Need some creative direction? The founder of Belfast's AVA Festival has a few pointers

Having established an annual dance music extravaganza in her home city, Sarah McBriar offers inspiration for others to get on the right path and achieve their vision

Images via AVA Festival and Up Productions.

'My vision was to create a world class festival for Belfast.'

That's what Sarah McBriar told this time last year, and she's certainly done it. If you’re in any way interested in dance music in Northern Ireland you will have heard of AVA Festival. With her at the helm, it enters its fourth year this June, and has been instrumental in the development and exposure of the local electronic music scene.

Up Productions is the name of the McBriar’s creation that resides over AVA Festival, in addition to other collaborations with major brands such as Glossier and EVO Hair, Red Bull and Bullitt. They describe themselves as explorers and instigators of innovation; 'taking on production as more of an obsession, a visual portrayal of the moment, an experience that when brought to life can live forever in people’s memory and online.'

She also heads Plume Studios with fellow creative Oisin O’Brien, one of the minds behind local production collective Guerrilla Shout and the brains behind heavy techno imprint DSNT, which is enjoying waves of success thanks to Belfast’s infatuation with sound as hard as concrete.


Photo by Grant Jones

I’ve interviewed McBriar a few times, but this time it’s different. While previous conversations have been very much festival focused, this time we take on the topic of the Creative Director.

Being quite heavily involved in the local scene myself, I have witnessed many friends being knocked back when it comes to funding; not quite being able to balance the stresses of both financial and creative environments. How does one ensure that their application for funding is successful?

'I had to go through three rounds for AVA, but it wasn’t the first application that I’d made,' she explains. 'I recommend to any person making these applications to do as many as possible. It finds your proposal and what you want to do, but it also challenges you. It challenges whether the project is going to work. It’s a great exercise to do regardless of whether you get the money or not.'

'Once you get your first piece of funding it’s like a stamp of validation. You can then proceed to get more funding from other sources.'

But what about entering the industry in the first place? McBriar credits The Big Music Project as being one of the finest internship schemes available. It’s a fully funded scheme and has been responsible for shining a light on creatives who are now key members of the AVA Festival team; Emmett Costello, Nuala Convery and Pete Woods all came through The Big Music Project.

I’m also eager to learn of McBriar’s views on working for free. It’s a crossroads that every freelance creative is likely to arrive at, raising questions such as whether your work is valued, and will it pay off in the long run by developing into a career? It can be a journey riddled with anxiety, especially for those in the early stages of their professional lives, but one that McBriar maintains is essential in today's industry.

'I think in the creative industry you have to absolutely prepare yourself to work in a placement context for at least six months', she says. 'That’s just the attitude you’ve got to have. If you’ve got an attitude like, "Oh I don’t want to do this" or "I don’t want to work for free" then the creative industry probably isn’t right for you because it’s just the nature of the industry. There is a huge amount of small businesses that are very fragile and small and they need the likes of placement students. Also, it’s a really good way for the company to understand the person a bit better, and vice versa.'

Not only must you be prepared to work in a placement, but you must maintain flexibility in regards to the path of your vision. Everyone wants something and all too often we credit ourselves with knowing the best way to get it. We disregard other opportunities thinking that they won’t benefit us on our journey to our goal. 

'It’s very important to have your [long term] vision and know what you want from it, but you must be open to different paths in order achieve that vision', McBriar adds. 'I worked for a football club for five years, I didn’t want to work in sport, but I had the most incredible boss who I learned so much from. I couldn’t have done a festival like AVA without the knowledge he gave me. You need to understand that the pathway to your vision isn’t always the way you think it is.'

Jeff Mills_AVA Conference_June2017_Photo by Luke Joyce.jpg

2017's AVA Festival Conference – photo by Luke Joyce

Flexibility is just one of the many challenges you will face on the creative career path. Once in the job, the obstacles come even more thick and fast. McBriar admits she still finds it extremely difficult balancing her work and personal lives. The entire month of May is taken up with festival work.

'I don’t have a life during that period, apart from going to the pub for a drink!'

She touches on a subject quite close to this writer's heart and something a lot of people just getting involved in the creative sector may identify with – learning to say no. Some might be under the impression that they must take absolutely every opportunity given to them or they'll inevitably fail. Rest assured, it’s a case of quality over quantity.

'Be comfortable to walk away from things,' McBriar advises. 'That takes years to learn. It takes experience; I don’t think you can really adopt that approach without years of experience.

'Finding the right people to work with can also be difficult. I’m quite fortunate in the sense that I found the right people quite early on. It’s about finding people that you can align with and comfortably understand each other’s visions and respect that. You’ve got to know when something’s working and something isn’t.'

AVA-63_Photo by Grant Jones

Photo by Grant Jones

With challenge comes triumph. In an interview I conducted with McBriar last year she spoke of the final moments of the very first AVA Festival, how it felt to have your dad one side of you, your friends the other, your brother DJ’ing and a sea of people euphorically dancing dead ahead.

The AVA crew held a St Patrick's Day party in London earlier in the month, and the feeling at its climax is one the Creative Director is sure to remember.

'I think we had a similar feeling in London,' she says. 'We had a really nice moment with the team in the green room, a real special one.'

She goes on to comment, rather selflessly, on how seeing artists and people grow throughout the journey of the festival is one of its most rewarding aspects. Or:la (Orlagh Dooley) has enjoyed massive success recently, having signed to Hotflush Recordings and set up her own label (Deep Sea Frequency), and Dublin producer Quinton Campbell, a product of the festival's Emerging Producer competition, has been recognised as far away as Seattle for his creative efforts.

It’s very much a family affair, if you couldn’t tell already, and this is what McBriar is most proud of. Throughout the years, that spirit hasn’t diminished, not even a little.

'The feedback that continually comes back to us is that we’ve maintained that family ethos. That feeling of being close and feeling involved. That’s very important to what we are as event and as a brand.

Encapsulating all of this are her parting words, which anyone reading would do well to carry forwards not just in their creative endeavours, but their daily lives. 'Help out people you care about and continue to do that through your highs and lows because the good people will stick by you, and you should do the same with them.'

This article was originally commissioned as part of Creativity Month 2018, themed this year around creative industries careers and skills. For more articles you may have missed click here

Single day tickets for the Friday and Saturday of this year's AVA Festival in Belfast from June 1-2 are available to book at You can also register free for this year's Conference event on Friday June 1 at the MAC here.

For more about Up Productions visit