It’s been a tough couple of years for live music in the U.K., but now AEG Presents UK CEO Steve Homer sees light at the end of the tunnel.
“Last year, we had some big successes and some big losses,” he tells Variety. “Now, we’re over that hump, sales patterns are almost back to pre-COVID levels in terms of predicting how things will sell. The business is in reasonably good shape, bearing in mind all the difficulties with people’s available money to spend.”
Homer has been in sole charge for 18 months now, following the surprise exit of co-CEO Toby Leighton-Pope, now MD at TEG Europe. And having made several key hires in recent months – including former Royal Albert Hall exec Lucy Noble as artistic director; former Live Nation exec Lee Laborde as SVP of the promoting division; and former SJM promoters Chris Wareing (SVP of global touring) and Paris Harding (promoter) – Homer is now leading the company’s expansion into several new areas.
Wareing and Harding are hip-hop experts, while Noble will lead moves into classical music and other forms of live entertainment, with several “touring propositions” involving “well-known brands” coming next year.
“Those four people are going to change the face of AEG and the touring world,” Homer declares. “They’re people with major rosters, big contacts, many years of experience and they’re definitely going to change the narrative as far as we’re concerned. By Q4, when everyone has their feet under the table, we’re going to start putting stuff on sale that will be more high profile than we’ve done in the past.”
Perhaps most significantly, AEG – best known in the UK for the world’s busiest venue, The O2 arena – is growing its mid-sized venue portfolio. In addition to the Eventim Apollo in Hammersmith and Indigo at The O2, the storied The Halls complex in Wolverhampton – comprising the 3,400-capacity Civic Hall and the smaller Wulfrun Hall venue – re-opened recently with a gig by reformed Britpop legends Blur. The Colosseum in Watford (2,000) and Olympia in London (4,400) are due to come online in 2024 and 2025 respectively.
“Arena building is a very expensive business and the business plan to make it work is subsequently tough,” says Homer. “You only have to look at the money that’s going to be spent [on new arenas] in places like Cardiff or Bristol, or the Sphere in Vegas. So mid-sized venues, up to 5,000 capacity, is definitely where the growth can come.”
That’s good news for a British live business that, while still hugely successful at the top end, has been hit hard further down the pyramid by the U.K.’s seemingly never-ending cost-of-living crisis.
Such venues could become even more important if London loses perhaps the most famous mid-sized venue of them all, with the O2 Academy Brixton facing closure after the death of two people following a crush at a gig by Nigerian singer Asake.
The South London venue is operated by Academy Music Group – majority owned by AEG rival Live Nation – but Homer says he fully supports the on-going campaign to save it.
“I don’t think there’s anyone involved with live music that doesn’t want that venue to stay open,” he says. “It’s sad to think it might not be there; hopefully there’s enough common sense so it stays open.
“Live Nation will know what to do to make sure they can maintain the venue,” he adds. “But if there’s a call to arms, they have the full support of the wider promoting community, the agents and managers as well.”
Grassroots venues, having weathered the pandemic, are also under pressure and the Music Venue Trust has called for a cut of ticket sales at new arenas to be diverted to support the smaller venues. Homer says he’s in discussions with MVT about that proposal.
“There’s no lack of willingness to support,” he says. “It’s just a matter of trying to find the right way of making it work in a sensible way so that we can support the venues, but also maintain the level of fees for artists at the next level.
“We’re still trying to work out the mechanics, but we do need the smaller venues, because it’s all about the food chain,” he adds. “You can’t just jump into the market further up, you need to be able to cut your teeth in places.”
Meanwhile, the start of the U.K.’s notoriously rain-affected festival season always means the presence of some dark clouds on the horizon. But after a solid Covid bounceback in 2022, this year’s clouds are metaphorical as well as literal.
Several smaller events have already been canceled at the last minute, but one festival definitely bucking the trend is Parklife.
The Manchester event has grown from a 25,000-capacity, one-day event in 2010 to a 80,000-capacity, two-day behemoth, with weekend and Saturday tickets already sold out for the June 10-11 2023 event.
“I’m sure it will be a tough summer and maybe we’ll see more festivals go down,” co-founder Sam Kendal tells Variety. “The festival environment remains incredibly competitive but we’re lucky with Parklife, we’ve got such a varied approach to the line-up that we can make it look different every year. To grow a festival these days, you have to offer something distinctive.”
