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The Solutionist: Anna Sjölund’s 25 years in live

In November 2023, it was announced that Anna Sjölund was to leave Live Nation – where she’d spent her entire career until then – for ASM Global. In a move dubbed “seismic” by one exec, Sjölund swapped her widely regarded career as a promoter for a gig in the venue business. And while the latter is new territory for her, it’s a kind of homecoming for the European director.

The 45-year-old Swede has returned to her old stomping ground of Avicii Arena, where she cut her teeth (and broke her foot) as a production assistant in the earliest throes of her career. It was in the carpark of the arena, then known as Stockholm Globe, where she first met ASM’s SVP Operations Marie Lindqvist after their cars ran into each other.

Decades later, Sjölund is set to spend many more working hours at Avicii, now ASM Global’s Sweden office, with Lindqvist at the helm. “I’ve lived these venues, and I know the people very well… I’m having a full-circle moment,” says Sjölund.

High school dropout
Sjölund spent the lion’s share of her youth in Lund, a province at the southern tip of Sweden best known for its prestigious university. Ironically, this is where Sjölund’s education was put on the back burner when she got her “lucky break” in music. “When I was in the seventh grade, I slipped into a group of older kids and ended up taking part in this EU-funded youth project at Mejeriet, a venue in Lund,” she tells IQ.

“We put on events for young people, like parties, viewings of 90210, and concerts,” she remembers. “We took tickets at the entrance or cleaned or did the coat check. When I started working at the big gigs, I realised I didn’t want to do anything else, so I dropped out of school.”

Sjölund had been attending a sports school, where basketball was her focus – “I wasn’t very good, but I was pretty tenacious,” she admits. A leg injury sustained in her first year prompted her to spend more time at the club, before she quit school altogether.

“I never really went back after that,” she said. “I would cycle from the club every morning to the record store Folk & Rock where we sold tickets, count the stubs and report back. Then I’d do the same at the other resale shops in the city. That’s basically what I did for a year.”

“I would cycle from the club every morning to the record store Folk & Rock where we sold tickets, count the stubs and report back”

Not entirely done with education, Sjölund relocated to the US to take her senior year of high school, only to return to the club a year later with renewed ambition. “I started this little side company, and we worked as stagehands and riggers and crew for extra cash,” she says. “Some of those were EMA Telstar shows – Thomas Johansson’s company. When the Stockholm promoters had shows down south, they would call me and ask for crew. We would put together a group of friends and build the stage for them.”

Sjölund’s work then took her as a production assistant to Hultsfred Festival, where her path again crossed with staff from EMA. Soon after, EMA enlisted her for Tina Turner’s Twenty Four Seven tour in 2000 at Ullevi Stadium in Gothenburg. “I was 20 years old, and that was my first stadium show,” she says. “Seeing the audience on those shows was amazing, and I just loved working in a venue. I had so much fun [that] I woke up the night after the show with Elvis tattooed on my back.”

Sjölund went from strength to strength with EMA, and the firm offered her a three-month stint at the then Stockholm Globe, working under then head of operations Tor Nielsen. In addition to working on concerts, Sjölund had a hand in producing an NHL game – sparking her lifelong passion for ice hockey “I didn’t go outside for three months, and
I loved it,” she says. “I wore Harley Davidson boots every day and walked so much that I broke the bones in my foot. It was the kind of fracture that people in the military service get.”

Nielsen says that Sjölund made a strong impression from the get-go: “From day one, you could see there was something special with Anna. She was smarter than all the guys around her and with lots of energy and curiosity. From day two, you saw a coming leader in our business.”

“I thought my job was to go out there and beat up the promoter… I was so tough with settlements and riders”

EMA Telstar founder Thomas Johansson had a similar feeling: “I knew that she was going places because she was very determined to work, and she spent a lot of time getting it right… she’s very thorough at her job.” Unsurprisingly, EMA offered the wunderkind a full-time position, which Sjölund accepted, but first, she had to deliver on a promise she’d made.

A year earlier, Tobbe Lorentz, an agent and longtime friend of hers, was in need of a European tour manager for Norwegian rock band Gluecifer, and 21-year-old Sjölund agreed to step in, despite lacking any experience in that role. “She was hesitant at first, but I assured her it was an easy job,” says Lorentz, who now works at UTA. “What could possibly go wrong with these hi-fuelled garage rockers from Scandinavia in the early 2000s?” he laughs.

Gluecifer turned out to be the least of his worries. “I thought my job was to go out there and beat up the promoter,” laughs Sjölund. “I was so tough with settlements and riders. And then I learned that it’s about cooperation. It was a real learning experience.” Sjölund had spent five weeks on the road and though she was the only woman among 16 men, she loved the band so much that she agreed to a second tour with them, postponing her move to EMA. Ultimately, Sjölund says it was clear that tour managing was not for her.

“I always wanted to work as a promoter, though I didn’t necessarily know whether I would be a production person or promoter,” she says. “I love being a facilitator. I want to provide the best possible set of scenarios for the artists, for the audience, and for the staff. The thrilling thing is to help other people get their vision across from stage.”

That passion for producing was only reaffirmed upon her return to EMA Telstar: “After a month at the company, I decided I would never do anything else,” she says.

“Even in the early days, [Anna] came across as knowledgeable and well-informed about her market”

Promoter’s prerogative
After a handful of years working full-time at EMA Telstar as a production assistant and booking agent, Sjölund made the jump to promoter – but it wasn’t an easy bridge to gap at first.

“Nobody would pick up my calls,” she remembers. “I had a list of agencies, and I kept calling them.” Ever determined, the promoter’s perseverance was eventually noticed by the likes of John Giddings, Rob Markus, and Tony Goldring.

“It didn’t matter how late at night I called Anna; she would always pick up. Unlike us mortals, she didn’t seem to need sleep to function,” laughs Goldring, with whom Sjölund worked on concerts such as Rihanna’s first show in Sweden in 2008 and Alicia Keys headlining Way Out West.

