“this is how we’re going to make leeds an exciting city” — laura wellington, big discoBack
There is no margin for you to wait until 2nd July. You can’t afford to see how Big Disco goes and then make your mind up. You can’t hold off until you know that it works and then jump on the bandwagon next year.
After a record-breaking number of people across Yorkshire dance to the ultimate party song at 7.20pm, led by 7,000 beneath the world’s biggest disco ball on the South Bank in Leeds city centre, Big Disco will be packaged up and roll away.
Cities across Europe will be offered Big Disco as a self-contained party, a gift from Leeds to the continent to build friendships to support Leeds’ Capital of Culture bid, and also a challenge: do it bigger, do it better, if you can. But Leeds won’t get a second chance.
“It won’t be happening here again,” says Laura Wellington. “This will be something that travels to Europe with our name on it, but it will not travel back to the UK.”
Millions of people will see the disco ball, as tall as two double-decker buses, glimmering in the summer evening sun above the post-industrial South Bank landscape, broadcast to the nation; thousands more will dance along with their radios tuned to Capital FM. And they’ll do it at 7.20pm on Friday 1st July. And a minute later will be too late.
Because it isn’t coming back. So if, as the nation marvels at Leeds through its teevees this July, or as Europe swoons beneath this grand touring gift from the city in the summers to come, if you’re likely to wish — and you are — that you had got involved: then don’t wait.
We met with Laura to talk about Big Disco, and what it’s like to put on a big cultural event in Leeds in 2016, at Sheaf Street Cafeteria, the front of house at Duke Studios’ converted ironworks of co-working, that Laura and James Abbott-Donnelly would spend 9-5 running if only life worked like that, and if only they hadn’t taken on the biggest disco party in the history of the world as an extra-curricular project.
“I thought I might cry in this interview,” Laura tells us at the end. “I think I’ve cried two times so far. I thought today might be another.”
We’ve met to talk about why putting on a party that will showcase the city of Leeds to an audience of millions should mean tears of frustration, and how while Big Disco won’t be back, Leeds as a city needs to start finding room for things like it in its collective memory, so that events like this can be hosted again, more easily, by people who are less obstinately passionate than Laura and James. And with fewer tears. And maybe fewer meetings.
“348 meetings,” Laura tells us, a figure we’d asked her to come up with, to put a cold, hard datapoint out front of the work that has gone into Big Disco. “348 since the 25th January. It’s an average of three a day.”
Knowing something about Laura’s work ethic, we checked that calculation, and sure enough: she was counting weekends and Bank Holidays. Calculate it on a five-day work week and the average goes over four a day. But then a five-day work week is unrealistic when you’re having 348 meetings in five-and-a-half months.
Which is a lot, for one party, especially when the main ingredients for that party already exist within the city. Which was pretty much the point behind the idea in the first place.
“It started on the LeedsBID steering group,” says Laura. “I was talking about the Christmas campaign, Magical Leeds. And I said what is magical to me is The Secret Garden Party, when they fly a microlight across the sky and drop thousands of LED lights, so that it looks like the sky is filled with glitter; and that’s the standard we should aim for when we talk about Magical Leeds.
“Then I met Patrick. I was talking again about Magical Leeds and telling that story, and Patrick said, ‘We did that.’”
Patrick is Patrick O’Mahony, creative director at NEWSUBSTANCE, who besides The Secret Garden Party have created unforgettable arena moments for shows by Elbow, Mumford & Sons, Take That and Beyoncé; who have stunned thousands with epic stadium ceremonies in Abu Dhabi and Khazakstan. And they made the world’s biggest disco ball. And they’re based on The Calls, in Leeds.
“Patrick told me they’ve been based in Leeds for twelve years, but they’ve never been commissioned to work in Leeds. They’ve done amazing things all over the world, but never in their own city.”
Duke Studios tried to rectify that and get the world’s biggest disco ball out for a party last Light Night, but two months weren’t enough to organise it — “We could have nearly got it! But it couldn’t happen.
“Then I was talking to about all this at the British Art Show afterparty at Live Art Bistro, and it turned out the person I was whinging to was Matt Burman, the artistic director of the Yorkshire Festival. Just before Christmas I got a phone call from Ros in their office and they were saying, ‘Let’s make this disco idea happen.’”
