Women In Music Roll Of Honour 2023: Debbie McWilliams, director of Live Entertainment, SEC

Women In Music Roll Of Honour 2023: Debbie McWilliams, director of Live Entertainment, SEC

During this year’s Women In Music Awards, we inducted game-changing industry executives (including one posthumous award) into the Roll Of Honour, in association with TikTok.

They join the pantheon of previous honourees, including some of the biggest names in the business, from Emma Banks, Sarah Stennett, Rebecca Allen to Kanya King, Stacey Tang, Charisse Beaumont and Mary Anne Hobbs, who have been selected since the awards began in 2014. The Roll Of Honour aims to highlight the breadth, depth and variety of individuals who are trailblazers in the music industry, with their activities consistently benefiting women, or focusing on empowerment/gender disparity.

Following the Women In Music Awards ceremony, Music Week is running Q&A interviews with all of this year’s Roll Of Honour inductees.

Debbie McWilliams became the director of Live Entertainment at the Scottish Event Campus (SEC), home to the OVO Hydro – one of the world’s busiest venues – in 2019.

Since joining the team in 1989 as assistant to the operations director, McWilliams has progressed through the ranks to her current position, and spearheads the overall management, commercial delivery, event booking and content creation for Scotland’s home of live entertainment. She has played a key role in the growth of the SEC offering, which has evolved from one to three venues over Debbie’s tenure.

Under her direction, the OVO Hydro – which opened in 2013 – has continually ranked amongst the world’s best venues, and this year was named No.1 Worldwide on Top Grossing Venues (capacity 10,000-15,000) following its No.1 Pollstar’s ranking for Top European Arena. Over the last year, the venue has boasted a record-breaking 16-night run from Kevin Bridges, a five-night sold-out run from Paolo Nutini and, recently, Elton John’s last ever UK arena performance.

Over the last decade the venue has also hosted global events including MTV Europe Music Awards, Commonwealth Games and in late 2021, Cop26. Sustainability has been high on the SEC’s agenda and McWilliams has been key in driving this forward at both the campus and wider industry, with OVO Hydro being awarded the world’s first A Greener Arena certification in 2022.

With her recent mental health first aider training giving her a better understanding in supporting both neurodiverse concert goers and her team, McWilliams centres her style of management on the wellbeing of others. She has forged relationships with the country’s top promoters and agents, is a regular figurehead at industry events and sits on the board of Women Of Influence in support of Action For Children in Scotland. She is also a steering group member of the NAA and is a committee member of Scottish Music Awards in support of Nordoff & Robbins Scotland. 

Her induction into the Roll Of Honour comes as the Hydro celebrates its 10th anniversary.

How do you feel about joining the Music Week Women In Music Roll Of Honour?

“It is an honour to be recognised alongside so many incredible women from our industry, many of whom I've had the pleasure of working with in my career. With OVO Hydro celebrating its 10th birthday, joining the Women in Music Roll Of Honour has made this year extra special.”

How do you look back on your early years getting into the industry?

“When I joined the Scottish Event Campus in 1989, it was a very exciting time to be in the live entertainment industry, the campus was in its infancy and there were endless opportunities. I joined an ambitious team who have worked hard to shape the future of the venue and the entertainment scene in Scotland. Looking back to the beginning of my career, I recognised quickly how lucky I was to work in such a highly creative and exciting industry, and being part of a small team who were able to shape the strategy for our venue and live entertainment whilst creating the best events for audiences has been a key motivator throughout my career.”

Did you have a mentor at that stage?

“Yes, I was very lucky to be mentored by an incredible woman, Maisie Wilson. Her personality, drive and focus were so admirable, and her attention to, and support of, clients and fans provided the best foundation I could have hoped for. We worked closely together for more than 20 years, she led by example, she was respectful, supportive and a huge influence on my career.”

What’s your biggest achievement so far? Please go into detail

“Nothing will top the feeling of taking in the atmosphere of the OVO Hydro on opening night in 2013. As I took in the 14,500 strong crowd on that first night, I knew that we’d created something very special. The Hydro was 10 years in the making and took tremendous effort in the years leading up to its opening. I don’t think any of us could have predicted just how successful it was going to be, it really did change the direction of live entertainment in Scotland as a venue which was equipped with the technical capability and audience capacity to bring in the biggest artists and events in the world. 

“The team is also my proudest achievement to date. They really are the best in the business and their support of me is unstinting. I'm so lucky to work with such a committed, skilled and all-round great bunch of people every day.”

How has the live sector changed in the last 34 years since your appointment in terms of the culture and opportunities for women executives?

“When I started in 1989, there were a number of women in senior leadership positions at SEC, and more than 30 years later it’s the same. Our executive team is 50% female-led and I have a team of 25, 20 of whom are women. For International Women’s Day this year, we hosted a Women In Entertainment panel discussion with women from across the Scottish industry including our head of ticketing Julie Carson, comedian Karen Dunbar, trans DJ Taahliah, DF’s Kat Lingard and Gogglebox’s Roisin Kelly all taking part. Julie and Karen have been in the industry for over two decades and it was interesting to hear their perspective on how things have changed for younger women. It was affirming that although everyone recognised that there is still work to be done to achieve gender equity in entertainment, they all did agree that clear positive action was being taken by the industry.”  

OVO Hydro has women in several key roles, how have you nurtured talent in the company? And how do you address staff wellbeing in your approach to management?

