How Music Works: taking Sligo Live from regional curio to international renown

Niall Byrne talks to people who make a living in the Irish music industry. This week, Shane Mitchell of Sligo Live explains the festival’s volunteer-driven, non-profit ethos

Sligo Live organiser Shane Mitchell with Elvis Costello

Sligo Live organiser Shane Mitchell with Elvis Costello

 

With just 24 hours to go, Shane Mitchell and the Sligo Live team are ticking off the final festival production tasks. There’s still some last-minute things to look after for the festival’s 12th year – artist catering, transport, travel schedules and the volunteer roster. “Generally preventing any potential landmines,” as Mitchell puts it.

Easing the jitters somewhat is an increase in pre-booked tickets. This year’s festival, which is headlined by Jools Holland & His Rhythm And Blues Orchestra, Rufus Wainwright, The Waterboys and Altan, is 33 per cent up on its equivalent pre-sales for last year. “It’s the first year the blood pressure isn’t too high,” says Mitchell.

Perhaps that’s because Sligo Live has now firmly established itself as folk, roots and indie non-profit festival with an international reputation. It has its genesis at a festival abroad.

“I was playing at a festival in America,” says Mitchell, who is a founding member of the longstanding Sligo trad band Dervish. “I happened to meet a bunch of politicians from out of this region and they were asking why we can’t do this back home? I said we could and it went from there.”

Mitchell, who has played at some of the world’s most renowned festivals – Glastonbury and Rock In Rio (to an estimated audience of 240,000) among them – has the knowledge about what makes a festival work.

It starts with the music
“It’s very simple,” says Mitchell. “It starts with the music. You have to have high production values. You have to look after your artists. If you do everything with the artist at the forefront, everything else will fall into place.”

Featuring all-indoor concerts (“ You don’t have to have your wellies”), the festival is run with the help of a couple of hundred volunteers and financial support from Failté Ireland, Sligo County Council and the Wild Atlantic Way.

The model is based on similar festivals abroad. “Professionally managed, volunteer-driven,” is how Mitchell puts it. “We have people who come home from England, Scotland and France to volunteer – it’s an excuse to come home and mingle with the natives and their families.”

With artist and industry connections (Edmonton Folk Festival booker Terry Wickham and former UK festival bigwig Vince Power to name two), Mitchell and his production partner Rory O’Connor have built Sligo Live into a highly regarded regional festival that has hosted Elvis Costello, Buena Vista Social Club (one of Mitchell’s personal highlights), Sheryl Crow, Van Morrison and Martha Wainwright.

“People on the board of the festival told me I was absolutely crazy to think I could get Sheryl Crow to Sligo, not only for the festival but her only Irish date,” says Mitchell of last year’s event. “She was sold on the energy, on the west of Ireland and the music culture here.”

Sligo is swell
“Sligo is a real happening place,” says Mitchell. “It has a creative culture. Yeats has a close association with the place. Sligo musicians were at the start of the recording of music during the 1920s in America [as detailed in the film The Sligo Masters]. There are 92 live music events in Sligo every week, but you can slip away... to a river, lake, beach or mountain, for a walk. The quality of life here is incredible.”

Promoting the musical talent to those at home and abroad is something that Mitchell is passionate about. The festival has a remit to put on Irish acts, and this year sees performances ranging from locals Miles Graham and Rackhouse Pilfer to rising young traditional acts Old Hannah and Ensemble Eriú and those booked by Bluestack Records’ label boss Mark Willis for the festival’s arrivals section, including Saint Sister and Paddy Hanna.

“Ireland is a music nation. The harp is a symbol of Ireland. If we want to attract the creative industries to Ireland, we have to absolutely embrace our primary natural resource, which is our music. They’ve done it in Nashville, they’ve done it in Memphis, these things don’t just happen.”

United by openness
Mitchell says Sligo Live brings different muso audiences to the one place united by their openness.

“I think we’ve bridged the gap that wasn’t there before. In Ireland, you had traditional music festival, a roots music festival, an indie music festival but we’ve brought them together. There is cross-pollination of different genres. You might not go to all of those but you’ll be open to new experiences, which is what has happened here, with different audiences coming together.”

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