“Even in the early days, she came across as knowledgeable and well-informed about her market. When there were issues, we always found solutions together, and when I needed
more money, which was always, she tried to help but was clear when she couldn’t.”

A quick glance at the testimonials accompanying this feature will tell you that Sjölund is renowned for such problem-solving skills – and she’s the first to admit she’s “at her best” when there’s a crisis – but it’s something she’s learned the hard way.

“I’ve made numerous fuck-ups,” she laughs.“Very early in my career, I once forgot to book a venue for a confirmed show, which was bad when it was announced. It was a shock to everybody, especially since the date wasn’t available.

“Sometimes you make the wrong call or miss something, that’s the nature of the business”

“I also misjudged one of my first arena shows,” she continues. “I loved the band so much, I thought it was going to be a hit, but I only sold about a third of the venue, and we lost a fortune. I’ll never forget the feeling of losing money for the company or seeing those empty chairs. I didn’t sleep for weeks.”

But these days, Sjölund is matter of fact about mistakes and says she rarely gets upset. “Sometimes you make the wrong call or miss something, that’s the nature of the business,” she says. “You’ve just got to figure it out and solve the problem. Owning your mistakes and trying to learn from them and not repeat them is a part of this. Tony [Goldring] once said that we’re judged on how well we solve problems, and I’ve always thought about that.”

The Prague years
After a decade of working as a promoter at EMA (which by then had become Live Nation Sweden), Sjölund decided to take advantage of the firm’s international footprint and accepted a job as vice president of operations Central and Eastern Europe for Live Nation.

“It was a huge step up… I had no clue what I was doing,” she laughs. “I was 32, a female in a very male-dominated business, and I had moved to a country where I didn’t speak the language.That experience taught me how to be humble. I was very excited about doing everything and wanted to come in and change things, but there are cultural considerations. Every European market is different, and I didn’t realise that until I came to Prague.”

Though the secondment was challenging, Sjölund speaks fondly of her time in Prague, where she made “friends for life” and oversaw some of her most “challenging and fun” shows, including Madonna and U2 in Istanbul, Lady Gaga in Budapest, and Depeche Mode in Prague.

“I also did a lot of special projects like Linkin Park next to the Red Square in Moscow, which was an MTV-broadcasted show for the premiere of Transformers 3,” she muses.

“If you get asked to be the MD of a company you worked for since you were 20, you’re going to say yes”

“Doing a show like that in Russia, at that time, and with a movie premiere connected, was crazy. Plus, my daughter was ten days old, and I was gone for a week.” The VP also spent months in Baku, working on concerts connected to the UEFA’s Young Women’s Championship and the Formula 1 Grand Prix. And though the country’s live music market was relatively underdeveloped at the time, she worked on concerts with the likes of Rihanna, Jennifer Lopez, and Shakira in the Azerbaijan capital.

“She put Mariah Carey on at the Grand Prix one year and Pharrell Williams the next, providing ‘internal transport’ – as requested on the rider – in the form of a sunseeker… Respect!” says John Giddings, Solo.

Sjölund adds: “It was incredibly interesting to do big shows in a market where there had been no big shows like that. We had to start from scratch. I’ve always liked working in other markets. I’ve always wanted to learn more – that’s what excites me; new things and challenges.”

A corporate detour
But there was one challenge Sjölund didn’t enjoy. In November 2017, Thomas Johansson enticed the Swede with a job as co-managing director at Live Nation Sweden – the most senior position of her career until that point.

“If you get asked to be the MD of a company you worked for since you were 20, you’re going to say yes,” she says. But climbing the corporate ladder was never on the promoter’s agenda, and the role took her away from doing what she loved the most.

“It turned out it just wasn’t for me,” she says. “I had too much to do with running corporate stuff and didn’t have time to do what I love – being a promoter. There’s no time for both. I want to work with the creative and the content; I realised that’s the part I felt passionate about.”

“Being a woman is a challenge that I felt many times”

Becoming the co-managing director of the Swedish branch of a multinational company at the ripe age of 38 is impressive by anyone’s standards but even more so for a queer woman in a notoriously male-dominated industry.

“Being a woman is a challenge that I felt many times,” she says. “I don’t know how many times people have told me to ‘focus on my family’ – nobody ever tells a man that.” Sjölund hastens to add that fortunately many of the men she has worked closely with, such as Thomas Johansson and Tor Nielsen, have been “fantastic” champions and lifelong friends, but admits that there were “countless times where the boys’ club has been annoying to handle.”

Having spent the majority of her career as “the only woman in certain rooms,” Sjölund says gender equality in the industry has come a long way but that there’s still more work to be done.

“If you compare now to 15 years ago, it’s fantastic,” she says. “You’ve got amazing women like Emma Banks, Lucy Dickins, Kim Bloem, and Kelly Chappel ruling the business, but I wish there were more of us. It’s unbelievable to me that we don’t manage to bring more women into senior positions.

“The people responsible for the lack of women in high positions are the men who never leave those high positions. Everybody needs to move around a little to create new opportunities… you’ve gotta make room for the Kim Bloems!” she says.

While her experience as a woman in the industry has, at times, been rocky, she says her sexuality has “never been questioned.” In fact, Sjölund recounts Live Nation adjusting its employee benefits so she and her partner could start their family.

“Lolla Stockholm will always be our baby”

“The wait time for two women to have assisted insemination in Sweden was two to three years, simply because there were not enough donors,” she explains. “But we didn’t want to wait to start our family, so we decided to go private, and you could only do that in Denmark. That wasn’t included in Live Nation’s benefits and when I mentioned that, it was immediately adjusted so we could get the same type of support as any other couple that needed additional help to start their family. I don’t think I’ve ever been so proud of an employer.”

Home is where the heart is
Ensuring Sweden remains attractive as a market keeps Sjölund awake at night. Throughout her career, she has been a fierce advocate for her home country and its value to the international live music industry.

“It’s a unique market,” she says proudly. “If you look per capita, Sweden is a pretty small country, but if you go to a festival anywhere in the world, you’ll likely see Swedish artists on stage, and you’ll definitely hear songs played by headliners that are written by Swedish songwriters and producers. Plus, we have a great set of venues, Spotify is Swedish. It’s sort of a music centre.”

