» News and Features » Gavin McInally Interview: “The fans are what makes Damnation special”
Gavin McInally Interview: “The fans are what makes Damnation special”
With Damnation on the horizon, we caught up with founder Gavin McInally, to talk all about the festival's history, putting fans at the forefront of what they do, and championing smaller artists. Check it out below!
Last updated: 24th Oct 2023
Damnation Festival should need no introduction to the Metal fans amongst you; Since its conception in 2005, Damnation has grown to become the biggest indoor metal festival in Europe, continually bringing a globe-spanning group of Metal fans to the North of England to celebrate all things hard and heavy. Now on its 18th edition, second in the BEC Arena in Manchester (a venue switch which doubled the venue's capacity), Damnation is ready and primed to cause some serious chaos.
With the Festival on the horizon, we caught up with Damnation founder Gavin McInally, to talk all about the festival's history, the recent move to the BEC Arena, putting fans at the forefront of what they do, and championing smaller artists. Check out what he had to say below!
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So, for those who don't know what Damnation is and where it came from, could you give us a brief history of the festival, how you started, how it developed, and your recent move into the BEC Arena?
"So, sometime around 2004, I saw a change in the way Download Festival was being booked, where it was going more and more towards bands like Bowling for Soup and Disturbed, and bands I was less and less interested in, and at the same time, I’d never really been into the bigger bands like your Iron Maidens, your Metallicas, or your AC/DCs either.
"So there were loads of bands; like Raging Speedhorn, SIKTH, and Gore Rotted; that I was really keen on seeing live in some sort of festival format, but I just couldn't find the festival to go to. So we thought why can’t we do it ourselves, and that's kind of how Damnation was born.
"It all started in Manchester in 2005, in a place called Jilly’s Rockworld, which is now a Tesco, and we did one in 2006 too and sold out both years, at a thousand capacity.
"Both shows were great, but we wanted to make it a bit bigger and the venue never had the capacity to do that, and we couldn't find anything else in Manchester that had two stages and also gave us the freedom to do what we wanted.
"But again, we ran into problems. We were selling out at the 2500 - 3000 mark regularly, but it meant the smaller rooms were too small so there were queues outside a lot. So for the fan base, it just became problematic to the point that there were people who really loved Damnation who were openly saying that they weren't going to come back because they weren't getting into the venues to see who they wanted.
"So we made the reluctant decision to, try the BEC Arena out, which we did last year, and absolutely packed the place, and had some amazing sets, and here we are for year two of that."
How did you find that jump last year, you doubled the capacity in the move to the BEC Arena in Manchester, did the festival change at all given the larger space?
"In a strange way, ultimately it didn't change at all in its essence, because well... The bands we went and booked; Ministry, Converge, At The Gates, and Godflesh; either already had played at Leeds, or probably would have. I mean, you could argue that Ministry maybe wouldn’t, just because of the production limitations, but there was a lot about the festival which was exactly the same.
"We spent a bit more money on bands, and we got some exclusive album sets, but ultimately the support we had in Leeds came with us to the BEC Arena in Manchester.
"However, with the actual building itself, the production changed considerably. In Leeds, we had a main stage that was built at the end of a canteen, where there was a lot we couldn't do. We couldn't put up video walls, we couldn't put extra drum kits in, the changeovers were tough.
"But, with the click of fingers, that all disappeared, and the production was incredible. It looked like a stage at a download, you know? We had video screens up at the side, a video wall at the back, and a huge stage.
"Again, beforehand, there was no opportunity for us to do that, and we've done that across all three stages, which was just great, and it allowed us to make that venue really feel like the home of Damnation.
"I’m not going to pretend there are no drawbacks to being in an arena. There's less character, you've got these big tin walls, and there are sound challenges, but ultimately it was a great success and from the feedback we got, a lot of fans felt the same way."
Image: Damnation Festival on Facebook
I've seen in past interviews you've said Damnation fans like to get there early and see all the bands, they aren't just coming for the big headliners, but this caused some problems in fitting people into rooms. Did you see that become easier in the move over to BEC with having that larger space for people to pack out?
"Yes, I mean, the truth of the matter is we know that the fans are what makes Damnation special. You can go to other events and it starts filling up at seven or eight o'clock at night because people are there because they're going to catch that big headline band, and even at gigs, people miss the first one or two support bands.
"What made Damnation difficult in Leeds was that we were putting on bands like Opeth as a headline on the main stage, and the 3,000 people who wanted to see them were showing up at doors.
"Then they wanted to go and see bands like The Infernal Sea or Party Cannon, bands that, without any disrespect to them, normally play to 50 or 60 people in a night, not 600 in the room, and 300 people outside the room wanting to get in, you know?.
