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Probing The Nation
21 April 2010 10.05 BST
Ahead of Donington Park’s 30th anniversary as a rock music site, Live Nation’s COO John Probyn reflects on its highs and lows, reveals why he wishes Sonisphere all the best and offers his opinion on why the company comes under constant fire, in an interview with Rachel Esson.
He works for the biggest live music promoter in the UK, whose strategies for market domination cause constant controversy, but although John Probyn’s position constantly thrusts him into the firing line, he’s convinced he has the best job in the world.
Sandwiched between back-to-back meetings on a typically manic Monday, I catch some time with Live Nation’s chief operating officer for UK music at the company’s central London office.
During our photo shoot, Probyn explains that the straight face is to maintain the “grumpy” stereotype that some people often have of him, although many industry sources would insist he is an amiable, solid guy. He’s certainly jovial when we start talking about Donington Park’s upcoming 30th anniversary as an iconic rock venue.
“I can guarantee it’s something that no festival has ever seen before in terms of the layout, the set-up, the production, everything,” he says. “I’ve always wanted people to walk into my arena and go ‘wow that looks fantastic’.”
Live Nation has already scored a major coup by securing a rare festival appearance by rock gods AC/DC at Download, but Probyn promises it will be a special year for many reasons.
“This is the band that never does festivals, but it’s 30 years of Donington, 30 years of ‘Back In Black’ and Maurice Jones, God rest his soul, who was one of the guys that started Monsters Of Rock all those years ago, died last year. Maurice helped to get me into the business so the timing was right and they truly want to put on a spectacular show.”
Probyn remains cagey about the specifics of their show — you’ll be able to read the production report in a forthcoming issue of TPi later this summer — but says they have whittled down the options to two different stage designs, one of which has never been seen before, “or at least not for a very long time”.
He says: “It’s not easy; they’re the biggest band in the world and as you would expect they have certain criteria that we have to fulfil. If you take a festival stage and compare that to what AC/DC have on tour, it’s like chalk and cheese.
“They do, however, have one of the most experienced production managers in the whole world, Opie [Dale Skjerseth], who is very aware that when they finish on Friday night, we have two days of a festival to run on Saturday and Sunday. Because of our relationship from stuff we’ve done in the past, there’s mutual respect.”
Given that Donington has been considered the spiritual home of rock for three decades, through its beginnings as Monsters Of Rock and its successor Download, you’d imagine that the site lends itself well to a festival production and thousands upon thousands of fans. But on the contrary, the location has presented its own challenges to Probyn’s team over the years.
“When they started Monsters Of Rock, it was a no brainer that it had to be in the Midlands and it’s maintained that crowd. But if you look at Donington Park for the first time it would be one of the last places on earth you would consider for a rock concert. It’s been designed as a race track and trying to shoehorn a festival for 80,000 people in there is almost impossible, but we’ve managed to do it.”
Due to work being carried out on the race track, Probyn moved Download to one of Donington’s car parks in 2008, fuelling a backlash from unhappy fans complaining about the tarmac and uneven surfaces. Probyn admits this move was “a big mistake... but we’re good at holding our hands up when we’re wrong.
“When Sonisphere first came out we were a bit bent out of shape as we tried to compete with them, but Download is successful and part of me wishes Sonisphere all the best, because if you have two successful rock music concerts in the market, it’s to the audience’s benefit.”
Is the market big enough for two major rock festivals? “It was last year and it is this year, so clearly yes. We realised we needed to just turn round, stick to what we do and get on with it.”
Probyn rectified the site situation the following year by discovering a new area of Donington Park that had never been considered before. It was whilst driving to a meeting that he glanced down and spotted the sloping meadow — a moment of epiphany so profound that he had the whole team down to the site 24 hours later to check it out.