It was that kind of impassioned pitch that saw the exec bring US festival brand Lollapalooza to Stockholm in 2019 – one of her proudest achievements. “It was my dream to do that, and I could not have done that without the team headed up by Frida Riklund,” she says. “Lolla Stockholm will always be our baby. It was the first time we had something like that in the centre of Stockholm – at least on that scale.

“Plus, I loved seeing the approach C3 Presents take with festivals and combining that with the European approach to promoting.”

A major source of Sjölund’s pride with Lollapalooza Stockholm was creating an event for all ages – an impressive feat in a country where the age limit is 13 due to sound limits. “We worked with the authorities to find a way to let kids of all ages attend with their parents,” she explained.

“The vibe that created – seeing people of all ages having fun – was something I hadn’t seen before in Stockholm. I loved seeing my kids [Magda and Holly] in Kidspalooza playing around, and then going to watch Billie Eilish, who exploded that year.

“I bought sheep… I had to keep myself busy, so I looked after them and learned to cut them”

“I think it’s really important for the growth of the business to get people enjoying festivals and concerts early. And due to Covid, there’s a whole generation of people that missed a few years there. So I think it’s even more important that you get that opportunity.”

Sjölund is equally proud of developing the relationship between Sweden and the National Hockey League (NHL) – a project she worked on from her first days at Live Nation to her last.

“Sweden has the third most players in the NHL after Canada and the US – that’s pretty cool, being such a small market. Working with the NHL has been a real high point of my career.”

Coping mechanisms
The high of launching Lollapalooza Stockholm was abruptly followed by a low – the pandemic. “Can you believe how unlucky it is to work on a project for so long, launch it, and then the pandemic comes?” says Sjölund, who latched onto some weird and wonderful distraction techniques.

“I bought sheep,” she says. “I had to keep myself busy, so I looked after them and learned to cut them. It was a little bit impulsive,” she admits. “I didn’t think about the fact that not every summer would be like a Covid summer, so I had to restructure a little bit after that.”

When she wasn’t shearing sheep, Sjölund was putting her energy into teaching the Swedish government about the music industry and its value to society, alongside ASM’s Marie Lindqvist.

“There is always an itch in me… I was at the point in my career where I was thinking should I do something else?”

“I think we both found a way of channeling our passion for this industry into something constructive during these miserable years,” says Lindqvist. “Anna turned out to be a natural
talent in lobbying; she could probably also go into politics if she wanted. Very passionate, informed, and convincing!”

The pair regularly met up to walk and talk during that period, forming a strong relationship based on shared values in work and in life. “We share a view about events and about taking care of everyone involved – the audiences, promoters, and artists,” adds Sjölund. A few years down the line and it was that shared vision – plus good timing – that ultimately prompted Sjölund to leave the company she’d spent 25 years at.

“As ASM Global grew in Sweden with more venues and expanded into Finland, it needed someone that could head up the programming team and help us to develop our strategies and content in the growing portfolio of venues in Europe,” says Lindqvist. “I think the stars were aligned, I picked up the phone, pitched the role, and luckily it turned out to be the right time and place for Anna.”

Sjölund adds: “There is always an itch in me… I was at the point in my career where I was thinking should I do something else? There was no reason for me to be a promoter anywhere else – I had an incredible ride at Live Nation, and I’m so grateful for all the folks there and the great opportunities I’ve had. It was time for a new challenge.”

“I’m really excited to see what I can bring to the venue business”

A new chapter
If there’s one thing Sjölund’s colleagues, old and new, can agree on, it’s that she’s going to take the venue business by storm. “I think it’s going to be very good for the venues,” says Johansson. “I think the biggest advantage she has is that she’s been a promoter for 24 years. She knows the problems we have, whereas a lot of venue people have no idea what it is to be a promoter.”

“In the ASM office, we joke that I’m the promoter interpreter,” adds Sjölund. “I think it’s exciting to go from one part of the business to the other. In the end, we all want the same thing – to put on a great show.”

While she admits it’s sometimes still strange to be on the other side of the business, she is also fully embracing the change of scenery. “There’s more room for being long-term and strategic, whereas promoters have to solve problems right now.”

Though there are fewer late-night crisis calls, there are still plenty of urgent problems that need solving… “Avails, avails, avails – that’s the biggest issue,” she laughs. “I want to create more days in certain months. In some of our arenas we have a lot of sports, so there’s a juggle to accommodate home teams and all the artists that want to come and play.”

As she looks to the next phase of her career, Sjölund’s ambitions in the venue business are far from small: “I’m really excited to see what I can bring to the venue business. I want to see more great sports in our arenas, and I’m excited to work with both small venues and big venues, and all the opportunities that brings for new types of content – the sky is the limit. I want every promoter, artist, and fan to leave our venues feeling like they have had a great experience – that’s what I take pride in.”

 


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Moby announces first European tour in a decade

Moby has announced his first European tour in over 10 years to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his fifth album Play – one of the best-selling electronic albums – of all time.

Released in 1999, the seminal album contains songs such as “Porcelain”, “Natural Blues” and “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?” and has sold over 12 million copies worldwide.

The anniversary tour will take place this September, kicking off with a performance at The O2 in London before visiting European cities including Antwerp, Berlin, Düsseldorf and Paris.

“It’s been over 10 years since I’ve toured but someone reminded me that 2024 is the 25th anniversary of the release of ‘Play’, so it seemed like it might not be the worst idea to do a short European tour to commemorate and celebrate,” said Moby.

“What makes the tour most exciting for me is that I won’t be paid anything; 100% of my profits will go to European animal rights organisations”

“The show will feature well-known songs from Play, but also a bunch of audience favourites, like ‘Extreme Ways’, ‘We Are All Made Of Stars’, ‘When It’s Cold I’d Like to Die’, and even some old rave bangers like ‘Feeling So Real’ and ‘Go’.”

