“I don't believe that a company like Barclays, given their financial ties to war crimes, has any place at a metal festival.” Why the conversation around Britain's summer festival season has been all about Gaza, Barclays, and boycotts

Barclays Boycott Bands
(Image credit: Luke Brennan/Getty Images | Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame |Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Tribeca Festival | JMEnternational/Getty Images)

“I have been working with people who have been sponsoring the boycotts. I've been throwing tantrums right, left and centre. There are a lot of different levers to push for the end of the war crimes happening in the Middle East, and one of them is this. I'm entirely supportive of the acts that have pulled out, and I don't believe that a company like Barclays, given their financial ties to war crimes, has any place at a metal festival, period. I'm hopeful that Barclays will not be sponsor by the end of the day. I've had some encouraging information about that, so we'll see.”

It's 3pm on Thursday, June 13 and, ahead of soundcheck for a headline show with his new band at London's Electric Ballroom, Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello is sitting in a North London hotel discussing the fact that a number of hardcore, metal and crossover bands - Zulu, Scowl, Ithaca, Speed and Pest Control among them - have, within the past 72 hours, announced their intention to boycott Download in solidarity with the people of Palestine, due to the fact that Barclays bank, the festival's 'Official Payment Partner', provides financial services to companies supplying weapons and military technology to Israel.

This is not the first instance this summer that bands have spoken out in opposition to Barclays sponsorship of arts and music festivals, as the death toll in Gaza, caused by Israel's response to the October 7 Hamas attack on 22 locations in Israel, mounts. In the immediate wake of the Hamas assault, during which more than 1,160 Israeli citizens, mostly civilians, were killed, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to inflict an “unprecedented price” on Hamas: by mid-May, the United Nations published third-party estimates that more than 34,900 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza in response, including over 14,500 children.

Last month, more than 100 artists boycotted Then Great Escape festival in Brighton due to Barclays' sponsorship of the festival, and earlier this week, the acclaimed Irish doom-folk band Lankum revealed that they had signed a letter asking Latitude festival to drop Barclays as their sponsor, and had been in discussions with other acts on the issues involved, stating that they “firmly believe that collective action is the most effective action.” A number of Irish bands - Pillow Queens, Thumper and CMAT among them - had already stated their intention to boycott the Suffolk-based weekender, with Dublin singer/songwriter CMAT (Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson) stating on Instagram that her decision was taken after learning that Barclays “has invested over £100 million into General Dynamics which provides gun systems to the fighter jets which are being used by Israel to bombard Gaza.”

“Let me be clear,” Thompson's statement continued, “There is a genocide happening in Palestine right now. All I can do as a citizen is turn up to as many demonstrations as possible and try to follow the advice of the BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] boycott list as closely as I possibly can. This falls under that action. I hope that as many of you reading this as possible will choose to show your solidarity with the Palestinian people in whatever way you can."

Barclays, of course, are not the only financial institution who handle accounts for defence contractors and munitions manufacturers, but the fact that the bank has been actively increasing its investments in companies which other institutions have divested from in recent years due to ethical concerns, has made them a focus for protests.

When seven acts declared their intention to drop off the Download bill, asking fans to visit Bands Boycott Barclays social media channels for the context of their decision, many festival attendees fans online dismissed the protest, saying that it would achieve nothing. In this belief, they were entirely wrong. 

Yesterday afternoon, June 14, a spokesperson for Live Nation, the promoters of Download, Latitude and the Isle Of Wight festival, issued a statement saying, “Following discussion with artists, we have agreed with Barclays that they will step back from sponsorship of our festivals.”

Just over 24 hours after our conversation, Tom Morello was one of the first artists to celebrate the announcement.

“A bank funding war crimes has no place at music festivals,” he posted. “The fact that Download has listened to its musicians and cut ties with Barclays Bank is a testament to the power of artists taking collective action for human rights.

“I’ve been pushing hard for this behind the scenes for some time and I salute all the artists who have taken a stand to help make this historic withdrawal happen.”

Not everyone shared Morello's delight, however, and his post drew a response on X from Disturbed frontman David Draiman.

