One weekend of the year, the seaside haven of Brighton plays home to The Great Escape - a beautiful little music festival, and the single biggest industry convention in the UK. Amongst the sold out festival audience, industry figures mingle with A&Rs, agents and indie minnows; the assembled press swoop in around the newest buzz bands, with music PRs vying for their attention; publishers, labels, lawyers and international festival bookers are on patrol. It's a chaotic dust-up of clashing invites, panels and packed out gigs in bars, shops and basements; drinks receptions, showcases and word-of-mouth off-piste parties, as a teeming swarm of bands and their representatives compete for favour amongst the throng.
For those who've managed to negotiate the application process or scramble onto the lineup in some other way, the work has just begun - there are hundreds of acts playing, and cutting through the noise is a tough game indeed. With so much industry and media exposure on offer, nobody wants to go home empty-handed, and time is short.
I'm at the festival with Oyama, a young shoegaze five-piece from Reykjavík, who opened the Iceland Airwaves Festival in 2012 - despite that show being their eighth ever, they played a stunning set, being something of an experienced 101-scene supergroup (various members are also in Swords of Chaos, Útidúr, Fist Fokkers and Sudden Weather Change). Projekta, my independent press and management company, took them on immediately, booking in shows at by:Larm in Norway, Club NME, and Ja Ja Ja in London. They're still a very new band, unsigned as they shape the songs that could become their first LP, but their early self-produced recordings have been played out by John Kennedy, Simon Raymonde, Paul Artrocker and Dani Charlton on Xfm, Amazing Radio and Resonance FM, and attention is intensifying. The pieces are in motion for Oyama, and awareness is on the rise - this could be an important few days.
Their first show is an Iceland Airwaves festival party, and it goes off like a dream, with Audio buzzing throughout their set. They receive a crowd-led encore even in their 1:30pm slot and finish with "The Garden", a roaring, gnarly noise-rock track centred around a hypnotic vocal harmony from Úlfur and Júlía.
Afterwards, the Icelandic contingent bliss out with cold beers on the leafy sun terrace. Úlfur says it's amongst his favourite Oyama shows so far; Mikey from the M for Montreal festival comes over and talks animatedly about the set, comparing them to early Pavement and various classic college rock bands. They're quietly appreciative of his delight, and I start to wonder if we might have picked up a gig in Canada come winter.
I head backstage to plug in my trio of dead devices in what will become a weekend-long struggle to keep either my Macbook, Blackberry or iPad charged. It's cool and dark back there, with a few stray band members laptopping quietly amongst the piles of backline and instruments.
When I emerge, Hjaltalin are beginning their set of summery, easy indie-jazz that seems perfect against the shimmering sea outside. They've added some psychedelic flourishes to their sound, and I bob around happily, looking forward to their forthcoming album.
The Iceland Airwaves crew are in full attendance - they're the recognisable trio of Egill, Kamilla and Grímur, the towering festival director, who is easily visible in any packed room standing head and shoulders above the crowd. They'll be seeing a staggering amount of shows over the weekend, scouting out bands to finish the festival lineup, which is already pretty fantastic.
The Drowned In Sound team have arrived, and are drinking in the corner. I chat to Sean about stuff I don't remember, probably defaulting to the favourite festival topics of the unexpectedly good weather and band tips, and thanking him for hooking me up with a press wristband - Oyama only got one delegate pass, despite having a management team of two. Sean is excited about Glass Animals, and I plan to go along later, but don't end up having the free time or energy. We talk about how it's a different experience of the festival to be representing a band or running a showcase, rather than seeing shows, drinking, and hanging out. Although there is plenty of that too, tbh.
I check on my devices, all umbilically hooked up to the MacBook via USB cords. My iPad has blinked to life, revealing an inbox full of good news. We've been offered a Line of Best Fit session in the morning, and Dani Charlton from Amazing Radio would like to talk to the band too. Dani has music taste that closely matches my own, and I'm looking forward to meeting her after a year of phone chats and emailing.
