Celebrating Thomas Johansson at 75
As part of the team that introduced ABBA to the world, Thomas Johansson has enjoyed an equally stellar career, cementing the Nordic territories into the routing of every international tour that visits Europe. Now, having just celebrated his 75th birthday, he’s contemplating the future. But retirement is not a concept he fully recognises, he tells Gordon Masson.
As is the story with many of the industry’s pioneers, Thomas Johansson fell into the business by mistake when he saw an opportunity to earn a bit of money while getting into shows.
“A friend of mine played bass in a band, and I went along to a gig,” Johansson recalls. “Basically, I went to the promoter and said, ‘My band is worth more than this.’ And the guy agreed and paid more money. The band was four people, but they gave me a fifth – 20% – because I’d doubled their fee. So, all of a sudden, I was getting paid for talking and the bonus was I didn’t have to pay to go to concerts.”
As a teenage artist manager – “I was 16, I think” – that moment sparked an entrepreneurial streak that has lasted six decades, to date, and underscored a love for music that dates back a lot further.
As the first beneficiaries of Johansson’s legendary negotiating skills, that band of friends – The Outsiders – enjoyed four years of fame before splitting in 1969. “They were the opening act on several gigs for Jimi Hendrix,” says Johansson. “We also opened up for a band I did very early in my career called Blue Cheer, who were a fantastic blues-rock American trio, very similar to Hendrix.”
Keen to absorb as much information and experience as possible, Johansson began working for established Scandinavian promoters SBA, based in Denmark. “There were two principals there, Knud Thorbjörnsen and Anders Stefansen, and with them I promoted the likes of Ike and Tina Turner.” He explains, “There was also a lady there called Siw Eriksson, who worked with a lot of jazz acts – Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Miles Davis, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Oscar Peterson – basically all of the jazz greats. And from her, I really learned how to promote shows, because she was the local promoter for all of these jazz icons.
“The people at SBA also did European tours – they did the first European tour with the Stones in the late ‘60s, for instance – and they paved the way for other promoters to follow”
“In essence, the people at SBA also did European tours – they did the first European tour with the Stones in the late ‘60s, for instance – and they paved the way for other promoters to follow. In fact, I continued to work with both Knud and Anders right up until the 1980s when they sort of stopped.”
With a hard-working attitude and a passion to create the best environments for artists and their audiences, the next door that opened for young Thomas saw him in a salaried position for the Musicians’ Union. “I was an agent/promoter, for the [MU] locally in Sweden, and that’s also when I had my first encounter with the Rolling Stones, at the Vinterstadion, Örebro, over Easter in 1967.” That show has taken on legendary status in Scandinavia in the decades since – made all the more remarkable by the fact that the local promoter, Johansson, was just 18 at the time. “I’ve always been a pretty quick learner,” he quips.
Among the many acts that performed in Sweden with the assistance of the teenage Thomas were Traffic, Frank Zappa, Janis Joplin and, in March 1969, Led Zeppelin, who were the opening act for Country Joe & the Fish.
Never one to recognise age as a barrier, with barely four years of experience behind him, Johansson decided to launch his own company, EMA Telstar. He asked Siw Eriksson to join him as his assistant. “She’s a fantastic lady: she’s about 92 or 93 now, and I still speak to her,” he says.
He admits, however, that there was a more pressing reason to launch EMA. “The Musicians’ Union fired me,” he says. “There was a Union newspaper, and they asked me to write about modern music, which I did. But I was working with an eight-piece band and two of the guys were not MU members. So, they figured that I was not a good person, and they fired me… but it worked out okay for me in the end,” he laughs.
“I started to work with ABBA, and EMA Telstar produced and promoted all the dates they ever did from 1974 to the last show”
Brushing aside the fact that he was barely out of his teens when he became one of northern Europe’s main promoters, Johansson tells IQ, “It was easier at that time to start a company, because there were not many people doing it. I started up about one or two years earlier than Leon Ramakers did in Holland, and a little bit before Andy Béchir in Switzerland. In England, you had Tony Smith’s father, John Smith, who was a big promoter at the time, and through him I met Harvey [Goldsmith], who was working for John.”
Rather than shoulder all the risk himself, Johansson reveals that EMA’s early incarnation, in 1969, involved three partners. “One of the partners, Olle Nordström, died very early, and the other guy, Benny Englund, is still around and represents Marshall Amps, Fender, Vox: he’s basically the biggest supplier of this type of equipment in Sweden, Finland, and Norway. When Olle died, I bought his shares in the company, and later I bought out Benny as well.”
The Names of The Game
While Johansson has worked with some of the biggest legends ever to appear on stage, it’s perhaps one of the earliest bands from his career who have the greatest legacy.
“I started to work with ABBA, and EMA Telstar produced and promoted all the dates they ever did from 1974 to the last show they ever did at the Budokan, Tokyo in March 1980. We did three European tours, one Australian tour, one Japanese tour, and one US tour,” he states.
Recalling how the band’s career was embraced early on Down Under, Johansson observes, “Australia has similarities to Sweden: it’s remote from the rest of the world, while Sweden is remote from the rest of Europe; and they’re both relatively small countries in terms of population. So, when something happens, it happens big time, and with ABBA it was really big time. Luckily, we went to Australia early in the game with ABBA to do television, which was a real boost for the band at the time.”
“With U2, the first show they ever did here was a little club in Stockholm for 200 kids”
Indeed, Johansson’s influence with ABBA goes back to the very early days. “Actually, I started to work with them the year before Eurovision, so in 1973. All four of them came from successful local groups. I knew Björn from when I was 13 or 14 – he’s three years older than I am – and I managed his wife Agnetha on her solo career and produced her tours.
“So, when the band formed, they asked if I wanted to help them to produce the dates, book the dates, and promote the dates, which I did. And that’s how the relationship started.”
Although Johansson is not involved with the smash hit ABBA Voyage production, he still talks frequently to the members of the Swedish super-group, having also managed Frida’s career and executive produced a couple of her solo albums, “one with Phil Collins as a producer, and the other with Steve Lillywhite as a producer,” he recalls.
Another act who he shares a long association with is Elton John, who just weeks ago brought down the curtain on his touring career in Sweden with Thomas as promoter. “The first show I did with him, he was still called Reginald Dwight, and he was the piano player in a band called Blue Mink. We’ve done all Elton’s shows ever since,” reports Johansson.
Recalling other artists, he adds, “With U2, the first show they ever did here was a little club in Stockholm for 200 kids. Then we drove from that club to do a live TV [broadcast] and after the live TV, to play a club across the street. Queen, we started with very early in 1974; McCartney, we did the first tour after he left the Beatles with Wings in 1973; The Eagles played their first show here in 1977. To me, that’s a big personal thing to be able to say that. Of course, it’s in the past; it’s history. But it’s important to me, and again, it’s reinforced by what I impart to my staff: the artists are the first priority, never forget.”
“Early on with ABBA, we went to America where we did Olivia Newton John’s TV show in Los Angeles”
Join The Joyride
One of the many benefits of travelling the world with ABBA during the 1970s was the myriad opportunities for Johansson to expand his network of contacts. “Early on with ABBA, we went to America where we did Olivia Newton John’s TV show in Los Angeles,” he explains. “She was managed by Roger Davies, whom I’d known since he was managing an Australian band called Sherbet that I’d managed to get on as an opening act for The Hollies. And ever since then, I worked with all of Roger’s acts – Tina Turner, Cher, Pink, Sade, Joe Cocker – anyone he has worked with, I’ve promoted in Sweden and the Nordics.”
Steering ABBA’s live performance career helped make EMA Telstar a powerhouse in the Nordics, allowing Johansson and his company to become the go-to destination for most international acts looking to visit Scandinavia, Finland, and the Baltics.
As the Cold War started to thaw, Russia started to open its doors to western acts, with Johansson also becoming one of the pioneers to take acts behind the Iron Curtain to play the likes of Moscow and St Petersburg.
The 1980s also landed him the opportunity to work with another Swedish supergroup, Roxette, which combined the forces of two already established stars: Marie Fredriksson, who had a number of solo albums to her name; and Per Gessle, the lead singer and songwriter of Gyllene Tider, a band which had already released three No.1 albums – and whom Johansson has been promoting again this year at outdoor shows: “We do 20 outdoor shows with Per and his band this summer – a stadium in Stockholm, a stadium in Gothenburg, another 18 shows, as well as a couple in Finland and a couple in Norway. They’re going to end up selling something like 175,000 to 200,000 tickets,” he informs IQ.
Much like ABBA before them, Roxette used Johansson’s experience to propel them to international success. “We did all the tours and all the shows with Roxette worldwide,” he states. “When Per formed the band, we became his partner, and they played stadiums in Australia, they played stadiums in South America – big stadiums, like 50,000/60,000 people.”
