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The Great Escape 2024: Festival season kicks off under the shadow of mass boycott

By partnering with Barclays – which has financial ties to arms companies – the festival faced a boycott by more than 100 acts.

By Nick Reilly & Will Richards

(Picture: The Great Escape)

In more uneventful years than 2024, The Great Escape usually tends to dominate music industry discourse after it has taken place. In its position as the UK’s primary industry showcase, you’ll find WhatsApp groups relentlessly pinging with breathless discussions about having seen the Next Big Thing™ in a dingy Brighton basement.

But 2024 hasn’t been an uneventful year. In the days and weeks leading up to last week’s multi-venue festival, discussion was dominated by the fact that more than 100 acts announced they were dropping out of the event in solidarity with the people of Palestine amid the ongoing war in Gaza.

The festival had faced criticism for partnering with sponsor Barclays, after it was revealed that the bank holds investments in companies that supply arms to Israel. The subsequent boycott saw acts such as Alfie Templeman pull out, while luminaries such as Massive Attack and Brian Eno voiced their support for the action.

In a statement, Barclays previously told Rolling Stone UK: “First and most importantly, we recognise the profound human suffering caused by this conflict. This is an exceptionally complex and long-running conflict, and we urge governments and the international community to work together to find a lasting, peaceful solution.

“We have been asked why we invest in nine defence companies supplying Israel, but this mistakes what we do. We trade in shares of listed companies in response to client instruction or demand and that may result in us holding shares. We are not making investments for Barclays and Barclays is not a “shareholder” or “investor” in that sense in relation to these companies.”

All of this, then, makes for a festival that – while still showcasing some brilliant acts – doesn’t quite have the same celebratory feel as usual. Within minutes of getting off the train on Thursday morning, we walk past Barclays on Brighton’s North Street – which has been daubed with red paint. There’s nothing specifically to suggest that this is linked to the boycott, but it’s a rather palpable reminder of the sizeable elephant in the room that is overshadowing this festival.

Elsewhere, a series of posters planted around the city offer a mock line-up for “The Fake Escape”, headlined by acts such as ‘Silver Spoon’ and ‘Nepo Baby’. The intended criticism isn’t completely fair, but it’s interesting to note the sudden backlash in a city where the event is usually greeted with welcome arms.

(Picture: The Great Escape)

Before the festival, there was also a sense that boycotting was the only way to effectively take a stand, but the mood across the festival – while tense and uneasy – was that many of the artists who chose to still play were seeing their sets as an opportunity for making a statement. The packed basements may have sometimes felt like business as usual, but the fire in the bellies of the acts playing was fiercely burning.

“Fuck Barclays,” Dead Oceans-signed soul duo MRCY simply said before their first song at Komedia on Thursday, while Rolling Stone UK Future of Music cover stars Big Special also took to social media before the festival to share their reasons for going through with their planned performances.

“We support any band that is trying to do what they can to help no matter what it is,” the Midlands duo said, donating their fee from the festival to the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund. Others, including the singer ELI, also said that they would be giving their performance fee to the Palesinian relief effort. Big Special added: “It’s hard to do anything that does not support some hollow corporation devoid of morals. By design, to step outside of the system is to banish yourself and your voice to the wilderness.”

It’s a similar situation on Friday, as Dutch sisters Sarah Julia tell the crowd they feel “conflicted about playing here” during an early afternoon set at Patterns, mid-way through a showcase of gorgeous harmonies and honeyed folk music. “I think a lot of you share that feeling,” they added to cheers from the crowd, as if everyone was relieved to address the topic that loomed large over the event. The pair took donations for Heal Palestine at their sets across the weekend and were selling handmade crocheted watermelons, the fruit that has become a symbol of Palestinian resistance.

It was a different tone to many artists who pulled out, with Alfie Templeman writing that his “morals cannot and will not align with the amalgamation of entertainment and human suffering,” while Massive Attack wrote: “It’s extraordinary to think that in 2024 promoters and festivals still don’t understand that as artists, our music is for sale but our humanity and morality is not.”

Away from the official showcases, many bands who pulled out – over 100 acts dropped their sets from the official programme – held unofficial fundraiser shows across Brighton, with many spilling out of the door and raising money for Palestine.

All considered, it makes for the strangest of starts to festival season – and one overshadowed by the biggest of moral conundrums. Each artist had their own individuals reasons for choosing to play or indeed boycott, but there’s a growing feeling that this bind could swallow up festival season in 2024. The Great Escape is far from the only festival to be sponsored by Barclays, leading to suggestions that other events could be boycotted too. This elephant, you sense, isn’t leaving the room anytime soon.