Ten years ago Scotland was teeming with Teenage Fanclub clones, had a disastrous football team, and was struggling to shed the image of Ewan MacGregor sliding around in his own skag vomit in the film 'Trainspotting'.
Today the country is experiencing a cultural golden age, with bands like Franz Ferdinand and Snow Patrol leading the way and T In The Park proving itself one of Europe's leading music events with one of the best festivals Scotland has ever seen this summer. (The football team is sadly still disastrous.)
Geoff Ellis, CEO of festival organisers Big Day Out Ltd, has witnessed the rise of the festival right from its birth in 1994 and attributes its success largely to the unbridled passion of the Scots. Collecting two UK Festival Awards for 'best major festival' and 'best facilities and organisation', the festival guru explains to VF the significance of the Scottish connection...
Virtual Festivals: Geoff well done. How does it feel to win 'best major festival'?
Geoff Ellis: Thank you. We're absolutely delighted and thoroughly surprised. It was great just to be nominated but to win was amazing. If you look at the other festivals nominated we were in good company, so when we heard the news we were all jumping around the office! There’s been an amazing reaction. It was even mentioned in the Scottish parliament. One of the Scottish MPs heads up a cross party committee for contemporary music and he told fellow MPs how the award should be recognised as a huge accolade for the Scottish music industry. We’re lucky in Scotland that so many of our politicians are very supportive of what we’re trying to do.
VF: Why is music, especially live music, so important here?
GE: Because there are real attempts in Scotland to raise the bar in terms of what Scotland looks like to the outside world. There’s always been a feeling in Scotland of inferiority, so there's been a real effort in recent years, probably since the birth of the parliament, to make Scots feel more positive about their country. I’ve been saying to the tourist board for years that you have to look at T In The Park and Scottish music as great examples. People might not come to Scotland just because of T In The Park, but they may think ‘oh that’s where Franz Ferdinand and Snow Patrol come from’. You don’t necessarily have to go to T In The Park to feel good about Scotland and enjoy it, but it’s definitely one of the great attractions. There’s now a huge mural in Glasgow airport of people in the crowd at T In The Park, so the message is getting out there. This award is great for Scotland and shows that Scotland can excel. Ok we don’t do it in football, but musically the scene is very good at the moment. We’ve got the established acts like Franz, Mylo and Sons & Daughters, as well as some great news bands coming through and achieving success, like My Latest Novel and The Cinematics. In the past, the best bands tended to be from certain genres, jumping on the Teenage Fanclub bandwagon mostly, but now it’s across the board.
VF: So the industy as a whole is in great shape, not just T?
GE: Yes, there’s a real sense of pride in Scotland at the moment and hopefully the industry will be supported. There’s no point just supporting a band, you need to support the labels, the promoters, young managers, and the venues too. Yes, T In The Park is profitable, but there are ways we can get more success in the long term by being supported by the government and councils. We really want to improve the infrastructure at Balado to make it more accessible. It would mean building bridges over the A91 so there can be more car parking space. Obviously that’s not something we can do ourselves.
VF: What sets T In The Park ahead?
GE: Part of the reason why people voted for us is undoubtedly the atmosphere. We’ve noticed it since the early days, a real passion from the audience that you tend not to get anywhere else. I saw New Order in London recently and while people were appreciative they didn’t seem to be really feeling it. Bands such as The Killers have told us that T In The Park has been their best gig ever due to the power of the audience and, in The Killers case, they’ve even said they’ll happily play every single year! And it doesn't really matter where they play because there's almost always a crowd. Last year Franz Ferdinand’s manager was worried that we’d put them on too early in the day, but it turned out to be one of the biggest audiences of the entire weekend. One of the problems this year was that everyone turned up first thing in the morning! It’s a logistical nightmare but at least means you can put bands on the foot of the bill and they’ll still get watched in droves.
VF: Why exactly is the T In The Park crowd so mad for it?
