AGN Events director Ali O’Reilly tells AAA how the inspiration behind Rock N Roll Circus began with her organising the world’s first socially distanced gigs for Virgin Money in 2020, before launching her own all-female business two years later.

Four years ago, around the time the live music industry stood still and Ali O’Reilly helped launch the world’s first socially distanced arena shows in Newcastle, the idea for Sheffield’s Rock N Roll Circus was born.

Centred around championing the local music scene, the 10,000-capacity event celebrates the weird and wonderful world of the circus, with aerialists, jugglers and fire performers complimenting its impressive live music bill.

O’Reilly, who comes from a sports marketing background having previously worked at Creative Artists Agency (CAA), now leads a small all-female team at AGN Events, which she launched in 2022 after leaving Virgin Money.

The company, which won the One to Watch Award at the 2023 Access All Areas Awards, has plans to expand Rock N Roll Circus to other UK locations. For now though it is focused on the South Yorkshire city, with the team recently appointed by Sheffield City Council to deliver a 4,000-capacity fan zone for Euro 2024 this summer.

Following its first outing in Newcastle in 2022 and one in Sheffield last year, Rock N Roll Circus will return to Don Valley on the last weekend of August featuring a new third stage, with a lineup including Richard Hawley, Milburn, Becky Hill, Jake Bugg and Peter Doherty.

Setting up Virgin Money’s Emerging Stars platform in 2020 was O’Reilly’s first foray into the music side of the industry, having previously worked on some of the UK’s biggest sporting events.

Soon after moving from CAA to its client Virgin Money to head up its Sponsorship, Partnership and Events division, Covid hit – leading to O’Reilly helping launch the world’s first socially distanced arena shows at the 2,500-capacity Virgin Money Unity Arena at Newcastle’s Gosforth Park (pictured).

O’Reilly says the one-of-a-kind experience gave her a vision of how to look at gigs differently.

“A lot of the ideas were coming to my mind around how we as fans experience events,” she says. “I thought about whether there was room to do something different.

“Even though that event was very limited due to the pandemic, it was about how we could take elements out of that and build something new when we came out of the pandemic and play on that completely different, wacky experience-led event that maybe didn’t exist.”

O’Reilly adds that shows she attended in Las Vegas inspired the launch of the event.

“It kind of blew my mind. I felt like there wasn’t something similar back in the UK. That’s what Rock N Roll Circus was born out of.

“We know that the music side is really important, but it was about how to bring more of the experience and the show side and wow factor to the event.

“There are circus elements at other festivals, but here it’s an integral part of the show. We have a full production team that curate a show around the circus element. That’s seen as soon as the gates open right through to the end.

“That’s the area of the event we want to continue to build on over time. Ultimately we’re aware people buy tickets based on the artists and the lineup, but we want to get to a point where people are already buying and want to come because of the circus elements, and everything we’re building around that is extra special.”

All female team

AGN Events has three to four female members of the team working full time and out-sources other elements such as event production and social media. The circus production team is also led by two women. O’Reilly says her team also set out to achieve this inclusivity on the lineup.

Despite “concerning” reports that have come out in the last year, O’Reilly says positive change is coming in the industry in terms of gender diversity.

“I’m constantly impressed by the number of agents, managers and festival directors that are female and at the top of their game.

“Looking internally at our own business where we’re an all-female team, you come up against the challenges of being a female leader. I worked in sport for 10 years which has historically been dominated by men, so I had a good understanding of how to navigate that when I came over to the music side.

“Equally, I work with incredible male colleagues and have had an amazing set of allies across my career who have helped me on my journey as well. Now, more so than ever, I have a vision for what I want us to achieve with the business. We have a great team around us to remain laser focused on delivering against that no matter who I’m speaking to or coming up against.”

Why Sheffield?

Following the first edition of Rock N Roll Circus in Newcastle in 2022, headlined by Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, O’Reilly says the promoter looked at other UK cities to take it to in 2023, ending up with Sheffield.

The festival is focused on championing the talent across Yorkshire’s music scene, with more than 20 homegrown bands taking the stage alongside the headliners.

“We felt Sheffield was an interesting area as it’s got an amazing musical heritage. Don Valley is an amazing location; it has a natural bank on the hill, an incredible spectacle.

“The premise of Rock N Roll Circus is whichever city we go to; it will really celebrate the talent coming out of that city. That translates into the suppliers, crew and the circus team that we work with – it’s all focused around that local ethos.”

O’Reilly says the promoter is looking at improving the VIP offering of the festival and how to bring more of the experiential side such as VR. 

The plan is to add other cities onto the tour so it becomes a “touring circus”.

“We’ve loved being in Sheffield. Next year and in 2026 we’ve hopefully got another couple of cities to add to the tour. I can’t say where now, but we’re excited about having Sheffield as a permanent feature on the map at this stage.”