Artist manager Michael Lambert gives a 'younger' professional's view on the importance of live shows and the way we approach the most essential people: the fans
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As the OVO Hydro turns 10, its contributors discuss how it changed Scotland's entertainment scene forever
By IQ on 21 Sep 2023
Consistently recognised as one of the world’s busiest venues, the OVO Hydro in Glasgow has revolutionised Scotland’s live entertainment sector. Now, as the arena marks its tenth birthday, its promoter clients, suppliers, and staff acknowledge the £125m building as one of the greatest investments in Scotland’s history.
When Rod Stewart opened what OVO Hydro 2022 was then the SSE Hydro in Glasgow in September 2013, it marked a new era in arena-scale gig-going in the city that has changed the landscape both physically and culturally.
Designed on a Greek amphitheatre model by Fosters + Partners and built on the once neglected Queen’s Dock area of Glasgow that now forms the Scottish Event Campus, the £125 million arena’s spaceship-sized expanse has become the centrepiece of a trinity of neighbouring venues. The original Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre opened in 1985, with the Clyde Auditorium, better known as the Armadillo, following in 1997.
A full decade in the planning, disaster struck in June 2013 when a major fire broke out during construction. Despite the extensive damage, the arena opened just one month behind schedule.
Ten years on from that curtain-raising Rod Stewart show, and what is now the OVO Hydro has hosted more than 1,000 concerts and is on the map as one of the most successful concert venues in the world.
Up until 2019, when Aberdeen’s P&J Live venue opened, the 14,300-capacity Hydro was the largest entertainment venue in Scotland and the fifth largest in the UK. And to underscore the demand for live entertainment in Scotland, in 2019, the Hydro was the second busiest venue in the world (according to Pollstar’s annual numbers), with only New York’s Madison Square Garden getting bigger audiences than the 1m-plus per year the Hydro now regularly attracts.
“Since the Hydro opened, Glasgow is usually one of the key cities for artists to come to along with London, Manchester, and Birmingham. That has transformed everything”
With the likes of Fleetwood Mac, and Bruno Mars following Rod Stewart’s curtain-raising performance, the Hydro has gone on to host almost every major act in the world. This has included shows by Beyoncé, David Byrne, Billie Eilish, Kylie Minogue, and what turned out to be the last-ever appearance in Scotland by Prince.
Comedy shows such as the stage versions of Scottish TV sitcoms Still Game and Mrs Brown’s Boys have also graced the Hydro’s stage for multiple shows. The 2014 MTV Europe Music Awards was held at the Hydro, which was also used as a venue for that year’s Commonwealth Games. In 2021, the Hydro was also used for COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference that brought together one of the largest gatherings of world leaders to discuss environmental issues in a changing world.
While the Covid-induced lockdowns during 2020 and 2021 closed down live music across the world, the Hydro was co-opted as a vaccination centre. Once live music returned, the venue hit the ground running to sate a refreshed desire for large-scale events.
From Wee to Stoater
But what makes the OVO Hydro so special for artists and audiences alike? For Scotland-based promoters such as Geoff Ellis of DF Concerts and Mark Mackie of Regular Music, the Hydro filled a gap in the market that Glasgow audiences were crying out for.
“I guess the biggest thing with the Hydro is the fact that it’s available all year round,” says Ellis, “whereas previously, the SECC was only available for a few weeks at a time in-between everything else going on there. So, the Hydro has completely opened up the market.
“As a venue, the Hydro was long overdue for Glasgow, and its success hasn’t surprised anyone.”
“The fact that it’s a purpose-built entertainment venue makes the actual experience of going there a good one for fans, and that again has really transformed the market, with audiences coming, not just from Glasgow, but from all over Scotland and beyond. This has meant we can do a lot more shows in a venue that feels intimate because of the way it’s been built as an amphitheatre.”
Ellis continues, “I used to say our biggest competition for arena shows isn’t other promoters in Scotland, it’s other cities in the UK or the rest of Europe. Whereas now, since the Hydro opened, Glasgow is usually one of the key cities for artists to come to along with London, Manchester, and Birmingham. That has transformed everything.”
Mackie agrees. “People loved going to the Hydro right from the start,” he says. “There was no hesitancy from people wondering if it was any good or not. They embraced it right away. As a venue, the Hydro was long overdue for Glasgow, and its success hasn’t surprised anyone. We needed a custom-built arena and not an exhibition hall but something that was flexible, and which could work for everything.
“In the past, a lot of artists couldn’t come to Scotland because there was nowhere big enough for them to play, so Scotland would miss out on all the big tours, which doesn’t happen now. Audiences are proud of that, and everyone working at the Hydro is proud of that as well.”