“Tom, my old friend,” he wrote. “So sad to see that you view #Jews and #Israel as “the machine”. Music is supposed to be a bridge to bring people together. All people.  It’s a path to mutual understanding and greater coexistence. This helps no one.”

We’ve been outspoken on the subject of Palestine since the early years of our career and have the 'shut up and stick to the music' scars to prove it

Rou Reynolds, Enter Shikari

With the benefit of hindsight, it's perhaps understandable that, earlier this week, with talks on-going behind the scenes, few parties involved were prepared to make statements about what is, unquestionably, a sensitive and emotive subject. Louder's request to interview Australian hardcore quintet Speed about their withdrawal from the Download bill went unanswered, as did an email to the Bands Boycott Barclays contact address, and another to Lankum. Until yesterday afternoon, Live Nation too had declined to make a public statement.

One band who are prepared to share their thoughts on the issue is Enter Shikari, who have a main stage slot at Download today, June 15. 

More than one commentator on the band's social media pages this past week had questioned whether the St. Albans quartet, who are known for their activism, and have been vocal in their support for the Palestinian people long, long before the events of October 7 last year, might join the boycott of the festival. But as frontman Rou Reynolds explains exclusively to Louder, such decisions are not simply a matter for an individual's conscience. 

“Artists in our position have a lot to consider before making drastic decisions, with impact way beyond the four of us in the band,” the singer told Louder on Thursday evening, before Live Nation and Barclays had made their decision public. “From a purely practical perspective, we have a duty to our fans who have paid large amounts of money, in extremely trying economic times, to travel and see us on the hallowed Donington turf. We also have to consider the whole ecosystem around us. An artist in our position on the main stage has a large technical crew, not to mention transport and trucking for our production. There are many livelihoods and the survival of small businesses to take into account.” 

“From an 'activism' standpoint, we’ve been outspoken on the subject of Palestine since the early years of our career and have the 'shut up and stick to the music' scars to prove it,” he added. “Now that we have a platform where we can use our voices to educate, we feel that it shouldn’t be artists that take an anti-genocide position who have to sacrifice their platform, it should be the complicit sponsors.” 

On the eve of Download, Tom Morello too was entirely mindful that there are other considerations to weigh up beyond the binary options to play or not to play specific events.

“There are two competing, absolute imperatives,” he tells us. “One is to always be part of the solution, and not the problem. And while I don't know that some artists pulling out [of Download] is going to free Palestine, I believe that that act of solidarity is important, and I commend what the artists have done. On the other hand, Rage Against the Machine fans have been cancelled on twice in England in the last couple of years, and I know that there are thousands of fans that are coming to the show, and I believe that there's a sacred trust. And so, for me, those are two very equal and competing imperatives. And it's very difficult to balance those. I could not, in good conscience, cancel on Rage fans a third time. Nor can I ignore the fact that Barclays, who is a sponsor, is complicit in war crimes. So it's complicated.”

Belfast rap trio Kneecap have also considered the matter at length. As with Enter Shikari, and with Tom Morello, the band have been pro-active in their support for the Palestinian people since the very outset of their career, doing numerous benefits for Gaza: on March 10, days before they were due to play the prestigious South By South West music festival in Austin, Texas, they announced their withdrawal from the event after discovering that the US army and defence contractors which supply weapons to Israel were among its sponsors. 

Their decision, they explained, was taken to “highlight the unacceptable deep links the festival has to weapons companies and the U.S. military who at this very moment are enabling a genocide and famine against a trapped population.”

They stated: “We cannot in good conscience attend an arts festival that has 'The US Army' as a 'Super Sponsor' and and is platforming RTX (formerly Raytheon), Collins Aerospace, and BAE Systems, the very companies selling the weapons that have murdered 31,000 Palestinians, over 21,000 of them women and children.”

Kneecap also publicly expressed solidarity with the Palestinian people during an appearance on Ireland's The Late Late Show, paid for a billboard in Times Square, New York, featuring the words 'Let Gaza Live' and 'Ceasefire Now', and donated proceeds from record sales and drinks promotions at their June 13 album launch party in London to Palestinian charities. However, they elected not to join the mass boycott of the Barclays-sponsored The Great Escape festival last month, after much heart-searching discussion on the subject.

