Live in Conversation: Adam Ryan – Head of Music, The Great Escape Part III of III

Adam Ryan

Head of Music, The Great Escape Festival

Every month Byta’s founder, Marc Brown, sits down for an in-depth one-to-one Zoom conversation with someone who provides deep music industry insights and tips. 

#HowWeListen Live: In Conversation is designed to deliver the knowledge to enable tomorrow’s artists and industry leaders to better manoeuvre their way through the music ecosystem. 

“If you have power, it’s important to empower the people around you and give them the opportunity to showcase.” 

This episode’s guest was Adam Ryan, the Head of Music at The Great Escape Festival. What goes into curating, booking and presenting Europe’s largest festival and conference dedicated to the discovery of new music? Adam has spent the better part of his adult life tirelessly discovering, promoting and presenting new music locally, nationally and internationally. Adam talks about his strategies when curating his event which has a great deal to do with partnerships and many conversations. COVID has decimated the live music community around the globe but Adam believes that seeing a band live is irreplaceable. 

From Discovery To Stage: Programming Tomorrow’s Artists

#HowWeListen Live: In Conversation with Adam Ryan took place on Tuesday, March 29th, 2022. Adam Ryan is the Head of Music at The Great Escape Festival, taking place annually in Brighton, UK.

For this event, Byta were happy to be a partner with the Association of Independent Promoters (AIP).  The Association of Independent Promoters (AIP) is a new not-for-profit trade association bringing together independent promoters from across the UK, with an aim to represent, empower and provide a vital support network to them. With a collective voice, AIP aims to bring about positive change within the live and wider music sector in the UK, helping members whilst also developing a vibrant, healthy, representative and sustainable independent scene.

Adam joined us from Farringdon in East London.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

In part III (below), Adam Ryan talks about how up-and-coming artists can make the right choices when it comes to pointing their career toward playing The Great Escape or not. Adam reiterates what Junior said “just be your best you”, and we will find you. There are also some great questions from attendees, such as how to open for Metallica and what if I need a vibraphone on stage with me.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Marc: Let’s talk about what it was like during Covid. When we chatted last week, you were saying that you tried to do some events online. That technology is going in a certain direction and makes a lot of things better. You said the whole experience with the online event was a good way for people to connect. However, it wasn’t a replacement for in-person shows. 

Adam: It will never replace. But for people who have impairments, online stuff is fantastic. If you can bring a show to a kid who can’t leave the hospital or somebody unable to attend a gig due to wheelchair access or something, then the online stuff is liberating. But how can you replace live? I just can’t see it. If you’re in a room with other people and you have the vibrations, smell, and unison with everyone experiencing the same thing but slightly differently, how can you ever replace that? That’s kind of tribal in a way, isn’t it? 

But during the pandemic, we could not do that. So, we had to do online shows which were an excellent way for us to engage with our partners in all the export offices and our media partners and keep the brand association with new emerging talent. It served a purpose. I think there will be more hybrid events moving forward, but I’m not too sure how well-attended they’ll be. You can never compete with the sun. People like going outside. Do you want to sit indoors for eight hours watching a laptop? Some people probably do, but I’m unsure whether it would ever replace it. It’ll be an addition.

There’s a considerable cost. You’re talking two hundred thousand pounds to get a production team on a show at Brixton. Think about the ticket prices on that, topped with paying the artist. Then you have to hope that you’re putting it online so you’ve got a global audience, but are they going to switch on? Then you’ve got time zones to think about. There’s a lot to think about and a lot more risk. Just to clear the production bill, it’s like three hundred thousand pounds. 

Marc: For artists, it’s to use technology to your advantage and don’t worry about where it’s going right away. Focus on what you’re doing now. Why don’t we talk about, for example, if you’re an artist in a small town, how do you recommend that you take the steps to where you play The Great Escape as a band? It might be evident to you looking back, but it may be difficult for someone looking forward. What would you think if you wanted to make music professionally? 

Adam: I’d leave!

Marc: But how do you leave? People don’t know how to do that! 

Adam: Jump on the rail system and leave! 

If you can’t leave, I’d contact your local export office. They’re an excellent place to start. 

Marc: The Towcester export office? 

