The Times They Are A Changin'

The Times They Are A Changin'
Photo by Annie Spratt / Unsplash

I like my music references. Some are subtle. Some aren't. In this post I'll talk about 2022, in the context of The Beer Farmers.

I chose the cover photo (of the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury, UK) for a few reasons. One reason is that I crept in there as a youth in 1987 (unlike now where it feels like you're being processed in some Orwellian fashion to just get within a mile of the main site) and watched New Order play a fantastic (if rough) set, which included their first ever live performance of the song 'True Faith'. Another reason is that much later, in 2010, I went there with a band I was managing who were performing. It felt like full circle in many ways. The other reason is that this represents live performance and in 2022, The Beer Farmers took the plunge to put on a conference with a mostly in person schedule. More on that later.

It was already a busy year for the band, completely outside of the plans to run another conference. At around about the same time, John had decided to move on, in order to focus on his own stuff, both professionally and personally and not long after, Sean did the same. And then Scott followed suit, taking a sabbatical in order to concentrate on some trivial things, such as his career, marriage and moving home...

While this was disruptive, none of it was unforeseen and indeed when those guys left, they left with our best wishes and support, and we remain great friends.

Around about the same time (well, slap in the middle of it), there was one of the myriad bullying campaigns going on over on the social formerly known as Twitter. A few of the people on the wrong end of this were also people we knew and cared about, so we stepped in to help. #HereForYou - it isn't just a pithy strapline. We fucking mean it.

Those people were Lisa and Nikki. So, we invited them into our chat group on the soon to be dead thanks to UKGov app Signal. Just to provide them with a refuge and place to vent, but importantly to feel loved and supported.

We also went after one or more of the bullies that were making their lives a misery and while you might argue that two wrongs don't make a right, we addressed the problem people, essentially through calling them out and bringing their behaviour to the attention of others, simply trying to do the right thing by the community. And they're now just another bunch of knobheads screaming into their own void. Say what you like - arseholes deserve no quarter. Good people deserve all the care available because they themselves care about others.

So that happened and not long after, we welcomed both Lisa and Nikki into the band. It wasn't anything to do with them being women, what it was to do with is Ian and I being the sole survivors of The Beer Farmers original incarnation, not wanting to walk away ourselves and realising that to continue, we needed fresh input, challenge and perspective. And did they bring that and continue to do so? In absolute spades.

So, we were back as a four-piece, which was great, because having done what we've done for such a long time, we couldn't realistically carry on with Ian and I coming up with rinse and repeat formulas and expect to achieve new stuff.

Anyway, as things were largely back to 'normal', it meant we could go about our lives as if COVID had never been a thing. It meant we could socialise, could attend events (I was originally supposed to go to Manchester Arena and see Queen in 2020, which eventually happened in 2022). It was a great show though and using the gift of production, even the late Fred made an appearance.

But what it also signified was that as The Beer Farmers, we could perhaps take a new risk and put on a live, in-person event! Why not?

I mentioned James McGough in my previous post and him rocking up at BeerCon3 to hang out. James knew of us and what we were about - the whole community thing, and he was also aware of the burgeoning community conference circuit in the UK - BSides, SteelCon, university shows such as Edinburgh Napier's Le Tour Du Hack and Dundee's Abertay SecuriTay. We'd done all those events. There's footage out there and also plenty of items of folklore (true stories).

James, as the head of the Digital Transformation Expo (DTX) series of conferences came at us with a thought. It was just a thought. The thought was that it would be meaningful to combine an industry event with a community project. Initially quite sceptical, we soon warmed to the idea, because after all, the cyber 'industry', as terrible as it is in places, is stocked with people, and people make community.

So, we chewed over the idea for quite a while and in the meantime, rocked up to do a panel talk at the DTX Manchester event, for whatever reason I don't actually know, but it was great. It wasn't recorded, which is a shame, but Eliza-May, Sam, Ian, Brian and Myself did an hour of bashing vendors. In a vendor-heavy environment. The gig wasn't the best part of it. Like most of these things, the socials were.

We got in, did our work and then headed for the bar. Brian cuts a dash, it's fair to say. Eliza-May has a thousand yard stare I was on the end of, and I still don't know why. Also in this snap is Lisa, Natasha and some of the security folks from Zen, where I work. The Zen colleagues in shot would also rock up to BeerCon4 and feel the vibe for themselves. Apparently they had a good time.

I'm not sure what anyone got from this event other than a great catch up. I don't know whether DTX were using it as some sort of test case for what came next, but it didn't really matter. What came next was DTX London and BeerCon4.

Meetings were arranged.

