An Inside Look at AVA with Sarah McBriar

Brainchild of event organiser Sarah McBriar, AVA (which stands for “Audio Visual Arts”), is the result of sustained and hard-working collaboration with some of the electronic music industry’s top heads and artists in this country. It’s a one-day festival which aims to celebrate the very finest electronic music artists that Ireland has to offer, as well as a conference which tackles and creates its own conversation on a number of relevant subjects, ranging from the history of techno to women in the electronic music industry. Something else AVA can boast is the feat of having played host to Northern Ireland’s first ever outing and performances for the Boiler Room, largely recognised as the prime online music platform for established as well as emerging artists in electronic music, and which has a global appeal. Belfast already has a rich and thriving dance music scene, and AVA stands out as the culmination of this scene’s efforts in recent years to put Belfast firmly on the map.

Our man Fiachra caught up with Sarah McBriar at the beginning of the month to discuss all things AVA: what happened last year; how the festival has developed; where we can expect things to go in the future. And this is what Sarah had to say:

Hi Sarah!

AVA 2015 was a resounding success. How much time and effort goes into organising an event of that size, and what obstacles do you face along the way?

I would say for year one it took about fourteen months from the start to the actual event. We pretty much start planning from around August because you have so much to look into like the venue and what artists you want to book and because we are now competing against other festivals in the UK and also in Europe. We have a lot of our line-up and programming done by December-January.

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You mentioned competing with other festivals. Do you find that because AVA is still a relatively new festival that it’s quite difficult to attract the kind of artists that usually headline other more established ones in Europe?

Yes and no. I think success of last year has helped us out a lot, though. All the press we got, the photographs and the Boiler Room all helped us out I think. We had a real sort of strength behind us and that made the job of booking new artists not [exactly] easy – but I’d definitely say it helped. I think we’re in a fortunate position because of the success of year one. That enabled us to be able to book the likes of Rødhåd, Gerd Janson, Mano Le Tough and obviously having Bicep‘s support and their involvement absolutely helps. So I would say that we probably didn’t feel as much pressure as another first-time festival, but that boils down to how much hard work we put into year one.

Last year there was a heavy local influence on the line-up. Do you think, then, that this year you can afford to strike more of a balance between those local artists, as well as drawing in some more international ones? And how important is it to have that balance?

It’s absolutely vital to AVA that it is booking and supporting Irish talent. AVA stands for ‘Audio Visual Arts’ and it’s about celebrating and developing that local talent. If you look at the whole of Ireland at the moment and consider the output of electronic music it’s absolutely phenomenal! This year we wanted to reach out and programme really interesting acts from the South and we’ve done that with The Terriers live, Brame and Hamo, Sunil Sharpe and Mano Le Tough. We’ve also got Hubie Davidson added to the Boiler Room line-up and he’s a really interesting DJ/producer from Wicklow.

But, I mean, the international guests are really important as well – no doubt about it. Especially in the conference, being able to bring Juan Atkins over – like, he invented techno. That is definitely amazing! He was Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May’s mentor. So it’s so important, especially from a development side, to be able to bring over these really inspirational producers so that people can learn and take something away from it.

I think you’d be wrong to programme a conference that didn’t have some of the industry involved. So, yeah, Juan Atkins has been a really important one. Shanti Celeste as well; a very inspirational female artist. She started her own label, produces her own tracks and she’s just literally flying at the moment and she’s a really interesting person for us to take part in the females in electronic music panel. And the also in the evening we have booked interesting acts like Gerd Janson and Rødhåd. I think they add to what is already an excellent line-up. You want to be sure that you balance it out and that’s the trick, I think.

You mentioned women in electronic music. Do you feel like AVA can be a champion for that cause?

Yes, definitely. I mean, it kind of helps that I’m a woman! It’s definitely an important topic and a lot of people are talking about it at the minute. I always think that you should be booked on your talent and not on your sex. I strongly believe that and nothing has changed there for me. But I also think it’s really important to be inspiring both men and women.

And by being able to bring over someone like Shanti Celeste for the conference as well as the likes of Or:la – these are all really good female artists and DJs so I do think that it’s important to raise the issue. I would say from my own experience it’s only when you really understand that there’s other people with the same vibe and interests, that when they are brought forward into the light that you feel more comfortable as a female entering the industry, because I feel it can be quite daunting for women if they don’t know that there are women out there doing the same thing.

Last year you ran the Emerging Producer competition with Extended Play. This year you’ve built on that with the introduction of the Emerging DJ competition as well. How do you feel that feeds into the overall success of the festival and does that help the local scene here?

I think it’s really good to give people an opportunity to apply to something like that, and it gives them a goal to work towards. I think, for a lot artists, you can get a situation of paralysis through analysis occurring, where they overwork something to the point it doesn’t make sense any more.

So with this I think it’s good that people are given the opportunity for their material to be listened to, firstly, and then also to receive some feedback. And obviously it’s great for the person who wins the competition, as they then given the further opportunity to work alongside Timmy and John of Extended Play. Sid Carey, who won last year’s competition, has really taken off: his track was signed; it’s featured on the FMB blog as well as our own channels; he’s done a mix for AVA which will be placed this year; and also, for the DJs, the opportunity is to get a half hour slot on Belfast Underground Records, which is massive and has a huge waiting list of artists waiting to play on it.

So, yeah, it’s important to not only be programming the established talent and the emerging talent in the line-up but also to be trying to find the next big thing.

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You have a really interesting conference programme which will be held during the day. Do you feel it’s integral to the whole experience?

Yes, definitely. There wasn’t a specific industry event that looked at electronic music. You have the likes of Output, which is a great conference, and which looks at the music industry as a whole – and that’s run by Generator NI as well. But there wasn’t anything that looked at electronic music specifically. You’ve got so many great figureheads in the city who have been making a living of this kind of thing for years and it’s only getting better. The best recent example being the opening of Belfast Underground – which is a record shop and a radio station – and it’s really thriving down there.

So I think it’s class that we’re able to put something on in the city and that it’s so strong. And what’s happening is that there is a greater amount of intrigue in places like London and other major European cities. We’ve got people visiting us now from all over Europe and beyond! We’ve also got a number of prestigious media outlets interested in us. The likes of FACT Magazine, i-D Magazine and The Guardian are all covering the event. So there is a lot of interest there and that comes just as much from the conference as it does from the evening events I think.

Last year, there were plenty of good moments to be cherished. Was there any one moment for you that stands out when you finally thought “We nailed it”?

Well obviously I was very busy all day! But there was one moment when Swoose – that’s Danny Simpson – grabbed me and said you need to come out to Boiler Room. He said, “Just come out, stop what you’re doing and just look and see how mad and amazing it is!” So yeah I can remember that and then dancing with my mum on a ledge on the side of the building. So, yeah, that was a pretty special moment when I was like “Wow! This is really going off! And it’s only five in the afternoon!”

To be honest, there were so many moments it’s hard to pick a definitive one although I won’t forget just how much energy and fun there was at that time. Even at the end, the atmosphere and feeling was great. Afterwards I got presented with a cake in the Green Room with the line-up printed on it and then someone just threw it in my face! So, yeah, 1:30 in the Green Room was a pretty special moment definitely! But even the fact that DJ Numark showed up at 10:30am with a coffee in his hand and was just crate digging at the record fair, that was pretty amazing.

Tickets are still available for the festival from the AVA Festival website – www.avafestival.com – from Belfast Underground records and Yellow Moon in Derry. It’s sure to be a great event, so make sure you get your tickets and get down early for the conference as well.

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