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Road stories: Barry Dickins and Leon Ramakers

Live industry greats Barry Dickins and Leon Ramakers shared stories from their legendary careers in an intimate Dragons’ Den chat at ILMC 34 in London.

Dickins started his career more than 50 years ago arranging gigs for the likes of The Who, Jimi Hendrix Experience and Otis Redding. Going on to form agency International Talent Booking (ITB) with Rod MacSween in 1978, he still represents artists such as Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Neil Young, and ZZ Top.

Former Mojo Concerts director Ramakers, meanwhile, made his music business debut in 1970 at Holland Pop Festival, which featured Pink Floyd, The Byrds, T. Rex and Santana. Ramakers remains involved with Mojo – a company he has helped to maintain its market dominance in the Netherlands for more than half a century, latterly as part of Live Nation.

Here are a handful of highlights from their hour-long conversation…

“I’m so sorry I missed Sinatra, and that’s because I was too nice”

Selling Mojo to SFX in 1999…

Leon Ramakers: “[SFX founder Robert Sillerman] said, ‘Do you want to sell your company?’ I said, ‘It depends on what you want to pay for it?’ And he mentioned a figure. I said, ‘No, no, I’m not interested’ and I put the phone down. And I thought, ‘What have you just done?’ The next day, he called again and he doubled [the price]. He had no idea of my finances, they were crazy times. Finally, we went to see Sillerman in Madison Avenue. The door opens, Sillerman comes in and says, ‘Is this Holland? Today, I’m going to buy Holland.’ There were three reasons [to sell]. They were going to buy all of Europe and I didn’t want to be the island like Asterix and Obelix, like the Gallic village within the Roman Empire. The second thing, the money was good. And thirdly, I thought that we would have creative input from all these people from all over the world, although that never happened.”

Superstar clients – and the ones that got away…

Barry Dickins: “Dylan is still going. It’s very hard when you talk to a billionaire and say, ‘I’ve got this good gig for you Bob, it’s paying a million dollars.’ It’s like, ‘What? I get that for a painting!’ I’m very lucky because I worked with Jimi Hendrix; I worked with The Doors; I worked with Jefferson Aeroplane; I worked with Canned Heat. I’d like to have done Bruce Springsteen, I must admit, but so would everybody else. But I’ve been fortunate I’ve worked with some great clients.”

LR: “I’m sorry I missed Sinatra, and that’s because I was too nice. The previous promoter was [Dutch impresario] Lou van Rees, so I went to the Lou, and I said, ‘Shall we share?’ But then it turned out that the manager or the agent hated Lou van Rees, so they gave it to somebody else.”

BD: “I had Hendrix and I thought, ‘If anyone sees me at a Frank Sinatra concert, it’s all over.’ That was my mum and dad’s thing, and I never went. But I did go and see him the last time he played, which was a little bit sad, because had all the teleprompters around him and his son Frank Sinatra Jr. was playing the keyboards and leading the band. But he was a real pro and I’m glad I saw him, I just wish I’d seen him [earlier in his career].”

“You’re not entitled to keep an act forever”

Losing acts…

BD: “Nothing’s forever. We don’t live forever. You’re not entitled to keep an act forever. I’ve been very lucky I’ve had Dylan for nearly 40 years and it’s a bloody long time. Diana Ross was a bit difficult. I did have 32 years with her and earned every penny. She got pissed off once when I said, ‘I’m having an indoor pool put in my house, would you mind if I call it the Diana Ross pool?’ And she said, ‘What are you talking about?’ I said, ‘Well, every time I do well on a tour, I buy something for my house – and I want to know if you’re happy to have the swimming pool named after you.’ Fleetwood Mac paid for a snooker room. You’ve heard of the house Jack built, this was the house that Fleetwood Mac built! No one enjoys losing a band, and sometimes you lose them for no reason. Other times, I’ve really fucked up on something and haven’t been fired. The hard thing when you’ve got the older acts is they want a younger audience. My way of thinking is that with any artist, their core fans are 10 years older and 10 years younger. You’re not going to start getting 20-year-olds. Dylan, funnily enough, crosses over a bit because he’s Dylan, but it’s still mainly older people. And, of course, he’s 80, so my audience is 70 to 90. I’ve got to tell you, that’s a dying business mate!”

