The Great Escape organiser talks about putting on the event

Martin Elbourne speaks about creating the Brighton based festival

published: Mon 12th May 2008

The Futureheads

Thursday 15th to Saturday 17th May 2008
venues in Brighton, East Sussex, BN2 9NA, England MAP
£45 for the three days), Day tickets: Thurs £18.50, Fri/Sat £22.50
last updated: Mon 28th Apr 2008

One of the organisers of the The Great Escape Festival is Martin Elbourne who has been involved in Ashton Court, co-promoted the first WOMAD festival, then he moved to London, became an agent and sold Glastonbury Festival's organiser Michael Eavis the Smiths, becoming an advisor to Michael in booking bands for the festival. eFestivals spoke to him about his involvement in The Great Escape.

How did you get involved in The Great Escape?
There are quite a lot of events around the world that are a little bit similar, that normally have a conference during the daytime and a showcase in the evening, and I was invited to quite a few of these things, a lot of them in Canada, with my Glastonbury hat on. I started thinking, hang on it's crazy that there isn't one of these in the UK, and you tend to sit in bars at one o'clock in the morning thinking it would be better if they did this or if they did that. One night we were out in Calgary at some event, myself and Jon Mac from the Barfly, and we were with the guys from South By South West and North By North East all going why don't we give it a go? That was four year's ago, so we decided that night we'd do it.

What's the ethos behind The great Escape?
It was pretty much taking the format of a lot of events we go to. EuroSonic in Holland, was very much the template in terms of the type of thing we were doing. As the name suggests that festival focuses on European bands including the UK. The good thing about Eurosonic in those days was that literally every venue was walkable, and so we thought if we're going to do this, we're also going to need a lot of venues that are walkable.

Is that why you chose Brighton?
Yes, and the other thing we'd experienced is if you do an event like that in a major city in a territory, like London in the UK, you miss out on an awful lot because wherever the domestic record or music industry is that people just go home. One of the most important things, from a delegates point of view, is hanging out in the same bar, making contacts and having meaningful networking things going on. So that was very much the model. There are some music events you go to, which are very good, things like Music Week, for example, which I have a lot of time for, but some of the venues are a half an hour taxi drive away, and you miss out on too much, you end up missing bands.

Can you explain the delegate side of it? Obviously a lot of people go for the music, but many of them might not be aware there's a whole other part to the festival?
Well including media, we'll have about a thousand delegates this year, and effectively what they have is a daytime conference element and then they tend to stay in the hotel bar until about five o'clock in the morning. Although, our focus is very much towards live music, these days record companies are starting to become less important. So we've got about eighty percent of the UK agents coming down to the event and quite a lot of international ones as well, and pretty much every promoter in the country is coming to it, we've got about eighty other festivals coming to the event, and then obviously all the major labels and the few remaining indie labels that do things. A lot of the guests count in the industry.
The reason why that's important, isn't just because it's good to all get together, but that's the reason for a lot of bands playing the event. We get a lot of countries, who pay for their bands to come over to the event, which adds to the international flavour, and they want to get in front of the UK media, and hopefully get a UK agent and a couple of festival bookings, and so on and so on. And that's increasingly a very important part of the music industry, because increasingly we have a focus on NME style bands, who aren't getting signed by major labels any more. So they need to play events like ours, and South By South West, and EuroSonic to get that lift up in their careers basically.

Which part of the delegate side of the festival are you most looking forward to?
Well, unfortunately because I'm one of the organisers, there's a limit to just how much I can attend of it. The bits I saw last year, which they are repeating this year is a company called Music Allied, who do a sort of informative digital day, and of course because digital stuff changes every three months, what I saw of it was actually really good. If I had more time I'd really like to spend all day at that.
One of the other thing I do is on the Saturday, we tend to start winding things down because we find after two days people just want to focus on seeing bands by the third day. I have one panel which I do myself called reality check. There's a tendency in these sort of events for people to pontificate about what's going to happen in two or three year's time. Whilst this is important, but sometimes people forget about what's happening now and in the next six months. For instance last year I had a bloke running an independent record store, it was all negative, but I didn't realise how reliant he was on vinyl, without vinyl records he'd have gone out of business. It went really last year, and I'm looking forward to having a much more international cast this year.

