In one month this summer, AEG catered to around one million live music fans in the UK.
From June to July, the promoter hosted The Who stadium tour, Leonard Cohen at The O2, gigs from Rod Stewart and Bon Jovi, Rockness, Capital FM’s Summertime Ball and Alton Towers Live - not to mention the small matter of their debut festival at Hyde Park, the 10-day run of Barclaycard British Summer Time gigs.
Headed up by Rob Hallett, AEG Live’s UK arm was founded in 2005 and has now grown to a 35-strong team. Perhaps their biggest challenge to date was winning the Hyde Park tender in November, previously held by fierce rival Live Nation. BBST hosted the likes of The Rolling Stones, Lionel Richie, Jennifer Lopez and Elvis Costello – as well as a raft of the best new acts around – in the landmark London location from July 5-14.
However, it wasn’t without its headaches: a highly intricate off-site exercise was setup by AEG to dodge the sound complaints of past years. Meanwhile, the line-up was only finalised in May, after which the firm had to cope with a cancelled headline slot from Sir Elton John.
Miraculously, it all pretty much went without a hitch. Time to take a breather? Nope, the company is now working to launch two new events next year – as well as planning on how to make the Hyde Park gigs “bigger and better” in 2014. Here we chat to Hallett and AEG’s event director, Jim King...
What was it that marked you out against your competitors for the Hyde Park tender?
Rob Hallett: We re-imagined the park. We came up with a site that no one else thought of - everyone else was tendering for a gig in the park and we had a bigger vision. Up until now outdoor events have been someone sticking up a scaffolding stage in a muddy field surrounded by burger vans. We wanted to enhance that experience and really bring it into the 21st century. Every experience in life has improved: going to a football match now compared to going to a football match in the ‘80s, going to the cinema, even going to the supermarket. The concert industry has got to catch up.
Jim King: Hyde Park has always been a real historic venue and we used that as a showcase opportunity for what AEG stands for:?we are entrepreneurial and present artists in a very creative way. In order for people to see that, we were prepared to back it with significant investment and a level of customer service that has not been seen before on outdoor shows.
The 02 is famous for it being a great concert experience so it was a case of ‘let’s take that knowledge and experience and put that into an outdoor environment’. Most festivals are still using plastic toilets for God’s sake. We sat down and said, ‘Right, we’re going to solve all of these experiences for everybody - flushable toilets, the production levels’. We went way over the normal delivery point.
Hyde Park has a history of sound problems with complaints from the surrounding community and gigs getting cut off, how did you get around that?
JK: It was very clear that there was [previously] a huge disconnect between the promoter, the bands, the fans themselves, the community and then the statutory bodies like Westminster. We needed to come up with a solution that satisfied everyone - there’s no point in us just saying we’re going to turn it up.
We sat down with the best acoustic engineers in the world - front house engineers for two of the biggest bands in the world - and added information from the community and council, which was very well documented. Then we actually re-created Hyde Park in a location outside London on a big country estate. We put cranes in where all the noise-monitoring points were around Park Lane and Bayswater Road and we ran a show for three days.
We took nearly 10,000 noise measurements and ran it through five different sound systems - all the best sound systems that are out there - and ended up very clearly getting to where we got to [for the main event]: the stage orientation and the angle of the stage, the type of sound system, the number of delays, the configuration of the delays, the angle of the delays - everything. We just recorded this mass of data - that’s where these experts really came into their own.
What was the result?
JK: The Rolling Stones played the loudest anybody’s ever played in Hyde Park before and we had one complaint. The music could have been off and we’d have still had that complaint anyway.
How close did you get to selling out tickets?
RH: We didn’t sell out, nothing sold out this summer - everyone who tells you aside from Glastonbury their summer events sold out is probably not telling 100% the truth. But we did extremely well for our first year in the park; selling a new concept, booking bands, having a short on-site time - we were all delighted with the numbers we did.
