Rock’s biggest names put city centre stage as thousands flock to festival

As this year’s Leeds Festival gets under way, Chris Bond looks at the impact the rock music extravaganza has on the city.

If the drive to work seemed busier than usual today then there’s a good chance you were caught up in traffic heading towards the Leeds Festival.

This year’s event is another sell-out and by the time you read this many of the 75,000-strong crowd will have already poured through the gates at Bramham Park, and will (if they have any sense) have pitched their tents and be sitting back in anticipation of three heady days of music and revelry.

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The Leeds Festival has become a firm fixture on Yorkshire’s cultural calendar and just as racegoers flock to the Ebor Festival in York each year and bookworms head to Ilkley for its literary love-in, so rock music fans descend on this picturesque corner of West Yorkshire to see some of the world’s greatest bands. Since Melvin Benn first set up the Leeds Festival in 1999 as a sister event to the Reading Festival, it has quickly established itself as one of the biggest rock festivals not only in the UK, but in the world, attracting the likes of the Kings of Leon, Oasis, Blur, Pulp and Arctic Monkeys over the years.

As well as having the clout to entice such big stars to come to play in Yorkshire, it has an important knock-on effect for the region’s economy. The August bank holiday can be a quiet time, with people either on holiday abroad or, if the weather’s good, making a mad dash to the seaside. But apart from London and Edinburgh, where they’re in the middle of a little festival of their own, Leeds will probably be the busiest city in the UK this weekend.

Many of those attending this year’s event will be camping on site, but the more discerning festival-goers – or those who simply can’t face the idea of three nights sleeping in a tent – will have booked rooms in hotels and B&Bs. In Leeds city centre, for instance, you will be hard pushed to find many hotel rooms available over the next few days. “The August bank holiday is a very busy time for the hotel sector in Leeds with a huge influx of people coming into the city for the Leeds Festival,” says Stephen Turner, general manager of Mint Hotel.

It’s not just hoteliers who are rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of a bumper weekend. The city’s bars, restaurants and shops expect to do a roaring trade, too. A few years ago Leeds Council produced an economic study which estimated the festival was worth around £5.7m, while the benefit to the city centre alone – as a direct result of the event – was calculated at more than £400,000.

Those going to the festival will, of course, spend money on food and drink at Bramham itself, but a quarter will also spend time in Leeds exploring the city. And such is the festival’s status among rock music aficionados that it attracts people not only from across Britain, but places like France, Italy and Norway.

Welcome to Yorkshire’s chief executive Gary Verity says this kind of cultural tourism is a huge boost not only for the city, but the region as a whole. “Festivals are worth £500m to the Yorkshire economy every year, and the global profile of events like the Leeds Festival mean they are worth so much more to the county as they project a dynamic, youthful and contemporary view of Yorkshire around the world.”

Whereas in the past people knew about Leeds because of its football team, now they now associate the city with its rock festival. “It has become a hugely popular event that is now one of the highlights of the Leeds calendar,” says Peter Gruen, Leeds Council’s deputy leader. “But it’s not just a music event for young people it is also very important commercially for Leeds. It is the kind of event that attracts people to Leeds who would not have otherwise thought of coming to Leeds and the more we can do to promote this the better.”

However, the festival has not been without its critics. Its original tenure at Temple Newsam Park was marred by violence, and congestion problems at Bramham Park forced the organisers to introduce a detailed management plan to help the traffic run smoothly and minimise the disruption to local residents. But since relocating to Bramham in 2003, the festival’s reputation has soared and this year’s event is the biggest yet, with The Strokes, Muse, Elbow and Pulp among the many highlights.

Ian De Whytell, owner of Crash Records, in Leeds, says its continuing success is a boon to local business. “It has definitely had a big impact in Leeds, there’s no doubt about it. It certainly benefits a lot of shops and supermarkets and it’s the one day that Tesco at Seacroft gets cleaned out of food and drink.”

As one of the official ticket agents for the concerts, De Whytell has benefited from the festival. “It’s made people aware of us and when they come to buy tickets they might pick up something else, a CD or a T-shirt. It’s been fantastic, because it drives people to come and see us.”

He believes the kudos of having such an internationally-renowned event on Leeds’s doorstep is just as important as the financial benefits it brings. “When people talk about the North the focus is nearly always on Manchester, but the Leeds Festival is one occasion when everyone’s attention is focused exclusively on Leeds.

“But for me, the biggest thing is it puts the spotlight on Leeds and it shows the whole music business that we are an important cultural city. After Glastonbury, I would say Reading and Leeds are the most important rock music festivals in the world. That’s how big this is now.”

The three-day event is beamed around the world to an audience of millions, while the inexorable rise of the internet means people can also watch downloads from the festival online. “Since Leeds started there are a lot more festivals on the go, which means there’s a lot of competition, but if people decide they’re only going to one or two festivals during the year then Leeds is the first choice for many people,” he says.

“I’ve been to the festival every year and the atmosphere is brilliant, it’s relaxed and enjoyable and because the tickets aren’t cheap you get people going who want to be there. They are a very knowledgable crowd when it comes to music, so the whole vibe is about people enjoying themselves.”

It’s not only the city that benefits from the festival. The organisers Festival Republic have worked hard to win over residents in the nearby villages, donating more than £500,000 to local clubs and organisations.

This year, donations in Thorner went towards a new football pitch, while in Clifford, money went to the upkeep of the village hall and supporting the local Brownies and Girl Guides.

Val Whitbread, chairwoman of Bramham Parish Council, says most people in the village welcome the festival. “There’s a minority who don’t want it, but the majority of people enjoy having it here and enjoy going. “We’ve set up a community fund that helps lots of different groups, including sports clubs and an archives project. I would say it’s been positive and the money has allowed us to do things that might not have otherwise happened.”