“ABBA and Roxette gave me the opportunity to travel the world and that allowed me to pick up a lot of knowledge, as well as meet lots of people in the business”
That partnership arrangement hints at another Johansson skillset. He had also been a formidable artist manager in his day, but as EMA Telstar grew, and running the company became more time consuming, he started to ease away from artist manager duties, albeit reluctantly. But not before his management credentials had assisted the band Europe to become another A-list act. “We managed Europe for the first five years – they had that huge hit Final Countdown. And then I managed [lead singer] Joey [Tempest]. Even though it became so time consuming to be a manager, I couldn’t keep my hands away. So that’s why I managed Roxette initially and up until 1998 or ‘99 when I sold the company.”
He concedes, “ABBA and Roxette gave me the opportunity to travel the world and that allowed me to pick up a lot of knowledge, as well as meet lots of people in the business internationally – many of whom have become good friends, like Patrick Woodroffe the lighting designer, who worked with me on ABBA, so I turned to him for help when it came to Roxette, too. But as a manager, you need to do so much more than just the touring side of the business: you need to do publishing, record company deals, promotion, and I knew I would not have the luxury of that time when we sold the company to SFX.”
Selling EMA Telstar to Bob Sillerman’s SFX began a series of transactions that would eventually lead to Johansson becoming chairman of Live Nation’s international touring division. Grasping the idea of a global promoting operation, he was acutely aware that his artist management days were almost certainly over. “The business of being a promoter is a very time-consuming situation, so I had to make up my mind: do I want to be a promoter, or do I want to be a manager? And I decided I would be a promoter,” he says.
Besides, there was a greater goal to aim for. As part of the original SFX deal for EMA Telstar, Johansson had negotiated a number of clauses that would allow him to acquire the operations of partners in neighbouring territories, providing him and his new employers with a powerbase in northern Europe.
“EMA Telstar had been running for 30 years when I sold it, and it was the biggest promoter in Sweden by a long shot,” he comments. “The deal I made was that they would allow me to buy my partners in Norway, Denmark, and Finland, which I did about a year to two years later. And although they were still separate companies, that’s what ultimately became the unit known as Live Nation, the Nordics.”
“Live Nation has created vehicles for artists to be able to tour globally”
As Sillerman’s corporate kleptomania swept up the operations of Johansson’s peers in the likes of the Netherlands and the UK, the concert business suddenly became an industry that the money men started to take more seriously. Subsequently, in early 2000, Clear Channel agreed a multibillion-dollar deal to acquire SFX, and its acquisition strategy accelerated both in North America and internationally before Clear Channel spun off its expanding live music division in 2005 and named Michael Rapino as CEO.
Looking back at the development of the company, Johansson observes, “Live Nation has created vehicles for artists to be able to tour globally. It’s a public company, so it is all transparent and above board, it’s all correctly insured, and it operates in a way that pays attention to the rules of each country it operates in.”
He continues, “It’s also becoming a company that is very environmental – in each country, we have a person who heads up sustainability strategy and who works alongside the festivals, alongside the gigs and the shows, to see how we can be more environmentally efficient. It’s a massively important part of our work now, because if we wait until tomorrow to do something about it, there will be no tomorrow.”
Noting that Live Nation’s regimen requires precise reporting, he adds, “Of course, there’s an extreme amount of administration to do with Live Nation, but the company has been at the forefront of professionalising our business: it has standardised a lot of the things we do, and for young artists, young promoters, and a new generation of audience, it offers a great solution.”
Money, Money, Money
Being backed by the deep pockets of a global corporation has been a game changer for Johansson and the many entrepreneurs who have boarded the Live Nation setup over the past 20 something years. That environment also gives its various territory chiefs the confidence to chase deals they might not have done when still independent.
“The artists always come first. Always, always, always. If you follow that one rule, and if you’re straight and honest and do your job, you will succeed”
“You always have difficult times,” says Johansson, addressing the issue of risk. “I think promoters are very closely related to farmers: it rains too much, it shines too much, it’s too windy, and when the weather is bad the economy is bad, inflation is bad. We complain a lot – that’s promoters.” Despite the myriad challenges that make promoting shows and festivals such a perilous financial enterprise, Johansson has never put himself in a position where he might lose the roof from over his head. “Of course, I’m wrong all the time, and there are shows where I lose money. But you have to be right more than you’re wrong,” he says.
And revealing the mantra that he’s based his entire career around, he tells IQ, “The absolute fundamental thing that I preach to the people here in my office [in Sweden], and to the people in Norway, Denmark and Finland, and the Baltics… I preach to them that our most important partner, client, and asset is the artist. The relationship with the artist, the artist manager, the artist agent, this is the fundament that we build our business on. The artists always come first. Always, always, always. If you follow that one rule, and if you’re straight and honest and do your job, you will succeed.”
One beneficiary of Johansson’s schooling has been Anna Sjölund, who has worked her way up the ranks to currently hold the post of senior VP touring international for Live Nation.
“Thomas is like family to me,” says Sjölund. “I had just turned 20 when I started working for EMA Telstar. I came from a local promoter in the south of Sweden to do a few months work during the summer and never left – it’s been the most incredible ride, learning, growing up, and creating my own path alongside him.
“Thomas is simply a unique force: challenging, fiercely loyal, and a true gentleman. He never gives up, never stops believing in his artists, and he has taught me to never ever stop promoting the show – that’s the job: promote the artist, promote the show, never give up, and always, always, always put the artist first.”
“I transformed myself into a promoter in the early 2000s, and Elton John was the first act I promoted”
Having established Sweden as one of Europe’s strongest live music markets, Johansson has been given expanded roles by Live Nation in addition to his ‘chairman international music’ title. “I’m the chairman of the Nordics and also the Baltics, where we have two companies now, in Estonia and Lithuania,” he says. “That role involves overseeing the general business and making sure that it is taken care of in a professional way. That has been my remit for the last four or five years.
“But I am also still a promoter for many acts. For example, we recently had Bruce Springsteen here, whom I have been promoting for many years, and I’m lucky to have Tor Nielsen, whom I’ve been working with since 1977 – he executes the majority of the big shows that I do, whether it’s Metallica, Elton John, or Springsteen.”
Johansson is also quick to point out the evolving nature of the Live Nation staff across his territories. “There are some 90 people in this office here [in Stockholm]; there are about 70 in Denmark; in Norway it’s about 35-40; Finland about 25; and the Baltics about 10-12 people, so it’s more than 200 people in the Nordic hemisphere,” he reports.
For his part, right-hand man Nielsen tells IQ that he began working with Johansson as soon as he’d left university. “I’d basically make sure that the riders of visiting acts were fulfilled,” says Nielsen. “Then, in 1985, I took on the role of production manager for the company and basically became the tour coordinator and agent for Roxette and other acts.”
Adding the title of COO International Artists to his resume in the 1990s, Nielsen adds, “I transformed myself into a promoter in the early 2000s, and Elton John was the first act I promoted, although I’m still overseeing operations to this day.
“We’ve had some interesting clashes over the years, but we’ve always been able to work out the best way forward”
“I’m definitely the longest man standing when it comes to working with Thomas. He’s a mountain of energy and is very sociable, but he can be pretty stubborn. Then again, so can I, so we’ve had some interesting clashes over the years, but we’ve always been able to work out the best way forward.”
And Nielsen reveals one of Johansson’s habits is wanting to see as many shows as possible, even when the show may be the other side of the world. “I remember he flew in to see Roxette in Rio de Janeiro, and he was so jetlagged he fell asleep in the dressing room when the band went on stage and woke up as they came off. And then he caught a plane home.
“He’s a workaholic – when he flies to New York, he’s never out of the office for more than three days, for instance.” But he says some of the people who benefit most from that work ethic are LN Nordic staff. “He really likes to speak with everyone in the office about the projects they are working on. The last 15 years have seen a lot of young people join us, and I think that keeps Thomas energised – he’s a great mentor!”
What The Puck?!
Another facet to Johansson is his work in promoting his favourite sport: ice hockey. “In 1996, I started to talk to the National Hockey League [in North America] and the NHL Players Association, and in 1999/2000, we brought the first NHL teams here.”
While those exhibition games were lapped up by the hockey-mad Swedes, Johansson has worked tirelessly to build on those foundations to the extent that competitive games are now an annual fixture in Europe. “For the last seven or eight years, we have hosted real NHL games that count toward league standings,” he informs IQ. “In addition to Sweden, we’ve held games in Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, and Switzerland, and we have between two and four regular games every year that are televised in over 100 countries.”
“When Michael Rapino took over, he had a vision of building it on a worldwide scale. I really believe that was the most important thing that has happened to live music”
With his home city of Stockholm set to host four games in November, featuring Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings, Ottawa Senators, and Minnesota Wild, Johansson notes that those teams include 36 players of European nationalities, including 21 Swedes, hence robust ticket sales for the NHL Global Series games at the Avicii Arena.
Indeed, Johansson draws parallels between the NHL and Live Nation. “It’s an American company with a very good structure; it’s the biggest hockey league in the world, and it features the biggest stars in the game,” he states. “I count myself as very lucky: two of my biggest passions in life are music and ice hockey, and it’s very natural that I do both. In saying this, I never played hockey, personally. But I never played music either. However, I hope I have helped others to enjoy both activities as much as I do.”
