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Five days of camping, music, theatre, sustainable living and workshops - a seedbed of peace, climate and environmental consciousness-raising. So, what have the former managing director of the world’s largest corporate producer of live music, Live Nation, and the Anschutz Entertainment Group, owners of the O2 Arena and funders of wide screen, blockbuster biblical parables with roots in the oil industry and links to homophobic campaigns, got to do with the Big Green Gathering?

Following its 2007 festival, the Big Green Gathering, dear to the heart of many pacifist and green activists, found itself in dire financial straits. Threatened with bankruptcy, it was decided after much deliberation to cancel the festival in 2008 and attempt to pay off the gathering’s £150,000 debts.

In a history spanning more than 20 years, from Green Gatherings in the 1980s and the Green Fields at Glastonbury to its establishment as the Big Green Gathering Company Ltd in 1993-4, the festival has sought to put into practice the ideals of being the change many people wish to see in the world, through inspiring thought and action on social and environmental issues, albeit in the confines of a week’s holiday. It has become a central event for environmentally concerned summer revellers and is structured as a not-for-profit democratic company, whose shareholders have one share and one vote each. In 2007-8, partly due to new licensing costs and partly because of alleged maladministration, the BGG fell into debt, owing suppliers huge sums.

In attempting to cover the deficit and enable the gathering to continue, tensions between ethical-political and economic considerations emerged among directors and members of the Steering Group. From internal documents seen by Corporate Watch, it seems that a clear concept of organising alternative, radical and autonomous spaces within the current economic system was lacking and that the search for funds and the rise of ‘party politics’ became the predominant considerations for some on the Board of Directors. The search for new sources of finance pointedly revealed how the conflicts of business and ethics can ravage even the most politically conscious organisation. Corporate Watch has learnt that sponsorship by energy giant Npower was given serious consideration by the Board. The proposal, however, was soundly rejected due to pressure from more radical members, who saw how such a deal would fundamentally contradict the ethos of the green event.

A knight in corporate armour

It was not from Npower but from a new joint venture, Kilimanjaro Live Ltd (KLL), that a corporate knight in dubiously shining armour came riding. KLL is a relatively new joint venture between Stuart Galbraith, the former managing director of Live Nation, which describes its core business as “buying and producing artist rights and monetizing those rights via our global distribution pipe”, and AEG, the world’s second-largest music promoter. KLL’s focus is described as festivals, tours and artist development. Its CEO, Galbraith, was sacked from the world’s largest music promoter for breach of contract, apparently due to his discussions with AEG, one of US billionaire Philip Anschutz’s business interests.

Having previously been involved in organising the bloated and politically regressive Live 8 and Live Earth concerts, Galbraith approached the BGG with an offer of an interest-free loan in exchange for a place on the board. Following a closer look at the books, however, and due to the effects of incipient recession, Galbraith’s corporate backers were not prepared to provide the £150,000 initially proposed. What remained was the £50,000 Galbraith had contributed under a Heads of Agreement, with Galbraith becoming a member of the Board of Directors and Director of Finance at the BGG to “continue to provide his own expertise and the accounting and ticket sales facilities of KLL on a cost-free basis,” according to the documents. Other funds were also pursued and, following what now seems to be an overtly green capitalist model, a new Sponsorship Committee was set up to seek appropriate commercial sponsorship. One board member resigned in protest at the new terms and Corporate Watch has been told that discontent amongst others who have worked for the BGG for years was rife. The documents state that the BGG’s debt is “now owed mostly to [its] new partner, Kilimanjaro Live Ltd (KLL), and to shareholders who have come forward with loans, rather than to last year’s suppliers.” Attempts to retain the BGG in the hands of those who understood it best were thwarted by the Board of Directors, who rejected a £45,000 management buyout in spring 2008. The deal with KLL had already been struck.

At his first AGM, Galbraith, who has yet to attend a Big Green Gathering, reportedly proposed that the BGG considers introducing cigarette stalls and advertising to increase revenue, despite the BGG’s overtly proclaimed ideals that it is “for people who care about health, the environment, sustainability, our children’s future and life in general.” Galbraith has in interviews spoken admiringly of hardline business practice and confesses his lack of expertise in environmental issues. It has been claimed that working with the BGG will help Galbraith ‘green’ his other festivals, yet a quick look at another of his festivals, Bloodstock, suggests that the primary concerns of Galbraith and KLL remain increasing ticket sales and revenue, even if that means compromising the integrity or quality of a festival.

The right-wing billionaire

Philip Anschutz is the world’s 98th richest man, according to the 2009 Forbes Rich List, and his AEG is the largest sports and entertainment corporation in the US, owning arenas, cinemas, newspapers and sports teams. It was Anschutz who acquired David Beckham for his US LA Galaxy football team and whose hospitality John Prescott accepted as deputy prime minister while Anschutz was bidding for a super casino in Greenwich, London. He is also an extremely conservative Republican and Christian evangelical who was named a ‘Pioneer’ by the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2000 for fundraising. Before moving into the telecommunications and film industries as the owner of Qwest Communications and the Anschutz Film Company, his wealth had mainly been built on oil and railway interests.

What, then, does AEG gain from the BGG? It has been reported that KLL and Galbraith are part of AEG’s plans for expansion in Europe and the UK. It seems that a larger stake in the BGG Co. Ltd was originally envisaged to parallel KLL’s investments in other so-called ‘boutique festivals’, Bloodstock and Wakestock. Through KLL’s holdings in smaller festivals, AEG is creating a base to operate in the UK and Europe, which will complement its mainstream, corporate possessions and help it compete with its rival Live Nation. As for the BGG, concerns persist that the gathering will become “less grassroots, more commercial [and] lose its edge,” as one of the gathering’s organisers put it.