At that point Laura and James, for the first time in five years since they opened Duke Studios, took a two-week holiday. “Foolishly,” says Laura, not about the five years of work without a break, but about taking two weeks off. “It meant we didn’t actually start the project until the third week of January, giving us five-and-a-half months to do it.
“Then it turned into, let’s not only bring the world’s biggest disco ball here. Let’s try and set the record for the world’s biggest party. Let’s do it across the whole of Yorkshire. Let’s have a massive party to unite all parties, so it’s not all about one type of music or one group of people, anyone can get involved, anywhere in Yorkshire. From nurseries to nursing homes. Then I realised that Yorkshire is the size of Denmark.”
In one sense, though, being in Leeds has made putting on such an ambitious event, with minimal budget, no prior experience, and a business to run at the same time, easy.
“The thing is, Leeds is a great city to have a business,” says Laura. “When we need stuff we’re all here for each other. We know loads of people here that will help out. That’s why Leeds is great, because we all look out for each other.
“Because Big Disco is so big and so bold and so much love and energy has gone into it, that’s why people have gone over and above. The Rabbit Hole guys, doing the branding, they have gone over and above. I have totally harassed them and I’m surprised they still want an office next to me, but they’ve done things like the Disco Streetview — they didn’t need to do that, but they did it. Ros, who works as a producer for Yorkshire Festival, has been my right hand lady, there at the forefront with James and I making things happen.
“And Utah Saints — I was telling Tim Utah that I was finding it hard booking the DJs, and he just said: ‘I’ll take over the booking for you. I know how hard it is, I’ve got the contacts, it’s no problem at all.’ That’s amazing. Leanne Buchan from the council helped with the marketing plan. Abby Dix-Mason at Leeds Inspired has said she’ll help however she can. I have two great friends, Gerald and Emma, who have been absolute cheerleaders, so supportive. Capital FM are on board and talking about Big Disco on air for two months. Doubletree Hilton are putting on a party in their SkyLounge the night before, when the ball will be in place and visible, and giving us rooms for the DJs. Berliner, the drinks sponsor, are amazing, they’re bringing the bars in in shipping containers. LeedsBID are supporting our national marketing campaign.
“That’s what keeps me excited. The wealth of people saying yes, we can do this. But a lot of those people have been the smaller people, the independent businesses. And that’s the frustration. There are bigger people in the city who can help make something like this happen, and make it a lot easier. And they haven’t helped make it happen.”
Leeds has, in the last five to ten years, been lucky to have a generation of people in the city who haven’t just made great things and done great things, like generations before them, but who have made changes to the way people live, work and play in the city; changes that feel permanent, changes that have encouraged people to move to Leeds to be part of something, instead of away from Leeds in search of something.
A lot of those people and their businesses are reaching a state of maturity where what they do is world class, and they’re testing the boundaries of what Leeds has to offer.
NEWSUBSTANCE are one of those companies, although they’re a little older; nobody in Leeds in twelve years has got beyond the point of dreaming about how great it would be if…; and actually gone down to The Calls to get them to do their spectacular work here. Apart from Duke Studios, who barely have the resources to pull it off.
Laura cites Lord Whitney, a multi-indisciplined studio of creatives who pulled a music video out of the bag for Nicki Minaj in three days, but whose Wood Beneath The World at Leeds Town Hall — a misty and musky winter success that everyone wanted back — didn’t get a second commission.
“It all gives people a deflated feeling about working in the city, when talented people in Leeds shouldn’t feel deflated about working in Leeds,” says Laura. “There should be support for those talents so that great things can happen.
“People always talk about how hard talent retention is. We’re really lucky, as a city, to have a lot of people who came to university here, loved it, saw the opportunity in this city to make it a better place, and stayed. And got on with it.
“But the city needs to be careful that, if it isn’t supporting those people, they’ll decide after five years of trying that it’s too hard to get things done in Leeds and take their talents somewhere else, where it’s easier.”
Organising Big Disco has shown Laura, yet again, that there is an incredible network of talented people in Leeds who are ready and willing to help each other do amazing things. But it has also shown that some of those who are most able to help are often the least willing to get involved, even though they stand to benefit as much as anyone from showcasing the best of Leeds’ creativity to a massive national and European audience.
“Every day I feel like I’m writing a justification email about why we’re doing this, and why it’s going to be great for Leeds, and what we need help with,” says Laura. “It’s not about money, it’s about help.
