ZOO8 Festival (2008)
The forgotten story of the UK’s own ‘Woodstock 99’ moment, featuring a zoo in Kent
The mid to late noughties may well be known to future British historians as the era of ‘peak festival’. Sure, music festivals were popular before, and remain popular today, but during this period from roughly 2005 to 2010, the entire United Kingdom was literally potty for porta-potties, leaky £35 tents from Argos and drinking Carling in a field. The established heavyweight festivals (Glastonbury, Reading1, Isle of Wight) were bigger and more famous than ever, whilst a number of festivals set-up in 1990s (V Festival, T in the Park, Big Chill) became powerful cultural touchstones in their own right. Most impressive however was the seemingly never ending list of new festivals, which included Download, Bestival, Sonisphere, Latitude, Give It A Name, End of the Road, Field Day2 and many more.
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Zoo Thousand and Eight
The correct pronunciation of ZOO8 is not the phonetic ‘Zoo-Eight’ but the slightly confusing ‘Zoo Thousand and Eight’, which was a (bad) pun on the year in which the festival was held. In 2008, over 3 million festival tickets were sold in the UK, pushing festivals into the territory of being a ‘billion pound industry’ for the first time. With the British summertime saturated with fresh festival start-ups, anyone launching a new event in the late noughties needed a compelling pitch.
ZOO8 was positioned as ‘the UK’s first festival in a zoo’, with the organisers securing a fully integrated partnership with the Port Lympne Wild Animal Park near the town of Hythe in Kent. The festival would take place within the 600 acre estate that included the Port Lympne country manor and extensive animal park. A team of three young music entrepreneurs; Matt Dice, Ricardo Monty and Daniel Blanche, set-up a company called Wildlife Music Events Ltd to organise the new festival, which they hoped would prove a great launching pad for future ‘Zoo Thousand’ festivals and eventual expansion into new ‘music meets wildlife’ events in other locations.
The lineup represented “a diversity of music genres from drum & bass to indie rock” and included Mark Ronson, Dizzie Rascal, The Hives, The Cribs, Funeral For A Friend, Flogging Molly, Fucked Up, Frank Turner, Gallows, Ash, Athlete, DJ sets from Bloc Party and Pendulum and even a Glastonbury inspired ‘legends’ set, featuring Chas N Dave.
Matt Dice spoke shortly before the festival, stating “it's taken us months of negotiations and sleepless nights to get to this stage, but it's all worth it”. With a stellar line-up and a competitive £99 weekend ticket price, it attracted healthy ticket sales not just from Kent locals, but eager and excited music fans all across London, the South East and further afield. The festival was successfully able to lean into it’s zoo association to capture the attention and stand out in the crowded festival landscape, as perhaps best shown by a pre-festival PR story in the NME, where the singer of The Hives said he would let the zoo’s gorillas pick their set.
If the ‘zoo meets music’ concept still seems a little strange, then I don’t blame you. The elephant in the room (sorry!) is very much, why!? The answer can only be found by going back to the 1950s to learn about a man called John Aspinall.
Born in Delhi in 1931 during the British Raj, John Aspinall was an upper class Englishman with a penchant for rebellion. Expelled from Rugby School for lack of attendance, he still managed to get a place at Jesus College, Oxford because that’s a thing that can happen when you’re an aristocrat. On University finals day, rather than attend his exams, John skipped town and headed off to Ascot to watch the Gold Cup.
Horse-racing was Aspinall’s first love and so he became a bookmaker, which at the time was only legal when ‘on premise’ at a race course. Quickly frustrated by this restriction, Aspinall found a way to skip around the UK’s strict gambling laws in the 1950s by hosting ‘casino nights’ in rented homes and apartments across London. The law defined a ‘gambling premise or casino’ as anywhere gambling occurred more than three times (and all gambling premises were illegal). Aspinall simply never used a rented apartment more than twice.
With his background and connections, Aspinall was able to invite the cream of London’s high society to his exclusive events and his first event earned him £10,000 (equivalent to £300,000 today). Given these were strictly speaking illicit gains, no tax was payable on them either, meaning he also had ample cash to dish out bribes to city officials and police officers should the need arise.