What are your plans for next year and the next five?
RH: Bigger and better every year. We’ll be going for the biggest artists out there and hoping to present the biggest show possible. Every year new innovations come up – the site is only limited by our collective imaginations.
Do you plan to win the contract again?
RH: Absolutely. We don’t do things by halves, we’re here now and we’ve arrived - we intend to stay.
You partnered with Barclaycard for the British Summer Time gigs, do you think the live market will be ever more partnering with brands?
RH: Yes, everyone is looking for new revenue streams and for new ways to talk to the audience. As the Barclaycard relationship grows with Hyde Park, not only do Barclaycard get access to the data we’re building – which is north of 300,000 people this year - but for a minute they are mentioned in all the artist tweets; there isn’t a TV programme, newspaper, radio station any other form of media that you can reach those kind of numbers that quickly with that kind of loyalty. If you’re a Stones fan you’ve got real loyalty to that brand, probably more than you’ve got to your bank brand, so having that association is hugely important to brands, plus it brings much-needed income to the industry.
What are the biggest challenges across AEG events?
RH: Selling tickets.
Is secondary ticketing a big problem?
RH: Selling primary tickets is the first problem. We need to make our tickets compelling and we need to get our pricing structure right in the primary market.
Everyone keeps going on about the secondary ticketing problem, it really isn’t a major problem - its not like there are tickets going out the door, you read newspaper stories and it’s like it’s eating away at the whole industry.
It’s just not true; it’s exaggerated. If you buy a car for £5k and someone comes along and offers you £10k for it, you go, ‘That’s a great profit, you’ve made £5k - well done.’
A ticket is a commodity like any other. So long as it’s done in a manner where it’s a fan selling to another fan, if it makes a profit good luck to you. In that case [of a resale making a profit] I’ve messed up because I haven’t priced it right - I should have charged more in the first place.
What are you planning to do to tackle that pricing issue, do you think live music events are going to get more expensive?
RH: It’s getting the price right for the audience that you’re playing to and the cost of the show. Production is hugely expensive. If you go to a show you’ve paid £100 to see and there’s giant video screens and 100 dancers and people coming out the ceiling and pyro you go, ‘wow that was great,’ but if you’ve paid £100 and you’ve got five kids jumping up and down going: ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ with a couple of spotlights on them you’re going to think, ‘I’ve been ripped off.’
It’s getting that price point right for the market and providing that customer experience that makes them say: ‘It’s not a pain in the arse to get out of my nice warm house on a cold wet night and sit on the Tube with 10,000 other people and be hassled by security.’
We want to change that experience so security give you a smile when you enter and make it a compelling offering. I think as an industry we probably lost sight of who our customer was - we’ve got to take as much care of the audience as we do the artist.
You’ve used paperless tickets at quite a few of your events, are they the future?
JK: It will just naturally grow. Done well the customer experience is better. The technology is there, it’s a cultural thing to get everyone to realise it’s a very short step from what they do every morning on the tube. It will become successful really quickly in the next 12-18 months, we’re going to be looking back on this in 18 months wondering why it took so long.
RH: It’s a bit like when the internet first came up; there were people saying they’ll never buy their tickets on there, but now the internet is probably 99% of all ticket sales, you can’t stop the march of technology - it’s inevitable.
But what about the cost for the scanning systems?
RH: Once the technology and all the kit has been paid for and it’s just being used again that price is going to come down like anything else. You pay less for a DVD player today than you’d pay 20 years ago when they came out. I think there will be a large percentage by next summer using paperless tickets and by 2015 all the major events will be doing it.
Final question: future ambitions for AEG?
RH: To grow the company organically like we have. We've got Jim [King] who I don’t think is going to stop at Hyde Park - he can produce the best festival sites in the country - we can be looking at more of these using his expertise. We’re a very young company and I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved in seven short years compared to our competitors who’ve been going for a number of years. The sky is the limit and we’ve got a long way to grow.