Underlining his love for the winter sport, Johansson was on the board of directors of Stockholm ice hockey club Djurgårdens IF for 20 years. “I gave that up about ten years ago, and now I can go and see the games and enjoy them a little more,” he reports. “Being on the board of directors for a sports team is similar to managing a band: it takes a lot of time and a lot of effort… and it can cost you lots of money.”
Having spent the majority of his working life as an independent promoter, Johansson says the best decision of his career was the sale of his company to SFX and his subsequent journey in helping to make Live Nation a reality.
“After Live Nation formed, I think that’s when the real evolution of the live business started in a big manner. And when Michael Rapino took over, he had a vision of building it on a worldwide scale. I really believe that was the most important thing that has happened to live music,” opines Johansson.
“It is very rewarding to see young people succeeding. It keeps you on your toes, it keeps you young, and I think most importantly it helps you understand a lot of things”
Indeed, having celebrated his 75th birthday on 19 August, he’s currently overseeing the biggest ever summer season for the LN Nordics division. “We have 42 stadium shows in the Nordic hemisphere this year, where we normally have 18. About half of those shows are bought by us directly, and half of them are Live Nation global tours. That proves there is still a lot of room for other promoters to bring shows to this part of the world. But I genuinely believe that nobody does it better than Live Nation. The company has set so many standards that we make it more economical for artists to tour. The bottom line is that Live Nation is an artist company.”
And as Johansson enters his 60th year in the music business, he’s happy that the empire he has devoted his working life to build is in safe hands.
“For me personally, to see that there are young promoters, both boys and girls, coming through and how skilled they are, how good they are… I’m so proud and happy to be a part of that team,” he says. “Every day I go into the office, the people I work alongside present these fantastic ideas for shows and tours. And the way they are helping to break new acts is fantastic.”
While ‘retirement’ isn’t a word that slides easily into Johansson’s vocabulary, he admits that he took it upon himself over the last decade to spend more time mentoring colleagues. “It is very rewarding to see young people succeeding,” he continues. “It keeps you on your toes, it keeps you young, and I think most importantly it helps you understand a lot of things. A big part of a promoter’s role is to remain curious and willing to learn, and I’ve found that the more I offer my advice and experience to younger colleagues, the more I learn, too.”
With a workaholic attitude, Johansson admits that during the pandemic he attended his Live Nation office every day, as did a number of his co-workers. But he notes, “It’s very difficult not to work hard when you are so interested in what you do. It’s not really like a job; it’s more like a passion. And I’m very lucky as a human being that the majority of my work life has been my passion.
“Of course, there is pain and bumps and idiots all along the way. But the majority of the time, I’m very happy, and I’m very fortunate to be able to do what I want to do”
“Of course, there is pain and bumps and idiots all along the way. But the majority of the time, I’m very happy, and I’m very fortunate to be able to do what I want to do. I appreciate it every day – having something to do that makes you look forward to waking up every morning.”
My Love, My Live
While many individuals count down to the day they give up work with glee, Johansson sailed past standard retirement age a decade ago, and the past ten years coincidentally have heralded the busiest period of his career. “The really rapid growth for Live Nation has been during the last six or seven years,” says Johansson, who also believes that post-Covid, the age-old dilemma about tomorrow’s headliners is being resolved.
“There are a lot of young acts that because of Covid were unable to tour for two or three years, but at the same time they’ve grown because of social media, record releases, television, TikTok, etc. And because of that demand they have built up by expanding their fanbase, there is the opportunity for them to step up to arenas and stadiums. I think that’s what we’re going to see over the coming years – the next generation of big acts coming through.”
He cites Volbeat as an act from the Nordics that is getting bigger on the international stage, while on a global level Johansson believes the Internet has levelled the playing field for emerging talent. “Social media means it doesn’t matter if you come from New York or from Stockholm or Sydney or a suburb of Johannesburg,” he observes.
That genuine excitement within Johansson is infectious, and while his diamond anniversary might just be around the corner, his passion for music remains as strong as when he was a teenager. “I still love to discover a new act playing live,” he says. “But more often, I listen to a lot of new music, and I like to read about new bands, too. Recently, I saw a great band with Metallica, called Mammoth, with the son of Eddie Van Halen – they’re a great rock band, so that was interesting.”
“Klaus-Peter Schulenberg was a colleague of mine when he was a promoter in Bremen”
Noting that Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich had been the person to introduce him to Danish stars Volbeat, 12 years ago, Johansson also flags up Swedish homegrown act Ghost, who he has high hopes for. “They’ve already had a Grammy award in America and now they play and sell out arenas in Europe and America. It’s really one guy – Tobias Forge – who dresses up like the Pope, and every show Ghost does is a story in its own right. So, I’m very proud that we’ve been involved with them from the very beginning – it was Martin Nielsen in Norway and Johan [Karlsson], here from my office, who became involved when the band first played in clubs.”
He also lauds First Aid Kit. “Great songs, great girls, and really good live. We work with them through Luger who, if we were a record company, would be our indie label, as they’re the division that produces Way Out West festival.”
On the festival front, LN Nordics has grown massively in recent years. The portfolio also includes Sweden Rock and Lollapalooza Stockholm in collaboration with C3 Presents; Tons of Rock, Bergen Festival, and Trondheim Rocks in Norway; Denmark’s Copenhell and Heartland; and Blockfest in Finland. “We’re also partners on a few events like Helsinki Rocks and Turku Festival, in which our job is to service them with artists. And I’ve been involved as a consultant on Roskilde since its first edition,” notes Johansson.
As Johansson and his colleagues over the years developed the Nordics into must-visit destinations for international tours, it’s testament to his hard work and vision that rival corporations have established footholds in the region during the past decade.
“Klaus-Peter Schulenberg was a colleague of mine when he was a promoter in Bremen,” says Johansson of the CTS Eventim chief. “He started Eventim as a ticketing company and then bought a lot of local promoters in Germany, so I think it was a natural progression for them to move into Scandinavia.”
“Personally, I welcome the fact that there’s competition to motivate us all”
Meanwhile, ASM has begun operating venues such as Stockholm’s Avicii Arena, Hovet, Annexet, Tele2 Arena, Friends Arena, Södra Teatern, and Mosebacketerrassen. And more recently, venture capital-backed All Things Live has acquired existing promoters in Denmark, Sweden, and Finland to further up the ante in the competitive Nordics landscape.
“They are, of course, rivals, but competition pushes people to do more things and, hopefully, better things,” observes Johansson. “It also gives the artists the opportunity to have the choice of who they want to work with. From that point of view, it’s like everywhere else in the world: you’ll never have a monopoly, which can only be a good thing. Personally, I welcome the fact that there’s competition to motivate us all.”
And Johansson notes that the rivalries between the corporate powers are not as fierce as many commentators would suggest. “We did Elton John with AEG, I did the Rolling Stones with AEG, so we work together, and we talk. We’re both American-owned companies who don’t sit too far away from each other in Los Angeles, so it’s nice to see that there’s a lot of mutual respect between us.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Johansson believes the talent pipeline in his part of the world is in rude health. “There’s lots of good small clubs, all across the country. People always complain there aren’t, but when you start to look at it, there are proper 800 to 1,000-capacity rooms everywhere across Sweden. And then, because of ice hockey, you also have 10-12 relatively modern ice hockey arenas with capacities from 6,000 to 13,000.”
The Next Generation
The wealth of talent doesn’t just exist on stage, however, and when it comes to succession plans for Live Nation, Johansson is very optimistic about the company’s future.
“I want to spend more time with my family; I want to go on long hikes with my dog, Hugin; I want to read more and generally just have more time to think”
“My main ambition is to make sure that the people working here in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, the Baltics, have the opportunity to continue to work and to become the best at what they do,” he discloses.
“I see myself as working a little bit less in the not too far distance, because there are other things I want to do, which is not just related to the business… I want to spend more time with my family; I want to go on long hikes with my dog, Hugin; I want to read more and generally just have more time to think,” he explains.
“I have no extreme things that I want to do, because I’ve been so fortunate. I’ve travelled the world in an extremely good way, and for that, I’m eternally grateful. I met fantastic people – some of whom have become very good friends. So, it’s not that I want to stop and open a restaurant or a hotel or become the owner of a football club. But I do see myself working a little bit less, eventually. I’ve been asked this question by my family as well, but I explain that I still have commitments to clients, and I will always fulfil my commitments.”
Always the consummate planner, Johansson reveals that he was careful not to fall into the trap of pursuing a career at the cost of his family. “I have one son and two grandkids, and while I want to spend more time with them, I have seen them a lot as they grew up.
“I live on an old farm just outside of Stockholm, and my son and his family have always lived in the house next door, so I’ve been present since my grandchildren were born. I’ve seen them when they started to go to school; when I walked the dogs first thing, I got to say good morning to them… it’s a lovely relationship – my grandson is now 21 and my granddaughter is 18, and they are always dropping in to see me and have a cup of coffee and a chat. In fact, my grandson has been working in security at some of our shows to make money, and I think my granddaughter will also do some of that.”
