A Rare Breed: Ginger Owl celebrates 10th anniversary
When you consider the baptism of fire that was Nancy Skipper and Julie Chennells’ entry into the live music industry, it’s no wonder their company became renowned for delivering when the heat is on.
The North London-born pair first met in 1998, working in the hallowed offices of Harvey Goldsmith CBE, the legendary English promoter who has worked with everyone from Madonna to The Rolling Stones but who is perhaps best known for Live Aid and the Teenage Cancer Trust shows.
Though Chennells gained some prior experience in the live music industry, working as a festival production assistant for Mean Fiddler, both women agree that Goldsmith’s office is “where it all began.”
“It was mad,” Chennells tells IQ. “It was a traditional rock and roll company – chaotic, fun, busy. There were lots of big personalities. It was incredible really.”
According to Goldsmith, the company at that time was producing 750-plus concerts a year, with Julie and Nancy supporting Pete Wilson, Dennis Arnold, and Andrew Zweck.
“Harvey [Goldsmith] was a great teacher”
“I worked in all the different departments in that company – from ticketing to production to marketing,” says Chennells. “It was a good exercise in being able to turn your hand to anything. And Harvey was a great teacher.”
Goldsmith, who is known as “our industry dad” to Skipper and Chennells, tells IQ he taught them as much as he could about the touring business: “They have seen it all, every bit of madness that our world offers, and have not only survived but have thrived. They are a great team.”
Chennells adds: “It changed me completely that job – more so than anything else. You had to be really resilient and – to use a cliche – work hard, play hard. I’ve never really experienced a job like that. Everything after that was never quite as mad.”
“Plus, he knows all the music industry legends,” says Skipper who worked as a bookkeeper at a media company in Soho before joining Harvey Goldsmith in 1997. “There aren’t many people in the UK industry of his generation that haven’t worked with him. As a result, we know so many big players in the industry.”
Some of those big players proved to be the stepping stones from Goldsmith’s office to their freelance careers to eventually launching their own company. Skipper left Goldsmith’s operations in 2005 to move to Devon in the southwest of England, and though she’d resigned herself to getting “a regular job,” her fate in the live music industry was sealed.
“When you’re repping on your own, you have to do every single thing, from security briefings to guestlist”
“Paul Loasby, manager to Jools Holland and Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, kicked off my freelance career,” she explained. He said, “It’s fine if you leave [Harvey], but you can take the work with you and do it remotely.”
“David Gilmour started touring in 2005/06, so I was really busy straightaway. If that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have had the financial ability to kind of support myself and start my career as a freelancer. Allowing me to work from home was a really progressive approach from Paul. He just wanted to make sure that he had consistency with the people that he was working with.”
Skipper and Loasby went on to produce a Jools Holland tour every single year after that, as well as two more tours for Gilmour. To this day, the pair still look after the famed artists.
Chennells, meanwhile, left Goldsmith’s company in 2004 and also pursued a freelance career, primarily production-repping on behalf of Live Nation and SJM for increasingly large shows.
“I got some real hands-on experience during that time,” she says. “When you’re repping on your own, you have to do every single thing going, from security briefings to guestlist to production load-in. That time really cemented my knowledge of the other side of the industry that maybe I hadn’t got when I was office-based.”
“We did around 11 weeks of back-to-back festivals straightaway… our first year of [Ginger Owl] was incredible”
Though each of the women went their separate ways after the Goldsmith years, their paths crossed more than ever as freelancers. “More and more, Nancy and I got each other into jobs,” says Chennells. “Sometimes clients wanted two of you or sometimes I couldn’t do it and she could do it and vice versa.
“We both always worked as freelance artist liaison reps on the Live Nation festivals (before they became Festival Republic), but then we were asked to take over running the backstage. Between us, we were running all of their festivals that year, and at the same time, we also had other jobs coming in that we worked on together as freelancers.”
Eventually, the pair were working on so many freelance jobs together, forming the company felt like the next logical step. “It took us longer to decide what to call it than it did to decide to do it,” laughs Skipper.
Ginger Owl was officially launched in April 2013 and from the get-go, business boomed. “We did around 11 weeks of back-to-back festivals straightaway… our first year was incredible,” says Skipper. “We got a lot of work from Live Nation that first year. They’ve always been so supportive of us – from the festivals to touring to VIP work to guestlists work, we’ve always counted them as one of our major clients.”
Live Nation and Festival Republic weren’t the only clients that remained loyal to Ginger Owl. The pair retained Teenage Cancer Trust, One Fifteen’s Jools Holland Autumn Tour, The BRIT Awards, Loudsound, Beautiful Days festival, and MTV from their prior era.
“We often get calls where people say: ‘This is going a little wrong, we need a team in here”
And their offering has only gained value with the recent launch of their bespoke software systems, GO Advance and GO Backstage, which streamline event management, accreditation, logistics, and advancing.
On top of that, the pair have continued to build a reputation as ‘firefighters’ of the industry – a skill they believe was honed at Harvey Goldsmiths. “We do have a reputation as fixers,” says Chennells. “We often get calls where people say: ‘This is going a little wrong, we need a team in here.’”
“People come to us in a last-minute situation because they know that we have access to all the people that they need,” adds Skipper.
She recalls a time in the early days of Ginger Owl when she was asked last minute to work on a “wild concert” in Nigeria for an oil and gas company. Her response was classic: “Sounds dangerous; I’m in.”
“Within a week, I had all my jabs done and was on a plane. But I was the only female on a 64-person team when I landed there, so in the dressing rooms it was quite crazy – a real eye-opener.
“I was the only female on a 64-person team when I landed there, so in the dressing rooms it was quite crazy”
“There we really did face issues with me being a female – they just weren’t used to having a woman ask or tell them things at all. Obviously, the international team was absolutely fine – they were quite used to it – but dealing with the artist side was very hard. It was a real baptism of fire. I think that’s where my addiction to really difficult shows started,” she laughs.
It may be that addiction that led Ginger Owl to take on their biggest international client yet – MDLBEAST, the Saudi Arabia-based entertainment company behind Soundstorm Festival and XP Conference.
Contrary to what one might think, Skipper says that Ginger Owl’s challenges in the market have “nothing to do with them being female and everything to do with Saudi being a really new market.”
“They just have a completely different way of working,” she explains. “They will phone you at four in the morning and tell you that one of the artists wants to go on a trip into the dunes the next day and expect it done. At first, we fought against it, but it’s actually just a cultural difference.
“I think, in a slightly sick way, I quite enjoy the challenge”
“You still have to do your prep, but you also have to be ready to deal with anything. We get calls for Soundstorm where they say the head of a tech company is on his way, and he’s going to need cars, hotels, and visas, and his jet lands in however many hours. And there’s nothing you can do except just get on with it. I think, in a slightly sick way, I quite enjoy the challenge,” she laughs.
With MDLBEAST demanding ample time and manpower, Ginger Owl has set up a whole team in Saudi led by Skipper, who now splits her time between Riyadh and Suffolk while Chennells manages the UK side of the business.
In the last two years, the Ginger Owl team has grown to 12 full-time staff, as well as a raft of multiskilled industry professionals on a freelance basis.
Last year, that team worked on 85 events including 39 festivals, 20 awards shows and TV productions, 6 tours, 11 unique events, 6 film/ TV premieres, 2 landmark sporting events, and the state funeral. And with 2023 looking to be just as busy for Ginger Owl, IQ asks Chennells and Skipper what’s next for them.
“We’re trying to step back and be more strategic and let our managers run the festivals, and then we can oversee it all… I think we’d like to do less firefighting,” laughs Chennells.
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