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Rock in the USSR: SAV Entertainment at 30

Russia, to quote American writer Ralph Peters, has “long been a land of contradictions layered upon contradictions.” Straddling East and West, democracy and absolutism, collectivism and capitalism, the world’s largest country has always been a nation of stark contrasts – and never more so than in 1987.

Thirty years ago, as the ruling Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) celebrated the 70th anniversary of the October revolution, Russian society stood at a crossroads. A year earlier, general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev had used the 27th congress of the CPSU to introduce a range of reforms, including glasnost (openness), perestroika (restructuring) and demokratizatsiya (democratisation), paving the way for reduced state censorship, a degree of political liberalisation, and, ultimately, the fall of the Soviet Union and an independent Russia’s transition to a market economy.

Not, then, the kind of stable political environment in which most people would think to start a new company – especially one engaged in the inherently risky business of promoting live music – but then Nadia Solovieva, co-founder and CEO of Moscow-based SAV Entertainment, isn’t most people.

Solovieva, for four decades the matriarch of the Russian live music industry, tells IQ that SAV was initially conceived as a vehicle for promoting Russian artists in the West, capitalising on the USSR’s appeal to capitalist audiences amid the glasnost-era thaw in East–West relations. “The initial idea for SAV was the opposite of what it eventually became,” she explains. “Russia was hip at the time! But we gradually realised there wasn’t much of a business there, and started bringing foreign artists to Russia instead.”

Solovieva cut her promotion teeth at Gosconcert, the Soviet state concert monopoly, where she worked in the late 1970s and early 80s as a tour manager and translator. The first Western artist she worked with at Gosconcert was Elton John, who toured Russia with Harvey Goldsmith in 1979. Solovieva has promoted Sir Elton on numerous occasions since (he played the 7,500-cap. Crocus City Hall in Moscow with SAV on 14 December), but the British singer’s famous first visit to Russia – which set the stage for a lasting friendship between Solovieva and Goldsmith – was actually something of an accident, as the latter recalls.

“Elton went onstage [at Wembley] in 1977 and announced he was never going to tour again,” explains Goldsmith. “Later, we had lunch and he said, ‘I’ve got a new album coming out and I’ve promised to do a show in Paris for the record company – but I’m not touring.’

“Before then, there were no businesses except those owned by the state – even the word ‘business’ was new!”

“Over lunch, he kept saying, ‘I’m not touring, I’m not going to all those places I normally go,’ and that he wanted to play new places: Russia, Israel, Egypt… In the end, ‘not touring’ ended up being 18 months on the road!”

New beginnings
The genesis of SAV – originally Seabeko Alla Venture, after the company’s initial partners, Canadian investment firm Seabeco Group and singer Alla Pugacheva – came in 1987 when Gorbachev legalised private enterprise. Unlike their counterparts in Europe and North America, Russia’s fledgling promoters had little experience of the international live music industry – and, crucially, even less experience running a business, with private enterprise having been illegal since Stalin’s abolition of the New Economic Policy in 1928.

“We were, all of us together, learning how things worked,” Solovieva explains. “Before then, there were no businesses except those owned by the state – even the word ‘business’ was new, for God’s sake!

“Of course, now everything is here: the hotels, the transfers, the infrastructure… The only thing the promoter has to have is the ability to be music-orientated – and have money, of course. But when we started out, we had to learn everything from scratch.”

 


Continue reading this feature in the digital edition of IQ 75: