Live Nation UK boss argues that demanding punters presented bigger challenge than wet weather or economy to industry
It has been one of the most difficult years for concerts and festivals in living memory. Biblical deluges washed away tents, punters and profits at outdoor events and gigs have fallen prey to the struggling economy. But one of the biggest challenges music promoters faced in 2012 was picky customers who became increasingly difficult to please, say one of the leading figures in the UK live music industry.
After 25 years in the game, John Probyn, CEO of Live Nation UK – the British arm of the world’s biggest live music company – has seen the industry change almost beyond recognition. And the biggest shift, he told the Guardian, has been in the demands of music lovers themselves.
“The public are much pickier than they used to be. Fans now expect spectacular shows, with good quality sound and great entertainment – they are looking for that wow factor,” he said. If they feel that is missing, they are more than prepared to moan, he added.
“We’ve had people getting in touch to complain that it rained at an outdoor event. One group of girls got in touch because they were unhappy about standing on grass because they were wearing high heels that sunk into the ground,” he said. “But, you know, this is a customer-driven industry and the customer is always right.”
Probyn was speaking ahead of the UK Festival awards on Monday where he will receive a lifetime achievement award. “It makes me feel old,” said the radio advertising man turned Live Nation problem solver. “Don’t they usually give these things to people who are dead?”
One reason fans may be more demanding is a shift in age. According to a survey of 11,000 festival-goers by the awards, the age cohort that visited festivals most in 2012 were 51-60 year olds, averaging 2.19 events. The average for the under-21s was 1.75.
The Rolling Stones two 50th anniversary gigs at the O2, in London – where tickets were priced from £95 to £406 – sold out within seven minutes while the reunion of the original line-up of Take That was one of the biggest musical events of the year.
“With some bands it doesn’t seem to matter how high he ticket price is, it will sell out – and if it sells out there is a demand,” said Probyn. “There is nothing wrong with nostalgia, as long as it sells tickets.” But he added that Live Nation was investing in new talent, working with the Skills Academy to help young bands record videos to post on YouTube at cost price in some of promoter’s venues as well as putting on new talent at festivals.
“Are there big new bands out there? Probably not as many as there used to be. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be in the future – that’s just where the industry is at the moment,” he said. “On the main stage at Download the average age is probably 102, but on the other stages they are kids.”
This summer, Live Nation put on the largest series of live music events ever staged in a single year by one company in the UK. These included the soldout metal festival Download in Donnigton Park, Leicestershire, with headliners Metallica, Black Sabbath and The Prodigy, as well as a series of events during the London Olympic Games. But it was a very different story for many other smaller festival organisers. Festivals including Hop Farm, ATP and Bloc went into administration while others like The Big Chill, Sonisphere and M Fest were pulled. In a survey of more than 50 event organisers by the UK Festival awards two thirds found 2012 more difficult than 2011 – a situation that was not helped by the wettest April, July, August and September for 100 years.
It was a tough year, and 2013 was likely to see more smaller events fall by the wayside, said Probyn. “There was a time six to seven years ago when everybody thought you could put on a festival, the more quirky the better. But the ones that have survived have been consistent and given the whole experience,” he said.
Probyn denied Live Nation has a stranglehold on the live music market. “All promoters are seen as the big bad wolf and we are the biggest and it is really simple to aim at the largest target,” he said. The firm has a stake in most major music festivals and medium-sized London music venues, as well as controlling a large chunk of ticket sales after merging with Ticketmaster.
He also dismissed the suggestion that Live Nation had become too big, adding that greater control of the market enabled the company to reduce ticket prices, artist fees and the cost of a beer and give a better deal for its customers. “I’d like to be bigger, I’d like to have more control,” he said.