“The length of service of so many of the staff, including myself, is testament to it being a brilliant and rewarding place to work. When I started out in 1989, I was encouraged to be ambitious and think big, which is something I’ve carried in my management style. When we launched OVO Hydro, we had a collective vision to make it the best venue in the world and I’m always encouraging the team to bring new ideas forward, making sure everyone is included.

“Several of my team are working mums like me, which doesn’t come without its challenges. There is a nervousness around maternity leave of being ‘left behind’ and, when you return, around balancing the demands of the industry and family life. I hope I’m an example of how [maternity and motherhood] doesn’t hinder career progression, and if it’s your desire, you will be supported. With mental health also being such a prevalent issue in the industry, last year I completed mental health First Aid training which gave me a better understanding of how best to support neurodiverse concert goers and my own team. Our aim is to make the Hydro the best venue in Europe, so it has to go beyond the shows and the artists – it needs to encompass an ever-changing society and its needs.”

10 years on from launch the arena has secured high rankings in terms of attendance and gross - what achievements would you single out for the venue?

“It has been a busy decade! When we celebrated our tenth birthday in September this year, it was a moment to pause and reflect on the incredible work the team has done since we opened our doors. Opening night was a feeling like no other, Sir Rod Stewart taking the stage for the first time really set the bar for what was to come. But since then, we’ve welcomed over 10 million fans, and earlier this year staged our one thousandth show. We’ve hosted some incredible acts throughout the years, the biggest names in pop and comedy legends, and we’ve hosted global events like the MTV Europe Music Awards, Commonwealth Games and more recently COP26 – which put us on the front page of media across the world and [led to us] being recognised by A Greener Future as the world’s first A Greener Arena in 2022. It also brought a sharper focus on sustainability to the campus, and, although I’ve always had big ambitions for the venue, if you’d told me 10 years ago that we’d have Barack Obama, Stella McCartney and Leonardo DiCaprio under our roof chatting about climate change, I’m not sure I would have believed you! 

“When shows stopped in 2020, the campus was transformed into the Louisa Jordan Medical Facility, with the Hydro acting as a temporary vaccination centre. There is no denying how devastating the pandemic was for the industry, but the venue playing a part in the solution was a poignant moment for everyone here. The return to live was also momentous, bringing the team back together to deliver our busiest calendar of events and welcoming back the best fans in the world in their masses was so uplifting.”

The length of service of so many of the staff, including myself, is testament to it being a brilliant and rewarding place to work

Debbie McWilliams

Have there been particular highlights for you in terms of artists – could you identify any favourite performances recently and why? What are you looking forward to in Nov/Dec and 2024?

“We’re very lucky that we’ve delivered a diverse programme of music across multi-genres. From the Queen Of Pop Madonna to World and European Gymnastics, we’ve hosted incredible shows – something for everyone! In terms of favourites over the last year, Billie Ellish joined us in 2022 around the same time as our A Greener Arena certification was awarded, and as well as her giving a breathtaking performance on stage, there was some showstopping work happening back of house, her tour production has a significant focus on sustainability. We also had Alanis Morissette play recently, who is known for her climate activism and runs her tour buses on bio-diesel and solar panels, and last year local favourite KT Tunstall supported Stereophonics a few months after she addressed world leaders at COP26. We have ambitions to become a Net-Zero campus by 2030, so it’s great to see artists driving this important agenda forward. 

“This summer, we welcomed Elton John for two-nights on his last ever UK arena tour, which was truly an honour, and I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house as he closed his set.

“We’ve also got some brilliant acts coming up until the end of the year with Louis Tomlinson, Melanie Martinez, The Prodigy and Queens Of The Stone Age all joining us over the course of a week. Then, heading into December we’ve got Tom Jones and Noel Gallagher and next year, I’m looking forward to quite a few things, but stand-outs so far are Olivia Rodrigo, Take That and Les Misérables.”

What do you believe is unique about the Scottish music scene? Does it get the respect it deserves for the talent it produces and the shows it puts on?

“You just have to go to any gig in Scotland to understand why we have a thriving music scene – from 300 capacity gigs at King Tut’s Wah-Wah Hut, to 14,500 fans at the OVO Hydro, there is just an unrivalled energy and enthusiasm that makes Scottish crowds the most vociferous. The atmosphere they create is like none other. Backstage at the Hydro, the last thing an artist will pass before taking to the stage is a huge clock which reads 'Time to meet the best fans in the world’ and there is no better description of our audience, who are just the heart and soul of the venue.

“In 2008, Glasgow was named a UNESCO City Of Music, which was the first in the UK and only the third in the world. Glasgow is internationally recognised as Scotland’s music capital, and this accolade cemented its legendary music scene, which SEC is proud to be part of. Glasgow is an active contributor to the international UNESCO Creative Cities Network and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. For a small country, Scotland has produced some spectacular artists over the years, from legends Annie Lennox, Lulu, Simple Minds and sell-out sensations like Lewis Capaldi, Paolo Nutini and Amy McDonald.”

Is there a young woman you'd like to shout out who you think is a rising star in the industry?

“All of the incredible young women in my team will have long and successful careers in the industry. Sophia Burn at Live Nation is achieving amazing things, she is super talented.”  

Similarly, is there a young woman artist whose music you're enjoying right now?

“Billie Eilish is such a talent, but more importantly an incredible role model for young women.”

What advice would you offer young women about enjoying a successful career in music?

“It’s hard work but very rewarding. The only thing that will hold you back is you – put in the work, focus on your goals – and there is nothing more important that your team!”

Finally, what’s the best advice you’ve ever had?

“Never overpromise what you can deliver, and always deliver what you promise.”

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