“There are always places I always want to go back to – I want to be in Italy every day of the week”
Family aside, Johansson would also like to schedule more travel when he can find the time. “There are always places I always want to go back to – I want to be in Italy every day of the week,” he says. “I love New York. I love Los Angeles, Paris, London, Australia. I’m sure I will be able to get back to them all, but I’m not in any rush, because I’ve been there many times with work.”
When it comes to passing on the Live Nation batons, he coyly states, “It’s being worked on,” and while he keeps his cards close to his chest, it’s obviously a progression that he is contemplating very seriously.
“It’s a very difficult thing to do,” he says of the succession plans. “For me, it was natural because I brought the business in, made sure we made the money, and took the company into where it is today. But you have to really think carefully about who can do this in the future… You have to have a good bunch of people to run the whole Nordic area. Maybe that means one or two or three people who have the same vision who can then work together.”
With the succession strategy being a work in progress, for the foreseeable future, Johansson has travel plans on hold, while he remains in the Nordic region to help his younger colleagues realise their potential. “It’s almost like working with an ice hockey team. You can see who is going to be the next star – this guy, this girl, they’re going to be great promoters, they’re going to be great marketeers, they’re going to be great sponsor people. That is a big thing to see, and it’s one of my biggest pleasures in life,” he concludes.
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Secret Garden Party 2022 sells out in record time
Secret Garden Party 2022 has sold out in record time following an “overwhelming response” to the reunion event.
It was revealed late last month that SGP, hailed as one of the UK’s best-loved and most successful boutique festivals, would return after a five-year hiatus to celebrate its 20th anniversary.
Tickets for SGP 2022, which features an entirely secret line-up that will not announced in advance, went on sale on Sunday morning (26 September) and were all sold out within two hours.
It was reported that 70,000 fans applied for the 15,000 tickets available for next year’s festival.
Festival boss Freddie Fellowes commented: “We are thrilled and frankly totally blown away by the overwhelming response to the return of SGP and its 20th anniversary.
“The love and enthusiasm for going back to the Garden have taken our breath away”
“We thought that since closing our doors five years ago and then after such an isolating grim couple of years there might be some interest, but the love and enthusiasm for going back to the Garden have taken our breath away.”
Fellows added: “There’s clearly a need to bring like-minded people together who want to meet, play, create and rejoice. It is no longer a luxury we can take for granted. The joy shown on SGP’s social media since the announcement and the subsequent crazy shared stories reminds us of how A Serious Party has the capacity to create magic.
“I’d like to thank every single person who applied. Congratulations if you managed to get ticket, if not then don’t despair; SGP is about collaboration and we have kept back a fair few tickets for the most wonderful ideas that people want to bring to life in the Garden. Applications for this will open next month so get your thinking caps on… and join us next summer.”
Secret Garden Party has seen performances from the likes of Gorillaz, Florence + The Machine, Faithless, Lily Allen, Blondie and many more.
In 2017, founder Fellowes said “all good things must come to an end”, adding that they were working on a different festival to launch in the years ahead.
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Steve Strange: A strange half-century
This article was originally published in May 2018, and has been republished following the sad news of Steve Strange’s passing.
A party on 13 April 2018 to celebrate Steve Strange’s 50th birthday marked the reopening of London’s Subterania, which long-time friend Vince Power has resurrected after a 15-year hiatus. Picking a grassroots club as the destination for his landmark birthday party sums up a man who has dedicated more than half his life to the live music business – and who can be found more often than not in small venues scouting for new talent, or introducing promoters to another of the up-and-coming acts on his roster.
For the purposes of this cloak-and-dagger operation, we relied on some of the historic articles that we’ve written in the past about Strange. However, we were able to corner him for an interview for a non-existent profile piece, where he gave us a fascinating insight into how he sees the business developing in the future.
But more on that later. First, here’s a potted history of the birthday boy’s life and career to date…
Born in Lisburn near Belfast on 17 April 1968, Strange was raised in Carrickfergus in nearby County Antrim during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. At the age of 11, after his cousin took him to see UFO at Ulster Hall in Belfast, Strange’s love of hard rock was born, which saw him devote his youth to the likes of Rush, AC/DC, Kiss, and Def Leppard.
The allure of music also encouraged Strange to become a musician himself and having been introduced to drumming in the Boys’ Brigade youth group, he was able to hone his skills when his father bought him a drum kit at the age of 12, leading to jam sessions with friends at school.
“I was intrigued by it – how tours were routed, why some bands played clubs not halls, etc. It was very exciting.”
His first band, Slack Alice, didn’t reach the heights its members had hoped for, so Strange found himself sitting behind the drums for a couple of cover bands before becoming part of the line-up for popular Belfast outfit No Hot Ashes in 1986. A record deal with GWR, thanks in no small part to Strange’s powers of persuasion, saw the band move to London a year later to record a debut album that, unfortunately, failed to hit the shops after the label’s distribution arm, Pie Records, went bust.
In need of income, Strange accepted an offer from Jon Vyner to join the Bron Agency and book some gigs. “I used to do [that] anyway – it was always left to the drummer to chase support tours and gigs,” Strange told IQ in 2009. Tapping up GWR’s Doug Smith to secure his acts occasional support slots with the likes of Motörhead and Girlschool, Strange worked tirelessly, making himself known around London’s gig circuit, making friends with bands and offering to book shows. “I did a lot of analysing about how the business worked, and it was a steep learning curve. I was intrigued by it – how tours were routed, why some bands played clubs not halls, etc. It was very exciting.”
A strange business
Strange’s initial steps into the business side of live music involved him hopping from agency to agency. From Bron he joined Adam Parsons’ Big Rock Inc., and from there he switched to Prestige Artists, working with Clive Underhill- Smith and Rob Hallett. Disenchanted with the acts he was asked to book, Strange made the decision to move back to Northern Ireland, where, in 1992, he found a job at The Limelight and spent a year on the other side of the fence promoting shows with Eamonn McCann.
That move led to one of Strange’s biggest breaks, when a trio of school kids in a band called Ash started relentlessly hassling him for support slots in the venue. The band’s bass player, Mark Hamilton, recalls that Strange’s office in the Limelight doubled as the cloakroom at the weekend: “You had to push past the rails where the coats were to get to Steve’s desk at the back.” The teenagers’ tenacity impressed Strange enough to give the band slots supporting the likes of Elastica, Babes in Toyland, and Ride, and as the fan-base began to grow, he accepted an offer from Ash manager Stephen Taverner to become the band’s agent, and soon found himself working with Rob Challice at Forward Artist Booking.
Adding acts to his roster, Strange soon got itchy feet again and felt the need to move to a bigger agency: John Giddings’ Solo.
Strange’s office in the Limelight doubled as the cloakroom at the weekend: “You had to push past the rails where the coats were to get to Steve’s desk at the back”
The next rung of the ladder saw Strange move to Fair Warning/Wasted Talent where Ian Huffam and Jeff Craft took him under their wings. “It just felt like the right place to go,” says Strange. “It was much more a demographically suited agency for me.” Other colleagues at that company, which would later morph into Helter Skelter, were Ian Flukes, John Jackson, Pete Nash, Paul Bolton, Jim Morewood, Emma Banks, Mike Greek, Ian Sales, Paul Franklin and Nigel Hassler.
That career move coincided with Strange’s move into the big time. Within months of settling into his new environment, he was invited by Interscope Records’ label head Martin Kierszenbaum and A&R chief Don Robinson to take a look at some of the acts they were developing.
“I’ve always listened to American music, and a lot of the bands I liked when I was younger were from the United States,” says Strange. “So I started to sign bands from the US or who were America-based, and I spent a lot of time building relationships with people who work in the American business. My relationship with Interscope, for instance, on the back of representing Smash Mouth, led to Martin and Don putting Eminem on my radar before there was even a record released. I remember hearing ‘My Name Is’ before it had even gone to radio and just being blown away. So I’ve been very fortunate to work with Eminem for a long time now.”
While that introduction to Eminem may have been a piece of good fortune, the circumstances owe everything to Steve Strange’s philosophy when it comes to making a mark in the North American music sector.
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The Jewel of the Midlands: Resorts World Arena at 40
This month should have marked a huge party at Resorts World Arena as the iconic NEC Group venue chalked up its 40th birthday. While those celebrations were inevitably muted, given that 2020 has been the quietest in the building’s long history, IQ could not let the occasion pass without paying tribute to this pioneering arena.
Prior to 1980, there had not been many gigs at the National Exhibition Centre, which was opened by the Queen in 1976 as the largest exhibition space in the UK. However, as the fledgling live music business began to grow, promoters were eager to find suitable venues for shows by 70s superstar acts and, more by accident than design, the NEC’s halls started to prove popular for touring acts.
At that point, there were no major venues outside of London, where Earl’s Court and Wembley Arena hosted the larger touring acts, so it was a somewhat brave leap of faith that saw NEC’s hierarchy decide to add a seventh hall to the Solihull complex.
“I was working with Harvey Goldsmith, and the first band to play the venue was Queen”
And so it was, on 5 December 1980, that the Birmingham International Arena made its debut on the UK tour circuit. And what a debut it was! “I was working with Harvey Goldsmith, and the first band to play the venue was Queen,” says Andrew Zweck of Sensible Events.