The 2009 festival site was a hit with artists and die-hard fans alike, and marked a new stage in Donington’s life as a rock music nerve centre. This year will see bigger crowds than ever before, with early bird tickets selling at record speed. It will also be the Download début for Them Crooked Vultures and the first UK Stone Temple Pilots show for almost nine years.
There may be room in the market for two rock festivals, but Probyn believes the mainstream UK festival market — that currently encompasses V, T In The Park, Reading and Leeds — has reached saturation point.
He comments: “I think the other market is the Bestivals, Latitudes and Big Chills. That’s where people think there’s a killing to be made, but I’m not convinced.
“All those I’ve mentioned are phenomenally successful and we have looked at competing with them, but we decided against it because it’s tough at the moment.
“It’s not just about getting the kids, it’s about the headliners. If we went on sale without a band at Download we could probably sell 10,000 tickets to hardcore fans regardless of who was on, but most wait to see the bill.”
Live Nation aimed to break into a new market this year with its plans for Playaway, a holiday-camp festival at Butlins in Skegness, which was planned for this month.
Probyn cites the official reason for the cancellation as “unforeseen circumstances” before going on to explain that had they gone ahead with the festival, it could well have turned out to be another mistake.
The idea was to create a fun weekend for like-minded people who wanted to enjoy not only live music but also wild and wacky activities, much like a modern version of 18-30s holidays. However, launching into the unknown proved more difficult than expected.
“I remember thinking we should stick to what we know,” says Probyn. “And to be honest if we’d have done it blindfolded we couldn’t have done it any worse than we did. We were a bit inexperienced in terms of the market, the venue, the whole idea, we thought ‘how hard can it be’ but you do it and find out it’s incredibly difficult.
“Rather than push ahead, lose money and it be a real pain for everybody, we decided not to do it. I still think the market’s there but we just didn’t have our ducks in a row.”
Probyn confirms there are no further plans for new festivals until the economy and marketplace improve. Looking to the future, I ask him how he sees festivals in the year 2020.
“What were festivals like in 2000?” he counters. “Not that much different to how they are now. You’ve got events like Bestival that are different, but I can’t imagine them changing that much from how they are now.
“I think the campsite is one area that will change; you can’t throw a few people in a field with toilets in the corner anymore, you have to pay attention.
“Also people want to be entertained 24 hours a day, so you can’t just close the fun fair at midnight and hope that everybody goes to bed, you have to make sure there’s something there to entertain.”
Probyn boldly states that all festivals will be cashless by 2020 — a scheme that he has persistently endorsed for over three years. Despite initial protest on Live Nation’s customer forums, he believes he has convinced around 90% of them that it is a good idea.
He explains: “It costs money to protect the tills behind bars, food concessions, markets and merchandising, run them, collect the cash and move it, so if we can centralise that cash operation and give the punter the opportunity to buy in advance, top up their wristband online, via text or a machine, or phone their parents at home, it’s much more effective.”
Following the success of Melvin Benn’s trial cashless system at Norway’s Hove festival last year, Probyn hopes to test it out in the VIP section at Download this year and roll it out across the site next year if it proves beneficial.
Overseeing Download has been one of Probyn’s key responsibilities since he joined Live Nation in 2001, as well as Hard Rock Calling and the Wireless festival in Hyde Park.
But following his promotion from festival director to COO in December 2008, he is now also in charge of all aspects of production, planning and touring logistics for the entire company in the UK, covering some of the biggest live events like Live 8, Live Earth and the World Music Awards, as well as local production and venue management.
He has said in the past that he works with what he considers to be the “best team of people in the industry”, to which he remains very loyal.
“For everything we do we stick with the same suppliers, until they let me down or stitch me up on price, which is very rare. We demand a lot from our suppliers, but it’s because we want to keep pushing the boundaries. I don’t believe in giving everything to the same people so we spread the work around amongst a pool of suppliers,” says Probyn, who is 50 this year.
Some of Probyn’s lasting relationships with suppliers — see boxout — stem from his early days of organising events, which was a career path that he fell into.