GE: Combined with passion, there’s an element of T being where it is geographically. Lots of Scottish people don’t have the chance to see that many gigs. The bands only really come to Glasgow and Edinburgh and there’s a lot more Scotland than that! The festival means that people can travel to see all the bands they want over one weekend. They’re therefore less complacent when they get there, simply because there’s less opportunity and they really have to make the most of it. You don’t get many people drifting off and sitting down on the grass for three hours
VF: Almost every arena is constantly kicking off isn't it?
GE: Yes, I mean the Slam Tent is always full and dance music is supposed to be dead! People at T don’t seem to be bothered by music boundaries. Even then Ceiledh Tent attracts loads of visitors. I’m not saying that anyone buys a ticket to go and dance Ceiledh, but it’s a side attraction where people enjoy letting their hair down.
VF: Last year we asked if you were on a par to Glastonbury and you said no. What now?
GE: We don't really compare ourselves to anything. We see ourselves as standing up in our own right and not being in anybody’s shadow. I think we’re definitely seen as the main Scottish festival and I think we’re close to Glastonbury in terms of kinship, but there are many differences as well as similarities. It’s the same with Reading/Leeds and V Festival. I’d say our choice of line up sits somewhere between the two.
VF: What's your policy on booking bands that played the festival last year?
GE: We try to avoid repeating where we can. The Killers, Kasabian and the Kaisers have all played the last two years, but that’s ok because they all moved drastically up the bill over the two. Then there are bands like The Proclaimers, where you can have them any year because people just really enjoy watching them. The problems start when you’re dealing with big, well established bands. if they’ve played second on the bill one year, you can’t really have them there again the next year and you definitely can’t move them down.
VF: The Strokes headlined last year. They'll be banging about next year. Would you have them back?
GE: The Strokes would probably be too soon. We’d ideally want three years before a headliner comes back. It’s not just us, I think bands are also reluctant to do the same thing again. It kind of depends on what’s going on though. Foo Fighters played in 2002 and 2005 and the two sets were almost completely different.
VF: What about The Darkness headlining again?
GE: I’ll never say never. We’ll have to see how this new album goes down. They were the first band to go from bottom of the bill to top of the bill in just one year so there's a special place for them here.
VF: Do festivals like V Festival and Reading/Leeds securing exclusive appearances from bands affect T?
GE: No, exclusives don’t really affect Scotland as it’s seen as a different country. It can also work to our advantage actually. For example, Crowded House once ruled themselves out of any English gigs because they’d toured and promoted the country too much, but we managed to get them to play in Scotland by making out it was a totally separate country.
VF: Are you in discussions with bands at the moment?
GE: Yes we’re talking to the top tier, the headliners really. It’s going well and everyone seems quite comfortable with what we’re doing. It’s like piecing a jigsaw together because everyone’s got to be happy about who’s playing either side of them. A certain band may be fine about playing fourth on the bill, but if there’s another band playing higher than them, who they don’t respect, then they might refuse to play there. On the flip side, Doves are a massive band but they said they’d prefer to play before James Brown because they thought it would be disrespectful to the man, so it works both ways.
VF: The perfect job for any music fan surely, picking your own festival lineup?
GE: Personal preference comes into it, but you have to always be double checking yourself. You need to think with your head more than your heart. Obviously you want to be proud of the line up you select but it needs to reflect what’s going on out there and you can never lose sight of the audience you’re picking the bands for.
VF: Did you know that New Order and Brandon Flowers of The Killers were going to do a song together this year?
GE: No not at all. It was funny though as I was standing next to Brandon back stage while New Order were on. I noticed him reading some notes and looking a bit edgy but didn’t really give it much thought. We were literally standing side by side and then one song finished and he just grabbed a mic and struts on stage and starts singing. I just remember thinking to myself ‘that’s not meant to happen’ and ‘do I follow him?’ I’m glad I didn’t!
T In The Park 2006 takes place at Balado, Kinross, Scotland from 8-9 July 2006. Tickets and line up news will be released in spring of next year. Click here for more info.