Every May before the annual touring circuit is fully disrupted by the chaos of the summer festival season, the music industry and new music enthusiasts alike flock to the hip, seaside town of Brighton for one of the most important events in the biz's calendar: The Great Escape.
Across three days a dizzying menagerie of Brighton's bars, venues, cafes, churches, beaches, theatres and shops play host to around 500 up-and-coming artists as agents, promoters and labels gather to find new talent and music fans come to find their new favourite bands.
The festival has, then, an important role as a tastemaker and a discovery platform, and the man taking a great weight of that responsibility is its booker Adam Ryan. Taking on this mammoth task himself, Ryan is responsible for meeting agents and attending shows around the world year-round, selecting what he deems is the finest new music for the festival to showcase themselves. As we begin our coverage of the festival's 14th edition, we spoke with Ryan to get an insight on the logistics of such a task and to find out whether this dream job really is as great as it sounds.
Perhaps we could begin by discussing how you first started out booking artists for the festival...
I started out booking artists for a couple of venues in Camden that the company ran and owned, so it kind of trained me in terms of managing lots of calendars and diaries and working with new emerging bands, because the venues that I was working on were 200-300 capacity. I've been doing the job for about five or six years now; I think when I first took over the bookings we were programming about 350 artists and that's now gone up to 500. But we're not looking to grow that, I think 500's a good number to have; it gives you enough to make a noise but also give each artist cut through and to cover as many genres as possible.
The Great Escape Festival's booker Adam Ryan
For many a music fan, the idea of booking your favourite bands or artists who you know many people will love but might not have had exposure to yet seems like an ideal job. What are the best and worst things about it?
Well as you just said the best thing about it is discovering new music. I have such a passion for discovering new artists that it's a real privilege to be able to do that, not just in the UK but around the world. I was in China last month, and I'm off to Istanbul next month, and was in Australia last year. To go to those countries to see how people consume music and to see what venues they go to and what musicians they're writing about kind of leads into how people live their lives and what politics are happening in their countries, so it's super exciting. You get a real insight into how people live by going to these places and seeing how they listen to music. And also, you know, discovering an artist and getting to put them on and bring them over to Brighton so other people can get involved.
The downside is there's just too much bloody music. There are so many great artists out there; there's so much that I want to cover in terms of artists and genres from all over the world that it can be quite a challenge. The good thing about it is that everyone wants to be involved, we're in a fortunate position now, next year's our 15th anniversary and we kind of built a reputation for breaking artists and being a place where fans can enjoy artists for the first time, but also the artist can get a lot of business off the back of it; whether it's playing to other festival bookers or getting a sync deal, there's a business element to it.
Absolutely. Is it easier to secure bands for The Great Escape earlier in advance now being the institution it is? You’re dealing with a mind-boggling number of artists, I always imagine it must be stressful keeping on top of them all, and yet year-on-year it always seems smooth and seamless.
The booking timeline hasn't changed really. I think because you're dealing in new music you wouldn't want to book 300 artists in December because come May they could be irrelevant, or there are 300 artists that are more relevant. So I always book up to my next announcement. Say when we announce our first 50 acts in September – which is insane if you think about announcing a new music festival that far in advance – I'll book up to that and then the next deadline will be January and I'll book a 100 for that, and then 150 for February. I book up to my deadline and then take stock of what I've got and go at it again.
Do you have a kind of monitoring system in place then to track the progress of bands you hear about throughout the year?
Oh yeah. I mean it's pretty boring, but I have a Google Doc spreadsheet on my phone all year round and I have it broken down into country. So if someone tells me about a band from Chile or if I'm in a country and see a band that I like I'll write it in there, research what label they're on, where they live and get really nerdy about it I guess.
What other tools or avenues do you use throughout the year to keep up-to-date, or rather anticipate the most exciting talent for the festival? I imagine in your position it must get a bit saturated as you get inundated with recommendations...
Yeah, but I think the good thing about it is, though I'm the only booker for The Great Escape, there're so many people involved, and there's such a need for this festival in the UK. There's nothing else like it in the UK and in the whole of Europe, if I'm honest, in terms of the quality of delegate and the quality of media partners and sponsors that are involved. So there's all of these people feeding into it, so whether it's DIY Magazine, The Line of Best Fit, Notion and all of the other publications that we work with. So I'll talk to people and find out what they're listening to and what they're tipping for the next year. I'm talking to agents too who'll pitch things all year round.
The delegate area at TGE 2018
Most importantly, going to gigs and seeing what bands are playing, or looking at well-known established venues in major cities in the world, and when a touring band's going through seeing who's supporting. So seeing who's supporting Mac Demarco in, say, Poland, so you're finding who that local support is who has potential. It's mainly just from talking to a lot of people.
