Newcastle’s Hit The North festival was always going to be an event surrounded by controversy this year – with allegations against the now-infamous North East promoter SSD, artists had already begun to withdraw their names from the bill, but no one could have predicted the blows dealt on the day
For those not caught up on this story, back in March allegations surfacing through Glassdoor, an anonymous employer review site, revealed that SSD’s management were fostering a toxic working environment where music industry workers were being left unpaid and mistreated, alongside some specific claims of harassment. As they own and operate many venues across Newcastle including Think Tank?, Riverside and Surf Café, those seeking employment in music are forced to handle unbecoming behaviours while striving to work in an industry they love.
A female ex-employee of SSD concerts, who is in her early twenties, made these shocking revelations: “It’s a known fact among SSD employees that Steve would try to have sex with the young women he employed and didn’t care about any of the people he worked for, in terms of taking their concerns for other management taking advantage of them seriously. When I started working there I felt constantly uncomfortable, whether it be having sexual innuendos thrown at me or have managers brush past me to get by and grope me when working.”
A full-time musician based in Newcastle also expressed his concerns: “For artists, more often than not, to play a show in Newcastle means you’re going to have to deal with SSD, dealing with them has meant being unpaid, bullied, undervalued or even threatened. I can’t begin to explain how unanimous this understanding is within artists in the NE, it’s shocking, to the point where new and younger artists are inclined to either just give up or accept this undervaluing as the norm.”
The initial response to these allegations was that “SSD Concerts media accounts have been hacked and they completely deny any of the allegations made,” and while managing director Steve Davis announced his departure from the company via his personal Facebook profile and confirming so to news outlets such as NME, it quickly became evident to those based in Newcastle that this was simply not the case with on-site sightings of Mr Davis being called out at recent festival This Is Tomorrow, headlined by Sam Fender.
So, then; how does this tie directly into Saturday’s Hit The North festival? Many acts had already begun to cut ties with the city-wide event, but a bombshell statement released through SSD Concert’s Facebook page made clear the weight of Davis’ continued involvement. In this post, he said: “I am determined that within a short period of time SSD is being recognised by others as being the fantastic, creative, safe and happy place to work that it now is.” On both a regional and national scale, Davis’ perception of his company is not shared by many.
Retorting against those who have continued to demand an open and honest investigation over the last 7 months, the statement reads: “The HR investigator reached out to some of the most vocal critics and amplifiers of the allegations against SSD on social media and they declined to be interviewed. People can draw their own conclusions as to why those individuals decided against having their claims heard and independently investigated.” It seems that gaslighting the vulnerable is another allegation to be considered, then.
With this statement causing a major stir less than 24 hours before the festival was due to kick-off, artists such a sub-headliners Sports Team began to make their opinions loud and clear with last-minute dropouts dealing substantial damage to the advertised line-up.
We will not be playing Hit The North today. Apologies for those who had tickets to see us, will try to rearrange something in Newcastle as soon as we can.
— Sports Team (@SportsTeam_) October 23, 2021
It is unclear how aware of the situation these artists were – some may have found out on their journey to the festival, while others have been following the situation as it developed. Some artists in that latter category had their names thrown up on the bill despite not intending to play; this includes multiple stories like that of Roxy Girls, a Sunderland outfit who were surprised to find their name plastered on posters advertising them playing at Hit The North despite the fact that they never formally agreed to do so.
While the bill had already drastically changed since its original announcement, the proposed 79 acts on the final listing dropped to a minuscule 10 performances across the city; attendees were left wandering around empty venues to discover abandoned stages and to be denied access to scheduled shows.
Although this is indeed a huge victory for those campaigning against SSD, is undeniably a kick in the teeth for ticket-holders too. Artists and fans have been put in a difficult position, having to decide whether supporting their favourite artists is worth supporting a suspect promoter in the process.
Local musician Andrew Cushin, who recently headlined a sold-out show at Boiler Shop, used Twitter to voice his frustration against those harassing him for choosing to drop out on the day of the festival, proving the difficulties and internal moral debate constantly forced upon artists operating in the North East. In the video, he declares: “don’t for one minute think that I play my music for promoters, for agents, for management; I don’t even play my music for myself. The only people that I play my music for is my fans. That is the only reason I stayed on that poster as long as I did.”
Thanks so much to all the support today, pulling out of this festival was the right thing to do. Hopefully this helps you understand why it tuck so long to do so. Also touching on the abuse I’ve had this week… it’s not on, hand on heart I apologise for not pulling out sooner x pic.twitter.com/hPAwxP6rpZ
— Andrew Cushin (@AndrewCushin) October 23, 2021
The only consistent aspect of Hit The North was the promotion of DMA’S as the headline act drawing the majority of the audience to the festival – tickets from a proposed gig at Times Square were rolled into this festival, leading to a packed-out if bittersweet show at Newcastle’s O2 Academy where the Australian trio rattled out offerings from their past records, last year’s THE GLOW and recent EP I Love You Unconditionally, Sure Am Going To Miss You.
However, an alternative evening was organised out of the ashes; local manager Cole Gilroy facilitated a free-entry show at Head of Steam – just a 2-minute walk from the O2 – to provide the more conscientious gig-goer with a less morally ambiguous event.
Tonight @theworldnoisy @maccawiles @CoulterGabe came and played a 100 cap venue to not disappoint their fans. Massive respect to them and every band that stood with the NE tonight to show we deserve better and every person that came down to support them
— Cole Gilroy (@ColeGilroy) October 23, 2021
Supported by Gabe Coulter and Macca Wiles, Worthing’s rock’n’roll ravers NOISY brought their genre-blending, party-driven bangers to an intimate room and supportive crowd and fostered a passion for responsible music promotion. As frontman Cody Matthews announced: “we couldn’t be in Newcastle on a Saturday night and not play for you – but we’re doing it right.”
This entire farce cements the common person’s ability to deal damage to those in power by truly putting their money where their mouth is, and showcases the ability to reach artists who care about what their involvement means to a region. SSD are yet to respond to the day in question, but their ticket advertisement held a significant claim in small print: “The advertised line-up may be subject to change. No refunds will be issued unless the entire event is cancelled.”
The promotions company and its leader Steve Davis will inevitably live to work another day, and so it is essential that this struggle is not abandoned now, even after such a win for the North East music community. If you wish to help out further, Cole Gilroy has set-up a ‘gofundme’ page to support working crew and artists who have lost work due to maintaining their moral standards and waiving their performance fees; you can donate here.