine was crowned best breakthrough act, while La Casa Azul was the Virtual Festivals’ critics choice.

The “ Festival Fitty” award, sponsored by the Daily Mirror’s pop gossip page, went to Blur frontman Damon Albarn. Lily Allen took the female version.

Blur also took best headline performance, Camp Bestival was best family festival, Scotland’s T In The Park has the best toilets, and the best promoters are the organisers of Beach Break Live. They collected the Total Production-sponsored award after being forced to move the student festival more than 200 miles at about three weeks’ notice.

Cornish bylaws meant the festival couldn’t get a license, so it was moved from the original site in St. Agnes in the southwest to Port Lympne Safari Park in Kent, which is in the southeast. It also took the “best small festival” gong.

Leefest won “grass roots festival.” Best metropolitan festival went to London’s Camden Crawl, and Creamfields was best dance event.

Best overseas festival, which replaced best European festival when Virtual created the European Awards that will debut at Eurosonic Noorderslag Jan. 13, went to Ireland’s Oxegen. It had won best European festival last year.

Best medium festival went to Bestival and best lineup went to Lounge on the Farm.

Earlier in the day, the second Virtual Festivals’ conference, which benefited by the move from the classroom-like atmosphere of London’s Gibson showrooms to the sumptuous comfort of the O2’s cinema, had about 400 delegates at its busiest and looks to have established its place on the ever-growing conference circuit.

It’s a platform that gives the smaller UK festivals the same voice as the larger ones and the attendance figures suggest the outdoor market is responding to it.

The panels comprised major players from the UK festival business, and guests from mainland Europe including Yourope festivals organisation chief Christof Huber, but often became low-key affairs given the expertise on tap.

Like most conference panels they had their moments, particularly a nimble-witted and very funny demonstration of how to deflect a heckler.

Having explained to IQ magazine’s panel just how much his company looks after the acts that play its festivals, Live Nation festival guru John Probyn found himself challenged by a manager who said one of his acts played an LN festival and the catering amounted to its members being given £5 to spend at the burger van.

Probyn said it was a mistake because it should have been only £3 and pointed out that the burger van was conveniently parked alongside the band’s dressing room. Everybody laughed.