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Trailblazer: Yazz Ahmed, artist

Welcome to the latest edition of Trailblazers – IQ’s regular series of Q&As with the inspirational figures forging their own paths in the global live entertainment business.

From people working in challenging conditions or markets to those simply bringing a fresh perspective to the music world, Trailblazers aims to spotlight unique individuals from all walks of life who are making a mark in one of the world’s most competitive industries. IQ’s last Trailblazer interview featured Chris Jammer and Louise Young of independent UK festival Strawberries and Creem, which can be read here.

This time, IQ welcomes its first-ever artist of the Trailblazer series, in the form of British-Bahraini trumpet player and composer Yazz Ahmed.

Seeking to blur the boundaries between jazz and electronic music, Ahmed brings together the sounds of her mixed heritage in what has been described as ‘psychedelic Arabic jazz’ and lauded as ‘intoxicating and compelling’.

Ahmed’s forthcoming album Polyhymnia is the result of a project commissioned by jazz music education and artist development organisation Tomorrow’s Warriors, in conjunction with PRS Women Make Music. The suite is inspired by courageous and influential women from across the globe, including songs dedicated to Saudi Arabia’s first female film director Haifaa Al-Mansour, civil rights activist Ruby Bridges and the suffragettes.

IQ talks to Ahmed about upcoming concert dates, the instability faced by freelance musicians and the need for more female-led bands and composers.

 


How did you get your start in the industry?

The first big ‘gig’ for me was miming on a Manic Street Preachers music video when I was just 18. I was very excited and even though it was a miming gig, it gave me the courage to decide to become a professional musician even though I wasn’t sure what that would mean. I just had a love for music and knew I wanted to take it further.

What this meant was ten years of really hard work, studying all aspects of music, learning to play my instrument, exploring jazz and completing a Bachelor of Arts degree and a Masters in the process.

I said ‘yes’ to every gig I was offered, no matter what it was, to gain experience and also supplemented my income by teaching for Haringey and Merton music services in North London, and working as a music librarian in the offices of promotion and production company Raymond Gubbay.

I began composing whilst I was studying at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Some of those early compositions formed the basis of my first album, Finding My Way Home, released in 2011, and that became the start of my solo career.

“I was desperate to find a female role model in jazz and felt quite down not having anyone to look up to”

Can you tell me about your current projects?

Well, I’m really happy to be back on the road with my quartet after a break over the summer. We’ve got dates in France, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands coming up in the next couple of months.

The rest of the year revolves around putting together a tour to perform all the music from my new record, Polyhymnia, with a twelve-piece ensemble. I’ve assembled an amazing group of musicians, augmenting my regular Hafla band with players featured on the album and some very talented guests.

We have confirmed dates this November in York, Hull, Oxford and Cambridge, with some more to be announced soon for 2020.

I also have a couple of shows coming up with my side project, Electric Dreams, featuring the incredible vocal sculptor, Jason Singh, Swedish nu-prog guitar hero, Samuel Hällkvist and the world renowned American jazz drummer, Rod Youngs. We’ll be playing at the Jazz Cafe in London on 3 October and at Gosforth Theatre in Newcastle on 4 October. We’re sort of a secret, experimental band, exploring the margins between jazz and electronica. We only get together once or twice a year and the entire set is always completely improvised, so each gig will be a unique event!

“We’re sort of a secret, experimental band, exploring the margins between jazz and electronica”

Who, or what, have been the biggest influences on your career so far?

There are so many people that have inspired and encouraged me over the years that it’s difficult to single anybody out. However, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t come into contact with the pioneering oud player, Rabih Abou-Khalil, and trumpeters, Ingrid Jensen and Kenny Wheeler.

I discovered Ingrid in my early 20s. I was desperate to find a female role model in jazz and felt quite down not having anyone to look up to. I then found Ingrid who made me realise that it is possible for female trumpeters to have a career in jazz. Maybe it sounds a little silly but she made a huge psychological impact on my life, inspiring me to keep going, when I couldn’t see a way forward.

I have always loved Kenny Wheeler’s writing and playing. His sound is so unique, beautiful and with a sense of fragility that brings tears to my eyes. I remember watching his 80th birthday concert at the Royal Academy of Music and being in floods of tears throughout the whole performance! I couldn’t help it – it was so moving!

