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Bands on The Great Escape boycott: “Artists are realising they’re the ones with the power”

Now that a quarter of The Great Escape Festival 2024 line-up have pulled out of the festival with over 125 artists joining the boycott, a number of the acts have spoken to NME about their decision and showing solidarity with Palestine.

The Great Escape kicked off last night (May 15), but every artist booked to play the opening party canceled their appearance at the festival, alongside more than 100 others including Picture Parlour, Miso Extra and Alfie Templeman – while Big Special will be playing but donating their fee from the festival to the Palestine Child Relief fund.

Festival sponsors Barclays are accused of investing in a number of companies that supply arms to Israel, with over 35,000 Palestinians killed in Gaza since the historic conflict escalated last year, with Hamas committing the October 7 attacks. The bank also sponsors a number of other festivals, including Latitude, Download and Isle Of Wight.

“My morals cannot and will not align with the amalgamation of entertainment and human suffering,” said Templeman in a statement announcing his decision to pull out of The Great Escape. “I really hope that together, our absence from the festival will make other events around the world prioritise being ethical when choosing their partners.”

Over 1,200 artists including IDLES, Squid and Massive Attack have also signed an open letter addressed to The Great Escape, asking them to remove Barclays as a sponsor. “Israel continues to defy international law, ignore the United Nations calls for a ceasefire and block aid from reaching Palestinians in Gaza, including by killing aid workers. We cannot be silent. We will not be complicit in The Great Escape being a branding opportunity for Barclays,” it read.

“We just want The Great Escape to do the right thing,” The Menstrual Cramps’ Emilia Elfrida told NME. The Brighton punk band had been booked to play this year’s event but questioned the involvement of Barclays with their label Alcopop! Records, who then reached out to the festival to make sure they were aware of the ongoing protest by the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions organisation (BDS).

According to Elfrida, despite several phone calls, the festival refused to drop Barclays so The Menstrual Cramps cancelled their appearance and encouraged others to do the same.

“To be associating our label with Barclays doesn’t sit right with our ethical standpoint, and if we can do anything to help raise awareness, and ultimately highlight the corporate greed at the heart of this horrendous genocide in Gaza, we will,” said a joint statement from labels Alcopop and Big Scary Monsters that confirmed they too wouldn’t be taking part in this year’s festival.

“Honestly, for us it was an easy decision,” Big Scary Monsters founder Kevin Douch told NME. “We spoke to our bands and explained our position, asked them what they wanted to do and it was unanimous that we’d all pull out. It’s been awesome seeing so many people getting behind this. There are enough voices now to make Livenation listen and hopefully remove Barclays as a sponsor.”

The Great Escape has yet to comment on the Bands Boycott Barclays movement, while Barclays have directed criticisms to a response made during a recent Q&A session. “We have been asked why we invest in nine defence companies supplying Israel, but this mistakes what we do,” said Barclays. “As a bank, our job is to provide financial services to thousands of business clients and that includes those in the defence sector.”

Elfrida responded to the bank: “The Great Escape is so important for breaking bands who need connections and want to make a career from playing music. It’s the biggest music industry showcase in the country, so of course being asked to play is a massive deal. We needed to pull out and make that statement though. It’s just what we believe in.”

Fellow artist Sarah Crean agreed, telling NME why they were also joining the boycott.

“I strongly believe there is no room at The Great Escape for any corporation that has been funding the atrocities that have taken place in Palestine,” she said. “To me it is absolutely a no brainer not to align with any festival that believes the opposite of such.

“I truly hope that this occasion and the previous occasion of the boycotting of SXSW will set such an example, particularly in uplifting the voices of the Palestinian people.’’

In a move similar to the Great Escape walkout, many artists refused to play at SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas in March because of the event’s connections to the US Army and weapons companies amid the Israel-Gaza conflict. These included Gruff Rhys, Kneecap, Sprints, Lambrini Girls, Gel, Rachel Chinouriri, Cardinals and NewDad.

Pointing to the TGE boycott and the artists who pulled out of SXSW earlier this year, US singer-songwriter Squirrel Flower told NME: “A music festival should not include war profiteers. I refuse to be complicit in this and withdraw my art and labour in protest.”

Barclays was previously the target of a number of boycotts throughout the 1970s and 1980s over their financial involvement in the South African apartheid, which eventually forced them to withdraw from the country – “so we know it can work,” Elfrida explained.

“Everyone is already aware of what is happening. You can’t go on social media without reading about the conflict and it’s all over the news. You can’t hide from it. By withdrawing our labour and demanding the music industry and festivals actually listen to us and our concerns is going to have way more impact.”

They went on to say the response to the Bands Boycott Barclays campaign has been “incredibly positive”.

“Obviously The Menstrual Cramps are a political band, but we’re seeing so many artists who don’t write political music and who don’t consider themselves political musicians joining the boycott. There are now hundreds of bands standing together and aligning over this one thing” they added. “Hopefully other festivals see this and pull out of their deals with Barclays, because this is bigger than The Great Escape.”

However, artists like Nick Cave have encouraged others to still “play” The Great Escape, while fans have suggested that bands would make more of an impact by using their appearance at the festival to raise awareness about the situation in Gaza, rather than boycotting the festival entirely. Explaining their reasoning for doing so, Black Country punk duo Big Special said: “We fully support this decision and think it is noble of these artists to take a stand in this way.”

They went on to explain that they have been “wracking their brains for weeks” on what to do and almost pulled out of The Great Escape but decided that they wouldn’t due to the “widespread involvement of Barclays in the industry.”

“Capitalism is a stain on life and it has spread to its furthest reaches, it’s hard to do anything that does not support some hollow corporation devoid of morals.”

They added: “We don’t think these artist’s labour is supporting / advocating Barclays, the same way wouldn’t see a cleaner at a Barclays branch as an advocate for them. One’s labour is most often not a choice and is a necessity to survive in a carnivorous system where all actions perpetuate its bloating growth.”

The boycott has, however, been criticised for targeting a festival that makes use of grassroots venues and showcases smaller bands at a time where the scene is facing a number of hurdles

“I know bands and venues are struggling, but that’s a problem with the music industry. That’s not down to the boycott. No one should be put in a position where they have to put their morals aside,” reasoned Elfrida.

Organisers behind the boycott have also reached out to local promoters and over 26 non-Great Escape-affiliated gigs will now be taking place in Brighton this weekend, with many taking donations for Palestine relief.

Soft Launch are set to play The Paris House on tonight, with all proceeds from merch going towards charities for Palestinian relief, a number of bands and “special guests” are playing Fiddlers Elbow across the weekend. Meanwhile, Picture Parlour have also promised a fundraising concert in the near future after they cancelled their performance at The Great Escape.

The Menstrual Cramps’ Emilia Elfrida argued that promoters needed to focus on finding ethical sponsors or risk continued boycotts.

“I know it’s possible, even in this capitalist hellscape,” they added. “Things are definitely changing. Artists are realising they’re the ones with the power, and their voice and actions matter. They’re realising they don’t have to sacrifice their morals to have a career anymore.”

NME has also reached out to The Great Escape Festival for comment.

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