How Music Works: AVA Festival - establishing Belfast’s electronic credentials

Niall Byrne talks to people about their work in the music business. This week, Sarah McBriar of Belfast’s AVA on how to build a festival from scratch

Sarah McBriar has spent a lot of her time at music festivals and events. From her decision to go to college in Manchester to immerse herself in its music scene, to working as artist liaison for The Warehouse Project, to a role as assistant producer on the Block 9 area at Glastonbury, McBriar has been in training for her current role as the festival director and creative producer of the best new electronic one-day music festival in the land, AVA Festival, which happens in the Titanic Quarter of Belfast in June.

McBriar has built AVA from scratch, starting with the seed of an idea and a love of electronic music (her brother is Matt McBriar, one half of the Belfast house duo Bicep alongside Andy Ferguson) and its possibilities for crossover with visual arts. That intersection gave AVA its name (Audio Visual Arts). McBriar was prepared for the long haul.

“Putting on a festival has to be a burning passion because it’s so much work,” says McBriar. “It’s very difficult to financially make it work as well. I felt Northern Ireland lacked a creative electronic music festival yet it has a great music scene and a lot of talent.”

Taking what she’s learned on the ground at Glastonbury and inspiration from festivals like Sonar, Mutek and Secret Garden Party is all good but McBriar was keenly aware that her festival idea had to be more concretely formed.


Forming a festival
So she undertook a one-year MA in Creative Producing at the Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London in 2013 to flesh out the idea and develop the business plan for AVA.

“The MA was very much about cementing your ideas and testing them in different groups, McBriar says. “It gave me an opportunity to develop my network outside of Ireland too.”

Further affirmation that she was on the right path came when McBriar was awarded Commercial Education Trust’s Entrepreneur’s Award by the college, which gave her financial seeding to kick off AVA, after three months of applications and interviews.

"It was a bit like Dragon's Den," says McBriar. "The award allowed me to cement more funding and support, and build a team around me."

Aided also by connections that Andy and Matt had made in the music scene, the festival began to form in three strands and gained support from the likes of Generator NI, Tourism Ireland, Belfast City Council and dance mag Resident Advisor. Its first edition took place last May and sold out. The AVA Festival brand is clearly a solid one, so much so that McBriar took the festival to India last month and presented The Exchange x AVA, a day-long conference and showcase in Mumbai.

“AVA is a conference, a showcase and a broadcast,” explains McBriar. We’ve an educational side as well as a good party so I think a lot of people can appreciate that and see the value in it.”

T13 in the the Titanic Quarter of Belfast was a perfect fit for AVA’s activities.

“It is a large shipping warehouse with four massive bays and a great outdoor space with the Harland and Wolf crane behind it – which is very iconic to Belfast.”

Reaching Boiling point
The first AVA lineup last year was already drawing on local electronic talent such as Bicep, Ejeca, Phil Kieran and Space Dimension Controller but McBriar wanted the broadcast element to add an extra edge, so she approached Boiler Room, the popular DJ set streaming site, which broadcasts live streams of electronic music sets from around the world.

Having Boiler Room at the festival, broadcasting outdoor sets from the likes of Space Dimension Controller, Bicep and Timmy Stewart against the backdrop of the Harland & Wolf crane during the day was a masterstroke.

Boiler Room crowds are normally a bit reserved and self-conscious as they know they’re on screen, but the AVA crowd partied like it was finally their turn. Not only were hometown heroes knocking it out of the yard with sensational sets, the assembled crowd were euphoric and energetic and contributed just as much to jaw-dropping moments like when SDC dropped a trance track from Ayla.

The Boiler Room broadcast helped the festival establish immediate credentials worldwide from an audience watching it as it happens.

“It has gained us a huge amount of recognition,” says McBriar. “Matt and Andy tour around the world now and so many people talked about their set at the AVA festival. Promoters in India had watched it too – it just shows the strength of what a cool live broadcast can do.”

Looking forward
Boiler Room returns to AVA's one-day edition on June 4th along with a line-up of internationally established acts such as Rødhåd, Bicep doing their first live A/V show, Mano Le Tough, Gerd Janson and Optimo alongside Irish talent like Sunil Sharpe, Brame & Hamo, Terriers, OR:LA and Swoose & Cromby.

McBriar was determined to keep the festival to one-day and this year’s event adds a third stage to proceedings, along with a number of “immersive experiences.”

The visual aspect of the festival is provided by Guerrilla Shout, a visual art collective from Belfast. “Last year we had three huge suspended screens above the main stage, this year we are working on something totally different, which will truly bring the main stage to life.”

Despite the growth, McBriar has a lot of responsibility on her shoulders. Not only is she the director and producer of the festival but she books the acts, raises funding and works with sponsors. She has started to grow the AVA team but I wonder does she have control issues?

“More like budget issues,” she answers. “When you are running a small festival there is a is high risk.”

One thing that has proved difficult is booking female acts in a field of music that is overwhelming dominated by men.

“It’s tough,” says McBriar. “No-one understands how hard it is to book a comprehensive line-up. Unfortunately, there are nowhere near as many female DJs as male. When it comes to booking headline talent, it’s even harder. We actually had a female headliner, which then feel through two days before we announced.”

This year, AVA is hosting a women in electronic music panel, in an attempt to encourage more women to be involved in electronic music. McBriar hopes AVA will inspire DJs and producers of the future from the 14 year-olds attending the conference to the women who may find encouragement at this year’s event.

As it stands, McBriar’s AVA Festival has galvanised Northern Ireland’s electronic music scene and has helped showcase its talents further afield. Not bad for a festival that is less than two years old.