This year’s show has two local Mancunian headliners in the form of The 1975 and rapper Aitch (“My business partner Sacha Lord always says, ‘London has all the money, but Manchester has all the fun!’” Kendal laughs). But Kendal says the festival’s appeal is actually down to the entire, eclectic bill, and its ahead-of-its-time, multi-genre approach, with dance music, hip-hop, alternative and pop all featuring on the line-up.
“If you think about the way young people consume music now,” Kendal notes, “They’re not into one thing – they’re into hip-hop, dance music and everything, and they flit from one to the next in a scroll. Because of that, it’s easier to get caught out booking stuff that everyone was into yesterday, so you’ve got to be on your toes the whole time.”
Parklife has achieved “rite of passage” status amongst Northern youth, while Kendal and Lord also run The Warehouse Project, a club-based event that runs September to New Year. This year will feature the likes of Bicep and Ben Hemsley, with several events selling out instantly. But in general, Britain’s nightclubs have been hit hard by the cost-of-living crisis, with hundreds of U.K. clubs shutting down since the pandemic.
“Everybody working in hospitality could do with greater support,” Kendal says. “Rising energy costs are pushing a lot of businesses to the brink. Club promoters do have a reputation for being lunatics and very bold in their planning, but even the boldest promoters are not desperate to rush out and open new venues in a climate like this.”
Nonetheless, Kendal says he and Lord are planning to do more events outside the north of England in future. The Warehouse Project had a successful run in Rotterdam, The Netherlands earlier this year and Kendal says further “international endeavors” are on the cards.
Festival-wise, he rules out a southern leg for Parklife, but says more outdoor events could soon be on the cards.
“This is probably the wrong moment to ask that question, because the festival market has retracted slightly,” he says. “But we know it will come back. We’re not going to start any new festivals tomorrow. But will we start any new festivals in a year’s time? I’d say yeah, our heads will be back in that space by then.”
Looks like there might be some sunshine coming to the U.K. festival circuit after all…
Believe U.K. also has expansion on its agenda.
The local arm of the French digital music giant may have been flying under the radar in Britain until recently, but U.K. managing director Alex Kennedy – who has just celebrated his first full year in the job – says the company is now ready to take on all comers.
“When I came to the business a year ago and got to look under the hood, I said we should be better known in the U.K. than we are,” Kennedy tells Variety. “This year has been about getting the narrative out there that we are a substantial business. We’ve now bridged that gap and we should be seen as one of the top players at that table.”
Of course, that’s likely to lead to increased competition from the majors’ own services companies, but Kennedy is unfazed.
“Bring it on!” he declares. “We’re in a great place and we’re a business built for this kind of service, rather than one coming at it from a slightly different angle. There is some heavy competition out there, but we very much back ourselves.”
Kennedy has made a raft of new appointments, and Believe U.K. now employs over 60 people across distribution and services, as well as the Nuclear Blast label and digital music aggregator TuneCore. Believe does not break out separate figures for the U.K., but its European operation (ex-France and Germany) grew 21.1% year-on-year in Q1 and Kennedy says British revenues have grown by an average of 30% annually in recent years.
The company has had U.K. success with a wide range of artists, from rapper Knucks to veteran singer-songwriter James Morrison, and Kennedy says he’s confident Believe is now ready to start breaking international stars.
“We’ve built a global operation,” he says. “The next step for us is to help artists we’re building in the U.K. and take them into different territories to a much bigger extent.
Kennedy says his team is always on the lookout for “savvy, digital-forward artists who understand how to operate in the modern world”.
“The key for us is digital, digital, digital,” he adds. “The pipeline is really strong and we’re excited about where the next couple of years are going to go.”
Of course, breaking artists has never been harder than in a world where over 100,000 tracks are uploaded to Spotify every day. Some in the major labels view companies such as TuneCore as contributing to that huge proliferation of music, but Kendal says the majors all sign artists from the platform.
“There’s a bigger conversation for us all to have, but surely we can all collectively agree that the music industry’s in a really good place?” he says. “The barrier to entry is much lower, but you’re seeing artists come through because of their quality. We’re able to enable and supercharge that.
