Martin Elbourne: the festival king

With M for Montreal beginning later this week, the city is bracing itself for the mob of international music delegates that will be hitting the streets in search of new talent. This year’s roster includes journalists, label managers, agents and festival programmers from 14 countries including the UK, China and France.

For the occasion, the Concordian caught up with Martin Elbourne, known for his work with such cult groups as The Smiths, as well as his involvement with some of the world’s biggest music festivals. He and his partner Jon McIldowie will be among the many delegates looking for bands to book. He took time out of his busy schedule to share his thoughts on the British music market, M for Montreal and his chance at a Lifetime Achievement Award.

B: How did you get started in the music industry?

E: When I was studying at Bristol University in the early “80s, I started promoting gigs. Then when I graduated I set up a small record label and magazine. One day Peter Gabriel, who lived near us, got in touch and gave us some tracks and a long interview and that culminated into him suggesting we start a festival together. That [became] the first WOMAD festival which was in 1982. It’s actually still going to this day and there’s about eight of them around the world, but I’m not longer involved now.

B: You’re mostly known for your work with The Great Escape Festival in Brighton as well as Glastonbury Festival in Bristol. When did you get involved with those?

E: I got involved with Glastonbury relatively early on because Bristol University wasn’t that far from where it’s held. Before it became a really big festival, it was the place that people from Bristol went to. And because I was sort of running the music scene [at the time] I got to meet Michael Eavis, [the creator of Glastonbury]. In fact, the first WOMAD festival was held about 30 miles from the Glastonbury sight which annoyed Eavis at the time, but after WOMAD sort of went…well bankrupt… I became an agent in London representing bands like The Smiths and New Order and Eavis and I kept in touch. I was one of the first people to deal with the Smiths and I sold Eavis on them playing Glastonbury. So I got involved that way to begin with. These days I concentrate mostly on the Other Stage and the John Peel Stage, so I get to work with newer bands which I prefer.

As for The Great Escape, it was originally mine and Jon Mac’s idea. So it’s very much my baby and I really enjoy doing it. And because of The Great Escape I’ve seen a lot of decent acts from around the world. Which is of course something else we like doing; it’s always fun to discover new bands.

B: That must keep you quite busy. What do you do the rest of the time?

E: Well I would say about 90 per cent of my work involves Glastonbury and The Great Escape, but I’m also a consultant for about five other festivals around the world. I’m also about to launch one in India as well. But until then I need to decide what I’m going to be involved with this year. Last year I worked with Guilfest, Love Box [Festival], Jersey Live and I gave a local one a bit of help also. But I’m really just a consultant for those. There’s no way you could book for all of them, or else you would just go mad!

B: I hear that you were going to get an award but you decided to attend M for Montreal instead. What’s up with that?

E: Well I sort of helped set up M for Montreal, and even if I hadn’t been involved in starting it, it’s still one of my favorite events. But yeah I was supposed to get a Lifetime Achievement Award but it was on the same weekend [as M for Montreal] so now I’m not getting it. I can live without it though. But I’m going to make sure to let the person who does get it know that they were second sellers!

B: Why do you like M for Montreal so much?

E: Well to start off they’re really well organized. Then there’s the fact that they have the venues right next door [to the hotel] and of course Montreal is one of Canada’s best cities. They also pick really great bands so it’s never a waste of time. And there’s so many delegates that come down so by the end of the weekend you’ve kind of gotten to meet everybody so it’s great for networking.

B: You’re coming here to book bands for your festivals. What do you look for in the different artists when you go to events like M for Montreal?

E: Well there’s a mix of things. There’s two levels really. The first is to see if they’re worth bringing over all the way to the UK &- is the band any good? Are the songs good? Then it really comes down to the question of “Will this band work in the British music market?” For example, two years ago a band like Mumford and Sons &- a good really rootsy band&- wouldn’t have worked in the UK at all.

B: What kind of sound is the UK looking for right now?

E: Well because of the success of Mumford and Sons a whole folk/americana scene has started. It really went from a small kind of niche market to something that’s really cool and trendy at the moment.

B: The UK has the reputation of being the first to adopt new trends. What do you think makes you guys see something North America usually misses?

E: I think a lot of that has to do with the media in the UK. Things like the BBC help to broadcast lots of non-commercial bands. Also the TV, which now doesn’t have much music on it, but before a band like the Buzzcocks would get airplay through different alternative TV shows. And things like NME [magazine] and even just national newspapers pick up on new bands really quick. So we’re used to getting new music here [and] it spreads quickly. Almost too quickly sometimes because the backlash for the band will sometimes start before [the band] even got started.

For more information on The Great Escape festival, visit The festival runs May 12-14, 2011.

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