LR: “Also, it’s scientifically proven that the vast majority of people don’t change their musical tastes after 30. Obviously there are exceptions to the rule, but the vast majority stick to what they like [after] 30 and that’s it.”

“You see some reluctance now in ticket buying”

Worst deals…

BD: “I did a Michael Jackson show in Cardiff and the ticket [sales] were really slow. About two weeks from the show, we were losing £250,000, which was a bloody lot of money. To cut a long story short, we actually made money [in the end]. That was probably one of the worst deals, but it ended up okay.”

LR: “The worst half a second of my life was on stage. I was supposed to announce the support act in Utrecht for a show and said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, please now welcome…’ and I’d forgotten the name. It took about a second, but it was the worst second of my life.”

BD: “I bet it felt like five minutes!”

Biggest hope for the industry…

BD: “Getting the business back to what it was, and I think we’ve got a shot at it. It was always a problem when it was just England [that was open]. Everyone kept saying, ‘Oh well, England is fine.’ I said, ‘Yeah, England’s fine, but nowhere else is.’ Try and say to an American act, ‘Come and do five shows in England: five arenas in England and that’s it.’ ‘No, I want Germany! I want Scandinavia!’ So now we’re kind of an even playing field.”

LR: “But you see some reluctance now in ticket buying. It’s the war; it’s the fact that they have got three tickets in their pocket already for shows that were postponed; it’s the inflation. Anything that went on sale before Christmas did very well, but what has been established this year is a bit soft… I’m not a pessimistic guy, but with ticket prices [going up and up], it could be that in three, four years time, we thought we saw the writing on the wall, but we didn’t act. I’m doing now a show with a really well known artist and the average ticket price is €110.”

 


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Former Mojo boss Ramakers receives Dutch royal award

Leon Ramakers, the former, long-term director of Mojo Concerts, been made an officer of the Order of Orange Nassau for his contributions to the live music industry from deputy mayor of Amsterdam, Touria Meliani.

Ramakers received the royal award for “his major contribution to the cultural sector” and, in particular, for his efforts in promoting and developing “international pop music in the Netherlands” as part of Mojo Concerts, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year.

The award also recognised the support Ramakers offered to start-ups in the music industry and across the cultural sector. The ex-Mojo chief has also held various administrative and supervisory positions within the Dutch cultural landscape, including in architecture and in publishing.

In 1970, Ramakers met Mojo co-founder Berry Visser when buying tickets for a Led Zeppelin concert. Shortly after, the pair put on Holland Pop Festival, one of the first multi-day rock festivals in Holland. The event was headlined by Pink Floyd and featured performances form the Byrds, T. Rex and Santana.

Ramakers received the royal award for his efforts in promoting and developing “international pop music in the Netherlands”

Mojo was also responsible for the Netherlands’ first-ever stadium concert in 1978, putting on a Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan show at the Feijenoord stadium in Rotterdam (then 69,000-cap.).

Ramakers was instrumental in the setting up of Amsterdam venues AFAS Live (6,000-cap.), formerly the Heineken Music Hall, and the Ziggo Dome (17,000-cap.).

The former Mojo director received a Golden Harp at the Buma Awards earlier this month, alongside Pinkpop festival founder Jan Smeets. The judges commented on Ramakers’ contribution to the professionalisation of the concert industry and his influence on the talent development of various bands and artists.

 


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Mojo magic: 50 years of Mojo Concerts

When Berry Visser opened Delft’s first discotheque in the late 1960s, he could never have imagined the decision would impact the lives of millions of people for half a century to come.

With fellow students, he ran a small cabaret venue called Mojo Theatre, but despite a weekly 100-guilder grant from the city, it needed to make more money. So they opened disco Polly Maggoo, and it was packed within a fortnight. It was the first time Visser had heard pop music and it changed his life.

