A not so Great Escape

I feel it is important to buy tickets to all paid gigs, not only to support the artists, but also if I decide to review the gig, I can do so freely. Even the odd time I have a photo pass, I purchase a ticket. When it comes to festivals, many who have passes haven’t paid and I often wonder if they are less inclined to say what paying fans are thinking. Sadly, I think we have seen this incestuous music industry relationship play out at this year’s Great Escape. With no real commentary about the appalling attitude the Great Escape have shown fans – something I have been saying has been getting worse, year on year as the festival switches focus to their conference delegates, leaving fans feeling like second class attendees. This year though, The Great Escape should be embarrassed by their attitude.

Earlier in the year, SXSW was hit by an artist boycott over SXSW Interactive featuring talks by arms manufacturers and SXSW’s sponsorship by the US Army. Given that for the last few years we have seen many more bands engage with politics, it is not surprising some bands see it as important that they are consistent with their principles.

In April, feminist punk band, Menstrual Cramps highlighted Barclay’s sponsorship of The Great Escape. Barclays and especially Barclaycard have a long connection with festival sponsorship and to be honest, I don’t think many of us have ever given them a second thought. However, Barclays, like many international banks, are tied up with many non-ethical investments including arms manufacturers and some of these companies supply arms to Israel.

Whatever your position on Gaza is, I would hope you have enough humanity to agree that some of Israel’s actions are leading to the avoidable death of civilians in Gaza and even if you are pro-Israel, maybe you should reflect on how unconditional your support is? For many, Israel’s long history of ignoring international law meant sympathy for the October attack quickly dissipated when their reaction lead to deaths of civilians and see their actions as collective punishment and therefore a war crime. By extension, anyone supporting these actions are complicit in these war crimes putting Barclays in their target. Understandably, a political band like Menstrual Cramps, felt it was important to lead a call for artists to boycott the festival and show their support for the killing of innocent people. Their call picked up steam in the last two weeks, with over 150 artists pulling out of the festival.

The Great Escape’s response…… silence

Their PR team’s approach appears to have been to stick their head in the sand and thereby showing utter contempt to their customers. In advance of the festival, there had been no communications from the festival regarding the boycott. A few extra bands were quietly drafted in, but it was clear with a few days to go, the lineup was looking depleted. During the festival, there were no communications about last minute drop-outs, except one, headliner Soft Play, which appeared as a notification in the app, but with no actual statement. Bands just disappeared from the schedule. Apparently TGE even deleted negative comments on their social media posts. When a quarter of bands pull-out of the festival and there are big gaps in the schedule, there should not be total silence.

The lack of challenge from the music press was equally unacceptable. While most had published something about the pull-out. I didn’t see any of them challenge the festival organisers over the lack of comms to fans. I guess they didn’t want to lose their press passes and their freebie ticket.

The poor comms wasn’t helped by artists finding their principles very late. I guess many lost them down the back of the sofa and only discovered them at the last minute, deciding to pull out during the festival leaving fans not sure if they were going to find an empty venue. I spent most of the festival checking bands’ social accounts to make sure they hadn’t pulled out before walking to a distant venue. At times the TGE app felt like ‘Schrödinger’s cat’. If I didn’t open the app, at least there was a chance the event was taking place.

I know it is really difficult being a young band. TGE is really important during their early career. Good press or generating a ‘word of mouth’ buzz can make a band. Putting principles first, potentially suffocates their career before it has started. Bands like Menstrual Cramps, building a career out of being a political band, it is understandable why they want to pull out. For bands who don’t have any political songs, pulling out of TGE is a really difficult decision. Weirdly, many of the bands who found it unacceptable to play TGE early in the campaign, somehow managed to find alternative ‘not TGE’ events to play during TGE and were quick to tell everyone where they could be found. Personally, I think there’s some double standards at play. Some bands happy to play both sides. Leach off the TGE brand by using their crowd, but presenting the front that they were boycotting the festival. The bands who got most respect were those who played, pulled out completely or only played the protest events.

It will be interesting to see how the festival season plays out. Hopefully other festivals will be looking closely at their sponsors. Several festivals are sponsored by Barclaycard. Will the ‘Boycott Barclays’ campaign hit them too? Festivals are one of the main incomes for many bands. Will ethics be as strong when an artist could lose a large slab of their income and in fairness, should bands be forced to give up their income over something that ultimately won’t make any difference to the war?

Luckily for The Great Escape, I think many people stayed away or were resigned to experiencing a very different festival. Many like me, hit alternative events and ironically, it was all the ‘principled’ bands who found alternative shows that probably staved off a more vocal backlash towards The Great Escape. If anything, I saw less queues than at previous festivals because I used the side events more than usual.