The band load out as the crowd dissipates into the festival, and head off to an Airwaves dinner at Wagamama, and inviting me to come along. I lose them packing up and decide to pick up my wristband and delegate pass, bumping into Nathan from Artrocker, Ro Cemm from the Canadian Export, Bernadette, a champion for Austrian music, and a welcome surprise in the sight of my friend Natalie, a young ambassador for music from the Baltic region. It's starting to heat up, with familiar faces and music conference 'usual suspects' appearing all over.
After a brief hello, it's off to Wagamama, and I join the Icelandic table just in time to order. A bunch of us go over the schedule and decide to check out some local heroes in the shape of Brighton's drum-and-synth duo AK/DK. They were phenomenal at Brainlove Festival, a week prior to TGE, and I'm eager to see them again.
We beat a hasty path through the labyrinthine alleys of Brighton in time to see AK/DK whip up their usual joyful storm of synth loops, beats and beeps in a small public square. AK/DK are great performers who always play with passion, inventiveness and big smiles plastered all over their faces. Although I'm not working with them particularly, I'm happy when Grímur and Egill are into it, and there's an interesting mix of industry people in the crowd.
Afterwards the gang disperses to various shows, Mac DeMarco being a popular choice. I'm aware suddenly that my host for the weekend is not texting back about her spare room, meaning I have nowhere to stay, so I find some internet back at Audio and book into the cheapest place I can find. It looks dodgy but has free wi-fi. Everything is full except the very top and the very bottom of the hotel spectrum, and I'm not really up for a pricey room at the Hilton. Hiltons don't have free room wi-fi, whilst most hostels do, which seems kind of backwards to me. Aren't classy hotels supposed to offer good hospitality, whilst cheap hostels tack on charges for everything possible?
I retrieve my case from backstage at Audio and drag it along the sea front, stopping to eat some fish and chips and looking out into the inky darkness as the festival comes to life in the town. After walking for a while, I realise the blue dot on Googlemaps has hardly moved. The hotel is miles away. I hail a cab, aching all over. The driver doesn't recognise the name of the hotel, which is never a good thing, but I read out the address and he knows where i mean. It turns out it's been taken over so recently he hadn't clocked the name change.
It's a big old hotel on the sea front, just past the transition between Brighton and Hove. The guys on the door are 'seedy'. After checking in I start to realise I'm actually in a vast, creaky Victorian building, with its former glory hidden under a lick of cheap, pungent gloss emulsion that hangs in the air everywhere. There is no lift, so I drag my case up four flights of tight stairs. The room has a harsh overhead light, and no lamp, so I hang a shirt over the tiny lampshade, giving the room a pink glow. There is a flap of material pinned over the bathroom window. The traffic outside is set to 'constant roar', drowning out the soothing sound of the waves. I think of Barton Fink. My back hurts, so I take some quite heavy prescription painkillers, drop my bags and sleep, having feverish dreams of being shouted at about something, and searching for someone who never appears.
An hour later, dazed and half-awake, I roll over and check Facebook and Foursquare atop the plasticky bronze-coloured duvet. Andy Malt from CMU is at the Dome. Riku from Music Finland is at the sea front. Sean is at Digital. My friends, colleagues and acquaintances are dotted across Brighton, each sewing a personal narrative that appears online like running stitch, the lines intersecting and crossing at random intervals. Brighton is a whirl of opportunities, rumours, fun and chaos, and my task for the weekend is to find a course through it towards the guiding lights.
The Great Escape festival has begun.
The next day I have a hostel breakfast - eggs, toast, and a grey sausage best described as "harrowing" - and then check out. I hop onto a bus into town, hauling my case once again, and head to the Queen's Hotel for the Music:LX reception and showcase. Music:LX is a client of mine - the export organisation for bands from Luxembourg - their task being to draw the attention of international industry and media to bands from their diminutive homeland.
The reception is quiet - I can almost feel the groan of the collective hangover in the town - but I chat to a couple of French booking agents and a knowledgeable local promoter who does stuff at the Green Door Store, one of Brighton's top venues. We drink bucks fizz and eat bacon butties, and head downstairs for the first band, Monophona (pictured above), who make 90s-retro acoustic electronica that reminds me of trip hop bands like Sneaker Pimps and Olive. It's a nice, soft edged sound that starts the day off nicely as a healthy crowd drifts into the room.