In response to Aspinall and others making a mockery of the existing law, the government introduced the Betting and Gaming Act 1960 which made bingo halls legal in the UK for the first time as well as members-only casinos. Deciding to ‘go straight’, Aspinall opened The Clermont Club in Mayfair in 1962, which boasted a ‘crème de la crème’ members list, including two cabinet ministers. However, the new legal framework meant Aspinall was now paying punitive taxes on his profits, making his gambling ventures significantly less lucrative. To help maintain a profit margin healthy enough for his needs, Aspinall actively hired criminals to work in The Clermont Club, where they would run various scams and tricks to bleed his loyal patrons of even more money.
Why was John Aspinall (an already very rich man) so keen to make as much money as possible? The answer is zoos. Fascinated and enraptured by wild animals since his childhood in India, Aspinall bought the Howletts country estate in 1956 and immediately established a private zoo within the grounds. Forever expanding the number of animals and exhibits (which were not open to the public), he eventually ran out of room. In 1972, he sold The Clermont Club and with the proceeds bought a new country manor just down the road from Howletts, which importantly came with a huge 600 acre estate; Port Lympne.
After undertaking restoration works and installing many animal enclosures and facilities, he opened Port Lympne (as well as Howletts) to the public in 1976. He had hoped this would enable them to be mostly financially self-sufficient, but his concurrent desire for further aggressive expansion made this impossible. Falling back on the only thing he knew, between 1978 and 1983, brand new casinos were opened in locations including Knightsbridge and Mayfair, the latter of which still operates today with the Aspinalls name above the door.
The significant profits generated by these gambling ventures were poured into Port Lympne and by the mid 1980s, it was home to of one of the most exotic and eccentric collections of animals in Western Europe, including Black rhinos, Siberian tigers, Barbary lions, Bengal tigers, Cheetahs, Malaysian tapirs, African elephants and more. The biggest giveaway of this heavy investment was the gorillarum, billed as ‘Palace of the Apes’, which 40 years later, remains the largest of it’s kind anywhere in the world.
In 1984, the Aspinall Foundation was created and given ownership of both Howletts and Port Lympne. The same year, a 22 year old keeper was crushed to death by an elephant at Port Lympne. In 1989, a two year old boy had his arm ripped off by a chimp after he reached inside an enclosure in an attempt to stroke the animal3. In 1994, a keeper at Howletts was mauled to death by a Siberian tiger. At this point, local authorities intervened and legally prevented the keepers at both sites from entering the enclosures of dangerous animals for over two years.
As someone who was frustrated by government intervention throughout his life, this direct interference in his wildlife parks was a major contributory factor to why Aspinall stood for election to parliament in 1997, on behalf of the Referendum Party. He stood against the then Home Secretary (and future Conservative leader) Michael Howard in the Folkestone & Hythe constituency that encompasses Port Lympne. This however is an all together different story, which fortunately for you dear reader, I have covered previously.
In 2000, John Aspinall died of cancer, at the age of 74 and his remaining gambling business interests were wound up. Just a few months before his death, a 27 year old zoo keeper at Port Lympne was crushed to death by an African elephant. Port Lympne, with it’s vast animal collection and huge overheads, therefore kicked off the new millennium facing serious damage to it’s reputation and the risk of financial ruin.
The Port Lympne Partnership
It is perhaps no surprise then that just half a decade later, when a group of young, enthusiastic entrepreneurs approached Port Lympne with a ‘wild’ idea to capitalise on the boom in UK festivals, management were more than happy to hear them out. The public ‘face’ of the organisation Matt Dice had studied music technology at the nearby Canterbury College and all three organisers had experience putting on gigs in nightclubs all over Kent.
Whilst being local and credible got them in the door, it was undoubtably the healthy up-front fee being offered to Port Lympne to host the festival that got them the green light. They also agreed that a percentage of every ticket would be donated to the Aspinall Foundation. Before long they too were fully sold on the idea, which had the potential to become a significant annual revenue and publicity stream.
