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50 years of ‘love’: Phil Bowdery’s golden term

In a wide-ranging interview, Gordon Masson learns about Bowdery's remarkable 50-year career in the industry

By Gordon Masson on 10 May 2022

Phil Bowdery

Phil Bowdery


image © Alexis Dubus

Education is a mantra in Phil Bowdery’s life. “I’ve said to my children many times, ‘Don’t do as I do, do as I say,’ because I was out of school by the age of 15, playing in a band,” he confesses. Still, as one of the doyens of the live music sector, his early departure from school hasn’t served him too badly.

Starting life on the road as the drummer for a band called Choc Ice, Bowdery’s early experiences saw him rubbing shoulders with some of the great and the good of the music business. “Our guitarist was Gordon Gaynor, who I still catch up with now and again,” he says. “But our claim to fame was we had a little bit of a break and made a record with Pye, which was the label in those days.”

Gaynor tells IQ, “I met Phil through Ray Stiles, who was bassist for the band Mud. So Phil joined us on drums, gigging most weeks, and when we stayed out the night I’d share a room with Phil, which was a laugh. When we went to Germany for the first time, we lived on pizza for a month, playing three [one-] hour sets a night – great fun!”

“We used to meet Stevie [Wonder] and his band at a hotel in Mayfair, and we all went on the tour bus together”

Bowdery continues, “We became the backing band for Mac and Katie Kissoon. Katie is now one of Eric Clapton’s backing vocalists, but she and her brother had quite a big hit at the time, and we ended up on the road with The Supremes and also Stevie Wonder, which were both Arthur Howes tours.”

Gaynor comments, “We used to meet Stevie and his band at a hotel in Mayfair, and we all went on the tour bus together. I remember to this day, Phil and I sitting in Stevie’s dressing room as he played us tracks from his first synth album, Music of My Mind; it blew us both away. I have some really fond memories with Phil.”

Indeed, another claim to fame was Bowdery’s part in one of Wonder’s biggest hits. He recalls, “One day at soundcheck, he had this huge boombox that he was using to record stuff, and he asked me to play a rhythm while he recorded. So, in theory, I played on the original demo of You Are the Sunshine of My Life, which is pretty nice because I now promote Stevie Wonder in Europe.”

“In theory, I played on the original demo of You Are the Sunshine of My Life”

When the wheels came off…
The heady heights of life as a support act were short-lived, however, and Bowdery put aside the drumsticks barely a year after hitting the road. “Things in the band were beginning to fall apart, and suddenly the van wasn’t working, and that was sort of the final straw,” he recalls.

“I was 16 at the time, but I still wanted to be involved in music, so I became the non-driving roadie for Mud, who were from my hometown. I got paid £12 a week. When I was old enough to drive, Mud started to have hits, and as the band got bigger and the crew got bigger, that enabled me to become their production manager, then the tour manager, and then I became part of the management team.

“With Mud we were doing clubs and things – there was a chain in Manchester that owned three venues where we’d open up the first club, we’d be middle of the bill on the second, and top of the bill on the third one. So you ended up doing three shows per night in three different venues, which made it worthwhile. When I think about it, we’d break our heads to play a show – I remember going from London to Sunderland [a distance of 275 miles (443km)] for a £40 gig.”

“I remember going from London to Sunderland [a distance of 275 miles (443km)] for a £40 gig”

Sound Moves
When Mud’s fame began to wane, Bowdery saw the potential to earn some extra cash for the act. “We purchased the sound system,” he explains. “I did the deal with Dave Martin, from Martin Audio, himself. And on the back of that, we started a rental company, which I was running as well.”

The shrewd piece of business opened unexpected doors. “The sound company did work with Renaissance, and when their manager, John Scher, decided not to fly in their regular guy from the States, I became their sound engineer,” explains Bowdery.

And his enthusiasm obviously impressed. “I quickly became the band’s tour manager and toured America with them.”
That introduction to America lit a fire. Following Renaissance, Bowdery found himself on back-to-back tours with Charles Aznavour across the States, and, thanks again to the sound rental operation, he also began his long association with Leo Sayer.

