Saturday, 22 February 2014

Wireless: Birmingham's biggest ever Festival

I hear local mutterings, and ruffling of feathers. Big bad Wireless Festival is coming to Brum. Get real - this is serious business, and we should get a slice.

The Largest Music Promoters In The UK, Live Nation, are plonking their flagship brand, Wireless Festival, down in Birmingham this summer. Two simultaneous festivals rotating line-ups between London and Brum over three days. This makes it, by a long chalk the biggest music event in the city: 150,000 paying customers in Perry Park over three days.

This happened without the knowledge or involvement of anyone involved in any of the well-meaning council-sponsored or other bodies trying to push the local music scene forward. Fait accompli, done deal, we're coming, thank you very much. That's business 

So is this a bad thing? I don't really think so. It's how the music industry operates when it's set up to run on an industrial scale. And maybe we should think about building links. The big boys don't need us and our local scene. But we could sure do with touting our wares on a big stage. And there are grounds for optimism.

No, not Perry Park/ This is Donington Park. home of Download
John Probyn is Live Nation's Chief Operating Officer, an old colleague and pal from decades back at local radio. He's not a cigar-chewing musicbiz monster, he doesn't – well, to my knowledge. he doesn't - hang people out the window to get contract releases, or any of that stuff. He is a business man who runs a very slick, very professional operation. Live Nation was once part of Clear Channel, the gigantic San Antonio, Texas mega-corporation with radio, TV, billboard venue and promotion interests. They take no prisoners; I know this from personal experience at RCS, a New York radio software house they gobbled up. I get the feeling that Live Nation is now.... gentler. But it's still a monster business. 

It's a long way from running roadshows for local radio to being CEO of a ginormous live gigs setup. 
John "I joined the old BRMB as a salesman. I ended up looking after all the London agencies that dealt with local radio. The agency man asked me if we had a roadshow/ I said, 'yeah, sure'. How much did I want for it? I said fifteen grand. So we got booked at Alexander Stadium to do a roadshow, paid for by the sponsors.
Signed the deal, went back and called my boss... 'Have we got a roadshow? I came back, went in the station warehouse with the engineers. We had a caravan with a foldout stage. 
On the day, I met with the clients at Perry Park. We had a sports guy, a DJ and an engineer... I looked at it and thought: 'I'm charging them fifteen grand for this?'. It looked like a pile of poo, So I moaned at the managing director until he took me off sales, and made me head of events."

Cue a string of events for the station and others in the group, all juicily sponsored up to pay for a decent rig, and leading to a solid couple of years of event management with bigger and bigger events around Birmingham and the West Midlands. In due course, John split from BRMB to form his own company, with BRMB as a primary client.
John continued: "Then twelve years ago, Clear Channel started up in the UK. They bought out the four major promoters in the country. They put them together in a room - and suddenly realised that these guys has been enemies for 25 years, and hated the sight of each other. 
My name came up, because I'd worked with all of them. So Clear Channel bought me up too, and installed me as Operations Director. I was basically the referee. And it worked, because I'd got on with everybody. So that meant I could go do this project, or that project – and they would let me." 
And the festivals?
"We started doing those about ten years ago, and it's grown and grown – now it's the biggest part of our business. And for me, the biggest kick in the world is to walk out to the side of a stage, and look out at a crowd of fifty or seventy thousand people." 
OK – Wireless is coming to Birmingham. Why?
"It could have been Manchester or Sheffield - great towns - but I'm the boss, I come from Birmingham. And Birmingham is a huge and vibrant market. So I overruled everybody!"
Limitations? It's a residential area
"We are limited to 50,000, same as London. I just felt with the line-up we're looking at this year, it's very Urban. Drake, Kanye... but we also have big pop acts too like Bruno Mars. With a festival, there's thirty, forty other acts on, ranging from those you hear every day to those you really don't know about. As an up and coming artist, it is so difficult to break through/ Festivals can help those acts. Radio used to champion new artists. You did, and John Slater as well. That doesn't happen any more" 
That's nice of you to say. But in that sense, you are no different to Moseley or Green Man. Except that... you're really big. 
"I'm chairing a session at the IMC (International Music Conference) in a couple of weeks. One of the questions is – all those old bands who come out after thirty years and do the festival circuit are starting to dry up now. So who are the headliners of the future? The concern for us as an industry is to identify those acts early, and bring them up. Starting in boutique festivals, and theatres, and building up. Move on to arenas, headliners, stadiums."
What about fringe stages for local acts? 
"We do that a lot. We work with a record label or a local promoter. We've already been bombarded in this area. But I think the Birmingham music scene has never ever been better – great bands, great venues - and it's through working in live promotion that I've seen this. It's more than I expected it to be."

So there you have it. Maybe there's an opportunity here. The man is interested. I've always believed in a continuum. A continuous unbroken link from local talent up to national, whether it's at radio or music, or indeed any other creative area. New talent talking to established talent, learning and sharing. It may be idealistic, but it's also realistic if you do it right. I'd love to see the best of our talent rubbing shoulders with Kanye West. But maybe that's a trifle too idealistic. 

There's a chance to see that happen, here, at Wireless, this summer. Fingers crossed. It might launch some careers.

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1 comment:

Tim Parsons said...

Perfect business for Birmingham, absolutely no risk to the council, only income and kudos. They waste quite enough on, so called, cultural events, that fly over the head of Joe Schmo, attract very few at massive cost per head, however, tick the box of "culture"!