The American DJ and musician added: “What makes the tour most exciting for me is that I won’t be paid anything; 100% of my profits will go to European animal rights organisations.”

Moby has also announced that his new collaborative album Always Centred At Night – featuring the late Benjamin Zephaniah, Serpentwithfeet and Gaidaa among others – will be released on 14 June.

Moby’s 2024 UK and European tour dates are:

SEPTEMBER
19 – The O2, London, England
21 – Sportpaleis, Antwerp, Belgium
22 – Velodrome, Berlin, Germany
23 – Mitsubishi Electric Hall, Düsseldorf, Germany
24 – Le Zenith, Paris, France

 


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The Deutsche entertainer: Peter Schwenkow

As Deutsche Entertainment AG eyes yet another record year, its founder and CEO, Peter Schwenkow, is celebrating some personal milestones of his own: 50 years in business and the small matter of his 70th birthday on 23 March. Gordon Masson learns about Schwenkow’s path to the top and his future ambitions for DEAG…

Blessed with an innate entrepreneurial spirit, thankfully it has been the live music industry that has mostly benefitted from Peter Schwenkow’s eye for a deal over the last five decades.

Indeed, his very first business, as a teenager, revolved around music. “When I was 12 or 13, I started to play the guitar,” he tells IQ. “I learned the Beatles songbook by heart, and I discovered that other people wanted to do the same, so when I was 16, I started teaching others. That was only successful to a certain point because after a couple of years, they could play better than I could. So I found out early that I was a good teacher and a good motivator but not the best musician.”

Nevertheless, Schwenkow was earning a significant chunk of money, enabling him to buy his first car, aged 18. “I had eight to ten students a week, paying me ten Deutsche Marks (DM) – so maybe €100 net, these days.”

Being able to afford his own transportation soon kick-started another business idea – this time more in line with his father who ran a large Citroen and Mitsubishi dealership. “I bought old cars, refurbished them, and sold them for twice the price,” says Schwenkow. “One guy who was working for Karsten Jahnke bought one of my cars, and before I knew it, they offered me a job as a driver for the company because Karsten’s company was (and still is) based in my hometown of Hamburg.

“And so, 50 years ago, my first job for Karsten Jahnke was to bring Deep Purple to the Easter Rock Meeting.”

It was not the easiest introduction to live music. “There was a curfew, and they had to stop the show, which made people really angry when we were leaving the venue – they were running over my car, shouting at the band that they should have played for longer. It was a bit of a catastrophe, but I didn’t get nervous. And for a few months, besides school, I was driving artists for Karsten, at the age of 20.”

“I did everything from picking up the phone, filling out money transfer certificates, and putting the posters into envelopes to send to the box offices”

That casual work turned into something more concrete once Schwenkow finished school, when he was offered a full-time position at Karsten Jahnke Konzertdirektion. “I did everything from picking up the phone, filling out money transfer certificates, and putting the posters into envelopes to send to the box offices. This was long before Ticketmaster, Eventim, or others started, when we had to distribute tickets physically. But it allowed me to learn everything from scratch.

“It was all good training because later, whenever somebody was working for me, I knew how to do every part of the job and could help them learn.”

Schwenkow’s next step in the music business was with legendary promoter Fritz Rau, of Lippmann & Rau, for whom he toured with bands for about a year before relocating to Berlin – at that time a very different, isolated city, located behind the Iron Curtain.

“Fritz taught me to always make sure that the artists felt comfortable,” he reports. “You made sure that they all had their hotel rooms. And you also had the responsibility to count the tickets that came back, so if you had a capacity of 5,000 and only 3,000 tickets sold, you had to physically count the unsold 2,000 tickets to make sure everything balanced.”

Schwenkow looks back on those early days as some of the most interesting of his life. “I worked for an artist called Hanns Dieter Hüsch. Nobody knows him outside Germany, but he is still remembered fondly here. He toured with a big Hammond organ, and I was driving a Mercedes Benz 180 from 1958, which had a huge trunk, which the Hammond organ would fit in, so Hanns Dieter would sit alongside me and chat for hours and hours between cities, discussing politics or whatever. I loved the guy, because his brain was so sharp.

“In fact, it was because of him that I decided to make a career in the entertainment business. In my family, you could either become a doctor or a lawyer, but when I discovered you could meet people like Hanns Dieter Hüsch, this was the business I wanted to be in. Mind you, I never met anyone like him again. But it was through him that I ended up in Berlin. And then I met a girl and decided to move to the city for university, where I studied advertising and marketing.”

“When I discovered you could meet people like Hanns Dieter Hüsch, this was the business I wanted to be in”

Walled In
Determined to also keep building his live music credentials, Schwenkow ingratiated himself with local promoter Wolfgang Jänicke. “He had a kind of monopoly as he was the only promoter in Berlin, which was a very interesting city: 1.8 million inhabitants surrounded by a wall, so a closed market. When I started working for him, I made sure I was the first one there in the morning, at 6am, in the venue. I made sure that there were enough drinks and food for everyone because there were no catering companies in those days – I had to buy some bread, some ham, some butter. And I also made sure I was the last one to leave at two o’clock in the morning, after the show.

“I also had to make sure that they had the correct amount of electricity, so my second job was as a technical director. And I also took on the PR job, too.”

Enjoying learning as much as he could about the workings of the concert business, Schwenkow was living hand-to-mouth because of the working conditions instituted by his employer.

“I was working from home because Wolfgang Jänicke had a very small office. He paid me 1,000 DM, but my costs for the car and driving here and there were about 600 DM per month,” he recalls. “My apartment only cost me 95 DM a month but using the phone cost a lot – 23 pfennigs per call – so if I had to call ten journalists, this would quickly be a lot of money because I couldn’t reimburse the costs.

“Then, after two years, in spring 1978, he moved into a huge new office, but when I visited, it only had one desk, so when I asked, ‘where’s my desk?’ and he said we’d need to discuss this, I knew he had been cheating me. But I was not mad at him because I had learned everything: I knew how to promote, I knew how to set it up, I knew how to do the PR, etc, etc.”