“I quickly became the [Renaissance]’s tour manager and toured America with them”

“I came to Barry Clayman via the sound company, as we were working with some of the acts that MAM were promoting,” says Bowdery. “Barry and I just hit it off from day one – I still speak to him on a daily basis, often multiple times.

“When I decided that humping gear was no longer for me, I became Barry’s promoter’s rep for a Leo Sayer tour. I think the first tour was 1979. Leo and I got on like a house on fire, so it got to the point where he asked me to work for him full-time, so I left the sound company and Mud and worked for Leo straight through to ‘85, when he came off the road.”

In the meantime, Barry Clayman made the decision to depart MAM having sold the business to Chrysalis. “I’d always recognised Phil’s potential, so a few years after the Chrysalis deal, I decided to start my own company – Barry Clayman Concerts [BCC] – and I asked Phil to come with me,” Clayman tells IQ.

“When I decided that humping gear was no longer for me, I became Barry’s promoter’s rep for a Leo Sayer tour”

Bowdery recalls, “A year or so into BCC, we got Michael Jackson and did our first tour with him in ‘88. That really helped establish the company as a serious player.”

Indeed, Clayman reveals, “We did seven Wembley Stadiums with Michael Jackson – 560,000 tickets, and every single one was a paper ticket bought in person at a box office or a ticket outlet. Phil ran all of those shows. In fact, at one date when Jackson failed to appear, it was Phil who went on stage to calm the crowd and explain the date would be rescheduled.”

Bowdery says, “I introduced computers to BCC. Michael Jackson’s tour manager, John Draper, had the first Mac I’d ever seen – this bright-green machine, and it just changed everything. Instead of sitting with a piece of paper, a calculator, a pencil and a rubber, doing costings, we started putting them into sheets with formulas.

“We did seven Wembley Stadiums with Michael Jackson – 560,000 tickets, and every single one was a paper ticket”

“I’ll never forget Barry asking what would happen if we put the ticket price up by 50 pence: he couldn’t believe that we could make all the calculations so quickly… I’ve still got all the old figures. I sometimes like to go back and have a look and just see how I did things.”

Leaving on a jet plane
Having Clayman as a mentor, Bowdery took on more and more responsibility, but his first fully promoted tour turned out to be a bittersweet memory.

“The first tour that I promoted, completely sold it myself, was John Denver in 1997. Even though it was a Barry Clayman tour, the credit line was ‘Phil Bowdery for Barry Clayman Concerts,’ which I really appreciated,” he states. Sadly, it would be the final time Denver would visit Europe.

“We played golf a couple of times, and he was talking about this new plane that he’d just bought as a kit and how he was looking forward to seeing it when he got back home. And that was the plane he died in, literally four or five weeks after we finished the tour.”

“The first tour that I promoted, completely sold it myself, was John Denver in 1997”

Immersing himself in the international side of BCC’s operations, Bowdery started to rub shoulders with many peers who have since become colleagues at Live Nation.

“It allowed me to learn the European side by starting to use different promoters around Europe. So, through the likes of John Denver or Tom Jones – for whom I sort of acted as his agent from about 1987 – I got to know Leon Ramakers and Herman Scheuremans and Thomas Johansson.

“That’s how I crafted my European knowledge, by getting to know all those guys – and most of them are now part of the Live Nation family, so it definitely helped that we had pre-existing relationships from when we were all independent.”

Johansson, who these days is Live Nation’s chairman of international music, recalls, “We met for the first time in Holland: Phil was there with The Rubettes for a TV show, and I was there with ABBA for the same programme. Ever since we have worked together with almost every artist in the world!”

“Through the likes of John Denver or Tom Jones, I got to know Leon Ramakers and Herman Scheuremans and Thomas Johansson”

Further south in Europe, Rob Trommelen at Mojo Concerts acknowledges Bowdery’s no-bounds enthusiasm in helping the artists he works with. Explaining that he knows Bowdery from his days as tour manager with Mud, Trommelen tells IQ, “I always enjoy Phil’s stories about his adventures [in the Netherlands] during the trips they made to a variety of clubs and local discotheques – he knows the names of many villages in the middle of nowhere. One day, he even showed me a video in which he joined Mud’s backing dancers!”