How long does it take to get Great Escape organised?
We've already started on next year because we have to put the venues on notice, we have to book the hotels a long time in advance because Brighton, is such a popular place to go to, the downside is you're facing a lot of competition. Plus, the sponsors are quite an important part of the event and that all needs to be done a year in advance. And you need to do your de-briefing straight away, the first year we made that mistake, it was a real struggle, we were all completely knackered after it, and we made the mistake of not having a de-briefing straight after it.
It was amazing, how much, by not having it even by a week, how much people who were having good ideas about how the event could be improved, had moved onto something else. Then we start going to these type of events, there's obviously not that many of these events going during the summer because of outdoor festival season, then we start going to these events by the start of September. Also because we work a lot with foreign governments, or rather their music export bosses, they all need reports back about what their bands have achieved, because as soon as you get involved with any sort of public funding, there's such a long lead time. So, it's pretty much an all around thing, much more funnily enough than an open air festival.

How do you find all these new acts, because you have more breaking talent at your event than any other festival?
Well that is the big advantage of working with the Barfly group, or MAMA group, because obviously they've got their twenty or so venues, and they've got all thse young kids and that's their job of going around looking at new bands, and of course we're pretty well connected. The other thing is the international bands, which a lot of your readers won't have heard of, they're all acts that one of our team have personally seen live. That's always my advice to people going to The Great Escape for the first time, is that if you can't get into see some hot UK band that you've heard of, then go to some international group, because generally they're of a much better standard, because they've had to go through that many more hoops to get onto the event.

So who are you most looking forward to seeing, that you'd recommend?
Pretty much all the Canadians because they're always really good quality, then there's a couple which I haven't seen but I haven't got a list in fron of me. The best ones I saw at a thing in Montreal were We Are Wolves, they're a really good band. Oh and Wintersleep were playing, they've just won a Juno which is the Canadina equivalent of a Brit, they're really, really good live, if you like pop bands, they're from Halifax, Nova Scotia. But it's quite a lot because there's a lot that I've actually booked for Glastonbury. This year's there's an awful lot of British bands, because we've expanded the thing and handed over more of the booking to the guys at the Barfly. So there's quite a lot I want to see there now, Iron and Wine for instance I've never seen.

What's the best thing about putting on The Great Escape so far?
I think it's the fact that the first year, even though it was stressful we'd got through it, and that by the end of last year, we were actually looking at each other and thinking hang about we're not really knackered because it hasn't been nearly as stressful and the feedback we were getting was really positive. Because the first year people were letting us off a lot of things because they knew it was our first year. That last night, quite important people were coming back and saying well done you've delivered on all the things that were slightly wrong last year.

And what about musically, what's been your highlights of the festival?
Last year we had Patrick Watson and The Besnard Lakes on in the same venue. They're two of my favourite acts, Besnard Lakes was my best album of last year, well the year before now, and Patrick Watson was the best live act I'd seen last year. So, that was really good because that was one that I'd really talked up to people, and it was absolutely rammed and everyone came out if it raving about it. Both acts got loads of press and got records deals out of it which was good because we'd kind of achieved something.

So what are your future plans for The Great Escape?
Even though the industry side of it is important to the event. The most important thing now is making it a great festival, and we've pretty much got that. Obviously, it helps when the weather's better. That was the other thing, I don't know if you remember but in year one we had gale force winds for three days. But that is the advantage of it all being an indoor event.

So how do you make it more like a festival?
Generally speaking that's where we want to, not copy South By South West because it's got too big. They have an awful lot of outdoor events, of course it helps that they have good weather, but all of Austin is full of parties during the day times and outdoor shows. We'd just like to do more and more of those outdoor impromptu semi-guerilla type gigs, where we'd let people know by text, things like that. But it's when you arrive in Brighton you really want to make it feel like the whole city is having The great Escape. When you arrive in Austin, everybody knows that South By South West is on and the whole place is buzzing and that's kind of what we're trying to create. We're nearly there, it might take another year.

Is there anybody you'd like to have booked this year, that you didn't get?
I don't think so, I'm pretty amazed, literally during the last few months I've picked up the NME or whatever and looked at what they're saying is this week's hot band, and thought what have you got then? And pretty much every single one has been on the bill.

Thanks for your time Martin, have a good festival.
Thank you, good bye.

interview by: Scott Williams

Thursday 15th to Saturday 17th May 2008
venues in Brighton, East Sussex, BN2 9NA, England MAP
£45 for the three days), Day tickets: Thurs £18.50, Fri/Sat £22.50
last updated: Mon 28th Apr 2008


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