Adam Ryan, programmer of The Great Escape Festival (TGE), chatted with Pollstar about booking the event, which celebrates its 13th edition, May 17-19, in Brighton, England.
The band and its fans nearly tore down an old Victorian pier in Brighton last year
Ryan has been working as music programmer at Live Nation’s Mama Festivals for more than ten years, he was a venue rep for the Great Escape Festival when it was conceived in 2006.
Some 35 venues are part of TGE (or around 60, if one includes the various parties and the Alternative Escape, a festival within the festival, hosting acts at the very beginnings of their careers). Most of the venues are equipped to host live music throughout the year, with a few exceptions, such as the Old Courtroom or the Paganini Ballroom.
Ryan is in charge of booking the 400-plus bands from 25-plus countries, that are going to perform at the festival and remind some 20,000 festivalgoers and music industry professionals of the fact, that there wouldn’t be a live business without the world’s grassroots venues, where virtually every great artist in history has learned how to perform live.
Bands that have played the Great Escape in the past include Adele, Rag N Bone Man, Clean Bandit, MØ, Alt J, The 1975, Stormzy, Tinie Tempah, Ellie Goulding, Bon Iver, Bombay Bicycle Club, and many more.
Do artists playing the Great Escape get paid?
They do. It’s difficult, because we’re not a green-field festival site. So they’re kind of nominal fees, we say nominal, not phenomenal. If you have a 300 capacity venue, and you have one headliner, they would take the lion share, if it was a normal gig. But because it’s a showcase event, everybody is technically headliner. But I think the split has improved over the years, I’d like to think it covers some of the costs. We work with a lot of export offices to make sure that bands that are coming from overseas have fund available to them, or work with people, who can access funds.
Has the festival reached its capacity? Last year saw long queues in front of many venues.
Sometimes acts get confirmed very early in a 200-capacity venue, and by the time the festival comes they’re a lot bigger. I want to move the artist out, so more people can get to see the act, but at the same time that’s the dream: the manager or the agents want the queue around the block, they want to have that really hot show.
But nine out of ten times, people explore, they’re not there to see the stuff that’s already known. There’s a lot of talent on the whole festival, and it’s all fantastic, so maybe take a risk on some other artists.
Can you explain the booking process in more detail? How do you make sure the right artist goes into the right venue for example?
We have a cross-section of venues that we use, some are more suited to solo artists, some are more suited to electronic etc. I have a whole booking grid that I work from.
Do you remember how many venues took part in the first Great Escape?
I think it was about 15, or 20. We’ve grown a lot, which is also why we’ve built the new beach site. We’re taking over a section of the beach, a 2,000-capacity perimeter. Within that perimeter there’s two main live spaces: a 300 capacity space, which is an indoor semi-permanent structure, and a 700 capacity semi-permanent structure. Dr. Martens will also have an outdoor stage there.
– Adam Ryan
The man who books 400-plus bands for The Great Escape Festival each year
Do you fear for grassroots venues in the UK?
I think they’re definitely having a rough ride at the moment. Was it last year, when Selfridges wanted to support Independent Venue Week, and all they did was put a gig on in their shop? That’s [one] problem right there. I know everybody wants to play unique spaces, and do sponsorship shows. But by doing that you’re taking music out of venues. Sometimes, artists could give more back, and maybe do some smaller shows in smaller venues, to thank and highlight them. What is more, people can be quite difficult to be tempted out of their house.
Venues in the UK, generally, are underfunded. You go to Europe, you go to France or Holland, and all the music venues are subsidized, so they all have amazing lights, and stages and PAs. They get a lot of subsidies from the government or the local council, because they really appreciate the impact that live music and live music venues can have in a community. We don’t really have that in the UK, which is a shame.
How far along in their careers should artists be when playing a showcase event festival?
I think there’s a broad spectrum. If you’ve got somebody like Nao or Novelist, they’ve already got a team around them, but they’re releasing an album in that period, so they will do it for exposure and future festival bookings.
But then we go right down to working with a couple of promoters and small labels, where the artists doesn’t have management, or a record deal, or a radio plugger, and they’re looking for totally different things out of the festival. I think we’ve got around 3,500 music delegates attending the event, so there’s a lot of business [to be found].
So, as long as your live show is ready and together, and you want to do business, you should play the Great Escape.
Can you share a couple of anecdotes from past editions, that give some insights into your day-to-day job on site?
We closed a road off last year, and I think within ten minutes a car got stuck on a bollard, and the fire brigade had to come out. That was a nightmare.
We had Tom Grennan last year, when a fire alarm went off in the venue, which was a bit frustrating. Everybody had to be evacuated and the go back in.
We had Slaves do a show on the pier last year, which was interesting. All the floor boards are Victorian, it’s a very old pier. And we put the Slaves on a Horror Hotel, and they played the middle floor of this haunted house. Everybody started jumping around, as they would, but the pier got spooked, and we had to cut that short. But they played for half and hour, and it was a great gig. It’s actually what you want from a punk rock gig, you want the artist to nearly tear down the Victorian pier.
Do you have a favorite live band?
I’m looking forward to seeing Amyl and the Sniffers at the Great Escape, they’re really good, an Austrialian, sort-of punk-oi band, they’ve all got mullets and are a lot of fun. Trash Talk has always been good to go and watch, they’re quite a lively act, aren’t they. Pavement were good to watch live as well. Primal Scream are always amazing, LCD Soundsystem in their day were very good to watch.
Going to watch Love with Arthur Lee play at the Forum, that was amazing, that was unbelievable. But my favorite band of all time, Television Personalities, I put them on once and it was fucking disaster. Sometimes, if you have a favorite band, it’s best not to watch them.