After leaving school and running away to join the Royal Navy for five years, he went on to run several pubs in the Midlands until a doctor came in for a drink one day and asked him if he could sell a few radio pagers.
“He asked me to sell a few, but I sold thousands,” he explains. “It was my first introduction into sales and I loved it. I had the gift of the gab and I sold everything from mobile phones to ads in the Yellow Pages, and then I got into commercial radio where I ended up selling sponsorship, which linked in with events.”
He gradually had more requests to fulfil the events themselves, the first major one being Capital Radio’s relaunch of BRB Radio in Birmingham in 1993, which proved to be a massive learning curve.
“We put on Party In The Square in central Birmingham and we were expecting 8-10,000 people, but 60,000 people turned up and brought Birmingham to a grinding halt! It got a lot of press coverage for BRB!” he remembers.
He continues: “It’s been a long time since I worked in what I call the plumbing end of the industry. But it’s still very important to me, as are the people that work in it.”
It is perhaps Probyn’s understanding of the needs of the industry combined with his on-the-money sales streak that have propelled him to such heights within the music industry’s biggest corporate company.
He admits that in the early days Live Nation made “no secret about its desire for world domination” and it’s fair to say that this provokes criticism from some industry corners.
As well as doing 360° deals with Madonna, Jay-Z and U2, managing their record sales, touring and promotion, Live Nation is also on the brink of merging with Ticketmaster. Whilst the former reportedly stages between 10-20% of the UK’s live music events, the latter handles around 45% of live music ticket sales in Britain.
The merger is still awaiting clearance from the Competition Commission in the UK before it goes ahead and Probyn claims this deal will be one of Live Nation’s good moves.
“It’s either a good move or a bad move for the industry depending on your position, but everyone involved in Live Nation can see the benefits, especially for the punter.”
Similarly with the 360° artist deals, Probyn ascertains that Live Nation always has the interest of the artists and punters at the forefront of its decisions.
“Labels have gone from being the common nucleus to the outsider and are desperately trying to play catch up and compete with us, but one thing they can’t do is touring side and that’s where the artists are making their money.”
So why does Live Nation come under constant fire? Is it down to jealousy, or do people want to see live music remain a cottage industry? Probyn thinks it is probably both.
“Listen, we’re the big guys and the big guys are always the ones that everyone wants to have a pop at. We’ve made some bold moves in the past and that puts you in the firing line for criticism from certain people,” he says.
“There will always be cottage industries in music. There has to be and that’s what makes it work, but it’s a very competitive market and there’s nobody these days more demanding than the public, who expect certain elements to be spot on. We have to pay attention.”
Our time is up and Probyn jumps from his chair. “I’ve got a meeting to discuss how the company would cope in the event of a terrorist attack in London and work out how we’d operate if we had to abandon the office for a few months. It’s not all rock’n’roll, you know.”
Photography: Live Nation,
Stuart Alexander, Plaster PR
& Mark Cunningham/TPi Archive
Click here to watch Monsters of Rock and Download promoters and artists celebrating 30 years of Donington Park as a rock music site:
SUPPORTING THE NATION
John Probyn would like to thank the following for their valued contributions to Live Nation festivals:
SSE Audio Group • Britannia Row
Productions • Star Events Group •
PRG • Stage Miracles • SEP • APL •
Ryans • Search • XL Video •
Creative Technology • Upfront •
G Force • G4S • Showsec •
D&J Catering • Eat To The Beat •
Eat Your Hearts Out • Vanguardia •
Stage Audio Services • NRB •
Clockwork • PTG Productions •
Stageco • Steelshield •
Power Logistics • Temp Site •
Rosie Babbington • Templine •
Buffalo • GLD • Mar-Key • Entertee •
Cash On The Move • SWB •
Concept Products • Rolling Stains •
Stage Wolves • HSS •
Rock City Stage Crew • Showstars •
SFC • SGB Event Link