Shortly after, at a concert by The Doors, Visser decided he was going to promote concerts. “So I just went to London and met Neil Warnock at [Brian Epstein’s] NEMS, and asked to book Spooky Tooth and Traffic.”

“I remember the first time I met Berry,” says United Talent Agency’s Neil Warnock. “He had long hair and looked a bit like a hippie.”

Returning to the Netherlands, Visser banged on the door of Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, and asked to rent the main room. They took one look at him and turned him away. So he went back to Warnock, secured Julie Felix, and tried again at the venue. They sold 300 tickets – and Mojo Concerts was born.

Bitten by the promotions bug and inspired by Woodstock, Visser contacted Bath Festival of Blues founder Freddy Bannister, who agreed to share bands with the Dutchman’s as-yet-unnamed festival. “I had no site and no money,” Visser laughs.

In 1970, a young architecture student called Leon Ramakers went to an address in Delft to buy tickets for a Led Zeppelin concert that was taking place in the Hague.

There he found Visser, “a long-haired guy sat at a table with an electric heater at his feet.” The two got talking, and Visser told Ramakers of his festival plans with Jefferson Airplane, Pink Floyd and Soft Machine.

Full of enthusiasm and keen to be involved, Ramakers wrote to the minister of culture asking for money, but not expecting a response. To his amazement, a week later the minister called him to a meeting and later granted the young student 25,000 guilders. “As a result of the ministry’s contribution, Coca-Cola agreed to put money in too, because they thought that if the festival was backed by the ministry then it must be OK.”

“One year we brought in barrels of petrol and set them on fire on the roof of the venue. It caused quite a commotion”

Meanwhile, Visser received a visit from Georges Knap, “dressed like a salesman”, and pitching an idea for a festival in Rotterdam. The long-haired Visser took one look at him and slammed the door. But Knap persisted, and eventually drove Visser to the site he had in mind in Kralingen. Visser was convinced, and from 26–28 June 1970, Holland Pop Festival (known locally as Kralingen Music Festival) took place near Rotterdam. Headlined by Pink Floyd, and featuring the Byrds, T. Rex and Santana. Taking place two months after fellow Dutch festival Pinkpop, it was one of the first rock festivals on continental Europe.

“It was a fantastic day,” remembers Warnock. “I was on the bus with Jethro Tull and one of them was playing the violin while we tried to get Pink Floyd into the country because they didn’t have a carnet. It was chaos, but it was frontier times back then.”

Dubbed “Europe’s answer to Woodstock”, Holland Pop was a cultural success but a financial disaster. “We lost a million guilders,” remembers Ramakers. “We sold 28,000 tickets but the gates were crashed early on and lots of people got in free.”

Although the festival was organised through a foundation, creditors pursued the fledgling Mojo Concerts. For the next four years, Visser and Ramakers lived hand-to-mouth, borrowing money wherever they could to advance bands because box offices wouldn’t release ticket money until after the shows.

But they weren’t discouraged. “We were young and we loved what we were doing,” says Ramakers. “We were convinced that eventually we were going to make it so we just kept on going.”

This work ethic and passion for music has been integral to the success of Mojo Concerts. Ramakers explains: “It’s good that we’ve made money but the primary reason we do this is it gives us pleasure. If you do something for the love and you do it properly, the money will follow.”

Then, in 1977, everything changed. Arena shows became commonplace, and Mojo Concerts were at the forefront.

“All of a sudden there was a major boost in business,” says Ramakers. “We were doing three shows with Pink Floyd, three with Supertramp, two with Eagles, Bob Marley.

“Before then, you were lucky if you made 2,000 guilders on a night. Then it was boom time.”

“Berry got it. We had similar music tastes. I’ve been working with Mojo ever since”

What put Mojo ahead of their competitors when booking the biggest artists was their attitude – a refreshing change from the dominant long-standing Dutch jazz promoters of the time. “They had the approach that the artist was their employee because they were paying them,” remembers Ramakers. “From the beginning, we understood that we were not the boss – the artist was. All the jazz promoters were stuck in the past and couldn’t adapt to the new rock business. We would make sure the artists had breakfast in the morning, which was something those others never did.”