Of course, Bob Sillerman’s corporate kleptomania changed the live music business forever, and in 1999 when SFX turned its attention to BCC, Bowdery found himself as one of the principals in the new expansive operation – a position he built upon as Sillerman cashed out to Clear Channel Communications just four months after the BCC acquisition.

“When the company evolved, a position for a European touring chief became apparent,” says Clayman. “Phil was out of contract, but I suggested they speak to him and he became the new number one. I had great confidence in him because I always knew he had what it takes. He was a great learner and was always asking the right questions to expand his knowledge base – it’s me who asks him the questions these days.”

“[Phil] was a great learner and was always asking the right questions to expand his knowledge base”

With Bowdery given the title of executive VP, touring, Europe, when Live Nation spun off from Clear Channel in 2005, his role further expanded when he was promoted to executive president of touring, international, working closely with local partners to set up offices in Australasia, Asia and China, as well as Live Nation’s international touring activities.

Clayman adds, “I take huge satisfaction [in seeing] how successful he has been. On top of being a great music man, he’s a good guy, and he’s great with his staff.”

Born leader
Because there are a full 24 hours in a day, workaholic Bowdery’s role in recent years has extended outside of his Live Nation remit. For more than six years, he has been chairman of the UK’s Concert Promoters Association, while more recently he has been heavily involved in the creation of LIVE, the UK trade body that represented the live entertainment sector so well during the pandemic restrictions.

Explaining how he first became involved in trade associations, Bowdery says, “Barry Clayman was one of the founding members of the CPA, along with Harvey Goldsmith, Paul Crockford, Danny Betesh, Stuart Littlewood and Carole Smith, who just celebrated her 30th year as CPA secretary. If Barry could not make a meeting, I’d go in his place.

“On top of being a great music man, [Phil] is a good guy, and he’s great with his staff”

“Back then, it was all about a PRS fight: they wanted to increase promoter rates from 2% to 6%, but thanks to the CPA, we managed to contain it at 3%.”

Indeed, the CPA recently emerged from another negotiation with PRS that saw rates rise to 4.2% of gross sales. “It’s tough, especially in the current environment,” admits Bowdery, who nevertheless piloted the CPA’s campaign to stymie PRS attempts to increase the tariff to 8%.

“With VAT going back to 20% from April, along with the PRS’s 4.2%, we’ll have 25% coming off the gross before we even start,” he warns. “That’s why we’re challenged, in the UK, to try to match offers that promoters make, particularly in America where there’s no tax in some instances. But it could be worse if it wasn’t for the fact that the CPA has given us a voice.”

Tres Thomas, senior vice president of operations and the global director of touring for Live Nation, commends Bowdery for his leadership skills, both within the company and at the CPA.

“Like myself, Phil is pretty much the road guy who has done everything”

“Like myself, Phil is pretty much the road guy who has done everything,” says Thomas. “When I first met him, I was working with the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, Ronnie James Dio, and Deep Purple, and Phil was the guy who started with production and settled the show afterwards – we’d argue over nickels and dimes and catering bills and all those things, but he was always a gentleman and always respectful.

“Phil taught me that the promoter/artists/agents table could be round – it didn’t need to be squared off, with battle lines drawn.”
Thomas adds, “Phil has done a wonderful job of mentoring the next generation – Sophia Burn, Ellen Proudlove, Gary McIsaac… He realises that the business will not be ours in ten years, so he’s making sure the next generation is prepared to take over.”

Covid
The importance of trade associations and support organisations has, of course, been underlined during the past couple of years, as the global pandemic shuttered touring activity around the world, leaving hundreds of thousands of workers without gainful employment.

“Phil taught me that the promoter/artists/agents table could be round – it didn’t need to be squared off, with battle lines drawn”

Revealing how his normal day-to-day routine simply stopped, Bowdery tells IQ, “I had Clannad playing the London Palladium on the 17 March [2020], on their final tour. At the meet-and-greet in Birmingham, three days before, they all had gloves on. That was the first sign I’d seen of any response to the virus. But then I got a call from UTA telling me that someone who was at the gig got Covid. It was all so new to us that we started scrambling to put in safeguards.

