Jonathan Cummins is a HuffPost Canada Music contributor. This is personal account of what happened at Amnesia Rockfest.
This past weekend, the sleepy, small town of Montebello, Quebec (population 978) played host to 30,000 punk and metal fans for the two-day Petite-Nation rock festival, Amnesia Rockfest. With big names resting high on the marquee like The Offspring, Marilyn Manson, Alice Cooper, Rise Against and 150 other bands strewn over five stages, it was no wonder that the festival officially sold out when it reached capacity two days before their gates would open.
An hour and half outside of Montreal on the Ottawa River, the star-studded festival made many punk rock and metal fans drive down. Before the gates would open on Friday afternoon, Amnesia Rockfest’s official page promised fans who had purchased tickets for the affordable fee of $79 plus fees and taxes to "get ready for the best freakin’ weekend of their lives."
But outside of the music and accommodating local merchants and townspeople, many would find themselves in a weekend of hell.
I was not an attendee at the festival but showed up the day before the festival began as an employee and this how I saw it. My job was to simply check credit card verification for online ticket purchases and rip actual tickets in exchange for wristbands. Any festival of this magnitude would normally provide a computer system to help check purchases to increase the speed of dispensing wristbands to ticket holders but instead we were given a stack of papers to check purchaser's credit card information and a highlighter marker.
Our ten-minute briefing session did not include where anything on the site was located, how the "skip line" ticket option worked (it didn't), where and how people could claim their on line T-shirt purchases, where campsites were located, the shuffled band scheduling, etc.
We quickly lined up at our 10 wicket booths in our two conjoined trailers and just figured we would get through it with a trial by fire ethic. Ticket holder frustration was increased due to almost half of our staff possessing no knowledge of the French language but were largely sympathetic to our situation and got through it with little hiccups. Afterwards, we retired to our assigned campsites, tucked into our sleeping bags and readied ourselves for the festival’s opening day.
When we showed up to begin our 16-hour shift at 8am on Friday it was obvious that this was not what we had signed up for, especially considering the pay we had agreed to before making the trek to Montebello. The vast majority of attendees pitched tents in assigned campsites located out of town and were warned from Rockfest’s official site that no bags or water would be admitted into the site so most left said items back at campsites accordingly. (Despite promises, no water filling areas and fountains materialized and by Saturday at 8pm all bottled water was sold out.)
Roughly half of the total attendance of the festival had shown up to receive their already purchased wristbands with only ten box office attendants trying to accommodate them with piles of paper and highlighter pens in hand. With no access to water or any chemical toilets, the crowd, who were kettled into the cramped area in front of the box office, quickly became incensed while things quickly escalated into a potential riot situation.
Tensions ran high as physical fights began to break out in the clearly frustrated crowd; people feeling the oncoming effects of heat stroke then led chants "fuck you" in our direction, as we were the only Rockfest reps many would even see over the next two days. Frustrated ticket holders punching the glass of our wicket window while we shuffled our stacks of paper began to be commonplace. No information kiosks or even signs were anywhere onsite throughout the entirety of the festival, leaving most confused. Talking to people at my wicket window I found out that people had been waiting in line for up to 5 hours only to return with wristband affixed to line up once again for and an additional hour at the main entrance.
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Once the first band had began playing and people found themselves still gridlocked in line, a small portion of the sun-baked crowd began to rip down a portion of the steel gate in an effort to gate crash the site. Sensing an impending riot, I immediately requested that the two elderly women on our crew be relieved and two production staff members took their place. While the fence was being re-erected by production staff, an enraged individual attempted to jump behind our trailers and enter through our back door to steal wristbands but was wrestled to the ground.
To protect us from this mob we were only given two security guards. In an effort to disperse of the crowd and avoid a riot situation, we were told to just give wristbands to anybody who could produce a credit card and began ripping tickets and handing out wristbands as fast as humanly possible. I truly believe it was this emergency protocol and the diligence of my crew that prevented a riot and possible injuries.
After putting ourselves directly in danger’s way for little monetary compensation, a particular member of the production staff revoked our right to use the adjacent production house bathroom without offering a reason. The closest chemical toilet from our box office was located hundreds of feet away in a backstage area BUT with the ever-growing crowd of dehydrated punk fans we couldn't afford the 15 minutes of time it took to walk there. This particular production staff member did not ever offer a thank you for our work but instead regularly berated members of our crew and even stationed an individual to ensure we did not use the bathroom. Our entire staff just felt dehumanized, exploited and humiliated.
Of course, we still had it easier than the festival goers. The chemical toilets could not accommodate the huge crowds as 100-foot lines were forced to enter utterly disgusting conditions because they were not properly maintained or replenished with toilet paper. Chemical toilets spilled over and hemorrhaged human waste onto the festival ground. Most would simply chose to relieve themselves directly on the ground when the line up proved to be too much. By Saturday afternoon the festival was perfumed with strong stench of urine as people were forced to wade through the human waste.
Local councillor Nicole Laflamme described it to the Ottawa Citizen as "an ocean of pee on the ground."
The glaringly obvious problem of Rockfest was every department was grossly understaffed. But my request to interview 27-year-old Montebello resident and chief Rockfest organizer Alex Martel, or at least a representative of Rockfest on Sunday afternoon, went unrecognized.
Martel did, however, tell the Ottawa Citizen he was "super proud" of the event, and dismisssed complaints. "Hopefully, next year everyone'll see that we learned and we listened and we fixed it," he said, adding "I think it's kind of stupid that people are focusing on the site being so dirty. Have you ever been to a festival after it's done? It's the same thing every year and, by the end of the week, it’ll be like nothing happened."
The only activity from anybody from Rockfest as of Monday morning was somebody instantly removing the wave of negative comments from their official Facebook page. In an effort to combat Rockfest’s censorship an alternative facebook page was immediately erected to let people vent on line as well as an online petition demanding compensation for paid services not rendered.
On Monday afternoon, a small official announcement finally appeared on Rockfest’s Facebook page thanking the Rockfest attendees and sheepishly acknowledging that there were logistical issues that they will iron out for next year and offered their apologies. The announcement ended by mentioning that each local band who were forced to sell just slightly under $5000 in tickets each in order to play a 30-minute set on a small stage located a fair distance form the main stages were now getting paid.
Despite this half-hearted, extended olive branch I will hardly consider attending the 2014 edition of Rockfest let alone work for it.