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…
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.
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.
Continue reading this feature in the digital edition of IQ 77, or subscribe to the magazine here
Agent Steve Strange passes
Renowned booking agent and X-ray co-founder Steve Strange has passed away after a short illness.
A statement issued last night from X-ray reads: “We have lost a legendary figure in our personal and professional lives that we will all deeply miss.
“Steve was a unique individual within our industry, his overwhelming love of music lead to a 30 year plus career guiding the touring of an eclectic mix of artists from all genres of music that he adored. A universally known, hugely respected and loved character – if you hadn’t already seen him at a gig or festival, you’d most certainly hear his infectious and infamous laugh.
“Steve had the best ears in the agency business, signing and developing the careers of countless world class Artists from small club venues to vast international multi-stadium tours.
“He will always be remembered with love by his friends & colleagues at X-ray and the world over.”
“The life and soul of every occasion, a music man to the core and dedicated to his clients, friends and family.”
Tributes to the agent began flooding social media from Friday night (24 Sept.). Amongst those, was CAA’s Emma Banks, who wrote that Strange was “a truly good and loving person without a bad bone in his body. The life and soul of every occasion, a music man to the core and dedicated to his clients, friends and family. If you knew him you will understand why everyone is devastated by his passing and if you didn’t know him you missed out big time.”
Siren Artist Management’s Adam Parsons says: “His talent and expertise coupled with his never ending enthusiasm has made him one of the World’s leading music executives and one of the most loved beings I have ever known.”
Paradigm’s Rob Challice wrote, “His enthusiasm for music and life was contagious and inspirational. He changed the world around him. I can’t believe we’ll never hear that big laugh of his again.”
“His enthusiasm for music and life was contagious and inspirational. He changed the world around him.”
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.
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.
Strange later 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,” he 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.”
Strange moved to Adam Parson’s Big Rock Inc, and then to Prestige Artists working with Clive Underhill Smith and Rob Hallett. In 1992 he moved back to Northern Ireland promoting at the Limelight with Eamonn McCann. The move led to one of his biggest breaks when he discovered a trio of school kids, Ash, becoming the band’s agent and working with Rob Challice at Forward Artist Booking.
“His talent and expertise coupled with his never ending enthusiasm has made him one of the world’s leading music executives.”
Feeling the need to work at a larger agency, Strange moved to John Giddings’ Solo, before another move to Fair Warning/Waster Talent where he met fellow X-ray founders Ian Huffam and Jeff Craft. Adding Scott Thomas and Martin Horne to the mix, the five individuals launched X-ray in 2005, fast becoming one of the UK’s most respected booking agencies.
Strange was renowned for signing and developing US artists. “I’ve always listened to American music, and a lot of the bands I liked when I was younger were from the United States,” he told IQ in 2018. His relationship with Interscope Records’ label head Martin Kierszenbaum and A&R chief Don Robinson led to an introduction with Eminem, who alongside Queens of the Stone Age became a cornerstone of an eclectic roster that included Coldplay, Maximo Park, Feeder, Snow Patrol, The Charlatans, Jimmy Eat World and more, many booked with longtime colleague Josh Javor.
Strange was a longstanding ILMC member, and in March had picked up the top agent award (‘second least offensive agent’) in a special decade showdown at the Arthur Awards. Strange had topped the category twice before. He appeared in person to collect the gong at the Royal Albert Hall, thanking his clients, and “all the people at Team Strange and Xray Touring who’ve all had a very difficult year but we’re getting through it.”
More recently, in May, X-ray announced a strategic partnership with New York-based AGI, part of the Y Entertainment Group, which also includes UK agency K2. “I am personally excited and delighted by our renewed joint venture partnership with my good friend Ron Burkle and the Yucaipa group,” said Strange of the announcement. “I am also looking forward to our new strategic partnership with AGI in the US.”
Fellow X-ray director Adam ‘Rad’ Saunders posted, “Friend, ally, mentor and the single most influential person in my career. Steve was an irrepressible juggernaut of a person. Full of passion, talent and a ridiculous laugh. I will miss him hugely. I can’t really imagine a music business without Steve in it. It leaves a hole so big it cannot be filled.”
In May 2018, to celebrate Strange’s 50th birthday, IQ published a surprise feature article with comment and congratulations from many of his friends and colleagues.
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More breakthrough moments: Industry pros’ career turning points
Hard work, knowing the right people and a slice of good luck can all play a part in getting a proper footing on the career ladder.