The protests weren’t too visible during the festival. I was expecting to see protesters every day, but it seemed to be confined to the first evening. On the Wednesday evening a large crowd of pro-Palestinian supporters gathered outside of Jubilee square with police present. They named the bands that pulled out, called people scabs who were playing or attending. Given that one of the songs they sung seemed to suggest there should be a Palestine ‘from the river to the sea’ I’m not exactly sure some of these people should be confident they have the moral high ground. A two state solution is the only solution. We need the Hamas terrorists and the terrorist state of Israel, to talk to each other. But as it stands both Hamas and right-wing Israelis want the irradiation of the other. Israel will continue to arm itself against terrorist and Western governments will continue to support Israel while Hama’s state aim is the irradiation of Israel.

Until the Hamas attack, I was pretty much 100% pro-Palestine, but nothing justifies an attack on civilians and given we were at a musical festival I reflected how lucky we were to only be dealing with protestors and not a genocidal murderous act. While Hamas are around, I’ve reflected my support for Palestine has to be more conditional.

I’ve said for the last few years how great it is to see more political bands. While, the actions of a small minority of bands like the Menstrual Cramps, in some ways spoilt my annual holiday, music needs these bands and the disruption was probably a good thing for music. It shows music can still be to voice of rebellion and have the power to shape ideas.

Sometimes we have to recognise we are getting older and the next generation will take up causes that we may have abandoned as unwinnable. The TGE crowd is generally older than many festivals. From chats over the weekend, it seems many have gradually accepted the world is a messy compromise. The Barclays sponsorship really didn’t bother them and the very best the protestors will achieve is that music festivals might check their sponsors activities. It also meant that we accepted TGE were in an unenviable position and there was very little they could do other than proceed with the reduced schedule and we would have to make the best of it.

It was evident from the first minute that this festival was going to be different. Collecting my wristband on the Wednesday evening, there were a lot police and security keeping an eye on a sizeable protest. One aggressive guy was pulled away from the protestors, but there was no threat from them. When I returned to see the opening act, Baba Ali, the protest had moved on and this was the last time I saw any sizeable protest. I was expecting pockets of protestors outside some of the venues. But throughout the festival, other than pro-Palestinian flags at some of music venues, the only sign on the protest was the tumbleweed blowing across the schedule.

The opening act at Jubilee Square were Baba Ali, a duo using guitars and samples to create a grimy 80s post-punk disco sound. I always imagine their music playing in a sweaty 80s New York art-house club. This is partially the music, but also the way singer Baba Doherty dances in a style very reminiscent of the 1980s, slightly robotic but also very sensual. I believe they are making a TV show of Neuromancer. Baba Ali’s should be asked to do the soundtrack. Worth catching in a small space.

Baba Ali performing at the Great Escape

Usually I head to the Green Door Store for their warmup evening. There was an evening for Gaza with the first 150 being allowed into the venue space and as I didn’t expect I would get in, I headed off to the Pipeline. Highlight, was Van Zon, another ‘Guildhall’ noodly, doodly band of the BCNR ilk with textured songs that gradually built up into a cacophony of instruments. They do it well. But I’m not sure we need any more noodly doodly bands.

Heavy rain greeted us the next morning, dampening my will to traipse between venues and to queue in the rain. First up was Canadian band, La Securite playing Patterns Upstairs, with their dancy art-punk. A great way to warm the crowd up for the day ahead.

Dropping in on the Mesmerist’s off-festival event, I ended up staying for a few acts as there was a late pull-out at the Prince Albert. But the impressive vocals of Nèome made the stay worthwhile.

At the Sidewinder, Teesside’s, Avalanche Party, stormed through their set. I haven’t seen them since before lockdown and thankfully they haven’t lost any of their energy or presence. These guys always put on a great show. If they were based in London, I suspect they would be far bigger than they are. Hopefully, with a new album coming out later in the year, they will finally see the traction they deserve.

Huw Stephens over at Jubilee Square, failed to mention anything about the issues around TGE as he interviewed Wunderhorse and Fabiana Palladino. Surely, if anyone is in a position to question TGE, it’s the BBC?

I meant to catch Sailor Honeymoon, a Korean pop-punk band, in London before TGE, but decided to have a relatively early night before travelling down to Brighton. According to the drummer’s t-shirt, ‘Korean girls invented punk rock not England.’. Maybe not. But their performance was fun nevertheless.

An example of how you can ‘do the right thing’ while doing the wrong thing, Brighton-based The New Eves ‘pulled out of TGE’ fairly early on but managed to ‘not play the Great Escape’ across five different venues. That said, they were my highlight of this year’s Great Escape. The New Eves are four talented multi-instrumentalists who I admit, I had thought were a Last Dinner Party adjacent band, as all images seemed to have them dressed in similar vintage clothing. But that’s where the comparisons end. Featuring cello, flute, violin, accordion, drums and guitars, they create an eclectic blend of sounds, routed in folk but with also a sprinkling of post-punk to add an edge to their crafted sound. I found them completely captivating.

