On Tuesday (March 28), Michael Bublé unveiled a permanent wall installation backstage at The O2 commemorating members of the 21 Club: performers that have headlined the iconic London venue 21 times.
First launched in 2007, after the completion of Prince’s record-breaking 21 night residency at the O2, prominent club members include One Direction, Take That, Drake, and children’s choir event Young Voices, as well as comedians Michael McIntyre and Micky Flanagan. All inductees are gifted a bespoke key to the venue.
While the multi-platinum crooner isn’t a newcomer to the club, having achieved the feat back in 2019, he was back at The O2 for two shows as part of his Higher tour this week. Speaking about unveiling the wall, Bublé said: “I’m so happy to be back in the UK and at The O2 for this latest tour. Being a part of The O2’s 21 Club is such an honour – to be one of only eight artists to have reached this milestone is truly special, and I’m so grateful to all of the fans who have supported me along the way.”
And this year The O2 is going all out to put the 21 Club in front of gig goers.
“We book some 200 shows a year,” says Emma Bownes, VP of Programming (Europe) at The O2 tells Music Week. “So it’s great to be able to illustrate how important the acts that perform here are.”
Here we speak to Bownes about the part the 21 Club plays in the legacy and pulling power of the venue for performers and ticket buyers alike, stories about Prince, the venue’s blockbuster March, and immersive plans for Elton John forthcoming farewell shows…
Photo (L-R) John Langford (AEG Europe), Carl Leighton-Pope (L-PO), Michael Buble, Bruce Allen (Bruce Allen Talent), Toby Leighton-Pope (TEG Europe). (Credits: Luke Dyson)
Eight is an incredible number of acts to have headlined 21 times, given the fact the venue has been open since 2007. What does that tell you about the prestigious status it holds for performers and promoters?
“I really hope that performers see the O2 as an aspirational venue to play. We also give the artists awards to commemorate them playing here for the first time, and when we do, it’s evident that it’s a big deal to them. Hopefully, by the time they’ve played here 21 times, it’s clear how grateful we are they’ve decided to continue coming back, because it’s not something we take for granted. The main impetus behind the club, then, was to show that we appreciate artists playing here, whether it’s once or many times.”
Does the new 21 Club wall at the venue have a role to play in motivating the aspirations of first-time headliners, and those still in single figures?
“Absolutely. The wall is positioned on the way to the stage, so it’s something all artists will have to walk past, so I hope at least a few of them will think about adding a few shows onto their next tour, with the aim of hitting 21!”
As part of the wall, there’s a purple key in honour of the original 21 Clubber, Prince. His 21-night nights have now passed into lore, so it would be good to separate fact from fiction. Did Prince, as was reported at the time, really live in the venue during the residency? What other stories are there from the time?
“The purple key is also on display at Paisley Park. We created two versions of the key - one for Prince’s estate and one for us. I’m not sure if he was living here at that time. He was living at the venue in that he was playing so many gigs and following them up with aftershows at Indigo, which often went on for hours. His stamina was phenomenal. I’m not sure many people could do that. We had Ed Sheeran play here the other day and he mentioned from the stage how he’d managed to see Prince play one of the aftershows at Indigo despite not having tickets. Ed used to be a guitar tech for [folk duo] Nizlopi, and so he and one of the guys from the band had hidden in the toilets in Indigo and waited for the aftershow to begin before coming out. It’s not exactly a testament to excellent security back then! One day Prince saw our venue manager, Kenny, and really liked his shirt. It was some kind of hawaiian-type shirt, so Prince asked if he could borrow it. So Kenny had it dry cleaned and pressed and gave it to Prince to wear for the next show. Isn’t that cool?”
Artists coming back to The O2 is not something we take for granted, the main impetus behind the 21 Club is to show them that we appreciate them
Emma Bownes, The O2
What other steps have you taken to enhance the artist’s experience backstage and how much do they appreciate these efforts?