“This was the first new arena built in the UK in the 1970/80s [and] I’m very happy to say that it’s gone from strength to strength, with lots of additions, improvements, and upgrades over the years, and is really a favourite venue for artists, promoters and, of course, fans.”
For his part, Harvey Goldsmith recalls that he first heard about the NEC in 1975 and used the complex a number of times prior to the arena’s construction.
“In 1977, Barry Cleverdon, who had become the MD of the NEC, phoned me and said that they were creating a venue in Hall 7 and could I bring a big artist to open the venue. So I brought the first of many major artists, Queen, to the venue.”
“At first the venue was a bit rough and ready, but it had a great atmosphere thanks to the Brummie audience”
Goldsmith adds, “At first the venue was a bit rough and ready, but it had a great atmosphere thanks to the Brummie audience.[Prior to that] I had been producing a lot of concerts at Bingley Hall as that was the biggest space in the region, and the NEC was light relief compared to the cattle showroom.”
With a history with the arena that dates back to its opening, the list of artists that Goldsmith has taken to the venue is endless. “From The Who to New Kids On the Block to Bruce Springsteen and the Eagles; award shows like Smash Hits and the last show of the original Black Sabbath,” he notes.
“It is now a great venue, with a fabulous team who run it. It all works – from the ticket selling to the car parks. We are lucky to have this well-run venue, and long may it continue,” adds Goldsmith.
Those early concerns about the height of the arena roof have, over time, become a selling point for the venue, as its design has helped to foster a reputation as one of the most intimate arena performance spaces in the world.
“In 1978, the NEC’s exhibition halls were used for a few shows before the arena opened, and that was the catalyst for the construction of the arena,” says Guy Dunstan, who is the current managing director of arenas for the NEC Group.
“Back then, the arena was a pioneering venue in the UK market. There were only really Earl’s Court and Wembley Arena”
“But when the arena opened, it retained the capability to be converted into an exhibition hall – so the seats could be removed, for example.
“The roof height of 12 metres helps retain an intimacy,” he continues, noting that the original design of the building tried to make the arena as audience-friendly as possible. “The building was initially a 12,300-capacity arena, and its design is iconic, as it is pillar-free to minimise sightline issues.
“Back then, the arena was a pioneering venue in the UK market. There were only really Earl’s Court and Wembley Arena, so the addition of the Birmingham International Arena in 1980 gave promoters the opportunity to start looking at bigger UK arena tours.”
As with many in the Resorts World Arena team, Dunstan is a local lad whose history with the venue dates back a lot farther than 1996 when he joined NEC Group.
“I went to my first ever concert at the arena,” he tells IQ, confessing that he’s recently been able to use NEC archives to check the exact date.
“My passion for concerts and live music all centres around the arena – I just never imagined that I’d end up running the place”
“It was 18 December, 1984, it was a mate’s birthday and we went to see Howard Jones, who must have been big at the time because he played two dates. I was 13, and I remember we were dropped off at the arena by my mate’s dad and I was buzzing about going to my first gig.”
He continues, “I’d been to events at the NEC before that, as my parents took me to see the Harlem Globetrotters and we’d also been to showjumping events because my sister was into that. But my passion for concerts and live music all centres around the arena – I just never imagined that I’d end up running the place.”
Alan Goodman, general manager of arenas, started working with NEC Group in 1991, initially at sister venue, the NIA, in Birmingham city centre, and adding the NEC Arena to his remit later on. But he, too, has a longer history with the venue.
“My first concert was at the NEC Arena in 1986 – it was a show called Heartbeat 86, which was a charity gig to raise money for a children’s hospital. I remember that I sat under the same awful lighting rig that I was responsible for taking out in 2008.”
Growth and improvement
Dunstan and his former boss, Phil Mead, have been instrumental in the venue’s development in recent years, starting with the expansion that Goodman hints at.
“[In 2007], there were lots of new, purpose-built venues opening up and the NEC Arena was showing its age”
“We first started looking at what we could do to transform the venue in 2007, when Phil Mead joined us,” says Dunstan. “At the time, there were lots of new, purpose-built venues opening up and the NEC Arena was showing its age, to the extent that the customer experience was not where we wanted it to be,” he admits.
“Our approach was to have a venue that was fit for purpose, and at the forefront of the arenas business worldwide, so we looked at different options and spoke to a number of architects about how we could achieve that.
“The ace up our sleeve was that we were able to create this unique arena environment because we have the Forum as an entrance area, which gave us 4,000 square metres of space to utilise as part of the rebuild, welcoming people from outside, where it can often be cold or wet, into this vibrant entrance atrium.”
Mead recalls, “When I had a look at the NEC Arena before I got the job, I could see it was crying out for refurbishment – there hadn’t been any significant investment for a long time.”
He, too, talks fondly of his long relationship with the venue, telling IQ, “I went to college in Staffordshire, so one of the first gigs I went to was when Bob Dylan played the arena in 1991. I was at the back of the arena where the seats levelled out, so it wasn’t a great view, but I took my chance to make my way down to near the stage to get closer to the action.
“One of the first gigs I went to was when Bob Dylan played the arena in 1991”
“It was a brilliant show and the whole arena atmosphere got to me. Little did I know that 25 years later I’d be writing to people to tell them about the importance of keeping the aisles clear.”
That initial experience was not too far from his mind when it came to the expansion of a decade ago. “A lick of paint wasn’t going to be enough for the refurbishment, and I remember hiring a photographer in and instructing him to take bad photos, so we could use them in the presentation for our refurb proposals. Photographers don’t like to take bad photos, but we’d wheel bins into shot and things like that. Fortunately, the board bought into our proposals.”
The expansion programme proved a little more complicated than its then local authority owners simply signing a cheque.
“The caveat was that they would provide us with the £29million [€32m] as long as we could underwrite the costs with a naming rights sponsor for the arena,” discloses Mead.
Dunstan is convinced that utilising the entrance atrium was crucial to attracting its first naming rights partners, electrical giants LG.
“Getting [naming rights partner, electrical giants] LG on board was a milestone moment”
“The Forum gave the sponsors the space and scope to integrate with us and make the new arena an exciting place to showcase the LG brand and their products. At one stage, LG built a cinema in the Forum to showcase their 3D television technology. But they also brought in gaming and mobile phone experiences, as well as all kinds of technology experiences – all of which helped make it an exciting place for visitors as well.”
“Getting LG on board was a milestone moment,” states Mead. “We wanted to reinstate the arena into the premier league of venues and gaining the support and enthusiasm of LG unlocked any concerns of the board, which gave us the money for the project.”
But that wasn’t the only constraint the NEC team had to contend with. “The key to the refurbishment was that we kept the building open as much as possible throughout the construction project, which was a huge logistical task in itself,” says Dunstan.
Mead agrees. “One issue with the project was the speed that we had to do it, especially as we wanted to stay open as much as possible while working on the construction,” he says. “When it came to the refurb project, I think a bit of my Bob Dylan gig was still in me, because I made sure the number of seats on the flat were reduced, while others in the bowl were reconfigured to improve the sight lines.”
While enhancing the arena’s acoustic credentials was an uncontested element of the 2009 refurb, the prospect of changing the seating set-up can prove to be a significant deterrent when it comes to enticing promoters and touring productions. But the architects were able to quickly allay such fears.
“Looking at the arena bowl, it was crucially important for us to keep the capacity numbers so we could remain viable”
“Looking at the arena bowl, it was crucially important for us to keep the capacity numbers so we could remain viable,” says Dunstan. “But the actual design we chose more than delivered, because we were able to increase the capacity from 12,300 to 15,600 by redesigning the seating system, and instead of effectively having three stands, we filled in the corners to create a true arena bowl.
“The design allowed us to increase the seating, but also increase the width of the actual seats and give people more legroom. All in all, it was great news for the fans, but also for agents, promoters and, of course, the artists.”
As with all major projects, management were understandably nervous about the reaction of fans, knowing that audiences often do not take kindly to change. But they needn’t have worried.
Mead says, “We used a Tom Jones show for our soft launch, then Green Day for the official opening. And we could immediately see that the Forum Live area was hugely popular and working well, so it made the investment worthwhile.”
Dunstan adds, “When we reopened with Green Day, I walked in and checked to see what the numbers were with the box office. Pretty much the entire audience had already scanned in, but the building did not look full at all because of the space in the Forum that we had de-signed. And I have to say, it still looks as fresh and new now as it did then.”
“When it comes to my highlights, that first season after the refurb is up there – Tom Jones, then Green Day, and then WWF”
Mead has nothing but fond memories of the accomplishments of 2009. “When it comes to my highlights of working at the arena, that first season after the refurb is up there – Tom Jones, then Green Day, and then WWF – it was amazing to see the arena transformed,” he says.
Another seminal moment involved Prince and a last-minute deadline. “Prince was in the UK for a festival performance or something and he decided he wanted to tag on an arena date while he was here, so his appearance at the arena was put together in just three weeks, which must have been the shortest lead time in the venue’s history,” says Mead.