Starting Day 2, the sun was out and things felt more positive. I started the day with the venue nearest to my hotel were Welsh band MELLT sand in their native language – I have to admit, I don’t find Welsh the most musical language – it can all sound all a bit phlegmy.

Off-festival, Norwich psychedelic band Floral Image playing at the Mesmerist, did everything you want from a psychedelic band. Full of energy, wandering rhythms and fun.

Gothy Venus Grrrls brought their enchantments to Fabrica. Indie-rock with supernatural themes. I’m afraid their hexes didn’t quite work on me but they are worth catching, especially in a darkened venue at the end of the evening.

More enchanting was Rachael Lavelle (who pulled out of the main festival during the festival) playing her off-festival gig at the Folkroom. Her singing is more like poetry. The rise and fall of the words are like incantations and spellbinding. The set seemed to be over too quickly.

The evening was a mixture of bands I had seen before, like Avalanche Party and another enjoyable, Enjoyable Listens performances. Both playing in a venue that is usually full of stag parties. Both did well to hold a drinking crowd’s attention, especially as they were showing football on the main screen.

On-festival, there really was very little that was interesting me in the schedule that I knew wasn’t going to have massive queues. So I just stuck to venues that usually don’t require queuing or had and an off-festival venue close by. Liz Lawrence was my only real highlight.

Traditionally, I find the Saturday slim pickings. Artists that have created a buzz will have queues and there are generally more people around, so I end up sticking to the quieter venues. This year, I seemed to be pretty much all off-festival for the whole day. Looking Glass Alice and Ellis-D both entertained at Daltons. On festival, Dog Race were interesting and favourites John J Presley were a great way to close my festival. During the day I came to the conclusion that the best way to tackle the Saturday is to pick one of the stronger off-festival lineups and stay there for the whole day and maybe in future I don’t need a TGE ticket.

Going back to the issue I have highlighted in every review of TGE, the sprawl of venues has to be improved. This year, with fluid schedules, I stuck to venues were there was an alternative near by incase the band pulled out. However, even the off-festival venues were full by mid-afternoon, leaving few alternatives. But there was music to be found. It just took more effort than usual.

As the off-festival events pretty much saved the festival and given next year TGE is going to have the threat of the new SXSW London, they have to stop discouraging off-festival activity and instead encourage more of Brighton’s pubs and arts venues to get involved and to put their own lineups together. My view is that the weakness of TGE is how little bands play. More off-festival activity means the bands who down for TGE play more and the buzz increases around them. Let’s face it, everyone sees the off-festival activity as part of ‘The Great Escape’ anyway. So embrace it.

This was actually my 10th anniversary since my first TGE. But I’ve never quite felt the love for this festival. I had done two SXSW before this and it has always seemed to be a pale imitator. As it tried harder and harder to be SXSW, the shortcomings became more obvious. With the increase in queues, priority for delegates and stupidly expensive hotels, previous years I have been close to not buying a ticket. Then ‘just in case I change my mind’, I end up buying a Super Early Bird ticket. However, given the way TGE have shown contempt towards us, plus the perennial issue of queuing, I have not taken them up on the offer of buying a Super Early Bird ticket. If they had shown some acknowledgement, say by offering a discount to this year’s ticket holders, I probably would have bought a ticket. However, with the festival organisers showing us contempt. I will not support them next year. I hope many others vote with their feet and The Great Escape use the next 12 months to reflect on more ethical sponsorship and how they deal with fans when things don’t go smoothly. Until then, I am going to keep my eyes open for an alternative escape and I’m sure SXSW London will tempt me too. Sadly, I’m afraid this year was definitely not a Great Escape.


Baba Ali, Mickey Callisto, Swan Deep, Van Zon, La Sécurité, LLSN, Grace Moore, Nèome, Avalanche Party (2), Daisy Chute, Wunderhorse, Fabiana Palladino, Sailor Honeymoon, The New Eves, MELLT, Velvet Moon, Floral Image, Venus Grrrls, Bon Enfant, Rachael Levelle, Fraülein, Bouys, Eve Owen, Safari Inn, Enjoyable Listens, Ellie Bleach, Holly Macve, Liz Lawrence, Chum?, Ruby, Jopy, Marnie Marie, Dog Race, Kovak, Owners Club, Harmony Bo, Generation, Looking Glass Alice, Ellis-D, Laurie Wright, Sock Drawer, BIRD, John J Presley.