The Great Escape Festival: Celebrating a new music mecca

As the second day of The Great Escape Online 2021 begins, and a hungry music industry continues to wait patiently for the return of IRL chaos, writer and photographer Jamie MacMillan speaks to bands, PRs, editors and more about the legacy of Brighton’s new music behemoth, The Great Escape.

Jamie MacMillan
  • By Jamie MacMillan
  • 13 May 2021
  • min read

Being in Brighton during The Great Escape is always an unforgettable experience. As the music industry rolls down that never-ending hill from the station en masse, it merges with the stag-and-hen-weekenders as the muffled thud of heavy bass leaks out from every doorway, clashing with the tantalising hum of a thousand street parties. It’s chips for every meal, the accompanying seagulls descending like a moshpit from hell to snatch food from naive poor out-of-towners. It’s where Queens meet-ups are made and memories are lost. And then, it’s all over. The euphoria replaced by sore feet, a two-day hangover at best, and just maybe the new love of your musical life. 

But when 2020 arrived and everything came to a juddering pandemic-shaped halt, this out of all the painful cancellations seemed to be felt the most by the music industry. For emerging artists, a vital opportunity to kick-start their year, maybe even their career, was gone in a flash. An industry built on excitement and chasing those new music highs held its breath, scratched its head and asked, ‘Now what?’ More than a year later, even as the world continues to adapt, that same question is still on everybody’s lips. 

So how did The Great Escape become such an important constant in an industry built entirely on change? The answer to that lies in its shared sense of community. A festival that manages to be important to everybody all at once, TGE is as vital to the musical landscape of Brighton as it is to the wider world. There is no friction from the locals at ‘that music lot’ turning up, because the city is fuelled by creativity. ‘I can’t think of another town or city in the UK, other than London, that has so many music things going on’, says Apple Music presenter Matt Wilkinson of the invaluable texture that record stores like Resident and Bella Union add to life in Brighton.

Matt Wilkinson's Ones to Watch

1. Geese

There's a band called Geese from New York who haven't actually released anything yet but they're brilliant and they had the best live stream by a new band that I've seen. It's testament to TGE for booking a band like that, because I don't really know many people who know Geese yet. Genuinely, when I saw them my heart was skipping a beat a little bit. And it got me really excited about new music and excited about live music. So yeah, they're my top tip.

It’s true that you never know quite what you will find, or when you will find it. That delicious possibility of stumbling into the greatest gig at 3 am is just as integral to the spirit of TGE as the FOMO from the shows you can’t get into. Potential lies around every corner. For TV Priest frontman Charlie Drinkwater, the attraction is simple. ‘There’s just an energy to it which I think is really exciting’, he explains, ‘You can’t force or construct that. It just happens.’ That energy can turn shows into things of legend. 

For every Slaves playing a headline set in the Ghost House at the end of a pier (with added monsoon), there’s an Adele playing in a quiet cafe. Everyone’s got that unforgettable set that they talk breathlessly about. Sometimes it’s one that barely anybody went to. If you caught those early shows from Fontaines D.C. and Shame, consider yourself very lucky indeed.

So important has it become to the music calendar that it’s easy to forget just how new it is, and how different the music landscape was in 2006. One person there at the very beginning was Sam Duckworth of Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly fame. Still a regular attendee, Sam has seen it all. ‘It feels almost alien to think of a music industry that wasn’t reliant on streaming’, he recalls. ‘It was the very last days of the old ways transitioning into the very beginnings of the new.’ iTunes had only been around a few years, while Facebook and Spotify were still in the future. Playing alongside bands like The Kooks in a Spiegeltent set up in the centre of town, it was a far cry from today’s behemoth. 

But change has always been rapid, and nowadays it’s impressive how many different genres you can catch in a single weekend across thirty different venues. For festival curator Adam Ryan, ensuring the festival's diversity has always been his main goal. ‘Having Skepta headline at Brighton Dome and then Stormzy doing the same the following year, moments like that are fantastic’, he says, ‘It’s great that we’ve been able to play a part in Glastonbury headliners in that way.’ It’s a perfect reminder of the festival’s success in picking out the potential megastars of the future each year, something Ryan puts down to his team working closely with experts within each genre.

That passion in championing new music has in no way faded over the years and it often represents the perfect opportunity for the artists to make their mark. No matter how big you become, it’s festivals like this that can set the wheels in motion. 

‘It was all about cramming people through the door’, remembers Joel Dilla of the first TGE show that Wolf Alice played back in 2013. ‘We’d only been a band for six months or so, it was nerve wracking. But there’s an excitement there that can only happen when you’re new, just being young and in a band.’ Those early days can mean everything. ‘It’s often a phenomenal launchpad’, explains Dan Carson (Director, They Do PR). ‘The positioning on the cusp of summer feels perfect and getting off on the right foot can lead to the rest of the year toppling like dominos.’ 