Very quickly, the attitude from both the organisers and Port Lympne became ‘the bigger, the better’. The original vision for a small-ish one day festival morphed into a three day festival with the capacity for 20,000 guests. In May 2008, Matt Dice said to a local newspaper, “we’ve created a monster because the festival is bigger than we originally set out to do. We’ve had some serious tear-our-hair-out moments…but as it’s gone on we’ve upped our game”.
Two months before the festival, a promotional PR story promoting the festival revealed just how closely the two organisations were collaborating. The story celebrated the fact that ZOO8 ticket sales had raised £30,000 to enable a baby monkey who was rejected by his mother, to receive specialised care throughout his early years. The baby monkey was named ‘Baby Ronnie’ after headliner Mark Ronson. The story was so good even the BBC covered it.
Elsewhere, The Sunday Times ‘Festival Special’ called ZOO8 out as one of it’s ‘star choice festivals’ to attend that year. With just 24 hours to go, the weather forecast for the weekend was hot and dry, handily removing one nagging concern; the biblical flooding at Glastonbury 2005 haunted the nightmares of many festival organisers at the time.
I’m Sorry, I Haven’t A Zoo
On Friday 4th July 2008, excited festival goers starting arriving at Port Lympne as early as 6am. To enter the festival, all weekend and day ticket holders had to exchange their physical tickets for a festival wristband. With at least 12,000 people expected through the gates on Friday, ZOO8 had bafflingly employed just two people to run the ticket office.
The result was that people arriving at the designated opening time were faced with a four hour queue simply to get into the campsite, resulting in the brand new festival making a disastrous first impression. Stuck in the bright July sun with no cover or shade available, there were numerous reports of guests developing sunstroke. By 1pm, attendees were posting their complaints on the official festival forum, with the comment ‘ZOO8? More like QUE8’ a pithy summary of initial sentiment.
It was a bad start but not a fatal one, and such site entrance issues are not uncommon. Having survived this initial ordeal however, guests then had to queue for up to an hour to get from the campsite and to the music stages. This was again due to totally inadequate staff numbers. These delays meant Friday set-times had to be pushed back by two hours, meaning the £6 programme many guests had bought on the way in, was utterly useless before a single chord had been played.
Despite the terrible start, ZOO8 were on the receiving end of a significant stroke of good luck. Dizzee Rascal, who had been booked months prior to be the sub-headliner on Friday’s main-stage, had just released his first mega-hit ‘Dance Wiv Me’, which would spend an entire month at #1 in the UK Single’s Chart. The hottest current artist in the UK, immediately followed by international superstar Mark Ronson, meant guests were still eager and excited for the rest of the day.
Except Dizzee never showed up. At the time, rumours circulated that he was too busy celebrating his imminent #1 single, or that pumped full of hubris after his first mega breakthrough hit, he now saw ZOO8 as beneath him. The truth was that he had agreed back in February to perform for a fee of £20,000, which was to be paid in full, one month in advance. This did not happen. Half the agreed fee was paid late, whilst it was not until the morning of the first day of the festival itself that Wildlife Music Events Ltd paid the oustanding half. However, it was too little, too late.
At 8pm, a large crowd of at least 5,000 people gathered at the festival main stage, all of whom were fully expecting Dizzee Rascal to perform. After a thirty minute wait, Matt Dice stepped out onto the main stage to announce that “due to a change in circumstances, Dizzee Rascal will not be performing tonight”. The stage was immediately pelted with bottles, set against a chorus of boos. Lethal Bizzle was promoted from the second stage to fill in; at one point in his set he stopped to talk to the crowd and defend his fellow London rapper Dizzee Rascal from shouts of abuse.
With the festival already on the brink, there was relief all round when Mark Ronson did indeed play next, dishing out hits including ‘Stop Me’ and ‘Valerie’. However, he had also not been paid according to the terms of his contract but felt duty-bound to turn up regardless; after all, not only was he the most prominent headliner across the whole weekend, but the festival had named a monkey after him.
On arriving at the site, asking what the hell was going on and enquiring whether we would ever be paid properly, Mark Ronson was presented with a wheelbarrow full of pound coins, pulled from the on-site bars. Despite the nonsense and chaos, Ronson showed his model professionalism by starting his set on time, walking on to the main-stage wearing a monkey mask, before later telling the crowd they were “one of the best audiences I’ve had in ages. I’m only playing zoos from now on!”.
