Recently we caught up with Damian Gelle, one of the partners behind the world renowned SW4 Festival, held in Central London, ahead of its 10th Birthday to find out about the processes behind holding such a massive undertaking in a residential area. SW4 Festival is more than a one off festival in London, it is part of the much larger and world wide promotions group, Lock ‘N’@ Load, which is responsible for The Gallery (Ministry of Sound) Together (Amnesia Ibiza), as well as hosting events with Above & Beyond, Ferry Corsten, Bedrock Records, Carl Cox, Eric Prydz and so much more.
You left Australia a long time ago for the sunny shores of England, how did you find the change of countries and what was your first job back then?
This was some time ago…I first came to London in 1993. I had just finished university in Perth Western Australia where I studied as a journalist. Australia was in deep recession so travel seemed like a fun thing to do as no one seemed to be handing out jobs. I pretty much sold everything I had which included my car, bed, a life insurance policy, anything of value – then went backpacking around the U.S. for four months until there was nothing left. I landed at Heathrow with not a lot to my name. Soon after I started as a security guard. £4.69 per hour x 12 hours a day x 6 days a week. The job was pretty boring most the time but every now and then you got to chase a shoplifter down Oxford Street. I certainly didn’t have a clue about the music industry.
It is well known that the music industry is notoriously hard to break just about anywhere, how did you find your way in London?
It started by holding a rave in my backyard. I was mad into it and after renovating the house all summer it seemed like the thing to do was christen the new space with a party. The event was promoted, there was a door charge and DJs were paid a small fee. It was exactly what I do now just on a much smaller scale. The party made a lot of noise which prompted visits from the police and Environmental Health. It was going right off! Afterwards, one of our mates that was there spoke to some guys affiliated with a London club. We were offered a slot which was during the day and we decided to promote this to a very wide circle of friends. Because it was daytime event it gained a lot of publicity. It also helped that it was a roadblock which goes a long way when you are starting out.
How do you find the scene and industry has changed from those days to now?
Well these events were hard dance and trance, I didn’t know anyone who was into house or other styles of music back then. That all changed when I started traveling to Ibiza and heard a variety of sounds. My friends back then would never listen to deep house, they lived and breathed noisy raves. This was all a complete eye-opener for me because I’d never been to a rave before in Australia. The culture was completely foreign to me. So this was how I was introduced…one night while queuing up outside a bar to see a band I turned around to my mates and said “fuck it, I want to do something different”. I ended up at the Fridge in Brixton where my business partner Anton was a regular. This was in 1999 and the night was Escape From Samara. Every Friday there would be a queue down the street to McDonalds. It wasn’t about the superstar DJs it was about the production, the energy, and super friendly vibe. That rarely happens these days. It has to be an event now with big name DJs for something to gain momentum and survive.
Your involvement with The Gallery (Ministry of Sound) and SW4 (Lock n Loaded) and Ibizan Heat is well known in the industry, but unlike some promoters, you take a reasonably low profile, why is this?
It probably depends who you have been speaking to I guess. During the nourties I was constantly in clubs. There was always a party then an afterparty, it was a pretty good decade and I made my fair share of noise. But I’m not one for writing on forums, I’d rather let the events speak for themselves. With each of those events you have mentioned there is a strategy and process. I’ve been fortunate to work with a variety of very good business partners that have guided me and more than anything been a lot of fun to work with.
Putting together a festival in the heart of London is no small task, how do you plan for such an event and walk us through some of the challenges you face?
The event takes a year to plan whether it be promotion, production, which acts will play etc… It’s an ongoing process. We actually talk a few years in advance on certain topics. For example, SW4 is one of those rare beasts that happens in a residential area. There are a lot of issues that come with this from the local community. Over the decade running the event we’ve proved we are responsible with the way we conduct business. We’re also not afraid to challenge the council and residents when we think something is wrong. For years we’ve fought tirelessly to improve the sound levels and finish at a later time. We believe Clapham Common is a very special site for these type of events. Inner city festivals are unique beasts and these things are worth fighting for.
There will always be people who are not happy with an event, for various reasons and some of the feedback online can be quite nasty or even personal. How do you handle this?
You can’t just switch off and ignore the comments people are making out there. At the same time you have to be thick-skinned because people are going to say some nasty things. It’s easy to sit back and be an armchair critic. What I notice is a lot of people these days find it easier to jump on a thread that is slagging something off rather than one that is giving praise. Maybe the way facebook encourages you to ‘like’ something by clicking on a box encourages people to be more negative when they write a comment? The worst is when you see people offering their expertise and they really have no idea about what they’re talking about. These kind of threads should be disregarded, but when a mass of people question the value of your goods and services I would pay attention. Also remember you’re never going to please everyone, the perfect event does not exist.
Part of the reason why the scene has come so far, is from young promoters as yourselves continually hosting events week in, week out. What advice would you give to any aspiring promoter who is thinking of creating a night?
Just do it! Get out there and have a crack. You won’t learn the real stuff until you throw your hat in the ring. People can be paralysed by perfectionism and as I said above there is no such thing as the perfect event. Try and make it unique, don’t throw someone else’s style of event. Network like mad but be true to people. It’s a much smaller world out there now, word travels fast if you’re a shyster. Reputation is everything be protective of it. Make your artwork stand out! Be prepared to lose money and work weekends.
You have worked with some of the industries biggest names over the years, is there anyone that has really stood out or you are happy to see their career has taken off?
Jon Rundell played at one of my first events and he’s now doing very well working alongside Coxy with the Intec label. I saw his schedule the other day and was blown away. Great guy, very hard working and knowledgeable. I love seeing a small name come through it’s no easy thing to do.
What advice would you give to a DJ wishing to advance their career in 2013?
It’s more difficult for DJs now than at any other time. The competition is intense and there are so many things they have to do to build a career unlike years ago. The social network duties are time consuming enough! But I think there are certain boxes that need to be ticked: first and foremost there are three boxes above all the others that need to be ticked: 1/ being able to perform above others 2/ able to produce to a high standard and 3/ creating some excitement and hype around the performance and production. The three P’s: performance, production, publicity. There’s a bunch of other stuff but I think these three points are key with some luck to having a career…
Tickets have now completely sold out for Saturday with few remaining tickets left for the Sunday. For more information, head on over to www.locknloadevents.com.