Dani from Amazing Radio is doing a live broadcast in the lobby, and I keep popping up to try and say hi. When there's a lull in the live broadcast we meet finally, and she agrees to interview Oyama shortly, outside the hotel. I text the band, and Úlfur, Júlía and Bergur make it down for the piece.
The day flies by - I spend much of it trying to set a time for the Line of Best Fit session, which is pushed back to the following morning as Oyama need time to borrow a guitar. I settle down with some coffee in the hotel bar and hit all of our social media about their official show at the Queens Hotel, scour the database of music professionals, and send out reminders and invitations to everyone I know at the festival, and many labels and bookers that I don't.
Oyama's show is an early slot, and it goes well. I watch from the merch stand with Hildur, my Icelandic partner in Projekta. A few people drift over and ask us questions - a woman who'd been out on a chaotic Reykjavík night with the rummer Rúnar and his friends; a publishing guy who seems vaguely interested in what's before him but mostly a little lost; some people from a Japanese label who seem excited about the band, and give us their card. Moments like this are why people place such importance on showcase festivals - out of the blue, a possible route to the Japanese market has presented itself.
The band load out and head into the festival, with the Unkown Mortal Orchestra show their destination. My host has been in touch and says she's sick, but I can still use her place if I want to. I offer to get a room again, but she insists it's fine. Just when I try to arrange to pick up the keys, she falls out of contact again - probably asleep. I feel exhausted and worried about having nowhere to stay, and check some hotel websites. The hostel from last night is now full - The Hilton is the only room available in all of Brighton. I pause, shuddering at the price, and take the plunge.
Twenty minutes later I am in the beautiful, airy Hilton lobby checking in, suddenly feeling very aware of my scruffy plaid shirt and matted hair. I get a complimentary upgrade for some reason. My room is huge with a bed big enough to sleep five people, and I decide to try and forget the cost and just enjoy it. My phone is pinging with texts asking where I am, and I answer "bed! see you tomorrow" then switch it off. I run a bath, and sit listening to the drops from the tap spelling out a complex melody that could be a lost John Cage composition, then fall instantly into a deep sleep.
The final day comes. The hotel breakfast is £18, so I skip it and wander around the vast hotel looking for coffee, taking in such strange touches as a large phone charging machine with little phone safes and a credit slot for payment. Truly, the Hilton is a money-grubbing hotel - every courtesy costs money.
I find an empty bar that looks out onto the sea from a shaded wooden patio and sit emailing for a while - the time for The Line of Best Fit session is set, and I head down to the sea front to meet everyone. Paul and Seb suggest we film on the beach, so we head down over the crunching pebbles to a shaded spot by a stone promontory. The session goes well - Júlía and Úlfur look great against the sandy coloured stone, and the acoustic version of The Garden sounds mournful and perfect with the waves in the background.
Afterwards, I resolve to use the rest of the day getting stuck into the conference, and doing some "see and be seen" stuff. Hildur and I hit the central spots - the delegate bar at The Dome, and the many seminar locations - bumping into journalists, label guys and managers from Record of the Day, Cascine, Domino and the Norway Music Export.
We see an A&R panel that goes from the very young (Jack Shankly of Weird World) to the very old (Seymour Stein) and hear anecdotes about signing The Smiths, Talking Heads and Depeche Mode in the pre-internet age. Korda Marshall talks about how Muse were over £1m in the red before they started selling large amounts of records, and my mind boggles at how the majors spend so much money, compared to the budget of Oyama's self-recorded EP.
Just by walking around the festival for a hour or two, we've met half of the conference delegation, which feels loaded with importance in itself.
After some fish 'n' chips on the beach, and a couple of pints with some friends, I pick up my case and trundle back to the train station. I've a pocket full of business cards and an inbox full of aftermath, but as the train heads north and the sun sets over Brighton, I sink into my seat and fall into a deep sleep.