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Download Pilot 2
Photography Matt Eachus

Download: a euphoric weekend at the UK’s first post-lockdown festival

10,000 people attended the pilot event, which went ahead without masks or social distancing – here, bands and festivalgoers tell us what went down

“It was like being hit by the shock wave of an explosion of pent-up emotion and energy,” says 28-year-old Ali, one of the lucky few who attended the UK’s first post-lockdown festival over the weekend. “It felt incredibly cathartic.”

As we endure a second summer without music festivals, thousands snapped up the opportunity to return to the fields of Derbyshire’s Download Festival on Friday (June 18) for a three-day ‘pilot’ event – no masks or social distancing in sight.

The usual 111,000 attendees were culled to just 10,000, each of whom had to provide a negative COVID test upon entry. “There were two layers of security,” explains Ali, “one where you showed the NHS confirmation of a negative test alongside your ID, and then regular festival security.”

29-year-old Will expands on this, telling Dazed that each festivalgoer had to do both a lateral flow test and a PCR test ahead of the event – the latter of which was done 24 hours before – as well as submit a PCR result from five days later “to monitor the (possible) spread of the virus”. 

For 23-year-old Sarah, these safety measures calmed the apprehension she felt before arriving on site. “After about 10 minutes, I – and I think everyone else at the festival – let any inhibitions fall away.” Sarah adds that there were also re-entry restrictions, track and trace in certain areas, and hand sanitisers by all food vendors.

While the Download Pilot is the first weekend camping trial to take place in the UK, the government has been running its so-called ‘Events Research Programme’ since April. As part of the trials – which aim to find a way to relaunch mass events – 21,000 people attended the FA Cup final, 4,000 headed to London’s O2 Arena for the Brit Awards, and 3,000 got to sweat the night away at a ’rave’ in Liverpool. Of the 60,000 that attended the trials, just 15 people tested positive for coronavirus.

Ali cites the low rate of COVID transmissions from these previous pilots – in particular April’s club night – as eradicating any nerves he may have had before Download. “It was initially surreal being around that many people,” he says, “but soon COVID felt like a distant memory.”

So, what exactly went down at this historic event? “(I have) so many memorable moments,” exclaims Will. “Holding Absence opening with ‘Celebration Song’ – which opens with the line, ‘I’m alive’ – didn’t leave many dry eyes in the house. Enter Shikari was wonderfully life-affirming, and the crowd loved it. While She Sleeps put on one of the best sets of their lives, with (vocalist) Loz even climbing the sound desk tower. Skindred brought the biggest party of the weekend – one of our camp was carried nearly to the front in a camping chair! It was simply one of the best, most wonderful, and happiest weekends of my life.”

And it wasn’t just camping chairs gliding through the crowd at Skindred. “A guy dressed as Jesus crowd surfed on an air bed,” Ali tells Dazed, “closely followed by the ‘Newport Helicopter’, which is where everyone swings their tops around in the air and jumps. (Another memorable moment was) everyone screaming the generation-defining ‘Tears Don’t Fall’ during Bullet For My Valentine’s headline set. Also, the mosh pits were amazing – my body hurts in places I didn’t know they could. Everyone was determined to have the time of their lives, bands included. I got the impression that people really did appreciate how special an event it was.”

24-year-old Mofe believes Download was the “best festival to have a comeback because moshers are generally respectful”. She continues: “If someone fell down, people helped, if someone didn’t want to be in the pit, people respected that. Every now and then, people would realise they may have been standing too close for comfort, so would take a step back to make sure others felt safe.”

“It was initially surreal being around that many people, but soon COVID felt like a distant memory” – Ali, 28

Paul Barrow, whose band Death Blooms opened the festival, describes his set as “an overwhelming burst of emotion”. “Every single person in that tent wanted to be there and it really showed,” he tells Dazed. “We all needed that – every single one of us. It was a massive honour to be the first band able to do that.”

“Everyone was absolutely buzzing and full of love,” he continues. “Everyone made new friends; bands were rushing to see other bands after their own sets. It was just something else. I think it really made everyone realise just how amazing the music scene is in the UK. Every single person there supported one another.”

For Leeds-based Static Dress, the event marked two milestones. “This was actually our first ever festival appearance, so it was really overwhelming,” says vocalist Olli Appleyard. “It was such an honour and a privilege to play in front of so many people after nearly a year of not playing a single show.”

He adds: “I don’t think I saw a single person upset or down, which is so refreshing after so long of seeing the entire music scene glum and depressed.”

Although it may be too early to say for sure, Melvin Benn, the managing director of the Festival Republic group (which runs Download Festival), told PA Media that the weekend’s success is “100 per cent evidence” that large-scale music events can take place safely amid the pandemic. “What is extraordinary about it is the level of compliance around the testing and requirements we have,” he said. “It’s really fantastic. I am very heart-warmed by it all.”

Will says the pilot – as well as the success of the NHS vaccine roll-out – has made him “hopeful” that live music and festivals will “return sooner rather than later”. He adds: “I’d personally be happy to do PCR and lateral flow tests to prove I don’t have COVID if it means getting (mass events) back sooner – it’s a small price to pay.”

However, both Will and Ali cite the government’s refusal to underwrite an insurance scheme as “the biggest stumbling block” in the long-awaited return of festivals. In April, a number of festivals revealed that without a government-backed indemnity scheme – which would protect events if they had to cancel at the last minute due to COVID restrictions – many would be forced to call off this year’s events. Glastonbury, Boomtown, and Kendal Calling are among the major festivals that have (so far) been cancelled for the second year in a row.

“I hope that the Download Pilot proves that outdoor events can happen in a safe manner,” Ali tells Dazed, “that the findings are published quickly, and that the government reassesses its position on the events insurance scheme.”

Barrow is determined to maintain an optimistic view on the future of festivals. “The way things are at the minute, if we don’t have hope, we don’t really have anything,” he declares. “I’m just so overwhelmed to have been a part of something that genuinely feels historic. It’s good to feel alive again.”