“That day I had a report to write for the board, but time just flew by, so I found myself watching the show with my laptop on my knee, writing the report to the backing of Prince. And at the end of the show, one of the fans told me that he’d been watching me and that he hoped it was going to be an amazing review!
“Another highlight was in 2016, when my wife insisted on going see Adele. Just seeing someone at the top of their game singing brilliantly for a couple of hours was fantastic. Same goes for George Michael with his orchestra, which was a standout moment, as was Ozzy Osbourne’s farewell show, and the Sports Personality of the Year Awards.”
For his part, general manager Goodman tells IQ, “One of my personal highlights was when Jeff Lynn of ELO went back on the road – and that was the first time I’d seen him since my first ever gig at the Heartbeat 86 concert.”
“Prince’s appearance at the arena was put together in just three weeks, which must have been the shortest lead time”
Dunstan has too many highlights to mention, but he remembers a particular Spinal-Tap moment that speaks of the arena’s accessibility. “We had a big international band playing at the arena, and that night I was observing the car park and traffic team, so I joined the marshals, etc, to see how they ran things,” he relates.
“At the end of the evening I had two choices: join the traffic team for the exit process for the fans; or the more appealing chance to join the getaway vehicle for the artists leaving the site as soon as they left the stage.
“So I was in the NEC traffic vehicle and the band’s driver told me that they had a jet waiting for them at Birmingham Airport. I asked where they were going next and he laughed and said, ‘London’. It turns out they were flying to Luton Airport and had ignored their driver’s advice, so he dropped them off at Birmingham, then drove to Luton Airport and was there waiting for them when they got off the plane…”
As the jewel in the crown when it comes to venues in the Midlands, Resorts World Arena provides everyone who works there with a sense of justifiable local pride.
The redevelopment of the arena in 2009 precipitated the council selling NEC Group to Lloyds Development Capital in January 2015 for a whopping £307m (€337m). However, underlining the incumbent management’s impressive ongoing stewardship of the venues group, in October 2018, private equity investment firm, Blackstone, acquired NEC Group from Lloyds for a reported £800m (€877m).
“All of our existing riggers are ex-trainees, which is fantastic, and it’s definitely something we want to continue in the future”
In the meantime, the group’s hierarchy has created groundbreaking internal leadership strategies that will not only improve the efficiency of the NEC going forward, but are having a domino effect on the greater UK production services sector as a whole.
Arenas GM Goodman says, “We’re unique in that we have our own in-house event services team, who I see as being at the centre of an egg timer, taking all the outside information and requirements from the promoters and tour production and passing that on to our internal venue staff.
“For many years we’ve had our own rigging team, and we’ve been groundbreaking with our training programmes. Our apprenticeships, which we have been championing for many years, are more formalised now. And during the past couple of years we’ve done the same with our electricians. The fact that we have our own in-house teams gives us great control over the here and now.”
Those training schemes are beginning to benefit the UK’s touring circuit as a whole, as apprentices move on to work at other venues. “All of our existing riggers are ex-trainees, which is fantastic, and it’s definitely something we want to continue in the future,” states NEC Group head of rigging, Paul Rowlands, who tells IQ he has been working at the arena since 1991.
“In those days, from a rigging perspective, a heavy show was 12 tonnes. Now we’re in excess of 80 tonnes for the larger shows, and that’s a real challenge for an older venue.”
The Resorts World Arena roof was at one time a haven where George Michael liked to sunbathe
Goodman adds, “When you see the way tours have developed, there are periods of the year when we have back-to-back shows and the way we deliver them is just an amazing achievement. That wouldn’t be the case if we hadn’t spent the time and effort into developing our teams.”
As his job involves working at height, Rowlands is all too familiar with the Resorts World Arena roof and reports that at one time it was a haven where George Michael liked to sunbathe. “We also used to have our snow patrol to shovel snow off the roof when we had to, but thankfully that’s now done with the flick of a switch,” he says.
But the roof remains something of a hindrance for Rowlands and his team, so he is happier than most about the prospects of the next arena construction scheme. “The arena was never designed for the loads it’s asked to take these days, so we have a lot to do in the next expansion project,” he says.
Britain’s biggest arena?
Not content with running one of the world’s most popular venues, the Resorts World Arena recently revealed plans that could transform the building into the biggest arena in the UK.
“Everybody knows everybody in the arenas business, so we’ve been incorporating and learning from the lessons of everyone else in terms of what works and what doesn’t at arenas around the world, as well as what promoters expect and what they are – and are not – prepared to pay for,” says Rowlands.
The Resorts World Arena recently revealed plans that could transform the building into the biggest arena in the UK
“Using that information has allowed us to come up with a venue redesign that will make the Resorts World Arena the most flexible venue in the country.”
Rowlands tells IQ that he is familiar with a lot of venues around the world, while the Resorts World Arena’s location next to Birmingham Airport has meant that the venue has been used for more than its fair share of arena association meetings over the years – giving him and the NEC Group team an advantage when it comes to developing facilities and services.
“We have a system that will effectively be designed by other venue operators, based on their problems,” explains Rowlands.
“For instance, I opened an arena in Hong Kong once and it was an incredible building, but what they overlooked was that the loading doors faced the South China Sea, so when shows were loading in and out, things would blow everywhere. Those are the kinds of lessons you learn from others when planning construction.”
Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic has placed all construction plans on hold for the time being.
“Our plan is to take the capacity up to 21,600”
“Our plan is to take the capacity up to 21,600,” explains Dunstan. “We’d achieve that by putting an additional tier on the existing facility and raising the roof. That will also allow us to strengthen the roof so it’s better equipped to handle future productions. Again, the idea would be to keep the arena open as much as possible during the expansion project.
“We’ve got the planning consent but because of Covid the project is now on hold,” he continues. “We were due to start the project in May or June 2020, but we’ve decided to pause it for the time being. We need to get back into the recovery of the business before we re-evaluate the market to see where we are.”
There’s no time to grieve over the paused expansion plans, however, as the NEC Group is being kept busy by the surprise selection of Birmingham as the host city for the 2022 Commonwealth Games.
On hand to assist in that regard is none other than Phil Mead, who has taken on the role of Commonwealth Games delivery chairman – a position that is close to his heart, as he was a contestant in the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, Australia, where he represented the Isle of Man at badminton.
“I remember winning the first point at doubles when we played the Malaysians, who were the world champions. That was sort of the highlight,” he laughs.
Mead says that six sports will be hosted at NEC Group facilities, which will also be home to the international broadcast centre. But the fact that the Resorts World Arena is involved at all is a surprise.
The NEC Group is being kept busy by the surprise selection of Birmingham as the host city for the 2022 Commonwealth Games
“We originally were working on a bid for the 2026 Commonwealth Games, which in theory, would have coincided with the opening of the high-speed rail link adjacent to the NEC complex,” says Mead.
“Durban had won the bid for 2022, but when the organising committee visited the city, they found that a lot of the requirements had not been met, so they decided a new host city was needed. One of the reasons Birmingham was chosen was that 90% of the venues were already in situ, and the city has hosted lots of international sports events over the years.”
Mead reveals that the whole NEC team is working on the Games preparation, as the complex will be central to the gathering. “We’re going to have netball in the arena, which is great because England will be one of the favourites,” he says. “Weightlifting, powerlifting, table tennis, boxing and badminton will be in the NEC halls, while the city-centre arena will host the gymnastics.”
That’s not the only major event in the calendar for Resorts World Arena in the near future. Dunstan states, “The next expansion was to coincide with the opening of the high-speed rail line to London. […] There are also ambitious office, retail, and residential projects planned nearby, so there are a number of exciting opportunities for the NEC Group, and Resorts World Arena in particular, during the next decade.”
Already enhancing the arena’s pulling power is Resorts World, which is adjacent to the venue and has proved to be a tremendous asset for the entire NEC campus with its retail outlets, restaurants, hotel, and casino.
“My highlights of working here are constant: they’re basically the challenges we have to meet and find solutions for”
40 years at the top
As the Resorts World Arena team prepare for a return to live events in 2021, the NEC has been playing a major role in the fight against coronavirus in the UK, being the location for the temporary NHS Nightingale Hospital Birmingham, and cementing itself even deeper in the hearts of the local population.
The arena’s reputation is no less embedded among artists and their crews. “The NEC Arena, or Resorts World Arena as it is now, is iconic, and anyone touring around the world would recognise the building from a photo,” comments Rowlands.
He adds, “My highlights of working here are constant: they’re basically the challenges we have to meet and find solutions for all the time, because the arena was not designed for the size of shows we now have visiting. It’s all about problem solving – how can we make the next production work?”
“It’s up to us to ensure that Resorts World Arena remains as relevant in the next 40 years as it has in its first 40”
Those challenges will undoubtedly change when the venue goes through its next redevelopment stage, possibly as early as 2023, paving the way for a new generation of artists and state-of- the-art productions to herald the next 40 years of success at the arena.
Dunstan concludes, “There are members of the team who were not even born when the arena opened, so it makes me feel really old that the venue is now 40.
