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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.

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.”

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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Learning & growing: 12 key lessons from the corona crisis

The latest issue of IQ Magazine features a bumper coronavirus special report that delves into the lessons learnt from the crisis, various governments’ responses to the pandemic, and predictions for the shape of the industry’s post-Covid-19 recovery.

Here, we look at the key business takeaways from the global concert business shutdown, with a little help from Paradigm’s Alex Hardee, Echo Location’s Obi Asika, Yourope’s Christof Huber and more…


1. Entrepreneurialism and creativity remain at the heart of the industry
While much of the debate in the live music sector in recent years has centred around independent versus corporate approaches, when the shit hit the fan the spirit of entrepreneurialism has shone through.

Artists around the world have been streaming live shows and content to maintain their relationship with fans, while companies big and small are thinking outside the box and going above and beyond to help out employees, crew and others in the business, financially and though other support packages.

“We adapt fast and we can deal with the curveballs,” comments Live Nation Belgium’s Herman Schueremans. “We are resilient and artists and fans will always find a way to connect.”

2. Technology makes mass home-working a possibility
The use of Zoom, Houseparty, Skype, FaceTime and other video conferencing platforms has helped millions of employees around the world to effectively communicate with colleagues, peers and clients in a way that many would have thought impossible a few months ago.

“Anyone who said home-working doesn’t work was wrong,” says Live Nation chairman of international music, Thomas Johansson.

3. The appetite for risk needs revision
The very nature of the live music industry had historically relied on a cash-flow wing and a prayer, with everyone in the chain relying to some extent on future earnings to pay for their latest projects. The sudden cessation of the business has put this situation into sharp relief, as thousands of event postponements and cancellations have highlighted that the global business could collapse if refunds were mandated internationally.

“You have to have reserves,” states Obi Asika of London-based agency Echo Location. “A lot of this business focuses on the future, prospecting and possibilities. We make bookings really far in advance and now this has shown that anything can happen.”

“This crisis has shown that anything can happen”

4. Every day brings new challenges
It seems that as long as the coronavirus pandemic continues, uncertainty will be the new norm. Agents, promoters, artist managers, venue operators and everybody in the production supply chain are working incredibly hard to make sure things are ready for business to resume, but with no concrete dates to work toward, the planning process is never-ending.

“We make plans and strategise and then overnight something happens and the next day we have to start all over again,” says Paradigm’s Alex Hardee. “When I’m doing my P&Ls at the moment, they are all Ls.”

5. Government intervention is crucial
The live music business has a long and proud tradition of policing itself and trying hard to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to issues like health and safety and self-regulation. However, it has become apparent in the coronavirus environment that businesses involved in the live entertainment sector need the co-operation of government and local authorities to survive.

At the time of writing, summer festivals in some countries are still waiting to announce 2020 cancellations because they have not been told by government that they cannot hold this year’s events, meaning that promoters could be liable to pay artist fees if they take that sensible decision themselves.

“There’s a fear among promoters when it comes to announcing festival cancellations, because nobody wants to lose the momentum when difficult decisions need to be taken,” says Christof Huber of European festival association Yourope.

6. One rotten apple can spoil the barrel
The domino effect of a cancelled show has never been more apparent than during the economic shutdown. Artists often rely on the revenues from certain key festival or headline dates to pay for visits to less lucrative markets, and the cancellation of one or more of those key dates can put the whole tour – and, therefore, other festival shows – in jeopardy.

With the pandemic amplifying this situation more than ever before, festival organisers who perhaps previously viewed each other as rivals have been working closely on key announcements and strategies.

“We make plans and strategise and then overnight something happens, and the next day we have to start all over again”

7. Honesty is the best policy
With millions of people suddenly and unexpectedly facing redundancy, business owners and senior management around the world have never been under greater scrutiny. However, early and continued communication has proved invaluable during the halt to commerce and, by and large, people who have been included in the hard conversations have accepted that everyone is in the same boat because of this global crisis.

“If you are transparent, honest and upfront with people, then when you have to make difficult decisions the reaction of people can pleasantly surprise you,” reports Paradigm’s Hardee.

8. There goes my hero, he’s ordinary
People that society has taken for granted are stepping up and putting the health of themselves and their families at risk to make sure the rest of the world’s suffering is minimised. Health workers, carers, supermarket employees, teachers, sanitation staff, pharmacists, truck and delivery drivers and many more ‘ordinary’ people are the true heroes of the hour.