It was during my slightly obsessive search for any music that Kenny might be playing on that I came across the music of Rabih Abou-Khalil. Kenny featured on his album, Blue Camel, which combined Arabic music with jazz. Hearing this album was a life changing moment for me. It inspired me to create music that was reflective of my own mixed heritage, exploring the half remembered sounds of my childhood, and thus finding my own voice.

“It’s a much quoted truth but artists are usually their own worst critics and can be quite savage at times”

What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

I find that there are many rewards in music whether it’s bringing people and cultures together, making listeners feel something, or just contributing to the world’s spiritual growth.

It’s so wonderful hearing from audience members expressing what our performance meant to them. My biggest wish is to inspire others to be creative, to make just a small positive difference in the world.

And the most challenging?

It sounds a bit mundane but, as freelancers, we have no financial security beyond our next gig, no pension plan, no sick pay and this can make it difficult to plan for the future.

We spend a large amount of time on our own, whether that’s practising, composing, researching, or finding inspiration. This isolation can be tough at times and in many cases can lead to feelings of self-doubt and depression.

There’s also a lot of pressure on us to always produce excellence. Most of which comes from within ourselves. It’s a much quoted truth but artists are usually their own worst critics and can be quite savage at times.

It’s a stressful and all-consuming job, but at the same time it’s something I can’t imagine trading in for anything else. I’ll just keep going as long as there is still somebody who wants to listen to my music. Actually, I’ll probably just carry on even if I’m only entertaining my cat.

“I think that we need to lose the prefix ‘female’! When have you seen a gig advertised featuring an ‘all-male line-up’?”

What achievements would you say you were most proud of?

Well, my second album La Saboteuse has just been selected for the UNESCO Crossings Institute’s list of the most significant recordings of the 2010s. That’s pretty amazing for a record, much of which was recorded in my garage with two microphones.

What, if anything, do you think the music industry could do better?

Venues and festival could book more female-led bands. The industry could create projects that commission female composers, and offer support, encouragement and opportunities to students and professionals. I think that we also need to lose the prefix ‘female’! When have you seen a gig advertised featuring an ‘all-male line-up’? Sounds ridiculous, right?

What advice would you give to someone hoping to make it in live music/entertainment?

Work hard and study your craft – be the best ‘you’ you can be.
Be open minded to all music and be willing to learn from everybody.
Stay humble, be kind, carry a pencil with you and always arrive on time!

 


If you’d like to take part in a future Trailblazers interview, or nominate someone else for inclusion, email IQ’s news editor, Jon Chapple, on jon@iq-mag.net, or Anna Grace on anna@iq-mag.net.

DEAG reports 24% organic growth in Q1

Deutsche Entertainment AG (DEAG) has reported that its financial year 2019 is off to a strong start, showing high rates of organic growth and an increase in earnings compared to the previous year.

The German promoter and ticketing company recorded sales amounting to €25.5 million in Q1 2019 and a rise in EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation) to €1m, compared to €800,000 in the same period of the previous year.

For the remainder of the year, the executive board expects that investments in companies in the three core markets of Germany, England and Switzerland will generate further growth in sales and EBITDA. The investments are currently close to completion.

According to DEAG, the increase in sales in Q1 equates organic growth of almost 25%, after adjusting the previous year’s figure (€27m) for the sales contribution of Raymond Gubbay Limited (€6.5m).

DEAG sold its shares in UK-based show producer Raymond Gubbay Live to Sony Music Entertainment International Limited in 2018.

“The board expects that investments in companies in Germany, England and Switzerland will generate further growth”

The DEAG report states that all five of its divisions – rock/pop, arts and exhibitions, family entertainment, classical and jazz and ticketing – have contributed to growth.

The “excellent start” to the 2019 financial year follows a successful 2018 for the Berlin-based company. Preliminary figures show revenue amounting €200.2m, a 25% increase on the previous year, and a significant 123% growth in EBITDA.

In 2018, DEAG eliminated most of its minority holdings and joint ventures, acquiring all remaining shares (50%) in Swiss classical music promoter the Classical Company, as well as taking full control of DEAG Classics and ticketing platform MyTicket – the first ticketing agency in Germany to allow payment via Amazon Pay.

According to the International Ticketing Yearbook 2018, DEAG promotes around 4,000 concerts and events each year, selling more than five million tickets annually.

DEAG will publish its complete quarterly financial statement on its website tomorrow (Wednesday 29 May).