“We invented the phone ticket service,” he says. “If you would send us the money, via cheque or postal order, we would send you the tickets”

Schwenkow had also perfected the complex logistics of bringing international artists into West Berlin – a tricky task given the city’s location behind the Iron Curtain. “The rich and famous would fly – you could only use Air France, Pan American, or British Airways. But most acts came in by car,” he explains. “It was quite a complicated ride because it took two or three hours at the border to get into the GDR on the autobahn. And if you’d been in Hamburg or Hanover, the truck with the backline might take seven or eight hours, maybe as long as ten. Berlin was a desert.”

But Schwenkow had also seen an oasis of opportunities during his time in the city. “In those days, as a fan, if you tried to find out whether there were still tickets available for a concert, you would call the promoter, to be told ‘call the box office.’ If people called the box office, they would say you had to visit the outlet. There was no service quality at all, and it was a marathon for fans to find out if there were still tickets available and how much they cost.”

Teaming up with another Lippmann & Rau colleague, Jochen Zanke, on 15 June 1978, Schwenkow launched Concert Concept and immediately tried to improve the ticketing situation for artists and fans alike. “We invented the phone ticket service,” he says. “You could call us, we would tell you what the price is, and we would tell you if there were still tickets available. If you would send us the money, via cheque or postal order, we would send you the tickets.”

It was revolutionary.

“Till this day, my focus has always been on the customer. So making it easier for the customer to get their ticket seemed a sensible first step, and it made us pretty much successful from the very beginning because our old, lazy competitor didn’t even pick up the phone.”

“Our first concert was Frank Zappa, Peter Gabriel, and The Flamin’ Groovies on 7 September 1978”

However, the new company’s first-ever show nearly turned out to be the last…

“Our first concert was Frank Zappa, Peter Gabriel, and The Flamin’ Groovies on 7 September 1978. It rained cats and dogs every day for three weeks, and we had to move the concert. But instead of selling the 15,000-18,000 tickets we expected, we sold only 1,000 tickets, and we were in partnership with Lippmann & Rau on an 80/20 deal.

“The capital of our company was 20,000 DM. And that first show, our share of the loss was 20,000 DM. After the show, Fritz Rau invited us for a very, very late-night dinner at the one restaurant in Berlin that was open 24 hours a day, The Turtle. We expected the worst, but Fritz said, ‘Listen, guys, I know you don’t feel very good at the moment. But I will tell you two things: one, in a market that had only one promoter, we are now in a market with two promoters. So you became famous within a few months with the first show. And the second point is, you don’t have to pay your share of the losses now. I will give you many concerts, and 50% of what you make can repay the loan and the other 50% you can keep.’

“It was a very good deal because we were young – I was 24 – we were hungry, and we worked 20 hours a day. Within 18 months, we had repaid the loan from Lippmann & Rau, we had the phone tickets service, and then, all of a sudden, the Berlin market exploded, and we were the biggest promoter in the city.”

Midweek Music
Growing exponentially, in 1981, Schwenkow pulled a masterstroke. “I did my first season at Berlin Waldbühne, and although we lost a fortune because of low attendance, we could see that the concept was a winner.”

“By 1983 or ’84, we had Stevie Wonder and Elton John, and for the very first time, the Waldbühne sold out and was on the European tour map”

Placing a roof over the stage at the outdoor venue, Concert Concept was able to offer artists such as The Who, AC/DC, the Rolling Stones, Simon Garfunkel, and many others, a weekday show for an audience of up to 20,000 people.

“The acts that played festivals could only play on a weekend because they needed the audience to come from 200, 300, 400 kilometres [away]. But in Berlin, there was 24-hour public transport. So, if an act played a weekend in Munich, and their next weekend was Copenhagen, I could offer a 20,000-capacity between those dates,” says Schwenkow explaining his strategy. “In the first years, the Waldbühne always played Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. My offer was ‘When you travel from Munich to Copenhagen, stop by in Berlin. I have the infrastructure, I have a roof, I have sound, I have lights, I have power.’ It took a good two or three years, but by 1983 or ’84, we had Stevie Wonder and Elton John, and for the very first time, the Waldbühne sold out and was on the European tour map. And after that, we had 25 amazing years.”

Expansion
Loving the unique environment that allowed Concert Concept to flourish, Schwenkow’s ambitions were not to be confined to just one city.

“We had several companies,” he notes. “But because I was the local promoter in Berlin, I was dependent on other promoters to deliver the artists, so I could not compete as a touring promoter against them because then they wouldn’t give me their acts. As a result, in 1983, we had a second business set up to produce our own shows.”

That operation leant heavily, initially, on big-name magicians, as well as some other specialised content: “I promoted a fire theatre here in Berlin, with 400,000 people that showed up for fireworks, and we also started to do city marketing. Berlin wanted more tourists, for instance, and so did Hamburg, so we created the Berlin Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1984 and the Hamburg Summer in ’85.”

“We went into our own production and our own shows because we thought that owning the show was much better than just promoting for somebody else”

The company’s ticketing innovation had already involved a leap of faith, as the two Concert Concept founders had to employ staff to answer phones and fulfil ticketing orders. But they needed to widen the net. “It was getting bigger and bigger and better,” says Schwenkow. “So, we opened an office in Hamburg, where we promoted Michael Jackson and then Pink Floyd and that kind of stuff. But more and more, we went into our own production and our own shows because we thought that owning the show was much better than just promoting for somebody else.”

Indeed, it would take Schwenkow overseas. “Producing our own shows opened lots of doors – I did many shows with André Heller in New York, for instance,” he says.

Philosophical Growth
With a growing portfolio of interests, Schwenkow and Zanke created Deutsche Entertainment AG (DEAG) as a holding company to oversee the different sectors of group business.

In 2024, those entities now include stakes in 25 live touring companies and 17 operations in its entertainment services division. Those companies are based across 22 locations in DEAG’s core markets of Germany, Great Britain, Switzerland, Ireland, and Denmark, while the company also recently launched its first JV in Spain.