ITB’s Barry Dickins recalls: “The biggest promoter in the Netherlands at the time was Muziek Expres magazine owner Paul Acket [founder of the North Sea Jazz Festival]. He said to me, ‘Why are you dealing with these bootleggers?’, and I told him, ‘Because they get it, and you’re an old man who doesn’t.’ Berry and I were about the same age – about 20 or 21, so to me working with Acket was like dealing with your dad. Berry got it. We had similar music tastes. I’ve been working with Mojo ever since.”

Opening Pandora’s Music Box
In a story familiar to many promoters, as the years went on, the deals got worse. “I watched them go from 60/40 to 80/20 and then 90/10,” says Visser. His solution, in 1979, was Casa Nova, a ten-day cultural fair for young people at the Ahoy Rotterdam. Rather than relying on increasingly unreliable deals, Visser decided to create other entertainment. Alongside music, it was to feature tech showcases, poetry, circus, lectures, nightclubs, film and more.

It didn’t work and Mojo Concerts went bust. The pair bought the name back a few months later for 4,000 guilders.

Then in 1983, came Pandora’s Music Box – a combination of music, theatre and art. Visser brought in artist and composer Michel Waisvisz and the pair created a programme of what they called “phenomena” – interactive and immersive performances mingling with the audience.

“We had sheep walking the marble floors after midnight; a massage parlour; a lemonade girl standing in a bikini in a glass basin filled with lemonade handing out lemonade in paper cups; old people playing cards. One year we brought in barrels of petrol and set them on fire on the roof of the venue. It caused quite a commotion,” recalls Visser

The immersive theatrical experience blew everyone’s minds. Pandora’s Music Box became legendary, and a blueprint for most festivals today. “Barry Dickins was doing a show with Diana Ross at the Ahoy, and came over to see it,” remembers Visser. “He was flabbergasted and told me if we did it in New York, we’d smash it.”

 


Continue reading this feature in the digital edition of IQ 79, or subscribe to IQ here

 


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Leon Ramakers relaunches Dutch radio station Kink

Joy of a Toy BV, a company controlled by Mojo Concerts co-founder Leon Ramakers, has bought into a new Dutch online radio station, Kink, set to launch in February next year.

Kink is a spiritual successor to Kink FM, an alternative rock station in operation from October 1995 to October 2011, but will be broadcast online seven days a week, as well as over streaming services and in podcasts. It launches on 1 February 2019.

According to a launch announcement, Ramakers (pictured) – “one of the initiators” of the new station – “attaches great importance to the existence of a radio station that [caters to] lovers of alternative rock in a modern way and contributes to pop culture in the Netherlands”. No financial details of Ramakers’ involvement have been disclosed by Kink, with a statement noting that “his shareholding is emphatically private”.

Ramakers owned 25% of Kink FM between 1998 and 2003. According to MediaMagazine, Ramakers’ shareholding in Kink is a purely private venture, with no financial from Mojo or parent company Live Nation.

“It is a great honour to be able to revive this legendary radio name”

Working alongside Ramakers and director Jan Hoogesteijn will be veteran DJ Michiel Veenstra, who has been appointed programme director.

“There is no serious base for fans of alternative pop music in the current radio landscape,” says Veenstra, who was most recently a presenter at NPO’s 3FM. “The time has come for a contemporary platform where this music can be heard 24 hours a day, on both live radio and on-demand streaming services and podcasts. Music and technology come together at the new Kink, and it is a great honour to be able to revive this legendary radio name.”

The company that became Mojo was founded in 1968 by Berry Visser, with Ramakers, then a young architecture student, coming on board in 1970, the pair growing the company to become the largest concert and festival promoter in the Netherlands. Visser left in 1993, and Ramakers sold the company to SFX Entertainment (later to become Live Nation) in 1999.

He temporarily became co-CEO once more in 2016, following the departure of Wilbert Mutsaers, and now serves Mojo in a consultant capacity, as well as a booker for Pinkpop.

 


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