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January 2011 Issue 137
DF Concerts' CEO Geoff Ellis speaks to Rachel Esson about why his recent lifetime achievement award by no means spells the end of his career...
It was hard to get close to Geoff Ellis at the UK Festival Awards last November to arrange this interview as so many people were vying to shake his hand. I, too, was eager to congratulate the DF Concerts CEO on his Lifetime Achievement Award. But once the tall Scotsman left the stage, after giving a charismatic acceptance speech in his trademark gravelly voice, he became slightly overwhelmed.
After the indigO2 event, it proved even harder to pin down the festival promoter; a testament to his demanding schedule no doubt. He not only oversees one of the UK’s biggest festival brands, the 85,000-capacity T In The Park, but is also responsible for The Edge Festival (part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe) and the success of Scotland’s biggest promoter, DF Concerts.
When we finally made contact, I was surprised to find that when questioned about the UK Festival Awards he made no mention of his prestigious accolade. Instead, he detailed how little he drank this year and praised the event.
“I have always felt it is important to support the Awards because they support the people who work hard on festivals and none of us get the chance to kick back and have a few beers at our events, so it is nice to do it once a year when the summer’s over,” he said.
Even when I probed Ellis on his own award, he refused to look back on his success and acknowledge what a great amount he had achieved. “I think it is always more important to look forward than to look back, and I am not looking to retirement just yet.”
I doubt many would have jumped to this conclusion. In fact anyone who knows Ellis well enough would agree that to have achieved what he has throughout his working life is deserving of an award, no matter how far along in a career.
Encouraging him to talk about his early years, I asked Ellis what it was about the music industry that first enticed him to work within it. His response was typically self-effacing: “I got into it probably because I wasn’t much good at anything else! I was lucky enough to have an opportunity in it and just carried on,” he explained.
“I was involved in helping out with entertainment as a student at Middlesex Polytechnic so when the entertainments manager’s job came up it was a great opportunity.”
KING TUT’S WAH WAH HUT
An advertisement in Music Week for a promoter position at Glasgow live music venue King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut was to change his life in 1992. “I was in a bit of a lull career-wise, so I thought I would give it a go,” said Ellis. When I visited the venue, I got a great feeling from it and all the people involved.”
Over the last two decades, Ellis has been integral in developing King Tut’s as a seminal launch platform for the music stars of the future and creating its reputation as one of the UK’s most friendly and accommodating concert venues.
The key to its continued success, he said, was “mainly paying attention to detail in terms of how both the public and artists are taken care of”. It is this sincere passion for others and drive to create the best possible experience for those visiting or playing at his concerts that have seen Ellis become a highly regarded figure in the industry.
They are also some of the skills that saw him qualify for the position of CEO in 2001 when his predecessor and T In The Park co-founder Stuart Clumpus left for New Zealand.
Ellis cited the 1994 launch of T In The Park as a pivotal breakthrough for DF Concerts, which helped the company “really take off”. At the time, the only major competition in the UK was afforded by Reading, Glastonbury and WOMAD festivals.
“We pitched ourselves halfway between Reading and Glastonbury, and went about creating demand,” he explained. “We were more band orientated than Glastonbury, but less so than Reading as we were in a small country so we needed to have as wide an appeal as possible.”
For the first three years, T In The Park was held in Strathclyde Park and attracted a predominantly Glaswegian crowd. In ’97 it moved to a disused airfield in Balado, in Perth and Kinross, where it began to pull in crowds from all over the UK and further afield.
As with King Tut’s, Ellis has always kept a close eye on the changing nature of audience demands and behaviour at T In The Park and as a result, believes the atmosphere is unrivalled. “The main factor that sets T In The Park apart from other festivals is the audience, and their passion and exuberance.
“Everyone makes an effort to understand the audience to facilitate their enjoyment, rather than seeing themselves as just being there to police behaviour. The spirit that creates the atmosphere comes from the audience and all you can do is create an environment to make that flourish.”
The culture created at the festival is one of healthy living and environmental awareness, thanks to the promotion of healthy eating and recycling. Under Ellis’ leadership, T In The Park became the largest Carbon Neutral festival in the world in 2006, a title that it holds to this day. It has also won the Green ‘N’ Clean Award at the European Festival Awards and two A Greener Festival awards.
For 2011, Ellis is working with suppliers to look at using renewable energy more and is also developing the ‘Citizen T’ initiative which encourages festival-goers to be responsible for binning their own rubbish and taking their tent from the site at the end of the festival.
Ellis said the festival has never had any problems securing artists. The 2010 ‘T’, which sold out in 90 minutes, was headlined by Muse, Eminem and Kasabian. Ellis’ “strong planning team” behind the festival includes event manager & head of events at DF Concerts, Colin Rodger, site manager Jerry Millichip, health & safety manager Gary Lathan and head of security Mark Hamilton, of G4S Events.
“Everyone at DF concerts plays a very active role and there are many key suppliers, landowners and members of the local community, Perth and Kinross Council and the emergency services who all play a significant role,” commented Ellis.
The team prefers to stay loyal to its suppliers rather than put out an annual tendering process for the festival. Ellis said there was “no substitute for experience in terms of knowledge of the event”, but that they would never let suppliers get complacent.
T In The Park works with Star Events, A&J Big Top Hire, Amazing Tent Hire, Dynamix, EFX Audio, Scorpio Sounds, Sound Acoustics, Sound Inc, Beaunosh, Popcorn, Central Catering, Eve Trakway, Mojo Barriers, FS Lighting, Neg Earth, SM Lighting, Glasgow Stage Crew, Mad Tour Support, Stagehire Scotland, Buffalo Power, 21CC Fireworks, Safety First Solutions, Jumbo Cruiser, Gig & Go, National Radio Bank, Ticketmaster and SRS.
Ellis: “The reason we work with people is a combination of their experience in the marketplace, quality of product and service, price, environmental credentials, approach to health and safety, and reputation. We also like to use as many local suppliers as possible.”
In 2007, Ellis launched the Hydro Connect festival after he saw an opportunity in the marketplace for an event aimed at the more mature festival-goer. But the effects of the recession, which hit this particular demographic the hardest, and the cost of staging the festival at the Inveraray Castle in Scotland, meant it was no longer viable financially and Ellis took the decision not to run the festival in 2009. But, he said, “it may well reappear”.
“What I would do differently? I’ll keep that close to my chest until such a time that we come to stage it again.”
As for T In The Park in the future, Ellis said improvements were being made constantly, and that 2011’s festival will feature a host of new developments, including changes to the campsite facilities.
And Ellis himself? The Scotsman will continue to pursue his passion for rock’n’roll and promotion of new talent through staging some of the UK’s best concerts.
“I have still got a lot of working lifetime left and I certainly don’t think I have achieved anywhere near as much as I would like to,” he stated. We don’t doubt it, Geoff.
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