 


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DEAG agrees Sony deal for Classics and Raymond Gubbay

Berlin-based Deutsche Entertainment AG (DEAG) has agreed a deal with Sony Music Entertainment Germany whereby it will acquire 49% of DEAG Classics AG to take full control of the company. As part of the deal, DEAG is selling its shares in UK-based show producer Raymond Gubbay Live (RGL) to Sony Music Entertainment International Limited.

No financial details were disclosed, but DEAG says its ownership stake in London-based live music promoter Kilimanjaro Live will remain unaffected, while Kili itself says it will continue to work closely with RGL as they have done for several years on events such as the Kew the Music concert series and the Kevin and Karen Dance tour – both of which will return in 2019.

Kilimanjaro are currently having their most successful year ever with over 1m fans attending the record breaking Ed Sheeran stadium tour which has just finished. They have also recently seen huge success with their Live at Chelsea concert series which features an annual fireworks prom, which this year was a musical celebration of the works of Andrew Lloyd Webber marking his 70th Birthday. Last year Kilimanjaro promoted two special performances with Hans Zimmer and looking forward to later this year Kilimanjaro will see Andrea Bocelli play two sold out shows at the O2.

The transaction represents a first step for DEAG towards successively reducing minority interests with the aim of increasing the earnings per share for DEAG shareholders.

DEAG will now own 100% of the shares in DEAG Classics AG including the shareholding in The Classical Company AG (Switzerland).

DEAG executive Detlef Kornett says, “DEAG and I am grateful for the integrity, loyalty and the tremendous success we have experienced in partnering with RGL ltd, in particular with its senior management Debra Eagers, Anthony Findlay and Jonathan Marks and their staff. We have seen through a fundamental change to the business of RGL while profitability increased in our time and the transaction allows RGL to prosper and at the same time the DEAG Classics business to continue to thrive, also in the UK.

“We are actively looking now at opportunities overall in the UK market to continue on our tremendous growth path that DEAG has started in partnership with Kilimanjaro and also Flying Music Group.”

The transaction represents a first step for DEAG towards successively reducing minority interests with the aim of increasing the earnings per share for DEAG shareholders. Proceeds of this transaction are intended to further strengthen DEAG’s position in the UK, one of its two core markets, also by investing in and increasing activities of myticket.co.uk.

Kili boss Stuart Galbraith comments, “We will continue to enjoy the full support and the opportunities of collaboration within the DEAG Group, with Flying Music Group but also with RGL in the future. There are numerous opportunities for us to grow our business which we will be able to continue to exploit.”

 


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DEAG returns to profit after huge Q4

German promoter Deutsche Entertainment AG (DEAG) returned to profit in 2016, it revealed today, after a fourth quarter that proved to be its strongest in five years.

As predicted by its board in November, a focus on Christmas-themed family events delivered a huge Q4 for DEAG, with the final three months of the year generating revenue of €86.8 million – almost half the company’s 2016 earnings, and a 61% increase on the €53.9m it turned over in Q4 2015.

While provisional full-year revenue only increased slightly – €204.9m, from €200.4m in 2015 – earnings before taxes and interest (EBIT) jumped nearly 102%, with DEAG once again making a (small) profit after 2015’s €26.2m loss (initially estimated at -€17.8m), incurred by the launch of three new festivals (two of which have since since been cancelled).

Alongside Christmas events such as Christmas at Kew, Christmas at Blenheim and Christmas Garden Berlin, key to DEAG’s 2016 growth were strong performances by its non-German subsidiaries – particularly Kilimanjaro Live and classical music promoter Raymond Gubbay in the UK – and its multinational ticketing business, MyTicket.

Other major Q4 shows for DEAG included Disney on Ice and Marvel Universe Live! and tours by Böhse Onkelz, David Garrett (Raymond Gubbay) and Red Hot Chili Peppers (Kilimanjaro).

“Our strategy, with a clear focus on family entertainment, rock and pop, classics and jazz, arts and exhibitions, and ticketing, has been proven right”

“Our strategy, with a clear focus on family entertainment, rock and pop, classics and jazz, arts and exhibitions, and ticketing, has been proven right,” comments DEAG founder and CEO Peter Schwenkow.

“In addition to our strong presence in German-speaking countries, our UK business also paid off, with disproportionate organic growth, now accounting for around 35% of DEAG’s total sales. We want to carry this momentum forward and expand our UK business to as much as 40% in the medium term.”

Owing a “well-filled [event] pipeline”, a statement from the DEAG board says it is “looking optimistically into 2017”, predicting EBIT “in the medium-to-upper single-digit million euro range”.

A detailed 2016 financial report will be released on 28 April.

 


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