Kennedy is similarly sanguine about the prospect of AI-generated music potentially flooding the market.
“It’s clear that the future has arrived quicker than people were anticipating,” he smiles. “But we need to take a breath – as an industry, we’re in a much better place compared to when Napster came along. We can figure out ways to handle potential issues like this.”
In the meantime, as well as Believe’s global push for acquisitions, Kennedy says the U.K. company is also looking to go into the market and may form joint venture partnerships with new music companies.
“Our ambitions are very high and everything’s on the table,” he says. “We’re looking at different ways we can grow the business. The next shift for us could be working with these people to help supercharge their businesses. We’re open for business in the U.K. and open to all different types of conversations.”
Also up and running in the U.K. is the new British incarnation of legendary Australian label Mushroom Records.
Madeleine O’Gorman, former label manager of Ivy League Records and Liberator Music in Australia, has relocated to London to become GM of Mushroom Labels, U.K./Europe. She is working with international director Korda Marshall and Mushroom’s label services partner, Virgin Music, to re-establish Mushroom as a northern hemisphere force.
O’Gorman says that, in an increasingly globalized music industry, Australia’s physical distance is less of an issue, leaving great potential for talent from Down Under to break out globally.
“That was hugely evident at [U.K. music conference/new music festival] The Great Escape this year,” she tells Variety in her first interview in the new role. “There were 30 Australian artists showcasing and the quality of the live performances was truly incredible. It was exciting to see these world class performances and then look around the room and see industry people from all over the world into the music. There’s a huge market here for Australian artists.”
Mushroom label I Oh You has already enjoyed British success under the new set-up, with “How Many Dreams?” – the latest album from Sydney rockers DMA’s – crashing into the U.K. Top 3. O’Gorman says that success is “huge testament to the working relationship with Virgin – a beautiful joining of forces driven by passionate music fans either side of the fence”. Mushroom/Virgin have also signed multi-platinum Australian electronic act Pendulum, while there is plenty of buzz around the likes of Mia Wray and Alex Lahey.
But the new Mushroom will not just be about Australian talent. Marshall has already signed the English indie-rock likes of Demob Happy and Gengahr and O’Gorman says more deals will follow.
“We’re open to signing artists from anywhere in the world,” she says. “But they have to share our global ambitions. We’ve got incredible teams through Virgin combined with Mushroom, so we can tap into all these different markets. We will really amplify our presence in the U.K., Europe and America in the next five years.”
As documented in a Variety story earlier this year, the original U.K. Mushroom/Infectious company had a fearsome reputation for producing both artistic and executive talent, with the likes of Warner Music Group’s Max Lousada and Ed Sheeran’s manager Stuart Camp cutting their teeth at a label that helped launch Muse, Garbage, Coldplay and many others.
But, as the Australian parent company prepares to mark its 50th anniversary with special releases, an all-star concert and a documentary that celebrates the genius of late founder Michael Gudinski, O’Gorman is confident the new Mushroom U.K. can live up to that history.
“There’s a reason why Mushroom is so successful,” she says. “Our strength has always been our artists and our people. We will absolutely be breaking artists globally in the next five years – we’re continuing Michael’s legacy and that’s a really special place to be.”
Finally, the U.K.’s inquiry into the economics of music streaming may have produced some explosive evidence sessions, but it’s generated rather less in terms of actual action. Until now.
This week, the Intellectual Property Office issued a new industry agreement on metadata, with players from across the industry committing to improve metadata in new recordings and achieve consistent credits on streaming services over a two-year period.
That’s been welcomed across the industry, but the government also accepted the recommendation from the Culture, Media & Sport Committee that it should establish an industry working group to explore issues around fair pay for creators.
That group will comprise experts from across the industry and “explore and develop industry-led actions that support fair remuneration for existing and future music creators.”
That represents a significant moment for #BrokenRecord and #FixStreaming campaigners, although the move has already attracted criticism from labels group the BPI, which says it is “concerned the environment being fostered in the UK will disincentivize investment in our creative ecosystem at a time when labels are fighting hard to grow exports and protect the rights of artists in the era of AI”.
As ever, expect the wheels to move slowly. But it seems like change, rather than just words, might finally be on its way…