James Busby on Rock City

1 November 10 words: Rock City
"For dance music, you have to judge venues by their vibe; some places have it, some places don’t. Rock City definitely has it!"
James Busby - photo by David Baird
James Busby - photo by David Baird

James Busby is one of the founders of Detonate, a drum and bass night that takes over Rock City four times a year and turns the place into a heaving palace of beats, bleeps and breaks…

What was the first gig you ever saw at Rock City?
I can’t remember, to be honest – but the first dance gig I saw there would have been Metalheadz in 1996, with Goldie, Grooverider, Adam F and the like. I do remember practically living there all week when Radio 1 were there in 2002

What’s the best gig you’ve put on there?
KRS-One completely blew me away. It was at the time when UK hip-hop was breaking through, and I was watching so many crews who did their sets in the same way. So when I got to see one of the true originals showing people how it was really done, it was unbelievable.

The first Detonate session at Rock City took place in October 2003. Was it a risk stepping up to such a big venue?
It was a massive risk! We were always looking to make the jump, but we were only going to do it at the right time. It was a big leap to go to a venue with a 2,000-plus capacity – we had to match our largest attendance fi gure at the time just to break even. It was a very nervous time, because we weren’t used to selling so many tickets in advance and had nothing to compare ticket sales with. We had done multi-genre events before, but this was on a higher level.

And it wasn’t long before you took over Stealth and the Rescue Rooms too?
Yeah, just a couple of years later we started doing all three for the Detonate all-day festivals. By that time we were selling out our Bank Holiday events, and the proximity of the venues made it tempting. We also wanted the freedom to put on more genres which the extra venues allowed.

What’s your policy on what goes where at a Detonate festival?
Do you automatically siphon the name acts towards the Rock City main stage, or are the rooms genre-specific? We’ve always had the drum and bass on the main stage, and we tend to keep the more electro stuff at Stealth. Dubstep as a genre is massive at the moment, so it needs its own venue. As for name acts, we put them where their act is best suited; for example, one year we had Grandmaster Flash in the basement at Rock City – we could have put him in a bigger venue, but the intimacy of the place made it perfect for him.

How do your source your acts for Rock City gigs?
The nature of dance music and the power of the internet means that there will always be acts that get so big so quickly, and you have to keep tabs on everything and make sure you place them accordingly months in advance. It’s a case of sitting back and trying to gauge what’s bubbling up and what people are really into at the moment.

What are the biggest expenses?
It’s always the artists fi rst, obviously. Let’s have a look at one of the previous accounts… (rummages through papers) Detonate New Years Eve 2009… the artist spend was around £45, 000. So artists fi rst, equipment hire next, and then promotion.

What kind of riders are we talking about here? Are DJs less piss-takey than bands?
When it comes to dance music you’re essentially booking one or a couple of people per act, as opposed to more in a band. The nature of the job also means that DJs are out the car, in the venue, onstage and out again with minimal fuss. You do get the odd mad one, though – KRS-One had a rider that went on for pages and pages,
detailing everything right down to the room temperature. We actually got a phone call from his manager two weeks before the gig stating that he was on his way, which threw us in a panic. Then we were told he’d actually just got on the QE2, because he hates fl ying…

So would you say being a dance promoter is an easier life than, say, someone who puts on bands?
It may be easier in certain ways, but we put on far more acts and lots of them can be doing up to four gigs in a night, so there’s far more that can go wrong. We’ve had events on where I’ve known that six of the acts I’ve booked are stuck in the same traffi c jam on the M1, which is very stressful. Artists not turning up is always the worst thing that can happen.

At what point of the night on a Detonate festival do you stop worrying and start enjoying yourself?
Usually about five o’clock in the morning, when the last acts have gone on. I usually stop stressing around then. On a regular Detonate festival night, you’ll have sixty acts to deal with. It can be very demanding. Making sure those that are staying in town are where they need to be is pretty much always the last job of the night.

Who’ve been the most awkward acts you’ve had to deal with?
Rahzel was a bit of nightmare – although with US rappers, you often fi nd it’s the tour manager who is the real problem. Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry in 2003 was awkward, but in a more mad way; my mate drove him on to the next gig in Manchester, and they had to make a stop-off at Asda where he spent hours picking up everything silver or refl ective to stick on his outfi t. Girls hair grips etc.

So how does Rock City shape up as a dance venue?
For dance music, you have to judge venues by their vibe; some places have it, some places don’t. For dance music – for any kind of music, really – Rock City definitely has it. The shape of the room is so well-contained; there’s nowhere where you feel too far away from the stage. The artists love playing there; the crowd is virtually on top of you, and the noise that comes back at you is unbelievable. The fact that there are only a few windows available a year to promote at Rock City makes it a very special night for us.

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