As AVA Festival prepares to make its third appearance, I spoke to creative director Sarah McBriar about her project that has grown rapidly to become one of Ireland’s, and indeed, Europe’s marquee events.
As an 18 year old with a passion for the performing arts, Sarah McBriar decided to give Glastonbury, the daddy of them all, a try. She almost didn’t make it, she tells me over a coffee, on a break from a hectic roster. “We nearly missed our flight to Bristol because we got stuck behind a horse and cart en route to the airport! How Irish is that?!” Thankfully for Sarah, and ultimately, Belfast, she did get there. And like so many before and since, Glastonbury had a tremendous effect on the young culture vulture. “I was completely blown away. To the point where I told myself that this was what I wanted to do. I want to work in this (industry) and create a festival of my own.”
And create one she did. In 2015, a new event appeared on Ireland’s club calendar. A different event. Something that had never been attempted before, yet seemed like it was just what Belfast had been waiting for. “I didn’t feel that there was a creative platform (event). There are always drink-driven and drink-focused events here, and for me, that’s just wrong. They’re far more concerned with selling beer than promoting talent, so AVA came from a very different place”, she enthuses. With conferences featuring industry insiders such as Jurassic 5’s DJ Nu-Mark and video director Adam Smith, food stalls, a record fair, workshops for budding DJs and producers, performances from some of the hottest local talent, including a headline set from Bicep (one half of which is Sarah’s brother, Matt), and the first ever Boiler Room to be held in Belfast, AVA promised big and delivered accordingly. Hosted in the enormous T13 hangar in Belfast’s docklands, the festival was Sarah’s first foray into running her own event, though she drew on valuable event management experience, gained at Manchester City Football Club, the Warehouse Project, and Block 9 at the aforementioned Glastonbury. “I was actually at Glastonbury working for Block 9 when the news came through of my funding application for AVA having been awarded, so that was pretty special”. An enchanting twist of fate, bringing things full circle. “And then it was a case of, ‘Oh no! This means it’s real!’”
And keeping it ‘real’ is something Sarah has been determined to do since AVA’s inception. “It’s almost like a big gathering of family and friends, and it’s really important that people we care about get involved and continue to be involved. We want to give something back to the city, to the artists, the DJs, the producers”. The conferences and workshops are very much a manifestation of this acknowledgement, and immediately set AVA apart as something other than just another party. “Don’t get me wrong, the partying is a massive part of it and we love it,” she emphasises, “but I was really clear from the beginning that I wanted to have a conference, and a development side”. This has been vindicated, particularly in the case of Quinton Campbell, who won the emerging producer contest in 2016. His ‘FM Patterns’, released on Timmy Stewart’s Extended Play, was met with high regard last autumn, and has received airplay in places as far away as Seattle. “He was working in an IT job, then he entered our competition and now he’s working in music full-time. So that’s an example of someone who has come through via us and got so much value out of it”.
Sarah’s boundless ambition has seen AVA grow exponentially, and in 2016, things were stepped up with a Q&A featuring techno godfather Juan Atkins, a real coup by anyone’s estimation. What was his impression? “He asked me for my business card! I was like, ‘w-w- w-what?!!’ He didn’t get in touch – yet – but at least he asked!!”, she laughs.
Year 2 also saw the addition of a Beck’s outdoor stage, a ‘chillout’ area, Bicep’s first ever live performance, and was rounded off by German techno heavy hitter Rodhad. AVA Festival has yet to repeat itself, and the likelihood of this scenario changing is wafer-thin. “There was always an ambition to grow and develop what we do, into more than what it was when we started. We aren’t just doing this to be great in Belfast, we want to be simply great in what we do.” This year’s event is taking an even bigger step, with a two-day format being introduced. This will feature an expansion of the successful Beck’s stage, a new Boiler Room stage, talks including Leftfield’s Neil Barnes, Renaat Vandepapeliere from R&S records, and a stunning line-up of DJs, counting, among others, Jeff Mills, Marcel Dettmann, Ben UFO, Midland, Job Jobse, Denis Sulta, and many more. Ireland, as ever, will be strongly represented, with Bicep, Timmy Stewart, Jordan, Ryan Vail, Schmutz and Myler making up just a part of the ensemble of home-grown talent.
AVA Festival continues to reach further and higher, and it is surely only a matter of time before its reach extends right across the globe. “We want people to come back every year and think, ‘Wow! This is even better than last year! Be they from London, Berlin, Amsterdam, Barcelona, wherever. We hope that they’ll feel the desire to return annually.” If 2015 was the start of something special, 2016 took the baton and ran with it. 2017’s event is a foray into uncharted territory, but with Sarah and her team leading the way, we’re in safe hands. It’s a journey that will be thrilling, memorable, and, true to the ethos behind AVA, unifying. “We want people to feel that when they arrive they’re very much a part of the experience.”
AVA Festival 2017 takes place at T13 Belfast on Friday 2nd and Saturday 3rd June. Full weekend tickets are £60 (plus booking fee), Friday only tickets are £35 (plus booking fee), and Saturday only tickets are £40 (plus booking fee) available here.