Unfortunately for ZOO8 organisers and attendees, a very bumpy Friday turned into a car-crash Saturday. By mid-morning, late arriving weekend campers who had been unable to get the Friday off work, were told there was no more room in the campsite. leaving them unable to enter a festival they had paid to attend. Shortly afterwards, a number of guests took matters into their own hands and brought down part of the perimeter fence. There was no resistance from security, and tents were pitched anywhere and everywhere, meaning routes and paths through the campsite no longer existed, creating chaos for everyone trying to get around.
In the music arena, the entire event was quite literally falling apart. The roof on the main-stage was leaking, whilst the second stage tent partly collapsed and had to be closed, putting the day’s music schedule into disarray. At mid-day, some security and support staff walked off site a over concerns they would not be paid. The arena toilets were entirely uncleaned and un-emptied from Friday night, making many of them unusable and the rest, deeply unpleasant. To round it all off, the water taps ran dry, meaning guests could no longer stay hydrated, cool down or give themselves a quick wash, without buying bottled water from the bar.
On the artist front, things were somehow even worse. Frank Turner, billed to play the main-stage on Saturday afternoon, posted to his blog late on Friday night that he would not be appearing at ZOO8. He wrote “I can’t afford to take risks with running a whole paid-up band and crew and fuel down to Kent for a risk of not getting paid”.
When Ash arrived on-site ahead of their sub-headliner main-stage slot on the Saturday night, they were deeply shocked at what they were witnessing.
"We arrived at around 2pm with no idea what was going on. No-one had played on the main stage yet, the local stage hands had walked off and the second stage had been completely shut down. We knew we'd been given the run around by the promoters in the run up the the show. Half the fee was supposedly transferred to our bank account in advance but the truth was, it was never sent, they'd blatantly lied to us.
By mid-afternoon, the crowd at the main stage was audibly angry and you could sense the tension from backstage. I thought we were going to witness a riot. Every band that played were like heroes that day”.
When Hadouken! finally took to the main-stage later in the afternoon, the band seemed legitimately furious. A few songs in, the lead singer bellowed into the mic “This is a message to the promoters. Pay your fucking artists, you c*nts”.
Saturday night headliners The Cribs said when they arrived on site “they offered us, literally, bags of random denomination cash to play, rather than cancel. We were like ‘we’re definitely playing regardless, these paying customers have had to deal with enough of your shit!”
Artists who had taken the risk of showing up and not getting paid, were randomly shunted across stages and set-times, meaning fans had no idea where to go. One of Saturday’s star attractions Chas N Dave, were moved to the VIP tent stage, meaning the majority of attendees couldn’t watch them. Staff were also completely in the dark and unable to provide any information to increasingly frustrated and confused music fans. It was this increasingly bleak and frustrating situation that led to members of Ash fearing a full-scale riot.
At 5.30pm, almost certainly sensing the same catastrophic threat that could result in a risk to human life, representatives of Port Lympne and the Aspinall Foundation entered the festival site and took control of ZOO8. At the time, it was widely believed that Matt Dice was arrested by police and escorted off the premises, although this was later denied. The Aspinall Foundation wrote the band Ash (and others) cheques on the spot to guarantee they would perform. The Saturday night main-stage lineup was therefore saved and the festival continued.
On Sunday, campers woke up to the news that Sunday night sub-headliners Athlete would not be playing. By this point, the schedule resembled a block of Swiss cheese, with huge gaping holes and the troublesome second stage remaining closed for the entire day. In total, across the entire weekend, over 30 acts did not appear, including the Friday and Sunday night sub-headliners and at least half a dozen other main-stage artists including The Rascals, Roni Size and Wiley. Many fans missed their favourite bands even if they did play, because they had no idea when or where they were playing.
On Sunday afternoon, in a somewhat poetic moment, the hot weekend full of sunshine gave way to a three hour torrential downpour. Thousands of weekend guests decided to leave long before The Hives formally closed the festival later that evening.