“When we buy into, let’s say, a promoter in a country, most these days are still rock and roll promoters and wear their leather jacket all day long,” observes Schwenkow. ‘What we tell them is, ‘Listen, you can still be a rock and roll promoter, you can wear your leather jacket, you have your triple-A golden backstage pass, you have your parking spot next to the backstage entrance door, you can put your name on the poster. But please, why don’t you wear a suit in the morning and visit the director of your local botanical garden and tell them you want to do a light trail. And then, in the afternoon, you can change and put on your leather jacket again.’

“What they find out is that on the light trail, they can make twice as much money as on a concert, and everybody is happy that you are there: nobody will be yelling at you because there is one bottle of whiskey and ten towels missing.”

“We don’t do takeover deals; we go into partnership. It’s a matter of respect”

He continues, “If you can promote a concert, you can promote everything – you can promote an exhibition, a light trail, spoken word, you can promote jazz, rock, pop, you can promote everything. The proposition is that we will bring our product to you, and before you know it, your company will be worth twice or three times as much as when we first partnered.

“So, very simply, DEAG’s partnership deal usually means taking a 50% stake in your company, but we will make sure that in two or three years’ time, your remaining 50% stake will have the same value as 100% does now. That’s our M&A proposition.”

It’s a successful philosophy. “We have more demand for partnership than we can handle,” states Schwenkow. “We don’t do takeover deals; we go into partnership. It’s a matter of respect.

“We still have 75% of our revenues coming from rock and pop. But I would say more than half of our profits are coming from the other segments, which means that they are twice as profitable.”

Word Up
One of DEAG’s biggest emerging sectors is spoken word events.

“Three years ago, our spoken word revenues were zero. This year, they are €30m. Maybe next year, they go to €45m”

“Last year, we bought lit.COLOGNE, and we are projected to bring in €30m in revenues from events like Nigella Lawson’s American tour to Quentin Tarantino in front of 7,000 people telling them how to make a movie. This is a totally new segment that we love,” beams Schwenkow, noting that spoken word events are the fastest growing part of the DEAG portfolio.

“Three years ago, our spoken word revenues were zero. This year, they are €30m. Maybe next year, they go to €45m,” he adds. “Stuart Galbraith’s vision to partner with Alex Fane has been the catalyst for this new business sector.”

Among the company’s spoken word successes from 2023 were events by Fane in the UK featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Hanks, and Emma Dabiri, while the lit.COLOGNE gathering included talks with Daniel Kehlmann, Ian McEwan, Frank Schätzing, and David Sedaris.

In the coming months, Fane will be organising events for the likes of Bernie Sanders, Candice Braithwaite & Coco Sarel, Elizabeth Day, Nigella Lawson, and Gabor Maté. And the literature festival in Colohgne will welcome Saša Stanišić, Bernardine Evaristo, Han Kang, Didier Eribon, and Zeruya Shalev among many others.

Going Public
While many pioneers in live entertainment reach their 50th anniversary landmark, Peter Schwenkow has done so with a flourish, notching a number of industry firsts along the way – not the least of which was DEAG’s stock market flotation.

“We were the first company to go public. It was the 14 September 1998, and we were number 36 on the so-called new market in those days”

“We were the first company to go public,” states Schwenkow. “It was the 14 September 1998, and we were number 36 on the so-called new market in those days.”

Despite reversing out of that public flotation during the pandemic, he has no regrets. “It went pretty well. But it was an education process: people said, ‘Okay, you have the Rolling Stones next year. But what is after that?’ When we said that we don’t know yet, we can only tell you that the market is driven by demand, then it was about teaching people about the nature of live entertainment.

“But we were the first ones who opened our books and showed the transparency of our business, long before SFX or Live Nation or Eventim and the others. I loved it because I believed that this business could become an industry and become bigger and bigger and bigger. Because in the 60s, when the Beatles played live, the target group was 16 to 23. Ten years later, the target group was 16 to 33. Another ten years, it was 14 to 43, and these days, it’s six to 96.”

DEAG delisted in January 2021 in the wake of the pandemic, after accepting a takeover offer from its largest single shareholder, Apeiron Investment Group, and its Malta-based subsidiary, Musai Capital. However, the company recently revealed its intention to return to the Frankfurt Stock Exchange once it has completed a planned series of acquisitions.

Savvy Policy
That deal to make DEAG a private entity once again had much to do with the difficult trading period caused by the coronavirus pandemic. But once again, while most of the live entertainment sector struggled during the Covid lockdowns, DEAG and its employees found themselves in a fortunate situation, with its losses covered by insurance.

“When the pandemic happened, we were fully covered for coronavirus. All thanks to Leonard Bernstein”

While many may have looked enviously at DEAG during that two-year shutdown, the reason behind the far-ranging policy was 30 years in the making and owed everything to the maestro himself, Leonard Bernstein.

Schwenkow explains. “My first big case with an insurance company was in 1990 when I had a European tour with Leonard Bernstein, and I had already paid the air charter company for the use of a 737 aircraft when Lenny died.

“The insurance company had a loss adjuster who said, ‘I think Mr. Bernstein had a pre-existing illness’ and they refused to pay, leaving me facing a 1.3m DM black hole, which would have been a killer. But my partner, Harry Kraut, who was Lenny’s manager, told me not to worry because he would make sure the insurance company paid me.

“It turned out that the New York hospital Lenny was in had been visited by these guys working for the loss adjuster, and they stole some of his medical records. So, Harry sued the insurance company for $50m. And, of course, they settled with me. Harry didn’t take them to court, and I got my money – we settled at 1.1m DM.

“But since that happened, I read every single line of an insurance contract. So, in 2018 when I read our new contract that listed 25 to 30 specific diseases, I asked ‘What happens if there’s a disease that is not on your list?’ They said I would not be insured. So I asked if I could be insured for diseases that were not on the list, and they said yes but it would cost, I think, 22% more. I took the deal. It was a three-year contract, but when the pandemic happened, we were fully covered for coronavirus. All thanks to Leonard Bernstein.”