9. Insurers need to take a long hard look at themselves
There’s no need to mention any names, but for reference have a look at Hellfest’s website about the small-print cowardice that has been manipulated to shirk responsibility. To quote our French comrades: “Fuck you!”

10. Coronavirus is kryptonite to the super-touts
As much as the legitimate live music industry is reeling from cancellations, postponements and having to deal with refunds and other unexpected costs, the situation for the secondary ticketing business is even more dire, as many super-touts have to deal with inventory they can no longer shift.

Having agreed a highly controversial $4 billion deal that would see it merge with Viagogo, in late March, StubHub announced it was furloughing two thirds of its staff, and company policy on refunds would change, whereby purchasers of tickets to cancelled events in North America would now be offered vouchers, rather than refunds. Cue class-action lawsuits.

With StubHub now reportedly struggling hard and Viagogo saddled with debt, the future for the world’s biggest secondary ticketing platforms looks precarious to say the least. “In the context of the unprecedented crisis being played out in all our lives, this could well be one the most poorly timed acquisitions in recent corporate history,” says Adam Webb, campaign manager for FanFair Alliance.

2021 could prove to be live music’s most important year ever

11. Trade associations and industry collectives are proving their worth
In days gone by – and they are not that long ago – the live music industry was a cutthroat, highly competitive battlefield where often ludicrous deals would price others out of the game, all in the name of market share.

Coronavirus has levelled the playing field somewhat, and it’s heartening to witness just how quickly previously warring factions have come around the table to collaborate and agree sensible paths forward to try to minimise the impact on staff, suppliers and, of course, the artists. Hats off to the many trade associations and organisations who are lobbying parliaments, government ministers and local authorities on behalf of the business – you have never been so important to the livelihoods of so many people.

“[The corona crisis has] certainly made me realise the huge importance of associations and representative bodies,” says Kilimanjaro Live boss Stuart Galbraith. “Government don’t want to talk to individual commercial organisations, but they will talk to the Concert Promoters Association, AIF, UK Music, etc., and there’s been huge co-operation between [the associations] as well. Because it affects everybody.”

12. It’s only rock’n’roll… but I like it
As lucky as we are to have careers in such a great industry, at the end of the day it’s only rock’n’roll. Yes, it’s important for culture and for people’s happiness and wellbeing, but people we know are dying – relatives, friends and neighbours – and the battle to minimise that death toll far outweighs any gig, tour or event (or shareholder expectations, for that matter).

However, the hundreds of musicians and artists who are livestreaming to entertain millions of fans confined to their homes shows that the power of music is as strong as ever. Once we emerge from this dark period, people will be clamouring to get out, socialise and see their favourite acts.

Twenty-twenty is undoubtedly going to take its toll, but for those able to remain in the business, 2021 could prove to be live music’s most important year ever.


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Tales from Covid: Thomas Johansson, Live Nation

Ahead of the next issue of the magazine – which features concert business leaders offering their predictions for the industry’s post-coronavirus recovery – IQ is running a series of Q&As online looking at how our panel of experts are weathering the current crisis, as well as their forecasts for the months ahead.

Following the inaugural Tales from Covid with Australian veteran Michael Chugg, Live Nation’s chairman of international music and the Nordics, Thomas Johansson, chats working from home, Crew Nation and why live music will be a “tonic” after months in lockdown…


IQ: What professional lessons have you taken away from the Covid-19 outbreak?
TJ: My key takeaway has been to witness the outstanding dedication and hard work of our staff and promoters, who have responded to this unprecedented situation with flexibility and aplomb.

Live Nation in particular has stepped up with Crew Nation, a global fund to support the live infrastructure and the essential parts of our business who are experiencing a tough time at the moment. It makes me very proud to be a part of Live Nation when we all pull together in times of need.

Also, anyone who said home working doesn’t work was wrong!

“Live music is a major tonic and the whole world needs that”

When do you think the recovery might start, and what shape will it take?
It looks likely that the recovery will follow the pattern of the spread of the virus, with Asia opening up first, and Europe next, hopefully over the summer. Of course, we are planning for the other outcomes, too.

I’ve every faith in our business. It’s resilient and adaptable. I’m pretty sure that demand for live music will be stronger than ever when we get there.

What challenges do you think the industry will face in getting back up to speed?
We’ll need to bear disposable income in mind, of course, but we also need to remember that live music is a major tonic and the whole world needs that.

I have immense faith in our fans.


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