And keeping up to date with your Google Docs, obviously.
God, it's so unromantic. It's literally just a spreadsheet a whole year round.
What’s been the biggest change you’ve seen to the festival over the course of your time there?
The diversity in genres. I think we first started we were a predominantly indie festival – it was just what was in vogue around 2006. A lot of things were just white guys with guitars, which is fine, but I think with streaming platforms now and how we consume music people are a lot less tribal, people are interested in so much more music that it's our job to showcase as much of it as possible. I mean when we first started we wouldn't have dreamed about putting on Skepta or Stormzy. We gave both of them their first festival headline slots in some respects. I remember when we put that Skepta show on sale it raised a few eyebrows, with the music industry going "Really?" But the timing of it was so beautiful; I mean he's an amazing artist but we just timed that crossover perfectly.
And like last year with the explosion of the South London jazz scene, it was great to be able to showcase some of that at the festival. If you said we'd play that when we first started people would be like "What? Why would you do that?" But to be able to spot different genres of music and different scenes and being able to showcase them at the festival is really important.
You must get asked it all the time but can you think of any particular artists that you took a risk on and then went massive, or shows that you're especially proud of?
Well yeah putting Skepta, JME and Stormzy on the same bill, I think Novelist and Ghetts were on there too. That was a really great year for us. And then the following year we had Stormzy headline. Other than that, we had The 1975 play in a 200-capacity room. We did the first show with Amyl and the Sniffers last year, too; I mean they're not huge huge but they're an exciting band. That was just something from sitting on the internet and someone sharing a video of the band on my Facebook page, and then you get that itch where you try and find out who the band are and who their manager is and what's going on.
Amyl and the Sniffers at TGE 2018
Are you still working intensely on the actual festival weekend or do you get to relax and enjoy the fruits of your labour a bit more?
It's best to stay out of the way to be honest. There's the team who run the event during the festival and the last thing they need is me sticking my oar in. I'll be going around talking to the music industry, agents and managers, and meeting new people and finding out what bands and artists that they're working with for the following year.
What are you looking forward to most this Great Escape, be it certain artists, stages or conferences?
Well we've got the beach site, which is a 2000-capacity area on the beach, and within that there's three stages, so there's a 1000-capacity and a 300-capacity and then an outdoor stage. That was a new part of the festival that we implemented last year, so to own and build a part of the festival is really exciting for us, and to add to the list of venues that Brighton has was really fun.
And then there's Foals, obviously. That's mad. I was actually the gig rep for when they played The Great Escape back in maybe 2007, so to be able to book them ten years later as the booker... I'm really looking forward to that set. Australia's our lead country as well. I love working with the guys from Sounds Australia, they've totally changed the landscape of Australian music and the support that they give artists is second-to-none; as an export office it's brilliant.
Foals at The Great Escape back in 2007. This year the Oxford band play a special show at Concorde 2 to mark their label Transgressive's 15th birthday
The Great Escape is a festival for the public, but of course a significant aspect of it is industry focussed, with delegate only showcases, meetings, scouting etc. As one of the most important UK events of the year for ‘the biz’ do you find it hard to get the balance right when it comes to booking artists? Or do both sides of the festival fall into place naturally?
I get frustrated sometimes, I mean you can't get annoyed at the public but last year we had slowthai or, for example we had Fontaines D.C. and unfortunately they can't perform this year because they're on tour with IDLES, but everyones like "Why haven't you got them on?"
We have to sell tickets to the public and make sure we're booking acts that people want to see but I think with The Great Escape's audiences there's such an appetite for new music and discovery, so we're in a unique position where we can announce a hundred bands and everyone's like "Who the hell are they?" and that's not a band thing, because then they can get involved and start listening to it and talking and sharing it amongst themselves. We're quite lucky in that respect that our audience trust us enough to book the best new music around.
I would like to have more unsigned artists, or not necessarily unsigned, but the more success stories that come off the back of the festival the better it is, but because artists are getting signed or represented so early nowadays it can be difficult to have those moments. But we do have them. It's good to have a balance between punters and balance, as that's when you get an honest live show, don't you?
For sure. Lastly, what would you advise to anyone trying to get into the booking business themselves?
Just get involved in your local music scene. Work on a door somewhere, get to know people, get talking and be friendly, and don't be a dick.
The Great Escape takes place across Brighton from 9-11 May. Festicket will be taking a trip to Brighton as we cover the best moments from the festival and meet some of its most exciting artists – follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter to keep up-to-date.