Damnation Festival is around the corner and we had a chat with our good friend and festival director Gavin McInally about the history of Damnation, the drive behind starting the festival, and their exponential growth; doubling the venue cap to 6,000 for 2022.
What was the first ever festival you went to and can you tell us about that experience?
Ozzfest 2001 at Milton Keynes Bowl to see the likes of Amen, Slipknot, Mudvayne, Tool, Sepultura, Papa Roach, Black Sabbath and the mighty Raging Speedhorn. I was a teenager at the time and had only got into metal a year or so before.
I wouldn’t have known it at the time, but a small seed that grew to become Damnation must have been planted that day. I’ve been to more than 100 major outdoor festivals since and I still have that same excitement about live music.
Can you give us a brief history of Damnation Festival?
In 2004 I asked a bunch of message board friends, on the Download Forum, if they fancied putting on a gig and about 10 of us got involved in booking Damnation 2005, with the likes of Entombed, Sikth and yes, the mighty Raging Speedhorn. Very quickly that team was reduced to a handful of people, once they realized I wasn’t doing it for internet bravado, and by 2008, we were a 4,000 cap event with Carcass headlining. We’ve had our ups and downs, learned a lot of lessons the hard way, and also had unbelievable highlights, including selling out the last few years in Leeds, which has led us to BEC Arena in Manchester for 2022.
What inspired/motivated you to start Damnation Festival?
Not having another avenue into the business/passion, I suppose. I can’t play an instrument, I have no idea about any of the tech or backline and no experience to offer in terms life on the road, so promoting seemed like an ideal way in. Although I understand why more people would rather just learn guitar!
What’s your favourite part about event management?
Putting an idea into reality, thinking to yourself ‘it would be unbelievable to have Cult of Luna with Julie Christmas perform Mariner’ and then stand there and watch it happen on your stage. It can be a little surreal to be a fan with a magic wand. I often say to people who are involved with Damnation that it’s a slog and sometimes doesn’t seem worth it, but once you are there in person, watching it unfold in front of you, with that feeling of ‘I made this happen’, all the other nonsense fades into the distance.
What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned over the years relating to event/festival management?
Never take a ticket sale for granted. I’m still learning that lesson today. It’s too easy to allow your imagination to run wild because you’ve booked your favourite band, or there’s a buzz online about an act which makes it sound like they’d fill Wembley in a heartbeat... but ticket sales are where the rubber meets the road and ultimately separates 90% of metal shows from the 10% that actually happen. Everything else is expensive window dressing that doesn’t mean much if the venue is empty and you’ve just lost £30,000.
And treat your fans with the respect and honesty you’d like as a fan because without them, you’re just a guy with a big settlement to pay.
What challenges did you face when starting up Damnation?
Inexperience, a lack of cash, not having any reputation to work from in terms of dealing with bands, agents, managers... the list is pretty exhaustive to be honest as Damnation was the first show I ever promoted. But everything we lacked as novices we made up for in drive, enthusiasm and a refusal to accept that Damnation wasn’t the greatest thing to happen to the underground UK metal scene since Speedhorn’s debut album. We plastered message boards, MySpace, drove to Manchester and flyered every emo or goth looking passerby and held promo nights in the venue.
I pitched Damnation of the likes of Terrorizer and Jager as if I was starting Facebook, instead of booking Gorerotted, and I begged pals and pals of pals for any cash they could offer to see it over the line.
And everyone said yes, I take it because they believed in what I was trying to do and trusted that I would not let them down. A lot of the DIY ethic is coming with us to Manchester, as Europe’s biggest indoor metal festival.
What’s your proudest moment in the history of Damnation?
That first year just happening at all, is pretty difficult to top.
I felt like I was in a complete daze the next day wandering the streets of Manchester, and maybe still in a bit of shock as it was all just words and big gestures up until that day. Booking the return of Carcass in 2008 was also pretty special as it felt like really mixing it with the big boys for the first time and then Bolt Thrower in 2014 and having Mariner in 2016 were highlights, when I felt like we’d achieved something outside the standard ‘booked a band to play a show’ rinse and repeat.
I say this knowing it could all come crumbling down and 2022 could be the worst event of my life BUT if it does pan out the way we want it to, watching 5,000 or so fans go nuts to Jane Doe, Streetcleaner, Prowler In The Yard and Slaughter of the Soul is definitely going to make me a little emotional.
I want that to be my proudest moment.
How has your outlook on the music industry changed, if at all, since running your own festival?
I’m a very positive guy and I like to treat people with honesty, transparency and a friendly respect and even although that’s not always afforded back to me, I’ve been mindful not to become a prick, just because I often deal with pricks. I perhaps believed that loyalty would be held in a higher regard than it is, that when you got higher on the promotional tree you’d deal with more professionalism than is the case in reality and that cash wouldn’t always top trump everything – and I’m aware how naive that sounds.
But had that all been true, maybe a 23-year-old with no money and even less promoting experience would never have have got his foot in the door by booking Sikth and Entombed and we wouldn’t be discussing Damnation today. Ultimately though, I’ve never allowed the magic of live music to be killed off by the business behind it and I hope that day never comes.
Looking back, would younger you ever have imagined being in the position you are today, with Damnation being your full time job?
It’s hard to say. I’m not a ‘conceive, believe, achieve’ kind of person, so I would never set a goal as lofty as making a hobby a full-time job, only to have it hang over me for a decade as some sort of hypothetical failure I’d created for myself. At the same time, it came as no massive surprise to me that I could give it a shot, because the tangible results i.e. cold hard cash and annual ticket sales, were there for me to see.
But I could pose myself the same sort of question now: ‘could I imagine Damnation being a 10,000+ cap outdoors festival, with a team of employees on the books by 2030?’ Yes, I could imagine it, but I’m not going to. I’m only going to make Damnation 2022 as great an event as it can be. And then afterwards, tackle Damnation 2023...
How do you see the festival growing in years to come?
Right now, for me, that growth has just happened.
We’ve gone from a 3,000 cap festival to a 6,000 cap festival and those figures should be daunting for years to come. Maybe there’s scope to do a lot more with the Friday event - A Night of Salvation - but I’ll turn my attention to that after we’ve nailed this year.
What artists are you most excited to see perform this year?
The line-up is incredible, from the aforementioned special sets to the UK debuts from bands like So Hideous, Frayle and We Lost The Sea, there’s something on there for everyone. More importantly for me than any individual sets though, will be seeing how the venue looks, sounds and feels as Damnation’s new home.
Also, Departure Songs.