How to Break a Band at the Great Escape in About Four Hours

My mission to see how PR people manage hyping acts non-stop at the annual music industry festival.

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24 May 2017, 12:30pm

For the last month, the inboxes of anyone peripherally linked to the music industry have been creaking under the weight of emails from PRs touting their new talents. It can only mean one thing: Brighton's Great Escape festival is upon us again. As Europe's biggest showcase for emerging music – basically a wetter, windier SXSW – the festival's hardest but most thankless job is trying to get people excited about bands your mates have never heard of.

Industry and punters alike make the annual pilgrimage to England's southeast coast in search of the next big thing, but with 450 artists competing for attention across 30+ venues, everyone getting noticed is about as likely as a British Eurovision entry going platinum. Despite the odds, one artist always manages to generate an almost mythical level of hype – miss their set and you might as well not have bothered coming to town.

Take Benjamin Clementine, who sang his way from a much-mythologised story of busking homeless in the Paris metro to bagging the Mercury Music Prize in 2015. His 2013 Jools Holland performance no doubt helped boost him onto a TGE stage in 2014. But for every Benjamin Clementine who sends the hype machine whirring into overdrive, there are hundreds of unlucky publicists left failing to convince the world that their "up and coming" superstar heralds the greatest revolution in modern music since Dylan went electric or Bez picked up a pair of maracas. This year I thought I'd put myself in their shoes.

With a £50 budget and hours before the festival came to a close, I set out to discover if I could break the music industry hype machine – or if the hype machine would break me. Off to Brighton I went. It was time to make a few phone calls and introduce myself to the big cheeses in the local entertainment biz, schedule some meetings and pound the flesh. Arriving late on the final day of the festival, I might have missed the industry conference programme, but I had a comprehensive networking strategy all of my own.

A gut feeling told me it was time for some audience research. So, just what do the kids want to hear these days? On the grounds of the Pavilion, I spied a trio of music lovers with their vinyl purchases piled on the grass. Would it be a unique aesthetic, a defiant political stance or genre innovation that really got them excited about a new artist?

"When you don't know who any of the bands are, I guess you just look for a cool name," said Gabriel, who came all the way from Italy.

That was it! To launch a global superstar, I had to find a winning name that would cut across all socioeconomic backgrounds. Winding my way through the North Laine, it wouldn't be long before I found my inspiration. Suddenly, there it was, framed by a garish metallic orange Bentley: a number plate that read simply "Mr Lion."

Mr Lion! Say it out loud! It's a name that suggests inhuman levels of talent; a name to transcend cultural barriers. Now, I just needed to find an artist with the potential to embody this regal title, make them marketable and ready them for their rapidly approaching debut performance.

This being Brighton, the undiscovered talent capital of the universe, it wasn't long before I found him – playing drum and bass through an amp outside a Belgian chip shop. I spotted the lion logo on his yellow tracksuited and knew immediately that the stars had aligned.

On closer inspection, sure enough, he had all the hallmarks of greatness. We sealed the deal right then and there. With £30, a signature and a handshake I secured his services for a debut extravaganza at 9.30PM that night. "I'm just out here for the love, you know," he said, when we first met. "It's all about sharing the music."

In the absence of funds to run a hyper-targeted algorithmically-driven social media influencer campaign, I created a Mr Lion Twitter account and posted a flyer for the debut gig.

The internet was playing it cool. But I had faith Mr Lion's talent could do the talking. It was time to hit the streets with my street team of one and spread the word IRL. I thought a megaphone would help, but I couldn't find or afford one, so I improvised a sonic hype dissemination device from an orange plastic cone. I readied my most destructive nuggets of PR jargon and made my approach on a circle of young punters, clearly hungry for any news of the next big thing.

"I want to tell you about an artist so long before he's cool, that you're literally the first people on earth to hear he exists," I explained. "Mr Lion is a one-of-a kind artist. He's Cher meets Biggie Smalls for the post-millennial audience." Their faces lit up. Success. With the youth won over, I went in search of an older demographic. Warmed by the flashing lights of the Pier's amusement arcade, I spotted a key tastemaker on the two-penny slot machines.

"You'd be crazy to miss Mr Lion," I said. "He satisfies that yearning for someone to fill the space between donk and dubstep." She wished me the best of luck.

Outside club The Haunt, I accosted a group in the queue to spread the gospel of Mr Lion's greatness. "So, what genre does this Mr Lion play?" one guy asked.

"Well, firstly it's pronounced M-R Lion to those in the know," I replied. "But like all great artists, he defies easy categorisation, seamlessly weaving genres into his own idiosyncratic sonic palette."

For Mr Lion's debut gig, I selected an outdoor arena (demarcated by my three orange cones) to help him truly connect with his audience. As I spied on the growing crowd from backstage, I saw that Mr Lion's inaugural tweet had only had three retweets so far. Yet we had assembled a tightly-packed and expectant mob - proof that even in the age of social media you still can't beat word of mouth. Everything was prepared for Mr Lion's Beatles-on-the-rooftop moment: the crowd were hyped, the cones were arranged and festival security didn't seem to be too bothered.

All that was left to do was introduce the defining artist of his generation, and let history take its course. As Mr Lion bounded on to the stage, the winning presence we had taken so long to perfect was overwhelming. The crowd predictably lost their shit.

It may have lasted less than five minutes, but its echoes reverberated throughout music meccas around the globe. After whipping the crowd into a frenzy, once it was clear they couldn't take any more, our musical prodigy retired backstage, to sign autographs and reflect on a momentous success.

Now to truly understand Mr Lion, you really had to be there… But world, now that I've introduced you to the musical genius that is Mr Lion, the rest is up to you.

You can follow Alex on Twitter and Theo on Instagram.