2. Eve Owen

There's another artist called Eve Owen that's really good. She released a record last year that reminded me of the quiet moments of PJ Harvey. A little bit of Elliott Smith thrown in there as well. It's quite subtle, minor music in a minor key. And she's just really interesting and she's in a way I guess a victim of new artists releasing music during COVID. She put this record out and it would have done better if she'd been able to play 20 or 30 gigs around it. So she flew under the radar a little bit, but she's really good.

One word is mentioned by everybody. Hype. ‘It’s palpable’, says Jess Partridge (Founder, London In Stereo). ‘The wider music scene absolutely needs these events; it’s how actual discovery happens and it’s why it’s so important to embrace it’. ‘It’s vital’, confirms Stephen Ackroyd (Editor, Dork and Upset). ‘It’s the point in the calendar where the focus becomes around new artists, where new acts are more important than the established names. It can often lead the conversation too, even the most obsessive new music expert can discover something.’ It’s a very British state of affairs’, believes Matt Wilkinson (Apple Music). ‘I think Brits are probably the best in the world at getting giddy about new music’, he says. ‘When we see something that we really love, no matter what genre, we go crazy!’

For artists, the whole time can be as daunting as it is exciting. ‘It was really fucking scary’, laughs Izzy B. Phillips (Black Honey), veteran of TGE’s. ‘Suddenly your city is just full of this chaotic music industry energy. And if you do have a good show, the music industry talks, you know?’ No stranger to hype, she remembers with a smile the feeling of seeing the queue for their show run from one venue to the next. ‘It was so good and so terrifying. It was what hype looks like manifested into human bodies’. When it comes down to the impetus that the festival can give new bands, she has few doubts. ‘Artists are always under a lot of pressure to impress anyway’, she says, ‘and I never want someone to feel like it’s make or break. But at the same time if you smash it, you open a lot of doors for yourself. To even get on the bill is hard, but then to be one of the hot bands is really hard.’

It’s no surprise that the comparison between The Great Escape and SXSW comes up often, Wilkinson in particular seeing a real synergy between the two. ‘Bands get that initial hype from SXSW, and then it’s almost like boiling point for them when they come here’, he explains, ‘and this is where they really take it and springboard to the next level.’ That is something that Casper Mills (Giant Artist Management) fully agrees with, pointing out that the Brighton festival may soon carry an advantage despite the many similarities between the two. As both a former Brighton resident and SXSW booker, he’s seen both festivals up close. ‘SXSW became quite congested’, he explains. ‘It had that absolutely crazy period, where Jay-Z and Kanye were doing surprise shows, and it lost that natural balance of being a new music festival,’ he says. ‘It maybe got a bit too big for itself.’ 

While this year may have come too soon for an IRL version, The Great Escape Online will still take place. The names are as big and exciting as ever, with Alfie Templeman, Holly Humberstone, Sinead O’Brien and TV Priest being the sorts of acts that would have surely resulted in those endless queues. Looking further ahead though, there is still much to think of. 

Still on the horizon are the as-yet unresolved issues around Brexit and its effects on the international artists who flock to Brighton each year. For Kilian Kayner (Personal Trainer), that global aspect is vital. ‘I think for us, coming from outside the UK, festivals like this are more important than most people realise,’ he says. ‘Brexit sucks, big time. But it is possible to live with the hassle. I hope it will all be doable.’ That optimism is shared elsewhere too, Adam Ryan sounding confident as he reinforces, ‘It’s not like the government has ever really helped us before. We’ll always find a way to survive and get round it’, he promises. ‘It’s just important to get back into Brighton and get the venues back open. And give them the support they need and recognition for the struggle they’ve been through.’ 

3. Chubby And The Gang

And Chubby And The Gang as well, I love them. They're one of the last bands that I saw pre-pandemic, I saw them at The MacBeth in London. I loved it. It was one of those gigs where it makes you thankful that you work in music. You were smiling the whole gig. They were ridiculous, so committed to their art. They really know their stuff and history. They’re tight as a gang, they’re unflinchingly British as well. Their record is amazing, they've got these straight up punk songs and sound quite Oi! But then there's a song about Grenfell in the middle of it, and it just comes out of nowhere. You're like, wow, you've got this type of song too. I think they're really special.

As it stands, things are in reasonably good shape across the city for the venues, though of course they face the same titanic battles to survive as the rest of the country. All going to plan, the majority of Brighton venues are set to re-open, down in no small part to the hard work and support from Music Venue Trust over lockdown. But things remain fragile. ‘This government needs to do what they can to make sure these venues are still there when we come out of all this,’ warns Dilla. ‘There wouldn’t be a Wolf Alice if it wasn’t for those shows.’ 

The need to stick, and work, together shines through every conversation. As Wilkinson puts it, ‘People might work with different labels, or there might be rivalry. But music always wins in these situations.’ 

For a festival that is always looking ahead to the future yet remains mindful of its heritage, it’s fitting that the last word goes to someone there from the start. ‘Anything that can last for fifteen years in a world where you’re constantly told that things are here today and gone tomorrow is a massive achievement’, smiles Sam Duckworth warmly. ‘Long may it continue.’ 

Here’s to the next fifteen years of late nights, sore feet and happy hearts.