IQ Magazine puts some more ILMC regulars in the spotlight and asks them to share their breakthrough moments…
Steve Strange, X-ray Touring
I’d been involved with Ash for a couple of years, but I remember going to the Astoria for the first time with them and standing on the balcony with their manager, Stephen ‘Tav’ Taverner, and having a pint as we cheered them on.
The band were still at school when I first got involved – in fact, we had to build them and plan all their releases around the school holidays, so tours and promos would take place in the Easter break and summer holidays.
But Ash was the first act that I properly helped to break, so standing in the Astoria, in a venue where I’d been so many times myself as a fan at other acts’ shows, was something really special indeed.
Twenty-six years later, my roster has grown, and Tav also manages the likes of Alt-J, Kodaline and Wolf Alice. We both still represent Ash, who we’re really close with – Tim and Mark occasionally stay with me when they’re in town from New York.
Standing in the Astoria, in a venue where I’d been so many times myself as a fan at other acts’ shows, was something really special indeed
Marie Lindqvist, Stockholm Live
I started my career in the tourism industry working in marketing for some of the major tour operators, such as TUI, and for a group of amusement parks. In 2006, I was recruited for the role of marketing director at Ericsson Globe, the 14,000-seat multi-venue in Stockholm. I had never imagined I would end up in sports and music, so this was a whole new world to me, even though there are similar challenges and opportunities – and arenas and events are certainly an important part of the tourism industry.
AEG took over the operation of the arena from the city in 2008, and all of a sudden I was part of a leading global entertainment company – such a fantastic opportunity! I learned so much and I got to meet so many experienced and smart people from the different areas of our businesses across the globe.
After a few years, I was recruited back to the travel industry, but in 2014 I got a message from Richard Krezwick, who was overseeing all the European arenas for AEG, asking if I would like to have a coffee next time he was in Stockholm. Whilst sitting in the sun overlooking the Royal Palace, he asked me if I wanted to come back to AEG and take over as general manager for Ericsson Globe and the new Tele2 Arena, which had opened in 2013. I was thrilled and nervous about the big job but excited to be back at AEG and in the entertainment industry. Since then we have also taken over the operation of Friends Arena and now operate a group of five arenas and stadiums in Sweden. We do about 320 events with three million ticket buyers annually.
It was not where I thought I was heading in my 20s, but I am so happy to be a part of this amazing industry where the worlds of music, sports, real estate, sponsorship, tourism, food and beverage and much more meet in an exciting mix.
Everything I have today is all down to John Sherry giving me back that £200 and convincing me to become an agent
Carl Leighton-Pope, The Leighton Pope Organisation
In 1977, the band I was managing, Sassafras, split up and everyone was broke. I was 25 years old and married with four kids, living in Cardiff, but I owed an agent in London £200 and I couldn’t bear the thought of being in debt, so I caught the train to the capital to give the late John Sherry his money.
When I was in his office, he asked me what I was going to do next, but at that time I didn’t have a clue – I just knew I needed to earn some money to feed my family. He thought about it for a few minutes, then handed me the £200 back and urged me to become an agent, offering me a job for £40 a week, starting the following Monday.
So I travelled back to Wales to give my wife, Pamela, the good/bad news from my trip. She was delighted that we still had the £200, but when I told her about my new job, she said, “But darling, we don’t live in London; we live in Cardiff.” Her mother had a one-bedroom flat in Notting Hill and was kind enough to let me sleep on her sofa during the week, then I’d travel back to Cardiff on a Friday evening with my £40.
Pretty quickly, though, I signed the Motors, then Dire Straits, Simple Minds and Patti Smith, and before I knew it, all the other agencies were asking me to come and work for them.
But everything I have today is all down to John Sherry giving me back that £200 and convincing me to become an agent – I could never repay him for the faith he showed in me and I’m forever grateful.
Show Patrol: Inside Snow Patrol’s live comeback
Back in October 2012, when Snow Patrol were nearing the end of their hugely successful year-long Fallen Empires tour, their manager Peter Mensch flew out to see them play in Santiago, Chile, and offered some choice advice to the Northern Irish rock band.
“I said to them, ‘Gee, let’s not wait three years to make another record,’” he recalls.
Snow Patrol evidently took the advice to heart, as they didn’t take three years to make a follow-up to Fallen Empires. They took seven. “That was not part of the plan,” deadpans Mensch. “They are the band that’s taken longer off than any band I’ve ever managed, so I’m learning on the job. There isn’t a playbook: Seven-year Absences for Dummies.”