“Then, when I was at a meeting at Heathrow on March 16, I got a phone call, and I was told ‘The office is closing. And by the way, the Palladium is closed. That’s it. No show tomorrow.’ And from that moment, my study at home became my office.”

While the industry initially started rescheduling gigs by a matter of weeks, it became apparent to Bowdery that Covid could be around for much longer, and he realised, along with a number of peers, that live music was dangerously under-represented in terms of government lobbying.

“The theatre business got pretty loud pretty quickly. But nobody was talking for us: there were a lot of people jumping up and down, but nothing was happening for us, so there was an urgent desire to at least try to be heard and put our situation front and centre as much as we could.”

“The CPA still means an awful lot to me, but LIVE is something that is even better”

Bowdery, alongside Kilimanjaro Live’s Stuart Galbraith and ILMC’s Greg Parmley, set about creating the LIVE trade association and putting together a strategy to lobby government ministers about the plight of the hundreds of thousands of professionals that depend on live entertainment for their income.

“I think we achieved an awful lot,” says Bowdery, underplaying the complexity of the task. “I really believe the reduction in VAT was down to us. I believe that the government’s creation of the relief fund was down to us. And there was an awful lot achieved by doing the test events – Melvin Benn’s test events at first, then everybody else elsewhere doing test events to prove that our industry is adaptable, and if people wanted to go to events, then we were more than capable of finding a way of getting them there safely.”

Understandably proud of those achievements, Bowdery says, “The CPA still means an awful lot to me, but LIVE is something that is even better – it gives us that umbrella organisation we’ve always been missing. In saying that, it’s important that we have all the different organisations feeding into LIVE because that will help to keep the balance: particularly with the Production Services Association, which is the production side; with Mark Davyd and the Music Venue Trust; and also the concert halls and the National Arenas Association because that gives you representation from the grassroots to the biggest venues, again keeping the balance with everyone.”

“We all owe [Phil] a debt of gratitude for the time and effort that he spends for the good of the business”

Bowdery’s efforts have not gone unrecognised. “The work he has done with the LIVE group over the last two years has been stellar – a steadying hand during a very rough voyage,” notes Emma Banks, co-head of CAA’s London-based operations. “We all owe him a debt of gratitude for the time and effort that he spends for the good of the business, never looking for any glory for himself.”

DF Concerts chief Geoff Ellis says, “Phil is one of the best promoters in the world, and there are very few who command the same respect that he has internationally, so it’s been a pleasure to serve on the CPA board with him.

“His work through the pandemic with the CPA and LIVE has helped immeasurably. When I was meeting with all the political parties in Scotland to talk about the insurance problem, Phil took the time to meet with the cabinet secretary responsible for culture to make sure the Scottish government understood the problems of our industry.”

Bowdery himself tips his hat toward the unprecedented collaboration between industry rivals throughout the pandemic, noting that their willingness to work together for the greater good bodes well as the business recovers. “When something like a pandemic happens it just makes you realise how much the strength of coming together makes a difference,” he says. “Information is power, and sharing information with each other has worked really well.”

“Phil is one of the best promoters in the world, and there are very few who command the same respect that he has”

Universal Love
Many of the people that IQ spoke to for this article note Bowdery’s extraordinary communication skills, pointing out his ability to solve problems with ease, as well as the unique relationship he maintains with artists.

Bowdery believes those attributes were picked up through his desire to be in the live music business. “I left school at 15 with no qualifications – I was not academic,” he says. “But I was streetwise, and my education was being on the road: that taught me life. I had to think on my feet, and when you do that you are communicating.”

Hinting at where he honed his legendary negotiation proficiency, Bowdery recalls a game he’d play with musicians in hotels where the goal was to taste all the whisky behind the bar without paying for a drop. “That was all down to communication and building a relationship with the barman. There was no harm done, but it was all about the ‘gift of the gab’.”

