James Busby on All Things Detonate

Interview: Jared Wilson
Thursday 01 June 2017
reading time: min, words

Detonate has been championing bass music in this city for yonks. We grabbed the founder of the organisation, James Busby, to talk plans for this year’s Detonate Festival, two decades of promoting drum ‘n’ bass, as well as the highs and lows of running an event for thousands of punters...


Tell us about the plans for the festival this year...
The main thing is that we’ve extended it to two days. The Colwick Park site, in our opinion, is one of the best in the country. It’s close to the city centre but still surrounded by lakes and countryside. We’re trying to make the most of the scenery rather than just plonk a festival in it. One of our stages floats on the lake, and in front of it is an amphitheater where people can dance. We’ve also got a new bit called the Hidden Woodland, which is a covered area you can access from two woodland paths.

Why did you decide to extend it to a second day?
We did a survey after last year and asked what improvements could be made – 70% of people said make it longer. It takes a lot of people a week of work to build, so it’s good to have it out for longer. It seems like there’s a bit of a model for what we’re doing in other cities: Parklife, Wildlife, Love Saves the Day. Musically, having two days allows us to push the boundaries a bit more. It also gives space to go wider genre-wise and get more people involved, including some smaller acts that we really like.

Local promoters you’re working with this year include Krudd, Gangsta Wraps, CSWS, Reggae Takeover and Brickworks...

The vision from our old indoor festival was about bringing lots of different styles of music, and the people involved in them, together. That’s continued and evolved. With this becoming a weekend, it’s allowed more scope for different people to bring their vibe and their curation on the line-up. It doesn't stop at stage takeovers, either. The Nottingham Street Food Club are curating the food on site, with people like Nottingham Doughnut Company involved. It’s about trying to involve as many different people from Notts who bring something new to the table.

Tell us about who you were when you started Detonate eighteen years ago...
I’d just graduated from Trent Uni, was doing a music foundation at Confetti, and DJing at The Lenton. It was a pub that you could smoke weed in, run by an ex-copper. Kath, my business partner, was a student who worked behind the bar there. There was a night at The Beetroot called Steel that gave us the style of d ‘n’ B we were into, and when it stopped, we decided to fill the gap. We just decided to do one night. Then we did another because it went well, and before we knew it, we had a logo and a crowd. We just fed off the response from people and here we are.

Hundreds of other nights have come and gone since then. What’s the secret to your longevity?
We’ve been lucky to be flexible. We’re as into the music we promote now as we were then. That’s what feeds our nights. Musically, d ‘n’ b is one of the genres that’s been around all that time. It’s had peaks and troughs, but it’s never disappeared. Some nights are based around music that turns out to be a fad, and when that becomes uncool, it’s hard to become something else. We’ve been able to make our own choices, which is nice. The career path of an independent promoter often leads to venue ownership or siding with a venue. That’s really the death of you as a promoter as you’re usually forced to do a load of nights that you don’t totally believe in just to fill gaps

You used to run The Golden Fleece, though...
Yeah, we took that on between 2005 and 2012. The Fleece was great, but we didn’t really put on Detonate events there. It’s hard work owning a pub. We were able to put on some amazing upcoming people there like Sleaford Mods, Natalie Duncan, Harleighblu and Liam Bailey. Tommy Farmyard used to bring all these live acts through. James Blake did his first ever Nottingham show with us and David Rodigan, DJ Derek and Katy B played too. Nottingham could do with more places like the Fleece in its hey day. I’m happy to be out of that game these days.

Your Halloween all-dayer had to be closed down early last year. What went wrong?
The quick answer is that the vast majority of people at the event wanted to be in one tent. With multi-arena events like this, it’s a balancing act of people floating between arenas. It’s very tricky to balance the considerations of everyone involved in an outdoor event. We had big acts in every arena, but one tent was rammed from early on. Once there was a big queue outside, people could see that they weren't getting back in if they left. They stayed, and we lost the flow you need to make the event work. When the situation worsened, there was a danger of people getting hurt so we made the decision to stop the whole event.

Was that your decision?
Yes. Although some reports said the police shut it down, it was us that made the call. The reasons we do these events are still the same as in 1999; to bring our favourite acts to Nottingham, and put on a good party. We employ very experienced people for key positions in health and safety, and we work with a safety advisory group, which includes the police, the local authority, a health and safety executive, environmental noise, licensing, ambulance, fire, medical, traffic management and so on. An enormous amount has been learnt from the problems at Halloween, and the festival is selling very well, so hopefully people can see it’s not like us to have those kinds of problems.

Is that the hardest thing you’ve been through as a promoter?
By far. It was a nightmare. The event was so far from what we’d intended. Loads of people were disappointed, as were we. Some people reacted in a really angry way, and others who hadn’t even been at the event turned it into an internet feeding frenzy; including putting our home address on the internet. Having said that, a lot of others saw that it wasn’t intentional, and sent really nice messages of support. When you reach a certain size as an event, people view you in the same way as they view a big phone network, or Tesco, or whatever. We’re not that. Detonate has become a brand, but behind that, we’re still just a few people working in an office above a bar in Nottingham, putting on music events.

How has the Detonate crowd changed over the years?
The club nights still attract a mainly younger audience, 18 - 25, but the festival is much wider. I see a lot of people there who came to the first ever Detonate. It’s always good to see old faces return. Even at the club nights, d ‘n’ b seems to attract a really mixed crowd which can only be a good thing.

You’re still DJing as Transit Mafia too, just like the old days…
Yeah, I didn't do it much when my daughter was a baby, but this year I've been gigging a lot, including the Andy C XOYO residencies in London. I sometimes feel like I'm old enough to stop DJing, but it’s what I do. I listen to music non-stop, so for as long as I'm asked to do it, I will.

Detonate Festival, Friday 9 - Saturday 10 June, Colwick Country Park, £47 - £93.

Detonate Festival website

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