The reason for the group’s prolonged withdrawal, singer-songwriter Gary Lightbody explained last year, was down to his personal struggles with writer’s block, depression and alcoholism. Thankfully, the singer gradually overcame his demons, which helped provide the creative fuel for Wildness, Snow Patrol’s seventh studio album, which was released last May, debuting at No. 2 in the United Kingdom, topping the charts in Ireland, and becoming a top-ten hit throughout Europe.
Having not played live in almost five years, 2018 also saw the long overdue return of Snow Patrol to the touring market, beginning with a small run of 900- to 2,000-capacity shows in England, Ireland and America. They were followed by some European festival dates and a three-month stretch supporting Ed Sheeran on a sell-out run of US stadiums. In December, the band kicked off its own European arena tour, which included sell-out shows at Belfast’s SSE Arena, Arena Birmingham, Dublin’s 3Arena, Glasgow’s The SSE Hydro, London’s The O2 and Amsterdam’s Ziggo Dome, as well as dates at Hamburg’s Barclaycard Arena and Berlin’s Velodrom.
“I didn’t know if we’d be able to be as big as we were in 2012. Or if we’d be smaller. Or how much smaller”
“I didn’t know what to expect,” admits Mensch about the Wildness Tour, which continues throughout 2019 and includes 21 dates in North America; headline shows in Dubai, Mexico, Colombia, Paraguay, Chile, Brazil, and Argentina; as well as European festival dates and a 33,000-capacity homecoming concert at Ward Park, in the band’s hometown of Bangor, Northern Ireland.
“I didn’t know if we’d be able to be as big as we were in 2012. Or if we’d be smaller. Or how much smaller,” continues Mensch. “When your last dates are six years apart in some cases, you don’t know [if the fan base is still there]. As your audience gets older they get tougher to motivate… [Snow Patrol] could have just disappeared altogether.”
“When a band is away for seven years there’s always a little bit of a grey area as to what they are going to come back to, especially with such a changed landscape in the industry,” says X-ray Touring’s Steve Strange, who has been Snow Patrol’s agent since their second album, 2001’s When It’s All Over We Still Have To Clear Up, when the band was playing 80- to 200-capacity rooms. Breakthrough album Final Straw, released two years later, and its 4 million-selling follow-up Eyes Open, featuring the huge global hit Chasing Cars, made Snow Patrol one of the UK’s biggest touring rock bands. They’re popularity may have dipped slightly in the years since then, but they’re still a major touring force around the world, as the success of their latest tour proves.
“They don’t have a fickle audience. It’s a very loyal one and my prediction has proved correct,” notes Strange, who says he was “never concerned” about the band’s ability to still move tickets, despite their lengthy time out of the spotlight. “They’re a band that has got a great legacy of hits and that has come back with a very strong record. I’m very happy with where we are. We’re in very good shape for a band that has let a seven-year gap happen between cycles.”
“When a band is away for seven years there’s always a little bit of a grey area as to what they are going to come back to”
X-why-z’s Christian Vadillo-Bilda, who promoted five shows in Germany, notes, “It was hard to predict in the beginning which level of venue we should go for, as the band has been away for such a long time. So we decided to go for a mixture of 5,000-capacity venues to arenas in some markets, and it worked well. We sold out the ‘smaller’ venues and did up to 7,000 tickets on the bigger shows.”
Before Snow Patrol could return to the road, however, a comprehensive review of the band’s live set-up was required, explains long-standing tour manager Neil Mather. “The technology had changed so much in the six years they had been away from touring. We went to the lock-up and there was equipment there that was at least twice the size of what it now is. The backline pretty much required a complete rebuild from top to bottom along with a re-evaluation of the whole set-up.”
Rehearsals subsequently took place in London at Music Bank and SW19 at the start of 2018, ahead of the band’s keenly anticipated live return at London’s Islington Assembly Hall on 11 April 2018, swiftly followed by dates at New York’s Irving Plaza and Hollywood’s Fonda Theater. From there, the band travelled to Ireland for a brief run of intimate club and theatre shows before jetting back to America, where they spent three months performing to over a million people as the main support on Ed Sheeran’s gigantic stadium tour. The invite to open for Sheeran came direct from the singer, who supported the band on their 2012 Fallen Empires Tour and has written a number of songs with Snow Patrol’s Johnny McDaid.
For Snow Patrol, “the Sheeran tour was a fantastic opportunity to reposition the band in the States,” says Strange, who credits it with boosting ticket sales for the group’s headline run of US shows in April and May, many of which have since sold out. As well as reacquainting American audiences with Snow Patrol, the Sheeran trek also gave members and crew the chance to work on plans for their own headline tour.
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