Adam: It would be the UK export office, wouldn’t it? 

Marc: But if you just started playing gigs, how do you… 

Adam: Just keep active in your music scene. As I said, people are doing their job. It’s not like no one is listening. Opportunities will often arise if you’re constantly looking at things professionally and only playing one show a month, promoting it correctly, and rehearsing and engaging in your local music community. You’ll often meet someone who makes similar music to you, and suddenly, you’ve got somebody to go on tour with. You might get in touch with an artist from the next town or province that has great, similar music. Then you can play their show,  and they can play yours. It’s just constantly talking, being active in the scene, and taking advantage of opportunities when they come up. I know that’s easier said than done. 

Marc: The first person we had on was Huw Stephens. He talked about this idea of local. We discussed two things; local as physical and local as in local online. The things you’re saying, people understand they need to be active, but they need ideas of what it means to be active, like interacting with people. These days you also have to find a community online, and I think it’s intimidating for many people who don’t know what to do. 

Adam: But I mean, everybody is online? Are people still afraid to be online? 

Marc: No, not at all! It’s more that people don’t necessarily know the steps to take, are afraid to reach out to people or don’t know… I loved that you said “music discovery” at the start because that’s what Byta talk about. How do people learn about things with this idea of music discovery? 

Adam: Well, I find out about things… you find one band that you like, and then you find out what record label they’re on and then it’s like unravelling a jumper, isn’t it? You get on a hunt for it like a bloodhound. That’s why I do what I do. I’m very passionate about that. If you’re keeping it on a local tier, find out what the local venue is putting on all the good gigs. There’s a difference between good gigs and bad gigs. You can play in the wrong pub for a lifetime and never get seen. Find out where the touring bands are or where the tour circuit in your area is. That’s always important because the person running that touring venue will be in touch with the local managers and the music industry, and that would be the next thing.

The Barfly was on the touring circuit, and that’s why I got to know everybody because I was working the door at that venue. When Coldplay’s agent turned up, and you put a name to the face, you’re constantly building up your network. I guess you’d just find that out online, I guess? It’s a tough one, isn’t it? You need to reach out to people you have similar interests in or make similar music with or admire, and hopefully, they’ll give you some tips. I would say just engage with your local music venue because that’s everything happening or taking place in your area. They’ll be able to point you in the right direction. 

 Marc: When people start to think about reaching out to someone from The Great Escape, to some, it’s so far away if they live in a different country. Are you saying they should have confidence that you’ll show up eventually if they’re working things at a local and semi-national level? If the artist is good and working hard and playing shows, will you eventually end up hearing about them? Is it that simple, do you think?

Adam: I’d like to think so. We’re working with a lot of people, labels, and booking agents that book across the whole of the globe. There are many people with eyes and ears out there, not to mention all the stuff we’re picking up on anyways. We’re not the be-all and end-all. There are many other music events, promoters and festival promoters that we are talking to that will also be looking to book you. I guess it’s a tough one.

As long as you enjoy what you’re doing, you should keep doing it. You shouldn’t lose sleep about playing The Great Escape. Yeah, it’s a great tool and platform, but it will happen if it’s the right time for you. Same as playing Glastonbury or whatever the festival is in your local area. Start local. The music industry isn’t a doorway you walk into or walk through. Actually, I walk into it quite a lot. 

Marc: Someone’s just said it’s part of the journey, not the destination. 

Adam: That’s a bit cheesy, but that’s what I’m saying. 

Marc: Charlie has a question for Adam regarding The Great Escape. How would you get a support act for Metallica? You’d want to keep it in that metal genre. Would you ask Metallica’s manager or know who they know?

Adam: A lot of the time with those opportunities… It kind of goes back to politics. Those opportunities to play right under Metalica, they’re not going to leave it to me to choose. Even if I am the booker and promoter for Metallica, Metallica will want to keep that opportunity for their next thing or something that will be good for them. The management company might have a new signing they want to put on, so they keep their sausage factory going. You’ve got to remember that once one has been made, another one has to come down the pipe. Or the booking agent might have an agreement in place that says if they have a new baby band and you want to be on my roster, you have to give me your tour support slot. 

Marc: Friends, that one comes up a lot of times. 