“Everyone says the council needs to do more, or the city needs to sell itself better; but then the city doesn’t put its money where its mouth is. You’ve got huge employers here, who all want to attract people to their companies; you’ve got regional, national and international brands with huge networks, social media, thousands of employees. If those businesses just took one thing every week and talked about that, something in Leeds that is outside their own business, that would massively help to spread word about Leeds to the rest of the world.
“That’s a small thing that huge companies could do for their city. And yes, the council do need to be better but they are trying and it takes time. But all the big businesses in the city have got something to answer for, too. They could be doing a lot more, in little ways.”
Big Disco is being organised in a gap, a gap between what Leeds aspires to be and is capable of being as a city, and the reality of what needs to happen to fulfil that potential. Not a single large employer would argue against the idea that Leeds should, as soon as possible before 2023, become a city of such cultural vitality that it can be a European capital of it. And the talent and imagination already exists within the city to make that so.
But the void where Laura has been trying to make things happen is the void where the trust should be, the trust that an ambitious city should have when its talented, imaginative citizens want to take risks, the kinds of risks taken as a matter of routine in the kinds of cities that Leeds wants to be like. It’s not good enough to give your ambition a slogan; you have to back it up.
“One of the first responses we got when the press release went out was from The One Show, wanting to be here,” says Laura. “Straight away. They said, ‘This sounds so ridiculous and amazing, we want to be there.’
“I thought that was amazing. The One Show has five million viewers, so I wanted to make sure that when The One Show comes here they are absolutely blown away not by Big Disco, but by Leeds. That they come to Leeds and show everyone that this city has really gone for it: parties in big spaces, things happening on the water, discos on top of car parks; I wanted to hang mini disco balls from all the street lamps across the city, get everybody involved.
“And in the beginning, everyone I met was like, ‘We can definitely do this, it’s going to be amazing, we love it, we’ll get behind it.’ But slowly but surely it’s been, ‘We’re not going to do this after all, this is too hard, we’re not going to do that.’ So that now it’s mainly the independent people that are left, still doing things.
“Everything is a fight. Leeds is currently run, not just within the council but across the board, by too many people who don’t seem to be acknowledging that in twenty or thirty years they won’t be the ones making decisions anymore. And they don’t necessarily listen to younger people who are trying to make things happen. They don’t back risky things. But it’s risky things that are going to make this city great, make Leeds a brilliant place to live, work and play — and make it a better place for all their businesses to be.
“We need to change that mindset. We need to convince the influential people in this city that we need to be brave. All the cities that do things, they do them because they try, and because they don’t see it as a bad thing to fail.
“It’s led me to a lot of soul-searching and reflecting. I had one conversation with a company that wanted me to move the event to another part of Yorkshire that would be more convenient to them and it was like — is it me? Am I explaining this all wrong to people? You end up thinking, is this a good idea after all? Is it worth the struggle?
“But then I think — no. We’re going to do this, by hook or by crook. And we’re going to make it amazing anyway.”
The help that Big Disco has found from corporate Leeds only underlines the attitude that the city needs to have to achieve its cultural ambitions, and shows that a spirit of willing involvement in big business does exist. It’s just hard to find.
“We thought for six weeks that we had a sponsorship deal all agreed, and then they basically decided it wasn’t for them after all,” says Laura. “Those six weeks were a massive setback on a small budget, five-and-a-half month project. And when we went looking for new sponsors, not one of the big companies came forward.
“Then we went to meet Steve Parkin at Clipper Logistics. We sat down, and we pitched it to him, and we showed him the numbers. And he was amazing. He said, ‘You guys are bonkers, this is amazing, it’s going to be an incredible thing for Leeds’ — he could see it. He’s so passionate, and so supportive, and he’s brought Clipper on board as a sponsor and to help with the logistics.
“He’s like a kindred spirit. To me, he is Leeds. He is an action man. Their company, it sets out to do extraordinary things as efficiently as possible; they make big things happen every day. It’s a perfect fit with us. I get butterflies in my stomach just thinking, yes, someone here has got our back. I just wish we’d met him earlier.”
Steve Parkin’s old-school Leeds credentials are impeccable. Raised in Middleton, his father had a fish shop in Kirkgate Market, and his first job after leaving school was in the coal mines of Rothwell. His second job was as an HGV driver, and now Clipper Logistics has a turnover of £235m, 42 distribution centres, over 300 vehicles and more than 3,200 staff, managed from its head office near the LS12 end of Lowfields Road. This summer, Clipper’s sponsoring logos have been put up on Leeds United’s East Stand, down at the other end of the Lowfields in LS11.