“We had Queen do 10 nights here last June, which marked 15 years of the venue. The shows had been rescheduled twice due to Covid. When some venues reopened, they experienced a bit of a drop off. That wasn’t the case with Queen, though – on the tenth show, there were train and tube strikes on the same day and we thought we’d get a lot of people unable to come. But everyone was there and fans made an unbelievable effort.
“It was a really special month for us. We did a lot of backstage dressing and the area was taken over with Queen artwork. We got so many positive messages from Brian May, and he tweeted and did Instagram stories about it. Getting that personal feedback meant so much. We had these massive panels that said, ‘You are the champions, our friends’, and he asked us to send one to his house.”
Who’s played the venue the most times overall?
“It’s actually Take That, who I believe have played 34 times. They’re always fantastic live and bring so much joy. And just behind them is Michael McIntyre. Take That and Michael McIntyre keep overtaking one another for who’s played the most times, swapping places like football teams in the premier league. When Michael plays in April next year, he’ll go past Take That – until whenever they come back again. Is a 50 Club possible? It’s definitely possible with numbers like that.”
The O2 has done so much to develop its offering for ticket buyers over the years, from digital ticketing to safety measures in the aftermath of the Manchester bombing. How important does the consumer experience remain, in tandem with that of the artist?
“It is all so important. We sell well over two million tickets a year, and the digital ticketing element has helped reduce the amount of touting we get at shows. You can’t scan a ticket and upload it because the barcode changes, I think, every 45 seconds or so, making the unofficial resale of tickets difficult. That’s a step we know fans are keen on, so anything we can do in that area is welcome. After the Manchester bombing, we, as I’m sure everyone did, reviewed our security provision. We increased our security across the campus and that’s stayed in place since then. Since we’ve reopened post-Covid, possibly because of the cost of living crisis, people don’t have as much money to buy tickets and eat out. The expectations of fans for their night out are therefore much higher, so there’s a lot of pressure to deliver, which remains a focus for the venue.”
We're planning shows now into 2026, so the future is looking very exciting
Emma Bownes, The O2
How do you go about making a large venue feel intimate?
“Our venue can be adapted in many ways to deliver high quality productions across various genres and types of event – whether that’s a huge Drake show or the Laver Cup tennis or The BRITs. Artists are focusing on improving their production year on year and tour after tour, so it’s important we can facilitate that. The audience plays such a huge role in that. My favourite show to be involved with was the 10-night run with Monty Python. Those legendary comedians getting back together after so much time, having not performed live, felt like a monumentally big deal. They were doing the Four Yorkshiremen sketch and one of them kept forgetting his lines so the audience would jump in, as they knew the lines, so they became part of the sketch.”
Elton John’s farewell shows arrive at the O2 soon. Given the delays to the tour and the theatricality of the production, what are your plans?
“We’ve always tried to make a big deal of residencies. It becomes less about the focus of the arena show and more of a cross-campus takeover. We did it for Queen, which went really well, but it’s going to be even bigger for the Elton shows. It’s fair to say that it’ll be the most high profile takeover of the venue that we’ve ever done, whether that’s for Elton himself or the fans out in the audience. There’ll be lots of things backstage to enhance Elton and his team's experience, as we’re conscious they've been on the road with this tour for years, so how can we make things still feel exciting and new. These are his last shows in London, so it’s important to say thank you.
Fan wise, there will be a lot going on, from the moment you get off the tube and arrive in Peninsula Square, to when you get into the main foyer. We want there to be something to enjoy at every main touch point.”
Finally, The O2 has enjoyed a huge March. What does they tell you about the venue’s future?
“We’ve had such a mega March! We’ve had 22 event days. Just last week we had Chris Brown, Snoop Dogg, Peter Kay, Tom Grennan, two sold out Ed Sheeran shows and Michael Bublé. Some of them were returning – while others were playing for the first time. That week symbolises where we’re at – hosting artists who are at the top of their game. It makes you hugely grateful that we’re open and able to operate. We’re planning shows now into 2026, so the future is looking very exciting.”
Interview: James Hickie