Adam: I wish it were down to the best band, but sometimes… I mean, it is the best band, but it just goes through a different layer of filtration, political filtration instead of quality control. 

Marc: On that front, it’s important to say that there are a lot of factors at play, much in the same way as how you end up playing The Great Escape or getting your music discovered. There are so many factors and ways into things, and it’s not just one straight road you hit. 

Another question, Would The Great Escape ever consider having Royal Blood perform? Because I know they’re based in Sussex and quite big. 

Adam: I tried to book them around their first album, but I think they have played The Great Escape in the past. When the album came out, the fees skyrocketed. We’re a venue-based festival; we’re not a greenfield site, so paying those fees is difficult. Sometimes I present opportunities for artists, it might not be just financial, but it could be playing in a small venue and remembering what it was like when they started. It’s tough! I’m always trying to get bigger acts involved. 

We had Foals in 2019, but it was a reintroduction into the market for them. I managed to get the manager and label on-side to present it to the agent because sometimes if you just go to the agent, they’ll say no and want the full fee. You must find the best way to get around the immovable rock. 

Marc: I have another question – Adam. What metrics do you look for when booking an artist or new artist that you are interested in? Is it solely music, or is it music and then socials and the buzz around the industry? What picks your ears up and gets you interested in the artist? 

Adam: Lots of agents have their own sort of sales packages. Somebody phoned me the other day and said, “Oh, you’ve got to book this artist. They’re number fifteen in the viral chart.” And I said, “Oh well, what’s number one in the viral charts?” and they said, “Midnight Oil, it’s a remix of Midnight Oil.” I thought, well, that doesn’t sound like a very good chart to me. 

Or somebody will say, “Oh well, we have a million streams.” But that could just be a chain of coffee shops in Boston that are playing it on repeat. 

There are YouTube streams and stuff, but nine times out of ten, it could just be a line of kids that can’t even afford to go to a gig. All of those things are great, like coffee shops in Boston and kids in bedrooms, they’re all willing to pay for your music with money, but for a live gig, it doesn’t necessarily transcend into ticket sales. 

Marc: Another question. What is the difference between a Talent Booker and an Agent? I’ve heard about Talent Bookers, and I guess they are different from an Agent. They are in charge of putting you on a slew of shows or different industry opportunities? How does that work? 

Adam: Each company is different. You have an Agent, and their job is to put together a live touring plan and plot, and maybe the Booker is the person who goes away and executes that. They may be the person that negotiates the fee or the deal or gets the contracting done. It just depends on how the company is set up. 

A Booker means different things within different companies. The agent is the one who puts the live plot together and who will execute it for the label or manager. They’re the one who does it, and then the booker normally does the groundwork on it, the detail work and contracts. 

Marc: We have a question about gear and touring: artists that play delicate instruments that are oversized, how is that handled as far as going overseas? Adam, what has been your experience with bringing an artist over with that type of set-up? 

Adam: It’s your responsibility. It’s your instrument. I’d be out of pocket if I started taking responsibility for everybody’s instruments.

We provide a basic backline at festivals. We’ll have drums and guitar amps, and that’s probably about it. But I’ve booked a vibraphone player once, and we had to hire a vibraphone for him when he got here, which is very bloody difficult because they come in different keys. There was only one vibraphone in the key he wanted in the whole South East of England. But we found it! You can’t take grand pianos on a plane, so we would look to hire a grand piano. 

If you were coming over and weren’t comfortable bringing your instrument or couldn’t get insurance for it, it would be in the negotiation between the festival and yourself to rent one. But you could be putting an obstacle in the way of getting booked, do you know what I mean? 

Marc: One thing to think about here is flexibility. You want to make the music the way you want, but being flexible and having different set-ups to execute your vision as an artist can also save you money. That’s another way to think about it. 

Adam: We often have artists that won’t have access… they’ll have an album, and it’ll be a full band, but they won’t have the finances to tour with a full band this year. We’ll book them a show in a small church on the understanding that they can play again with a full band next year after the album has come out and they’ve got the money. 

Marc: Well, Adam, this was brilliant! Lots of details and fun! Thank you so much. 

Adam: Thank you for arranging it! It’s always good to talk to people about what we do.