“The fans really are the heart and soul of the venue, and I think you would struggle to find another audience who match the relentless energy and enthusiasm of the Glasgow crowd”
As Mackie notes, the Hydro has also enlivened its immediate neighbourhood beyond its sister venues. “My big regret is that we didn’t buy a restaurant nearby before it opened,” he jokes. “Because the presence of the Hydro has really brought that part of Glasgow to life with bars and restaurants, so that part of the city is really buzzy now, and that’s great to see. That’s how you judge the ongoing success of somewhere like the Hydro. Just ask any Glasgow taxi driver. They love it, too.”
Phil Bowdery of Live Nation comments, “When the Hydro first opened, it was as if the local community wore the venue as a badge. That made for a great honeymoon period in terms of ticket sales – and that has continued. People in Glasgow like going there, and there is very little in terms of shows that can’t play the Hydro.”
Matt Woolliscroft of SJM similarly points out the way the Hydro has “given Scotland a proper world-class destination venue. Glasgow would always find itself on a tour route as the SECC was always a satisfactory gig. But the Hydro is exceptional and was a very welcome development for arena-level touring.”
Such praise is music to the ears of the venue’s director of live entertainment, Debbie McWilliams. “The Hydro has earned its place amongst the best arenas in the world, and SEC’s expansion is far-reaching, positively impacting the wider economic interests of the city, with hotels, transport, and hospitality just a few of the sectors benefitting from the increased year-round footfall,” McWilliams tells IQ.
“Glasgow is a music city, and throughout its history has been renowned for its atmospheric music venues”
Regarding the need for the arena, McWilliams points out its place in Glasgow’s musical legacy. “Glasgow is a music city,” she says, “and throughout its history has been renowned for its atmospheric music venues. The legendary Apollo and Barrowlands put Glasgow on the world music stage, and King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut plays a significant role in launching some of the biggest names in music touring today.
“[But the city] needed a venue with the technical capability and audience capacity to continue this legacy and attract the biggest artists in the world. The success of the Hydro affirms the need for this building in Glasgow.”
Built with large-scale productions in mind, the arena’s loading doors allow trucks direct access to the bowl floor, under which all power and services are housed meaning that in theory, services can be lifted at any point on a production. Following discussions with a number of prospective touring production clients, the architecture features a stepped mother grid that runs with the contours of the building’s roof.
“The Hydro has earned its place amongst the best arenas in the world”
This was designed to eliminate potential complaints common at other arenas where certain seats look downthrough the production, causing sightline kills. The original mother rigging grid has a loading capacity of 60 tonnes, but in 2019, a newly designed baby grid with 30-tonne lifting capacity was introduced. The resulting 90-tonne rig improved stage positions and increased existing capacities to 12,500 seated (4%+) and 5,000 to 6,500 (30%+) standing places, thus producing a maximum arena capacity of 14,600 (12%+).
Other capital improvements include:
The plaudits from the Hydro’s clients are universal. Danny Betesh and Angie Becker of Kennedy Street admit that while they were initially cautious about the Hydro, their fears proved to be unfounded.
“Some of us wondered whether it was absolutely necessary, as we had been looked after and accommodated for many years in Hall 4 at the SECC,” states Betesh. “Now, a decade later, we know the answer, and yes, it has been a real upgrade for promoters, and a must-play venue for major artists on their UK tours.”
Toby Leighton Pope of TEG calls the Hydro “one of the best venues in Europe, not only from an artist’s view but from a fan’s view, too.”
And it isn’t just promoters who are full of praise for the Hydro. Those behind merchandise, security, and ticketing are equally fulsome in their feelings towards the venue.
“One of the best venues in Europe, not only from an artist’s view but from a fan’s view, too”
As managing director of security company G4S, Chris Burr has seen the changes from the early days of SEC. “The presence of the Hydro has been fantastic,” he says. “We’ve been security provider to the SEC for a number of years, but the Hydro has amplified things, bringing a much greater volume of events to Scotland, which has given us the opportunity to develop a workforce that is sourced locally.
Indeed, he reports, “We’ve relocated our event headquarters into the Scottish Event Campus, so we’re based onsite, and if you look at the campus as a whole, it’s a really vibrant place now.”
Phil Jones of National Merchandise has worked with the Hydro since day one and calls it “the entertainment destination for Scotland. Even just as a building, in a world where some venues can be pretty boring-looking sheds, from the moment it first landed, it looked pretty iconic. Saying ‘it landed’ seems appropriate because it does look like a UFO.
“From a merchandise point of view, if we do a bespoke t-shirt for an artist, it flies off the shelves within minutes. The people of Scotland love a t-shirt.”
John Giddings of Solo Agency simply says that his experience of the Hydro is “Fantastic. I love working there. It gives the opportunity for premiere-league acts to earn the money they can afford to play for.”
“[The Hydro team] are passionate about what they do, which is infectious. They’re the type of team that make you always want to go that extra mile to deliver for, every single day”
Ticketmaster UK boss Andrew Parsons goes a step further, naming the Hydro as his favourite venue.