On Sunday, one festival attendee started a thread on the official festival forum, renaming the festival ‘Boo Thousand and Wait’. Complaints then started to appear about how posts mentioning the problems at the festival were being deleted by a moderator. On Sunday night, the official forum was disabled.
On Monday morning, a press release was put out by ZOO8 stating that the festival had been a “qualified success” with a “fantastic atmosphere”. The organisers offered an apology to any fans “who thought they were inconvenienced”. Less tone-deaf and more straight-up gaslighting, attendees kicked off, creating multiple Facebook groups and forum threads all over the internet about ‘the worst festival ever’.
Pushed for further clarification by local and national media, who by this point were inundated with negative feedback, Danny Blanche, agreed it had taken too long to get onto site on Friday, but blamed this on the fact that “people turned up much earlier than predicted”. He went on to claim the problems that did occur were “due to a miscalculation in cashflow” and this "required us to make the pragmatic decision to cancel a few acts4”.
Matt Dice responded to an inquiry from the BBC, stating “We will be dealing with any complaints posted on the forum or sent to the office, and will respond to each on a case by case basis.” He also added, “we’re operating in seriously tough market conditions but we’ll rectify everything from this year and definitely be back for ZOO9”.
Some guests started reporting they were being offered a ‘free upgrade to VIP at ZOO9’. This ‘compensation’ was loudly derided and led to others sharing their conversations with Ricardo Monty, who was put in charge of customer relations post-festival, to show that the organisers were not showing the contrition that they initially promised.
“Yes we did have alot of problems-but why are you asking for refunds when you stayed for over 2/3rds of the gig? If it was such a nightmare, why did you not leave on the friday or saturday?”
“There is no money to give refunds if we wanted too, but if you stayed for 2days, surely you must have had some fun!!!???”
“I saw your post on one of the forums about trying to piss me off by helping to spam me thats not going to get you or anyone anywhere.”
In the end, no refunds were given. In January 2009, Wildlife Music Events Ltd, went into liquidation with debts of £125,000. There was no ZOO9. None of the three main organisers would be associated with a UK music festival again.
Port Lympne to their credit, did not shy away from future partnerships despite the first degree burn inflicted on them, and they hosted Hevy Festival, which successfully ran on the same site between 2010 and 2014. Hevy Festival, unsurprisingly, ran with the ‘zoo’ gimmick significantly dialled down5. Since then, they have diversified into offering weddings and short breaks to help continue to fund their ongoing animal conservation work and running costs.
Nearly a decade later in 2017, Daniel Blanche and Dizzee Rascal appeared at the Central London County Court. Blanche set-up a new company called ‘Give Us Our Money Back You Rascal Ltd’ and used it as a vehicle to sue Dizzee Rascal for damages for his ‘no show’. In court, he did not argue that the final payment did not arrive until the day of the performance, but claimed that a ‘variation of the contract’ was formally agreed to enable late payment. This was denied by the defendants lawyers, but the Court ruled in favour of Blanche, and ordered Dizzee Rascal to return the £20,000 plus VAT and legal costs.
Bonkers, if you ask me.
Thank you for reading.
Reading expanded to become the Reading and Leeds festival in 1999, and this in many ways, kicked off the festival boom that was to follow. Originally, Leeds ran Saturday to Monday (the same lineup of bands playing the day after their Reading slot, where music was Friday to Sunday). This didn’t really work and the festival was plagued by issues including thefts and violence, culminating in a disastrous 2002 festival that almost caused Leeds to be cancelled permanently. But organisers found a brand new site for 2003, sorted out many of the issues and got the two festivals to run over the exact same time period. By the the mid 00s, Leeds Festival was flying and the era of ‘peak festival’ had officially began.
All of these very popular festivals were founded between 2003 and 2009, making them children of the ‘peak festival’ era. Today, only Download and End of The Road remain.
After a long legal battle about legal culpability, the boy was awarded £130,000 in damages by the High Court in 1994.
This was later proven to be untrue; bands were not actively cancelled but simply cancelled themselves as contractual advance payments were not met.
I attended Hevy Festival in 2011; it was well run and I had a lovely time.