Kneecap - banter - The Great Escape Brighton, England - 5-17-2024 - YouTube Kneecap - banter - The Great Escape Brighton, England - 5-17-2024 - YouTube
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The real issue here isn't about who played a festival or didn't, the real problem is what's going on in Palestine

Móglaí Bap, Kneecap

“We had conversations with BDS people in England and Ireland, and I'd a two-hour phone call about it with my brother, who was just back from Palestine the previous day,” explains Móglaí Bap (Naoise Ó Cairealláin), as the trio sit down with Louder in a central London bar. “We've been doing stuff for Palestine since 2018, raising money for a gym in the Aida Refugee Camp with my brother, and we always want to do the right thing for Palestine. But the BDS doesn't recommend actions which could have long-term repercussions for individuals, and while we respect every artist's decision whether they pulled out of the festival or didn't, and while we didn't want to go against the boycott, we want to, and are going to, continue to use the platform we have to raise more awareness of Palestine.”

“And a lot of our fundraising is going to make a practical difference in Palestine,” adds DJ Próvaí (JJ Ó Dochartaigh).

“We could spend all day talking about it, but the real issue here isn't about who played a festival or didn't, the real problem is what's going on in Palestine, and that's what we're here to highlight,” Móglaí Bap continues.

“Our moral compass on things like this comes from people like his brother,” adds Mo Chara (Liam Óg Ó Hannaidh), pointing across the table to his fellow rapper, “and the conversation we had with him made our minds up. That's how we weigh up these questions, not via people's opinions online. I don't think there's a voice like ours in mainstream music in England, and we're starting to get a platform in America too, where the media is really one-sided on this issue, so we want to continue to maintain having a voice to educate people.

“We had Palestine flags onstage long before October 7, we helped raise £80,000 in a year for that gym we mentioned, and while we absolutely recognise the importance of boycotts and collective action, and support the BDS fully, there are complexities to consider as a working, touring band, and hard decisions to make.”

According to a report in The Guardian, Barclays signed a five-year sponsorship deal with Live Nation in 2023, and the bank's statement to the newspaper was bullish and spiky, perhaps understandably so in a week where 20 UK branches were targeted for attack by the Palestine Action group.

A spokesperson said, “Barclays was asked and has agreed to suspend participation in the remaining Live Nation festivals in 2024. Barclays customers who hold tickets to these festivals are not affected and their tickets remain valid. The protesters’ agenda is to have Barclays debank defence companies which is a sector we remain committed to as an essential part of keeping this country and our allies safe.

“They have resorted to intimidating our staff, repeated vandalism of our branches and online harassment. The only thing that this small group of activists will achieve is to weaken essential support for cultural events enjoyed by millions. It is time that leaders across politics, business, academia and the arts stand united against this.” 

The bank's defiance is an indication that this debate is far from over, and will continue to polarise opinion. It's worth noting too that, at the time of writing at least, Live Nation have posted nothing about the controversy on either the company's own social media accounts, or on accounts dedicated to Download, Latitude or the Isle of Wight festival. Bands Boycott Barclays, however, celebrated yesterday's news.

“This is a victory for the Palestinian-led global BDS movement,” the pressure group stated. “As musicians, we were horrified that our music festivals were partnered with Barclays, who are complicit in the genocide in Gaza through investment, loans and underwriting of arms companies supplying the Israeli military. Hundreds of artists have taken action this summer to make it clear that this is morally reprehensible, and we are glad we have been heard.

“Our demand to Barclays is simple: divest from the genocide, or face further boycotts.” 

Meanwhile, in a new statement posted on social media, Enter Shikari paid tribute to both Download's promoters and Bands Boycott Barclays for reaching an outcome few could have anticipated at the beginning of the week.

“This is what we can achieve when we work together instead of dividing ourselves with attempts at moral purity,” the quartet's statement read. “There are many understandable positions on this, don’t be malicious and don’t be divided. It does not help the cause.

“We will continue to take our direction from the Palestinian-led BDS campaign, and urge others to do the same... Though public support for an Israeli weapons embargo is strong, political will is small. In order to change this we must stand strong together.”

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.