With The Beer Farmers at this time being freshly populated, we had some great fresh perspectives and ideas (I mentioned this earlier). And then we got into the real meat of negotiating with DTX. Remember my point in a previous post also that a great band has hits from everywhere in it? That's us. I came up with the notion that we run BeerCon4 as a conference within an expo. The reason was to try and bridge that gap, or remedy the separation between industry and people. That resonated with James. Concept sold. To all parties.

But it was also where both Lisa and Nikki started to bring in their views and I have to say pretty much none of them were argued against. We'll get to that.

We did get a small amount of shit for this - selling out, signing to the major labels and all that stuff, but when explained, the rationale for it was sound and in the main, people seemed OK with it.

Cos we do Beer Farming, we had demands. And here's where James and the DTX crew deserve an enormous amount of credit - they gave us total creative license to put on the event in the way we wanted it to happen.

"Our show, our terms"
"We need hybrid broadcasting, so we mean some speakers will be there, some will be remote. Same with the audience"
"So, we need an audio / video setup that will support that"
"We'll also need our own crew to complement yours, because they get us and don't get you"
"We don't want you spamming our attendees from your vendor space cannons"
"OK, we won't"
"And finally, you're paying for everything"

And it was kinda simple as that. But it was better. We'd had a whole bunch of meetings about it in planning and Nikki and also Brian had come up with the idea of a beer garden approach - bar stools, picnic benches, kegs lying about and all that. That felt like us 100% and I don't know who enacted all that in the DTX production crew, but they absolutely fucking nailed it.

I think in general, if I was to describe Lisa's overall input into what we do it would be like this "I think that's a shit idea" and you know what, more often than not she's right. She does approve of a lot we do but at the same time manages to save us from some potential carnage.

I wasn't physically at BeerCon4, but I was online and tuned into everything about it, yet when the first videos and images started to emerge of the setup DTX had put together for us, I burst into tears. It was just magnificent. I'm famously known for not being a fan of vendor-heavy events, or vendors generally, but what the people at this largely vendor-heavy event had managed to do was to make Nikki's vision of a beer tent come to life in such a way that we actually looked like the the centrepiece in the chamber of sales.

I was flabbergasted. Massive banners, stencilled artwork with all of our branding everywhere, a lawn in the section we ran, and yes, bar stools, picnic tables and beer kegs. It was a beer garden befitting a Beer Farmers event.

We had issues though, but as ever we had our own crew with us, so think Dave, Ger and physically this time Maya who would ultimately be our sound engineer for the two days. It wouldn't be a BeerCon without issues. In fact, it wouldn't be any cyber conference or show at large without issues. But that's why you surround your projects with awesome and talented people.

The venue was trying to throw people out while we were still trying to nail the production, so I had to get on a call with James and reassure him that this wouldn't take much longer and our team knew what they're doing. This turned out to be true and we did actually have the tech and production ready, for when we went live the following morning. The DTX team throughout were absolutely superb, be it in terms of production of the event, or just helping folks into it. Our team though were what made it an us thing. Cosa Nostra. We're not a mafia, nor are we a clique. We're just like minded and want to do right by others.

The conference itself seemed to me to go super smoothly. You can see the presentations here. As I said, I wasn't physically there, but Ian, Lisa and Nikki were. I did my hosting duties remotely. As usual (and I can say this now, having run multiple conferences), we had a mix of fresh speakers, a few more seasoned campaigners and also some fun stuff. That's how we roll.

A few things were different, so let's unpack that box: It was a major UK tech event, rather than a community cyber event. I think we handled that fine. This review from Glenn Pegden affirms this in a post he put out. We did our first (mostly) in-person show, which was pretty challenging but ultimately doable.

We went with no sponsorship and again to the eternal credit of James and the DTX people, they footed all the bills. Another super idea from the team was to ask attendees to get their hands in their pockets and buy some supplies to add to our foodbank appeal (welcome to Britain), which then got shipped down to the local foodbank in Newham. They got shitloads of stuff from the wonderful people that turned up at our... call it what it was - festival. Loads of people showed up to the presentations and it would seem that across the Digital Transformation Expo 2022 as a thing, BeerCon4 was the main attracti0n.

Once again we brought the music (courtesy of our old friends Jackalope and Sampayo) and this time we also joined forces with Cyber House Party. It was a little bit disjointed, as in there was a bit of a pause between the end of the show and the start of the wind down.

But you know what? We'd smashed it. Once again we'd put on an event that had met its objectives - slightly loftier this time, insofar as we wanted to give new folks a stage like we usually do, but also implant or imprint the community in a setting that is largely commercially focussed. And... do a real life conference.

Mission accomplished. BeerCon4 was the best thing about DTX Europe 2022 and no one can argue to the contrary.

Wow. Next up is this year! Leave it with me.