Behind the scenes with John Blakeley 

Meet the man behind the music at some of Bristol's best small venues

John Blakeley is the man behind the music booking at some of Bristol’s best loved intimate venues – Canteen, No 1 Harbourside, Old Market Assembly and Wardrobe Theatre. He also programmes the music for nearby hidden gem, Valley Fest. It’s during this long-standing career that’s focussed on bringing quality music to its deserved platform, that John has earned himself a trusted reputation on the Bristol music scene.

focussed on bringing quality music to its deserved platform

John’s path into becoming a music booker was an organic one, originating from his early days as a band member. After discovering that getting booked for gigs as a little-known group was no simple task, John and his bandmates took getting heard on the Bristol music scene into their own hands, inadvertently starting his career as a music promoter and booker. 

‘Me and my group moved to Bristol, because we heard the music scene was so good, but we found out that getting promoters to put you on was tough. We decided to put on our own nights and I started promoting those; I just enjoyed it and carried on promoting from there.’

we found out that getting promoters to put you on was tough

John’s not one to shy away from opportunity though and after being asked to curate the music upon the Canteen’s opening 10 years ago, opportunities continued to arise as he took on more of the small venues around Bristol. Eventually this led to the creation of his company Ear Trumpet Music, who now curate and promote the music for several venues across Bristol.

His career as a music booker remains only a portion of his focus though, with John seeing his primary undertaking as being as a musician. His current music projects include creating and performing with Bristol European folk group Sheelanagig, collaborating with the country singer Yola, whilst simultaneously performing as a member of a 12-piece afrobeat collective No Go Stop.

With such passion and relatability to Bristol musicians, it becomes clear to see why John’s path has led him to work with the smaller, more intimate venues in Bristol. As either free or low-cost entry gigs, the venues under John’s promotion represent an important step into the music industry for many artists. Able to provide a platform for artists to make themselves heard, these venues simultaneously provide the audience with an ever-changing, fresh sound that keeps them coming back. 

John’s path has led him to work with the smaller, more intimate venues in Bristol

‘It’s really important to have that first step up, and while the fees aren’t amazing, the gap between a ticket selling act and someone just starting out is important to recognise. Someone that comes to do a free show will so often come back to do a ticketed show and it’s great to see that growth’.

There is a community that develops between these small venues, not just in Bristol, but across the South West. John describes how this impacts on artists who are starting out, by making touring more financially feasible: ‘There’s lots of communication between venues in the general area – Bath, Stroud, Cardiff, etc. and that joins it all up for artists. Doing one gig down at the Canteen is going to earn you some spare change, but if you can do multiple venues within the same area, that’s some really good promo and it makes much more financial sense for the artists’.

In addition to the many other projects under his belt, John has undertaken the music booking for Valley Fest just outside Bristol, on Chew Valley Lake. With the festival’s proximity to the city, increasingly impressive lineup, organic ethos, foodie offerings and lakeside location, it’s fast becoming a Bristol favourite. 

Valley Fest was born five years ago when ex-organic farmer Luke Hassel wanted to create a festival that remained true to its foodie roots, whilst offering an eclectic mix of music, great vibes and stunning scenery. ‘Valley Fest was always about putting on great music alongside great food, great ethics and a really great location’. 

Valley Fest has seen their capacity double in size, which John tells us has affected the music program and vibe of the festival, saying that this year attendees can expect ‘a much bigger, grander line up’. There will also be more of a late night party scene at this year’s festival, which hasn’t been so prominent in previous years. 

There will also be more of a late night party scene

This year’s Valley Fest is headlined by Razorlight, Tom Odell, and Basement Jaxx and Leftfield with DJ sets. Other highlights include Normal Jay MBE, The Magic Numbers, Dutty Moonshine Big Band, Stealing Sheep, Nubiyan Twist, The Nextmen, Cut Capers, Icarus, Ishmael Ensemble and many, many more.

‘The last couple of years, we’ve been dubbed a family event, but this year we’re moving away from that branding. It’s a festival for everyone to come and party at. That translates into the music programme and we’re going for a mixed variety of headliners, spanning several generations of music.’


John understands how booking music programmes can often be a balancing act between personal music taste, attracting the crowds and keeping the music scene healthy as a whole. ‘My booking style is definitely on the left field – I book a lot of jazz, folk, world music and things that associate to that.

My booking style is definitely on the left field

At Valley Fest we have moved way more over into the mainstream with headliners Razorlight, Basement Jaxx and Tom Odell, but we’ve also got bands like Nubian Twist, who some people would see as a more left field group, but they’re really popular with Bristolians and easily draw the crowds at the music venues like Trinity’.

That doesn’t mean there’s no room for personal accolade in the music booking industry though, and as John tells us which upcoming acts he’s most excited about, his enthusiasm for his career is evident. ‘I’m really excited about Basement Jaxx – they’re a favourite of mine after I saw them the first time I went to Glastonbury in 2000, it was mind-blowing and they were a real feat for me to book!’

It’s his passion for music that still drives John’s love of what he does today, along with the culture that exists within Bristol that continues to pave the way for impressive artistry. ‘Bristol is a phenomenal city for music and what helps drive that is putting the right music on the right platform. As a result of that we have great touring artists, great venues and a great community of people who put that music on. It’s a collaborative drive and it means we can all come and see these artists play, and artists are getting the audiences they deserve.’

Bristol is a phenomenal city for music and what helps drive that is putting the right music on the right platform

John Blakely’s varied career is testament to the potential opportunities Bristol offers for a career in music, but for anyone hoping to carve a similar path, John offers some words of advice: ‘You have to decide what you’re passionate about and whether other people have the same passion, because you need an audience. You have to decide if there’s a space to nurture that passion, and if there is then go for it. Work well with others; listen to what they have to say and learn from your own and other people’s mistakes.’

Words by Sarah MacPherson
Photos by Martin Thompson @thefacecollective 

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