“There are a slew of new venues due to make their debut in the next few years – in Newcastle, Cardiff, and Manchester, for example – so it’s up to us that we put the work in to ensure that Resorts World Arena remains as relevant in the next 40 years as it has in its first 40.
Manchester Arena celebrates 25th year with virtual show
A virtual charity concert will be aired later this month to mark the 25th anniversary of the 21,000-capacity Manchester Arena, the largest indoor arena in the UK.
Taking place on Friday 17 July from 8 p.m., the pre-recorded event will feature Lionel Richie, Alice Cooper, Tim Burgess, Emeli Sandé and the Hoosiers, and will be broadcast across the arena’s social media channels to celebrate reaching the quarter-century milestone.
The event, which is organised in conjunction with Future Agency, will also raise money for local organisations including homeless shelter the Booth Centre, cancer treatment specialist the Christie and community-focused charity Forever Manchester, as well as music therapy charity Nordoff Robbins.
“Our 25th anniversary celebrations were set to be very special indeed”
Each charity will receive 25% of the money raised. Donations can be made here.
“Our 25th anniversary celebrations were set to be very special indeed,” says James Allen general manager of the ASM Global-operated arena.
“However during this period of pause, we have adapted the format to ensure that we can deliver an evening of top quality entertainment to your home, so everyone can enjoy the celebrations without leaving the house.”
Since opening in 1995, Manchester Arena has hosted acts including Beyonce, Chris Rock, U2, Kylie Minogue, Take That, Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson and The Rolling Stones.
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Homer’s Odyssey: The Steve Homer story so far
Spend more than a minute or two in the company of Steve Homer, the affable, talkative co-CEO of AEG Presents in the UK, and one thing becomes clear: the man loves live music. Thirty years after he promoted his first show, Homer’s enthusiasm for the live experience is as infectious as ever.
“He’s a music fan,” says other co-CEO Toby Leighton-Pope, Homer’s partner in crime for the best part of 20 years. “If he doesn’t have a show on, he’ll find one to go and see. We’ll go away to LA on a business trip for a week, and after two days of lunches and dinners he’ll take off and go and see a band – he’s left many a business meal or important meeting to go see a show.”
“My dad, he’s 80 now, and I remember him saying to me a few years ago, ‘You’re never going to get a proper job, are you?’” adds Homer. “And I said, ‘correct.’ He just sees it as my hobby, my passion – and it is.”
Perhaps it’s that love for the art form that’s been the key to Homer’s success over the past three decades. Or maybe it’s his well-deserved reputation as a “perfect gentleman,” in the words of agent Tobbe Lorentz, or his willingness to turn his hand to everything from the Darkness to Tinie Tempah, building lifelong relationships along the way.
Either way, like Odysseus – the hero of the poem by his 8th-century-BC namesake – Homer’s story is an epic one (albeit with more Dolly Parton and fewer shipwrecks). And it begins in a market town in the Black Country, sometime in the early 1960s…
“He’s a music fan. If he doesn’t have a show on, he’ll find one to go and see”
Big on campus
Born in Stourbridge in the West Midlands, Homer caught the live music bug at his first show: The Clash at Wolverhampton Civic Hall on 16 December 1978, just a few weeks after his 15th birthday. His first brush with the industry, meanwhile, came five years later, when he went to Leicester University to study physics with astronomy (later, sensibly, transferring to a combined studies degree).
Homer, like many of his peers, served on Leicester’s entertainment committee, and after graduating in 1986 went to work at Staffordshire’s Keele University, which was recruiting for a professional (ie non-student) entertainments manager. But it was at another university that he cut his promoting teeth.
“The University of Sheffield wanted someone to come in and shape their commercial services department,” he explains. “There were three venues there, as opposed to one at Keele. The idea was to make Sheffield one of the biggest-earning university campuses in the country.”
And Homer delivered. By the early ’90s Sheffield’s entertainment business was making well over £1 million (€1.1m) profit annually, while Homer and team were running more than 60 shows a year.
By the early ’90s Sheffield’s entertainment business was making well over £1m profit annually
The old school
As a university ents manager in the early 90s, Homer was in good company: other now-household names in similar roles at the time included Middlesex Polytechnic’s Geoff Ellis (DF Concerts); the University of Warwick’s Chris York and Manchester’s Rob Ballantine (both SJM); Newcastle University’s Daryl Robinson (AMG/Mama); and the University of London’s Paul Hutton (Metropolis/Crosstown Concerts).
It was also his first contact with many bookers he works with to this day, as X-ray agent Adam Saunders recalls: “Steve and I first worked together when he was at Keele University, and then following that at Sheffield. We built a great working relationship through those early years, and we carried on working closely together through his years at the Mean Fiddler, too.
“We both had some incredibly pivotal years with the Darkness and the huge success through the Permission to Land album touring campaign. Steve had by that point moved to SFX (as Live Nation then was) and a second run on that tour featured multiple nights in all the UK arenas. We even included a tour warm-up show in the ‘intimate’ Brixton Academy. Great times…”
As a university ents manager in the early 90s, Homer was in good company
Homer remained at Sheffield until 1998, by which time he’d “run [his] course” at the university amid an unwelcome evolution in his responsibilities.
“Sheffield was a great place for gigs, but I’d moved further and further in that time from booking shows to the running of the commercial services side: helping to make the bars turn over more money, working with security services, and so on, Homer says. “But my main desire was that I wanted to work on live music.”
Homer joined the Mean Fiddler Music Group, Vince Power’s venue and festival empire, that year, after having turned down a job at one of the company’s venues two years prior. “I’d previously spoken to Vince Power about a job that came up at the Clapham Grand [south London],” he continues. “But I had real security within Sheffield, and people like Paul Hutton and Simon Moran advised me against it because at that time it was so off the beaten track.
“But I left it on good terms with Vince, and I phoned him up in mid-98 to say I wanted to move to London and asked if there was anything at Mean Fiddler. I came down and he offered me the job of running Mean Fiddler’s touring department.”
“I remember my dad saying to me a few years ago, ‘You’re never going to get a proper job, are you?’ And I said, ‘correct’”
After an “okay but not great” start promoting around 30 shows that autumn, including long-time Power clients Dr John and Republica, Homer fast put his own stamp on Mean Fiddler, famously promoting early shows by Eminem and Queens of the Stone Age while imbuing its touring division with the focus on talent development that had characterised his career to date.
He also began to book acts for Mean Fiddler’s Homeland and Reading Festivals, working closely with current Festival Republic MD Melvin Benn, as well as artists including Kylie Minogue, Carl Cox and Moloko for the Renaissance club in Ibiza.
At Mean Fiddler, Homer says, he learnt for the first time “that it really matters which company you work for. […] Some agencies loved Mean Fiddler but many others didn’t. It was the first time in my career that I’d been seen as part of that corporate umbrella.”
Other high-profile Mean Fiddler-era signings included pop-punk band Bowling for Soup – who Homer saw at South by Southwest and brought over for Reading and the new Leeds Festival – and All Seeing I, the Sheffield supergroup featuring Jarvis Cocker and Phil Oakey who scored a hit in 1999 with ‘Walk Like a Panther’.
Homer’s tenure at Mean Fiddler lasted just two years, and he admits that he didn’t leave the company on “great terms” with Power, who had been “very supportive” of his career to that point and perhaps felt cheated when his rising star was lured away.
Focus Wales gears up for tenth anniversary
Welsh showcase festival Focus Wales has announced dates and released delegate passes for its upcoming tenth anniversary festival.
Taking place from 7 to 9 May in venues across Wrexham, North Wales, the festival will showcase acts from all over the world, alongside conference sessions, arts events and film screenings.
Focus Wales has released a limited number delegate passes at the super early bird rate of £80. Delegate passes give priority access to all live shows, panels and keynote talks, as well as to mixer events and the festival opening party.
Over 200 delegates attended the festival in 2019, with representatives from Glastonbury Festival, Eurosonic, Cambridge Folk Festival and BBC 6Music, among others.
“Focus Wales is a truly international affair”
Performer applications for Focus Wales 2020 are also now open to artists worldwide. The first 50 acts for 2020 will be selected in September, so artists are encouraged to submit applications early.
Over 240 acts performed at the 240 festival last year, including Neck Deep, Cate Le Bon and Boy Azooga.
“A truly international affair”, each year Focus Wales hosts a selection of dedicated international showcases. 2019 showcases included BreakOut West, Catalan Arts Music, Fira B!, Nova Scotia Music Week and WestSide Music Sweden.
Delegate passes can be purchased here.
Deutsche Courage: The rise and rise of CTS Eventim
From humble beginnings at the dawn of the Internet age, Klaus-Peter Schulenberg and team have grown CTS Eventim into a €4 billion live events powerhouse.
As the German company celebrates its 30th birthday, Eventim execs and partners describe the journey to the top, as well as what the future holds for Europe’s leading live music company, writes Jon Chapple…
If any one company can be said to have shaped the direction of the global concert industry over the past three decades, there’s a good argument to be made for CTS Eventim.