"I mean, that's all credit to those bands for being as good as they are, and then mostly credit to the fans for giving enough of a sh*t to want to come in that early and make a full day of it.
"So last year's was great because we had three big arenas, and our smallest room now is 1500 capacity.
"So, being able to have those bands play like a Frayle or Distant early on last year and have everyone who wanted to see them just effortlessly walk into a room justified exactly why we've done it."
I think a good flip side to that as well is that the festival's had a bit of a reputation for being a launching pad for some of these smaller bands and just being able to put them on as big a stage as possible and give them as much exposure as possible has got to be good on the band side of things as well as for you guys.
"Yeah, it feels like Damnation is a much better launchpad than any event in our genre I can think of. When you come to play Damnation, you get that main stage production you don't get when you're playing the third tent at other events.
"Take a band like Party Cannon, they played the Damnation 2021, and they got a 1400-capacity second stage with a video wall behind them, and they smashed it. But what they didn't know was the guy who books Download was in the audience, and he then puts them on a tour with GWAR, and then they go out there and smash that, and the next thing you know they're everywhere.
"That's not just Damnation that done that, but it certainly played a part in putting some of those things together, you know. Making some of these so-called smaller bands feel every bit as big as they should be is just great and something we’re really proud of."
Image: Damnation Festival on Facebook
Whilst we’re on the subject, is there anyone on the lineup you’re eyeing this year that you’re hoping might follow that trajectory?
"I mean, there's a few, but honestly, we're so involved in the scene that even when I look at the bands, I don't feel like, oh man, here's this unheard-of band that damnation is giving a platform. It’s more like, here are these bands other people think are incredible that we think you’ll love.
"But if I were pressed, Nordic Giants are opening the main stage and we’ve got them on there because they use short films along with their music and that stage has a 12-meter cinema screen. It's mainly instrumental but the video feels like a part of a show.
"I remember seeing them the first time in 2013 and I was completely blown away, and I've seen them tons of times since. But I feel like with this entire cinema wall to work with, it could be unbelievable, and what a start to your day.
"But that’s something we try and do like Nordic Giants completely suit our third stage, which is a sort of doom, post-rock, a wee bit experimental, a bit different. Everything a bit quirky goes on the third stage just so you can get away from that death and grind and go and see something that's maybe just a different level.
"Nordic Giants playing that stage would have been fine and completely expected, whereas walking into Damnation, maybe expecting a Thrash or Death Metal Band playing and suddenly you're struck with a Cinema wall, and these two guys dressed up in feathers, playing a keyboard and some drums… It's the moments you want to create because you want to read afterwards that, holy sh*t, I left with a new favourite band.
"When people come and say, oh, we couldn't wait to see Enslaved or Katatonia, but actually my favourite band of the day was Nordic Giants. I'd never heard anything about them before, and it was, it was incredible to walk into, and we've had feedback like that for years, and that's why we continue to really focus on the lower end of the bill.
"So, Nordic Giants are a great show to answer your question. But also, The Sun's Journey Through the Night are a spectacular black metal band who are opening the Cult Never Dies stage; another good shout, is Ashenspire, their fellow Glaswegians and are spectacular. Difficult to describe, black metal, avant-garde, a bit jazzy, political, they're fantastic.
"I mean, I could go through the list, but let’s just stop there haha."
Continuing on the lineup I'd like to look at the Friday, The Night of Salvation, where you've got a whole string of bands doing exclusive album playthroughs. It's such a unique concept, how did that come about, and what, what was the ideas behind that?
"Well, Night of Salvation's always been a pre-show, and it's been there for 10 or 12 years, but for most of that it was a pub in Leeds and we just had five local bands on, five decent bands, but five bands that you could get your hands on relatively easily. It always sold a couple hundred tickets and its entire purpose was to give Damnation fans who were travelling from Elsewhere in the UK or the world something to do on the night before the Festival.
"But when it got to 2021, after Covid, we were thinking we could do a bit more with it. But we didn't want the festival to become a two-day event, and there were a lot of fans that didn't want that either. They're quite happy to come and have a 12-hour blowout and go back, have their hangover and get back up to their kids, their mortgage and their job, you know what I mean?
"In 2021 we just went for it, booked Svalbard, Raging Speedhorn, Akercocke, and Orange Goblin, and I think it was like one of them had rumours of a sort of album playthrough and we booked that and then I was like well how incredible would be if Raging Speedhorn did their debut, as it was one of the albums that got me into this music, and it the albums 20th anniversary as well.
"So they agreed, and then Akercocke agreed and we were like right this is going to be the theme, and we did the best part of 2000 tickets for it on the Friday night. And, aye, it was incredible."