“Having the opportunity to partner on ticketing with the Hydro was a truly landmark moment for Ticketmaster,” he says. “Playing a small part in supporting them through the evolution into one of the great arena venues in the world has honestly been one of the stand-out projects for myself and the team. Supporting the Hydro team in their continued success remains a guiding principle for all of us.”
Parsons highlights the importance of the Hydro’s full-time staff, who bring a very human face to operations. “As a team,” he says, “they have always been amongst the very best in the business, and without question, one of the partnerships we are most proud of. Exacting but always with a smile! And always with the intention of delivering for fans and artist teams. They are passionate about what they do, which is infectious. They’re the type of team that make you always want to go that extra mile to deliver for, every single day.”
Much of the attitude comes from the top.
At the centre of operations is the venue’s director of live entertainment, Debbie McWilliams, who has worked at the SEC in various capacities since 1989. Starting her career as assistant to the operations director, McWilliams then worked in ticketing for 20 years, helping establish the venue’s box office before becoming box office manager. The opening of the Hydro saw bookings added to her remit.
“I’m proud that we have built a diverse team of talented people across the business. Nurturing and providing a clear development path for our people is at the heart of everything we do”
McWilliams has been in her current post since 2019 and is responsible for the overall management, ticketing, booking, and commercial partnerships of all three SEC venues.
“I’ve been incredibly fortunate to witness, and play a part, in the evolution of the campus as it has grown from one venue to three,” she says of her tenure.
The passion and sense of care that McWilliams exudes is evident among all the Hydro’s staff, and it is telling that, in an industry with a high turnover, many of those at the Hydro have been there since the start.
“I am fortunate to be part of a fantastic team built on mutual respect and fuelled by a commitment to delivering the best events,” McWilliams affirms. “I’m proud that we have built a diverse team of talented people across the business. Nurturing and providing a clear development path for our people is at the heart of everything we do.”
The Audience Experience
“The fans really are the heart and soul of the venue,” says McWilliams, “and I think you would struggle to find another audience who match the relentless energy and enthusiasm of the Glasgow crowd. This isn’t isolated just to the venue, though. This force is felt right across our brilliant city. Glasgow has a certain charm, and the vibrancy is infectious. It is why global touring artists and their teams love working with us and keep coming back.”
She adds, “From an industry perspective, we continue to rank globally in the top five of the busiest arenas each year, most recently ranking No.1 worldwide on Billboard’s Top Grossing Venues (capacity 10,000-15,000) following another No.1 on Pollstar’s ranking for Top European Arena in February 2023. Year on year we break records for individual shows and cumulative sales, and this is driven by the dedication of the team behind OVO Hydro, who constantly make the arena the best venue in the world.”
And it hasn’t just been music events that have benefitted from the improvements.
“The development of OVO Hydro will always be driven by fan experience and the changing needs and wants of audiences”
“Back in October 2021, we were front-page news across the globe as we hosted COP26,” she says. “Across seven days, we hosted nearly 40,000 world-leaders and delegates for one of the most important climate change conferences of our time. Although we were already on our sustainability journey, the event brought this into sharper focus for us and, in early 2022, we were awarded the world’s first A Greener Arena certification, presented by A Greener Future.”
With this in mind, OVO Hydro looks set to continue its evolution in radical ways that put sustainability at its core.
“As a world-class venue, we are constantly prioritising better outcomes for our clients, our community, and our environment, and this continues to be a critical focus for OVO Hydro as we look toward the next ten years,” says McWilliams. “Last year, we launched our ambitious SEC Net Zero 30 sustainability strategy, which centres around five key goals: climate, governance, partnerships, people, and resource, each providing the focus for the work ahead.
“The strategy includes a focus on reducing our carbon footprint through energy, water efficiency, and green travel. Our Sustainable Events Toolkit provides this guidance to event tours, including energy and water efficiency, green travel, waste, and catering. Our toolkit is shared with all our live event clients during event planning.”
“The live entertainment industry is expected to evolve significantly as technology advances and audiences become more connected than ever before”
For audiences, too, there is much to look forward to, “The development of OVO Hydro will always be driven by fan experience and the changing needs and wants of audiences,” says McWilliams. “We’ve observed since the return of live, that there is an increased demand for elevated VIP experiences, and in response, we recently revamped our Hydro members offering with our new-look dining and drinks space, and we are progressing with plans for a second, making sure we are always meeting consumer demands.”
The Future Starts Here
“The live entertainment industry is expected to evolve significantly as technology advances and audiences become more connected than ever before,” McWilliams observes.
“Technological advancements can help drive growth in ticket and merchandise sales, help create more immersive experiences, and enable event organisers to gain more insight into their target audience and their preferences.
“Additionally, increasing the use of digital technologies such as virtual ticketing and digital marketing will help make ticket sales and event promotion more efficient and effective. The live entertainment industry will likely continue to focus on customer experience, as well as improved production quality and organisational capabilities.”
With its first ten years proving a spectacular success, OVO Hydro looks like it will be catering for the best fans in the world for a long time to come.
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