“This for me is how we’re going to make Leeds an exciting city,” says Laura. “It’s the people that are sitting at the top of these big companies, that have big Corporate and Social Responsibility budgets, who have got to think, okay, what is Capital of Culture about? It’s about creativity and vitality and being a more European-minded city. So how are we going to make that happen?
“Steve has been one of the first people to say, I am going to get behind this. And then get behind it. He’s from Leeds, and he understands that Capital of Culture is so important to the city, so he’s the one to say, I am going to help you make this amazing thing happen
“It’s probably not going to get him any more direct business. He won’t get any more sales by sponsoring us. But he doesn’t see it as doing us a favour, either. It’s what I always think I would do if I won the lottery: I’d invest in people and help make things happen. Because everything comes back around, and it doesn’t always have to be about business. For us and Steve, it’s about Capital of Culture, and being pro-Leeds.”
Laura and James might wish they’d met Steve Parkin earlier, “But then, we wouldn’t have learned as much along the way.”
What’s important to them now is that Big Disco is a massive success on 1st July; that all of Yorkshire gets involved, even if it’s by having a party in your Whitby kitchen with the radio on, and sets a party record that will take some breaking.
What’s also important is that what they’ve learned about organising a big, cultural, amazing event in Leeds is not forgotten. The city has to develop a collective, cultural memory of how things like Big Disco are achieved, to make them easier to achieve in the future.
“The people at the council — the licensing team, highways, the safety advisory board — have been incredible,” says Laura. But they have also been constrained. Slow processes mean money has been spent putting temporary solutions in place for Big Disco, despite permanent works being on future schedules for the city — there’s not been a way to cut through and avoid doubling up.
Speaking to organisers of regular events in the city, Laura has heard a collective sigh at having to start over and solve the same problems every year. The solution is another mindset change; to see cultural events, with their big demands on city resources, not as problems that require temporary make-do solutions, but opportunities to make things better, permanently.
“It has been hard,” says Laura. “But as a company we are creative, and we are problem solvers, and when you tell us we can’t do something, it just makes us try our damnedest to make it happen.
“What I want to do now is make sure that this work doesn’t all just disappear. It needs to be something that makes change. We struggled, and we learned all those lessons, and now we need to make sure it’s easier for the next person.
“There needs to be learning and there needs to be reflection, and there needs to be a debrief, and I think that should be done with all the main partners of the city so that every time something happens here there is a learning process, so we strive to make things different.
“Big Disco is not-for-profit, and at the end everything is going into a Big Stuff Foundation that will help make big stuff happen in the city in the build up to 2023. Its main focus will be making sure that the talent in Leeds is getting commissioned and getting help.
“If we can not only help the people that are already doing things and have been doing things, but help new people get started, hopefully that will make Leeds a better place for making things happen.”
The drive to make Leeds a better place is what drives three meetings a day for five-and-a-half months to do what could, if it had been done selfishly, have been pulled off with a fraction of the effort. The thing about drive, though, is that if isn’t matched and harnessed by similar strong forces, then the momentum and motion will soon be out of sight; it will run out of Leeds when Leeds runs out of love.
“We’ve made it as accessible as possible. We could have just done a Brooklyn or Berlin style street party with DJs on the roof, just made it a music thing. Instead the pop-up carnival from Leeds Carnival are going to be there, we’re hoping lots of people from Pride are going to be there, there’s a big family zone. And the ticket prices started at £5. Normally an all-day event like this would be £35, but we’ve tried really hard to make it accessible to everyone.
“Everyone asks me, why do you do this? And I don’t even know why I do it. I don’t know why I have this connection with Leeds or why I’m so passionate about it. My mum would love it if I moved back to Swansea and did what I do in Leeds for Swansea. Or Bristol, that would be closer, and getting big things done would be a lot easier there.
“I sit in meetings about improving the city and people must look at me and think, fucking hell, I wish she’d shut up. But if you don’t ask questions, and you don’t push, and you don’t say things that other people aren’t saying, then nothing is going to change. And then what’s the point in all the meetings anyway?
“Then the other thing people ask is, why are you still so excited about Big Disco when doing it has been so hard? And it’s because of all those people who have helped, who have made it happen, and because, in the end, the world’s biggest disco ball is coming to Leeds. Can you imagine what the 1st July is going to be like? That’s why.”
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 37