How did that translate to the new venue then?
"So yeah, last year, we always had the Night of Salvation on our mind, but we'd just moved to an arena, trying to sell 6,000 tickets for the Saturday. I wasn't going to overextend and overreach and put ourselves in a really difficult spot of arranging all the production costs and the security costs and have it collapse.
"We explained that right from the start, but people were still asking, well, what's happening on Friday? So, we said, look, we will do something if we reach the 4,000 ticket mark. When all the bills can be covered, we could look at something for Friday as well.
"And that's ultimately what happened, quite late in the day too. We had We Lost The Sea doing Departure Songs, brought CELESTE across from France to do Assassine(s), then also had three absolutely incredible opening bands in Pupil Slicer, Mastiff, and Ithaca, and sold like 600/700 tickets, which was more than enough to fill most of the second room, and it was a right good night.
"But this was done maybe eight weeks before the event. So, this year we thought, right, we understand the dynamics of this new event, the costs involved, let's do it from the start, and try having these two days, but the Night of Salvation has now just spiralled into its own event.
"It was just on two stages, then now it’s three and bands we could book for Saturday were available but do an album play-through on Friday and then it just became it became its own damnation really, but that Friday night, it’s just £45 a ticket, which is obscene utterly obscene for what your getting.
"However, that event is still subsided by the Saturday, and we’re seeing now people just buying tickets for Friday, and not Saturday, which is something that was never really supposed to be an option.
"So, aye, we'll see how that all pans out with the ticket sales across the two events. But, It'll be difficult next year to do another Night of Salvation if that continues."
Well, I hope it works out, as I said, It’s such a cool concept and such a treat for fans. On that, one thing I feel speaking to you, is it just seems like the fans are always at the forefront of what you do with Damnation, whether it be with your bookings or with your open social media presence, you're constantly trying to give the best experience and it's the most exclusive experience possible.
How important do you think it is to keep that foot on the side of the fans when you're booking a festival? Because nowadays you see quite a widespread block between Festival organisers and fans.
"It’s absolutely huge. Look I started out as a fan. I was on those Download messenger boards, talking to the same type of people that now come to Damnation, and all that has changed since then is I’m the one making the decisions now.
"I see it sometimes with events I'm quite friendly with who are paying the PR firms and Marketing firms all this money. Like, you’re the people making the decisions, you should be telling them.
"Can it be time-consuming to get tagged in a million different passing thoughts? Absolutely, and there is definitely a part where you can become too accessible, as you can never ever deal with everything, it’s not humanly possible, and believe me I've tried and failed.
"But it's not difficult to be honest. I've heard a bit this year that sometimes, from fans and people behind the scenes, saying if you're going to be so honest about your ticket sales, then don't be surprised that folk haven't all rushed to get tickets because they know you're not selling out.
"But I’d rather be that person, than one of the subtle digbeaters that just pretend their festival's selling out, and when everybody shows up and it's not sold out, they just go, who cares, they bought a ticket.
"I mean, It works both ways and ultimately, in the years that it's successful, it's an absolute genius marketing tool. In the years that it's not successful, you have to just swallow the fact that if you're going to be that transparent with fans, they're going to know that it's not selling out, but ultimately, in two weeks' time, people are going to show up in that venue, and it'll still be busy, but it might just not be jammed to the back. But everyone will still have a blast, and Damnation will still be here next year because of that trusted following."
Just to wrap up, is there anything else you’d like to say or mention, either about the event or to those maybe thinking about going who haven't got tickets yet?
"You know what, all I’ll say is it's only after something dies that people truly remember how great it was. Temples is a great example of this, I mean it f**ked up for a million reasons, but after it was gone, people were eulogising it; Temples did this for Bristol, we owe that band to Temples, right?
"It's like, Damnation's going to succeed this year anyway. Damnation will happen. It will be back next year. But we have to take a real hard look at these sorts of album sets. And ploughing money into getting that Friday to get it right. We can make mistakes, and maybe we have this year not getting that huge name at the top, but we never wanted Damnation to be this commercial festival.
"So yeah, there's a possibility future Damnation might look different if these sales trends continue, so I just want to say, don't wait until Damnation has to become something more commercial to then be like... Ah, f**k, I preferred Damnation when I could go and see Deadguy doing Fixation On A Co-Worker, or Katatonia doing Dead End Kings. Like, I know, but where were you?
"But that all said, for everyone who has bought a ticket, and everyone who has supported it, it's hugely appreciated. We’re really looking forward to an amazing couple of days. I'm really really excited about it."
To find out more information, and some FAQs, on Damnation Festival 2023, visit the vent page on Skiddle, by clicking or tapping - HERE
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