Every Spring since 2006, the streets of Brighton, England, have been flooded with music lovers seeking the best new local and international artists. At the time of its inception, Great Escape talent booker Adam Ryan tells Billboard that indie music was in vogue, but the popularity of streaming has changed that call for genre-specific events.
“With things like Spotify and how people consume music now, there are more people listening to music than ever before. They can listen to multiple genres and that’s why we’re able to get away with showcasing things like British jazz to American hip-hop,” Ryan tells Billboard during the Great Escape 2018, which runs May 17-19. The event is part music festival and part convention, bringing musicians, fans and industry professionals together from all around the world for a series of expansive and eclectic performances.
The three-day festival has packed the city streets of Brighton that were once home to the stylish “mods” from the Who’s 1979 film Quadrophenia. With outdoor stages, designated busking areas and Volkswagen vans concerted into food vendors with treats like alcoholic ice cream, fans sandwiched between the bright-colored buildings are hearing a new tune.
“When I was a kid, all of our music was on show. I was into punk so I wasn’t going to have the Jam in there or Secret Affair. It was a bit tribal,” says Rory Bett, CEO of Mama Festivals, a Live Nation subsidiary that took over the festival in 2007.
Bett adds, “There is no barrier now to be able to enjoy so much music. The exciting thing about that is kids that are coming through now are being influenced as much by Rod Stewart as they are the Slaves. There is so much flavor.”
On Friday, the festival’s sun-soaked Jubilee stage featured French garage rock band Tshegue, U.K. reggae/soul/jazz hybrid Kioko and Scottish band Colonel Mustard and the Dijon 5 who came out dressed in bright yellow sequins, kilts and sparkling military hats to sing about dancing at gay discos.
“If you’re going to be the best new music festival in Europe or the U.K., then you need to showcase all of the music that is coming up from the underground,” says Ryan. “The Great Escape is a crossover point between the underground and the mainstream.”
One of the festival’s turning points from “meat and potatoes” guitar bands to a more diverse lineup occurred when Ryan booked rising star Skepta in 2015, one year before the grime rapper won the Mercury prize for his ground-breaking album Konnichiwa.
Skepta’s 2015 set with Stormzy, Ghetts and Novelist was an unrivaled hit three years ago. Young U.K. grime rapper Novelist returned this year to open the festival on Thursday evening to an at-capacity crowd at the Fader Stage at Brighton Centre.
“It is not about marginalizing indie guitar music. It is about sharing the platform and representing everything,” Ryan tells Billboard. “I book it based on good music and artistic merit. It is about working with people to provide a credible platform for that genre or that scene.”
The platform was extended to American emcee Saweetie, who played her first U.K. show at this year’s festival. On Friday evening, “grime and blues” artist Alicia Harley had a crowd dancing to her amalgamated genre in the Old Ship. Surrounded by embroidered tapestry, indoor balconies and chandeliers, the hip-hop artist debuted a song about losing a friend last year.
The Great Escape works with export offices in various countries to develop its international lineup and discover the best new music others have to offer. Several countries then put together showcases to provide additional stage time for their artists.
Queer performance band Sado Opera played the first-ever Rush: Russia You Haven’t Heard Before showcase at the Queen’s Hotel on Friday afternoon. The extravagant group, in full makeup, shouted, cursed and completely dazzled the Great Escape crowd.
“The whole point of the festival is discovery,” Ryan says, adding that 80 percent of the artists booked are on the brink of or have just released debut material. “Within the festival, you have to present these artists correctly. You don’t want it to be tokenistic. This is the African band, this is the Spanish band. It needs to be presented in the right form. It has to be presented credibly.”
Japanese artist Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, who played the Arch Friday night has more than 120 million views on YouTube, and her album Nanda Collection debuted No.1 on Japan’s national music charts. Great Escape attendees were treated to an intimate performance from the star as they descended into the Arch, which resides under the pedestrian walkways steps away from the beach. Dressed in a blue-fringed gown with miniature vanity pieces like chairs, mirrors and hairbrushes attached, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu sang to a packed house along with two backup dancers between black painted walls.
“We believe that without shows like this or shows of this scale, there becomes very little outlet for artists to be seen and heard by the right kind of ears,” Bett tells Billboard. “Every time we’ve broken an artist, like Adele or Ed Sheeran, it is an honor to play a part in that story which we feel really proud of.”