BN1 chats to Rory Bett ahead of The Great Escape 2018

It’s difficult to believe The Great Escape 2018 marks the festival’s thirteenth year. MAMA Festivals, a subsidiary of LiveNation, took over all the way back in 2007, and yet somehow the festival – dubbed the UK’s answer to renowned arts platform SXSW across the pond – still manages to keep reinventing itself.

CEO Rory Bett landed the head honcho gig at MAMA Festivals six years ago, immediately taking to the responsibility of The Great Escape – and arrived full of ideas. He said: “When we took over, there were a few things missing from the show – we wanted to genuinely revolutionise it. I’ve lived in Brighton for 18 years and I’m very proud of this city, but I felt The Great Escape had more of an international feel to it and I wanted to make sure the people of Brighton were better cared for. It was important to me to make the residents feel it really was a local event.”

As a result, the Hub in Jubilee Street was introduced, along with pedestrianised areas and stages in the centre of town to make the festival more accessible to all – even those without a ticket. Today, The Great Escape has grown to host 450 emerging artists from all over the world, in more than 30 walkable venues across the city; it’s now the biggest showcase of emerging music in Europe. But there’s also the Alternative Escape, the free event that runs alongside the main festival, which sees Brighton’s smaller venues filled with acts on a more casual, non-ticketed basis.

Along with his carefully crafted team, which includes Brighton-based music promotions company Lout and a few of the staff from SXSW flown over for the event (“it’s a logistical nightmare, we need a really tight team,” he mentions), Rory’s curated lineup includes the best in up-and-coming acts from the world over – though he admits he still has a soft spot for local talent. “While we support international bands, we want to try to break Brighton bands as well. The festival produces 750 performances over three days, and we celebrate what most greensite festivals don’t – with us, it’s all about the individual gig experience. We’ve broken thousands of acts over the years – Adele, Coldplay, The Kooks had huge shows in their early careers which we’re really proud of – and we hope to continue to do the same.”

This year sees The Great Escape 2018 launch The Beach, a new 2,000-capacity festival site run in partnership with Dr Martens, Island Records and AWAL, with two more music venues for festivalgoers to catch the very best new artists on the scene. There will also
be food vendors in the site – which will be situated in Madeira Drive to the east of the Palace Pier – to avoid the need to travel far to grab a bite to eat between acts.

“The idea of festival is to escape the shackles of what you think you like in music and just walk into a gig and discover something new.”

Rory added: “We’ve been staring at new ways to innovate for years. As a beacon of new music we want to make sure we’re constantly investing in the show and making things more exciting for our guests and our acts. With the highlight on the beach, it’s great for Brighton, it gives us the opportunity to work with more local businesses. The Beach will become a magnet for music lovers during the festival and we can’t wait to open the doors.”

The Great Escape is certainly no stranger to pushing the boundaries of what’s expected of them; in 2009, Babyshambles performed a secret gig atop Audio, while just last year punk duo Slaves took to the Ghost Train on the Palace Pier to knock out some serious tunes – in the pouring rain no less – before the show was shut down. Rory said: “We’re in the memory business; if we can get the bands into a great place feeling like it’s a special show, and they feel that exhilaration once they appear on stage, they’ll put on a cracking show. If the band delivers, the crowd will deliver back – and some pretty unique moments are created. That’s the magic of it all.”

And those memories are more accessible than ever, with the festival app offering real-time availability so wristband holders needn’t walk the whole city over to discover a gig that hasn’t already reached capacity. It also means guests can find shows close to them quicker than ever before, allowing them to squeeze more shows into their weekend. Overall, the customer experience is far better, and the opportunity to become acquainted with a new band or new genre altogether is much greater. Rory sums up the notion of The Great Escape perfectly, encouraging people to use the festival as an opportunity to escape their usual musical preferences: “We’re a festival of discovery – if we put a big act in a small venue, it becomes a special experience for those people who can get in. But for the people who can’t, there’s probably 14 other gigs going on at the same time. The idea of festival is to escape the shackles of what you think you like in music and just walk into a gig and discover something new.”

According to the MAMA CEO, The Great Escape still has a few more surprises on the horizon before it launches mid-May – but Rory remained tight lipped as to what they might be. We suppose we’ll just have to wait and see.

For more information on The Great Escape 2018, including full lineup information, click here.

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