“In the last 50 years, I have seen three or four economic recessions that very often come together with mental recession”

The unprecedented nature of the pandemic also saw Schwenkow leaning heavily on his knowledge as a former politician, placing him at the forefront of efforts to secure governmental support for the German live entertainment industry during the Covid situation. “I used my political contacts to make sure that we got subsidies. And the most support we got across the company was in Germany, which was satisfying.”

He adds, “Of our 400 employees, during Covid, only about 10% left, and we were able to pay everyone full money. It cost us a fortune, but we see everyone at the company as family, so it was a very good investment because when we were back, we were back with full 100% service.”

While the prolonged nature of the pandemic had peers around the world scrambling for solutions, Schwenkow believes that the recession that many countries now find themselves facing offers those in the live entertainment sector with opportunities for growth.

“In the last 50 years, I have seen three or four economic recessions that very often come together with mental recession,” he tells IQ. “When the future is not that bright and the sky is not that blue, the husband says to his wife, ‘Honey, let’s stay in this apartment. We’re not gonna buy a house. But here are two tickets for Elton John.’

“On the flip side, someone who decides to make that investment for the new house is a lost customer to us for many, many years. But at the moment, those people are more the exception than the rule, I believe.”

“In terms of territories, the plan is to be in ten European markets – and we are currently in six: Germany, Switzerland, UK, Ireland, Denmark, and Spain”

He continues, “What we have at the moment is, I think, three things. Number one, it’s the recession spirit. [Number two,] people are angry with the bad politicians. They are mad about Brexit mistakes. They are furious about the German politicians that can’t get the budget right and a chancellor who can’t explain himself, because he thinks we are all idiots. And [thirdly,] they’re also frustrated about Ukraine and Israel. It’s both an economic recession and a mental recession. And to be honest, if you spend half of your day in front of a screen, you want to see real people, and I’ve always believed that live entertainment is the Parship [dating agency] of our days. And that’s also a reason all the financial investors are recognising live entertainment as the hot sector.”

Strategy 100
In addition to an imminent stock market return, Schwenkow and his colleagues are anticipating the busiest year in DEAG’s history as they work toward fulfilling something known internally at the company as Project 100.

“The 100 strategy gets its name from the goal that we want to offer ten different products in ten different countries,” Schwenkow tells IQ. “Our products are rock and pop; electronic dance music; classic and jazz; arts and exhibitions; family entertainment; public and B2B services; spoken word; public/private partnerships; festivals; and ticketing.

“In terms of territories, the plan is to be in ten European markets – and we are currently in six: Germany, Switzerland, UK, Ireland, Denmark, and Spain. We’re hoping to launch in the missing four territories within the next 18 months. That will allow us to approach artists with deals where we can take them to ten key European markets.”

While Schwenkow remains tight-lipped on the target territories for DEAG, he is confident that the potential partners he is in conversation with will soon be adding to the group’s bottom line.

“There is a reason why we are so successful with our acquisitions,” he states. “Although we have about 450 employees, we still try to operate in a family spirit, and we always try to support and be transparent. We reward people if they help their colleagues, while other companies seem to reward people if they make their colleagues struggle.”

“If you join this company, you can become almost anything – you can even get my job in ten or 20 years. It’s an entrepreneurial spirit”

He adds, “We have a saying in Germany that I don’t have to be Mr. Smith everywhere. I can be Mr. Smith, but I don’t need a golden triple-A backstage pass. Because if this happens, then everybody wants to speak to me. But I want them to speak to Oliver Hoppe or whoever the relevant person is. If DEAG people make wrong decisions, then they make wrong decisions. I do it every day. But the structure here is that if you join this company, you can become almost anything – you can even get my job in ten or 20 years. It’s an entrepreneurial spirit.”

Succession
Having built DEAG from a two-person operation to a stock market-listed entity with more than 600 employees – and more to join in the coming months – Schwenkow is acutely aware that having a plan ready to cover all eventualities is important.

“If lightning strikes me on the golf course, then Detlef Kornett will take over – that’s the reason we appointed him as co-CEO,” he says. “But we also have five, six, seven people that the company relies on to run efficiently, so I’m confident that DEAG is in very safe hands. In the end, it‘s all about the team

“I have a responsibility, not only for the people that are working for DEAG and for the artists that trust in us, but also to the shareholders that invest their money. We’ve all worked hard to make sure that we have an organisation with a set-up that will always allow you to lose people – even if it’s yourself.”

With wife Inga travelling extensively through her work as as journalist for Die Welt, it will be a rare occasion when the entire family gathers under one roof for Schwenkow’s 70th birthday. Of his five children (Moritz, Max, Nini, Anna, and Joey) four are following in their father’s footsteps in some shape or form. As chief ticketing and technology officer, Moritz is on the DEAG board; Max heads up the company’s graphics department; Nini has interited her father’s interest in real estate; and Anna is in charge of all of DEAG’s red carpet events.

“Regrets? Looking back over my career, I probably spent the first 25 years regretting almost everything”

No Regrets
With two big anniversaries on the horizon, Schwenkow has allowed himself time to reminisce about the ways in which he has matured during his seven decades on the planet.

“Regrets? Looking back over my career, I probably spent the first 25 years regretting almost everything: I regretted that I didn’t get certain artists; I regretted that I couldn’t do all the joint ventures I wanted to; I was regretting that I couldn’t sell my company to Universal; I was regretting this, that, and everything.

“And then, probably for the next ten or 15 years, I was regretting my mistakes – maybe that I invested in the wrong sector or whatever. But now, and for the past ten years or so, I realised I have no regrets – zero – because any opportunity that I missed, a new door opened. Any mistakes I made, I learned from – and I still learn from new mistakes every week. But building up a company of this size, without any complaints, lawsuits, or fines has been a big achievement, and I’m very proud of that.”

Schwenkow pauses. “Actually, that’s not quite true – I did have to pay one court fine, but it was the best money I ever spent. I was fined 40,000 DM for promoting a Pink Floyd concert in 1988 because it was too loud. Not only could it be heard in the whole of East Berlin, but the windows were shaking.”