In the early 2000s, as Live Nation ancestors SFX Entertainment and then Clear Channel Entertainment gobbled up independent promoters across North America, a similar revolution was underway across the Atlantic, with CTS Eventim – under the stewardship of CEO Klaus-Peter Schulenberg – quietly building a live entertainment powerhouse from its base in Bremen, Germany.
As the first company in Europe to sell tickets online – and, perhaps most significantly, the first in the world to run a ticketing operation alongside a concert promotion division – Eventim under Schulenberg set the template for the modern, vertically integrated concert business prevalent in the 21st century.
Now, as the company enters the next stage of its evolution with pan- European promoter network Eventim Live, IQ examines the CTS story so far – and discovers what comes next…
Computer says yes
While many sources credit Schulenberg as CTS Eventim’s founder, the roots of the business lie in Computer Ticket Service (CTS), founded in 1989 by concert promoter Marcel Avram.
Avram, now president of European Concert Agency, was soon joined at the fledgling CTS by Matthias Hoffmann, of Mannheim’s Hoffmann Konzerte, and later by a third partner, Marek Lieberberg (with whom Avram had co-founded Mama Concerts in 1969).
“We, as promoters, can learn a lot from him. He started the same way as us, but he was cleverer”
Speaking to IQ, Avram says he has “huge respect for what Klaus has, over the years, made out of a small idea I had in the 90s when I created CTS.” The three partners, he explains, were unable to devote the time necessary to develop CTS – the 1990s saw Avram promoting world tours by the likes of Michael Jackson, Rod Stewart and Eros Ramazzotti – and Avram describes the company’s subsequent growth as CTS Eventim as a “huge achievement” by Schulenberg.
“I couldn’t have done it better,” he continues, “not just because of the time, but also because of Schulenberg’s know-how. He did a great job and I admire him for it.”
As CEO of CTS Eventim, Schulenberg, 67, now presides over a vertically integrated, publicly traded live entertainment powerhouse worth over €4bn by market capitalisation, and which turned over more than €1.2bn in 2018. But it all started – as these stories often do – with a “mediocre” high-school band…
The first indication that Klaus-Peter Schulenberg’s future lay in the music industry came as a 15-year-old student, when he assumed the role of booking agent for his band. “I made sure that our band had enough shows,” he remembers. “The other groups at school would come to me and say, ‘You’re so mediocre but you always have lots of gigs… can you do the same for us?’”
Schulenberg became an artist manager in 1971, discovering teen idol Bernd Clüver while studying economics at the University of Bremen. “He had a wonderful voice – very soft – and was very good looking,” recalls Schulenberg. “All the girls liked him.”
“The other groups at school would come to me and say, ‘You’re so mediocre, but you always have lots of gigs… can you do the same for us?’”
At the time, Schulenberg was 19 – then legally a minor – so his father signed the young singer on his behalf. Clüver’s hit ‘Der Junge mit der Mundharmonika’ (‘The Boy with the Harmonica’) sold more than two million copies, and the proceeds allowed Schulenberg to give up on his studies and reinvest them (“in a solid Hanseatic manner,” notes a 2003 Handelsblatt profile) in his own music company, KPS Concertbüro.
Somewhat unbelievably, KPS’s first concert wasn’t with a Bremen, or even a German, act – rather, the company’s maiden event was a 10,000-person show with bona fide rock’n’roll megastars the Rolling Stones, in partnership with Fritz Rau (the “Rau” in Lippmann + Rau). “That was the starting point for working together for the next 20 years,” says Schulenberg.
From concerts came touring exhibitions, radio stations and newspapers, including the popular Bremen free-sheet Weser Report, and by the early 1990s Schulenberg was looking seriously into the possibilities of a newfangled technology that would change dramatically the direction of his career: the internet.
“In those days, I went to interactive media conventions in the US, and by the 1990s I’d got to know the internet,” he recalls. “At that time, you had to buy tickets in an outlet store or on a busy phone line, which was not an enjoyable shopping experience. I saw the opportunity the internet presented for ticket sales – for consumers and also for the ticket agent, who could earn a service charge.”
“I saw the opportunity the internet presented for ticket sales – for both consumers and the ticket agent”
By 1996, and the dawn of the digital age, Schulenberg had his sights set on buying a ticketing company. “I could see that CTS wasn’t successful, and in 1996 I made them an offer and Marcel, Marek and Matthias finally accepted.”
Just the ticket
André Béchir, founder and CEO of Switzerland’s abc Production, echoes the sentiments of many Eventim executives and partners when he describes Schulenberg as a “visionary” – someone who, at an early stage, saw the potential both of selling tickets online and of bringing together ticketing with live entertainment (concerts, festivals, other live shows and venues) under one corporate umbrella.
“I first met him years ago, when we were both working as promoters,” says Béchir, who is full of praise both for Schulenberg’s personal character and his professional foresight. “He’s much cleverer than I am,” he says. “He concentrated on [digital] ticketing, as he saw that this was the platform of the future, and then he built up an extremely good infrastructure around it.”
“He’s a visionary,” Béchir continues. “We, as promoters, can learn a lot from him – because he started the same way as us, but he was cleverer.”
Cleverer, maybe – but digital ticketing was far from an overnight success, according to Schulenberg, who remembers an early on-sale when CTS spent two million Deutschmarks on marketing, but sold just 100 tickets.
Jan Smeets honoured for 50 years of Pinkpop
Pinkpop founder Jan Smeets has received a golden commemorative coin, embossed with the Pinkpop logo, from the Royal Dutch Mint to celebrate 50 years of the festival.
The Dutch festival celebrates its 50th edition this year, making it the oldest, continually running festival in the world. Festival founder Smeets received the jubilee coin, embossed with the festival logo and an image of the famous ‘Pinkpop Girl’. A total of 6,000 coins will be produced.
“For this 50th edition, I am honoured that the Royal Dutch Mint has immortalised the logo for everyone,” says Smeets.
Fleetwood Mac, Mumford and Sons and the Cure will headline the anniversary festival, with other performances from Dutch DJ Armin van Buuren, Jamiroquai, Bastille, Lenny Kravitz, the 1975 and J Balvin.
“For this 50th edition, I am honoured that the Royal Dutch Mint has immortalised the logo for everyone”
The first edition of Pinkpop took place on 1970 on Pentecost Monday in the Dutch city of Geleen. The festival has grown since its origins from a one-day event to a three-day, 60,000-capacity affair.
The image of the Pinkpop Girl has been present on the festival logo since early on and will dominate the aesthetics of the anniversary event.
Bert van Ravenswaaij, chief financial officer of the Royal Dutch Mint, comments: “It is special for the Royal Dutch Mint – virtually the oldest company in the Netherlands – to make a special anniversary issue for the oldest, still-running festival in the world. We are very proud of this.”
The 50th anniversary edition of Pinkpop takes place from 8 to 10 June on the Megaland festival site in Landgraaf, the Netherlands, tickets for the festival are now available. Fans can buy special anniversary Pinkpop medals here.
Woodstock 50 anniversary event announces line-up
Woodstock 50 Music and Arts Fair has announced the official line-up for it three-day 50th anniversary today, with headline performance from the Killers, Miley Cyrus, Santana, Dead and Company and Jay-Z.
More than 80 acts have been confirmed for the event, taking place from 16 to 18 August in Watkins Glen, New York.
Legacy acts, in addition to the original Woodstock 1969 icons Santana and Dead and Company, include Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters, David Crosby and Friends, John Fogerty, Canned Heat, Country Joe McDonald, John Sebastian and Melanie.
The Killers, Miley Cyrus and Santana head up the opening night, with Chance the Rapper and the Black Keys headlining on Saturday and Jay-Z, Imagine Dragons and Halsey closing the event on the Sunday night.
Other performances across the three-day event come from the Lumineers, Bishop Briggs, Greta van Fleet, Leon Bridges and Janelle Monáe.
“We’ve lined up artists who won’t just entertain but will remind the world that music has the power to bring people together, to heal, to move us to action and to tell the stories of a generation,” says Michael Lang, co-founder and producer of the 1969 and 2019 Woodstock festivals.
“Our hope is that today, just as in 1969, music will be the constant that can inspire positive change”
“Our hope is that today, just as in 1969, music will be the constant that can inspire positive change,” adds Lang.
Woodstock 50 has also confirmed some of its nonprofit cause partners, including environmental charity Conservation International, student-led anti-gun group March for our Lives and Chicago-based SocialWorks, which empowers youth through the arts, education and civic engagement.
In addition, Lang has announced that the festival will include curated neighbourhoods that celebrate unique experiences across all arts forms – including emerging talent, specialty food offerings, workshops and craft – as well as a dedicated “Kidstock” area.
A rival, Live Nation-backed festival, set to take place on the original Woodstock site in Bethel Woods over the same weekend is no longer going ahead in the same capacity. The Bethel Woods Centre for the Arts Woodstock anniversary event will take place as a scaled-back “Anniversary Week”, forming part of a six-month long Season of Song and Celebration.
Tickets for Woodstock 50 go on sale on Earth Day, April 22. Fans can subscribe to receive more information here.