He adds, “I’ve always made sure when I go to a club or theatre or wherever that the person who works on the door genuinely knows that they are as important to me as the guy in the office who is paying the band. Let’s face it, if the door isn’t open, nobody gets in. So I try to ingratiate myself with people and I’m not above communicating with everyone. Everyone is equal.”

Being the long-term manager for Michael Ball, and the agent and tour director for Tom Jones, his approach to dealing with artists is equally simple. “You need to have empathy,” he says. “Without artists, we don’t have jobs. We facilitate them to play to an audience: there is no industry without them.”

“I left school at 15 with no qualifications – I was not academic. But I was streetwise, and my education was being on the road”

Changing Landscape
Examining some of the technological breakthroughs he has witnessed during his distinguished career, Bowdery underlines the power of the Internet as a game changer. “It’s changed completely the whole marketing aspect of what we do,” he observes. “There was a time when it was only the younger artists that benefitted, but now it’s everyone.

“It really hit home with One Direction. Then agent Paul Fitzgerald and managers Richard [Griffiths] and Harry [Magee] tasked us to do the tour without using any print. And we sold out the entire European stadium tour on social media.” Reluctant to identify particular gigs as career highlights, Bowdery nevertheless namechecks certain acts. “Tom Jones, who I love, of course,” he states, while he admits he would have loved to have worked with The Beatles and Elvis Presley, especially as he has heard so many legendary anecdotes from Tom Jones about his Vegas days with Elvis.

He also lauds Live Nation chief Michael Rapino for his role in changing the live music business. “I was very fortunate to spend a lot of time with him when he worked in the London office,” Bowdery says. “That’s stood me in good character since because if I need to speak to him – and it’s not something I do that much – he’s always ready to talk. But I think so much of the global growth for the live music business is down to Michael Rapino. His vision is incredible, and he knows what works.”

“If everything pans out as planned in 2022, he’s looking at one of his busiest years ever”

The Future
With 85-year-old mentor, Barry Clayman, still going strong as a promoter, Bowdery, likewise, isn’t entertaining any ideas of stepping away. Indeed, if everything pans out as planned in 2022, he’s looking at one of his busiest years ever.

“Obviously, the huge success of Coldplay throughout Europe is just enormous, and Harry Styles has two sold-out Wembley stadiums plus Manchester plus Glasgow,” he notes. We’re actually getting into holding stadium dates for 2024,” he reveals. “It’s obvious that the need and desire of everyone to get back to business – and for fans to catch up on two years without live shows – is alive and well.

“I have Genesis, Crowded House, Sting and Westlife going out as the last artists I’ve had to reschedule. Wembley Stadium with Westlife, for example, should have been in 2020 and is now going to happen in ‘22 – we’ve nearly caught up.”

However, as with many in the industry, Bowdery remains concerned over the pandemic’s impact on the live music supply chain. “Talking to major staging contractors, trucking companies, production services, is worrying,” he reports. “It’s all very well me booking a tour, but if the sound isn’t available or if the stage can’t get there, then the artist won’t be able to perform.”

“The biggest thrill for me is actually seeing that show that I had the idea for; and then standing there watching it”

But he’s hopeful that the satisfaction he derives from organising gigs is also felt by others along the length of the supply chain. “There are so many people in our industry that have changed vocation, not out of desire but out of necessity, so we are going to suffer shortages, and that’s why everyone’s working so hard at the moment to try to make sure that they are aligned with their suppliers. But it’s not easy.

“The biggest thrill for me is actually seeing that show that I had the idea for; and then put the deal together, got it on sale, built it; and then standing there watching it. It’s still a rush, and I think lots of people who are involved in working on live music experience the same feelings, so I’m confident that we’ll get some of the people back from the likes of Amazon or whoever they switched their skills toward during the pandemic.”

He adds, “I’ve been very fortunate to work with some of the best acts in the world, from Streisand to Coldplay to Bruce Springsteen to BTS to Tom Jones. But it’s not one particular artist that I associate that feeling of joy – it’s every single show, be it at a club or a stadium, Dave Gahan at Shepherd’s Bush Empire or BTS or Springsteen at Wembley Stadium – the same effort has gone in, in theory, to actually put that together. Getting that satisfaction is what I love.”

 


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