A vehement opponent of the Soviet regime that oppressed those living in the East of Berlin – and hundreds of millions elsewhere – Schwenkow delighted in using every tool at his disposal to embarrass the authorities on the other side of the wall.

“This is why I did Michael Jackson and David Bowie in front of the Reichstag in 1987 – probably the two most important events I ever did in my life, as well as Leonard Bernstein on the 26 December 1989,” he says.

“We had to do a test run on the afternoon before the concert where the authorities on both sides of the [Berlin] wall were checking decibel levels”

Detailing the reasons behind his Pink Floyd legal woes, Schwenkow recalls, “There was a lot of pressure from the government in East Berlin against the government in Bonn, because they didn’t want to allow the Pink Floyd concert. Basically, they were afraid of how loud it would be and the power their music might carry. So I was given permission for the show under the condition that only a certain number of loudspeakers would be used.

“We had to do a test run on the afternoon before the concert where the authorities on both sides of the wall were checking decibel levels. But, when they signed off and I had my final permission to do the show, I had another eight trucks bringing in every available loudspeaker I could find.

“When I explained what I had done to the judge in court, and my hatred of the GDR, she reduced my fine from 40,000 DM to 10,000 DM and allowed me to pay it over the next two years because she understood my mission against communism.”

Past, Present & Future
Looking back across his storied career, Schwenkow believes there have been two significant developments during his 50 years in business that have resulted in major game changers for the music industry: MTV and the internet.

“MTV helped create global stars – there were probably ten artists who were known globally in the 80s,” he notes.

“Imagine 30 years ago, anything that happened in Korea would have stayed in Korea… Now, K-pop is a global phenomenon”

The internet, he states, increased that number exponentially. “Imagine 30 years ago, anything that happened in Korea would have stayed in Korea. Anything that happened in Latin America would remain in Latin America. Now, K-pop is a global phenomenon, and Latin artists are exploding everywhere.”

Looking to the future, Schwenkow believes what is happening in the present could fundamentally change the way DEAG and other companies approach live entertainment sales and marketing.

“We are facing two important changes,” he opines. “Number one is with the internet and the importance of artists who can all of a sudden do their own customer relationship management directly with fans. And the second is social media, which can be used by those same artists to sell tickets. This is why we decided, in a market saturated with Ticketmaster, Eventim, and lots of local systems, we still could find business with myticket, because it’s no longer important how much data you have collected over the years; the game changer is social media.”

Using the 2023 tour of Lindemann as an example, Schwenkow reports, “When we went on sale, depending on markets, we’d use Gigantic or myticket.co.uk or myticket.de and sell exclusively on those platforms. Even though myticket is number four in Germany by size, we don’t need the big ticket market leaders anymore. Because if you go on the website of the artist who has millions of followers, then he, she, or they just has to push the myticket red button.

“I think this is the big change in distribution. It means that you should not own a ticket system unless you control the content: no inventory, no ticket system. But if you have the artist on board, everything changes.”

“I have five kids and eight grandchildren, but getting older means you get wiser, and one thing I have definitely got better at is time management”

Time for Tee
With his 70th birthday fast approaching, Schwenkow is looking forward to a gala celebration at iconic Berlin venue Wintergarten Varieté, an invite to which is proving to be one of 2024’s hottest tickets.

And while there’s no sign of Schwenkow stepping back from DEAG, he does admit he is looking forward to a new phase in his life, where family and hobbies will be given growing priority.

“I have five kids and eight grandchildren, but getting older means you get wiser, and one thing I have definitely got better at is time management,” he says. “For example, the birthday of a grandchild is a date that cannot be moved in my diary: whoever calls me that day, I don’t care – it’s a birthday party. That was sadly not the case 20 or 30 years ago.”

In terms of hobbies, Schwenkow has four main areas of interest. “My side projects, for a long time, have been art and real estate. I was fortunate enough to have a golden ten years on Majorca in the 1990s in the real estate game, and it’s still something that I deal in, both in Germany and Majorca to this day.

“My second hobby, which generates value but no money, is art. It’s very important to me. My father was a collector, and I think that’s where my passion started – I could always enjoy art without being jealous that I did not own it. And later on, when I’d had some success of my own, I started my own collections.”

A more recent interest is golf – a pastime that Schwenkow picked up later in life but is something that he confesses he would like to spend more time playing, especially in the sunshine of his second home, Majorca.

“The biggest privilege I have is that we are able to produce things that make people happy”

He continues, “My fourth interest remains politics. I was in parliament for five years, purely because I wanted to learn how politicians work – the relationships between them and how they communicate.”

And what did he learn during his stint, from 2006-11? “The world of politicians is a closed shop,” he responds. “The interesting thing is that 90% of what happens in parliament is just for show. In the end, the politicians go to the pub and have a beer together, and they’re a lot closer than their political parties would have you believe.”

Schwenkow admits that he covets many of his political friendships and still enjoys the machinations of seeing how diplomacy works.

But when it comes to how he spends the majority of his time, working in live entertainment thankfully remains his biggest commitment.

“The biggest privilege I have is that we are able to produce things that make people happy,” he states. “I am living a very privileged life, and I think it’s important to remain humble – and thankful – to enjoy a life like the one I have. “My father and my mother both turned 90, so I think my genes could give me another 20 years, and I want to enjoy those, which means a little bit of work, a little bit of golf, a little bit of arts and exhibitions, and a little bit of family.”

“My final goal is that when I go on a golf course, I really do turn off my cell phone, rather than just telling people not to bother me… I’m not quite there yet, but I’m getting closer.”

 


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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.

Arrival
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.”

Super Trooper
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”

The Boss
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.”

Voyage
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.

Scando Rivalry
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…

Strange beginnings
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.

Strange breaks
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.

Local knowledge
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…”

In-house expertise
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.”

Commonwealth hub
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.

 


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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

London calling
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.

 


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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.

 


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