Access caught up with industry legend Harvey Goldsmith CBE, to discuss everything from Live Aid to The Rolling Stones, experiential and the future of the festival industry.
Harvey Goldsmith CBE is one of the most legendary names in the music industry. He toured with the Rolling Stones, organised Live Aid alongside Bob Geldof, and is currently at the forefront of the experiential world with his new agency Nvisible.
Access sat down with Goldsmith at the Event Production Awards in February to hear same tales from his long career, and what direction the industry is heading in.
In the recent Queen film, Bohemian Rhapsody, Live Aid takes centre stage. Did the film bring back memories for you?
I’m gobsmacked at how well Bohemian Rhapsody has done. It’s the highest grossing music biopic ever, and that’s extraordinary. Freddie Mercury was one of our most treasured talents, but Queen really appeared at the event by accident.
We held a big press conference in Wembley stadium, and the amount of media in attendance was crazy. Bob Geldof got up to announce which acts were playing and rattled off every act you’ve ever heard of, including Queen – who knew nothing about this whatsoever, and were touring in New Zealand at the time.
I kept kicking Bob under the table every time he announced a new act, and Queen’s manager called afterwards and said: “People are talking about us being involved in a new gig! What are you talking about? We’re on tour!”. “But,” he said, “now we’ve been announced I guess we don’t have a choice!”.
I deliberately chose the time slot for Queen when programming the sets, as I just knew they’d rev the audience up. On the night, I remember Freddie was really pumping himself up backstage to let rip and they just tore the place apart. The rest is legend, and we got £800m at the box office.
How did the event come about?
When Bob came to see me, I was certainly aware of what was going on in Africa. The surplus food we produced just down the road contrasted with the pictures on the television showing all these people starving. These were truly horrific scenes, but when Bob went to Africa he realised that it was just the tip of the iceberg.
It was a weird time. I’d just overseen Bruce Springsteen at Wembley and was managing Roger Waters’s solo album, which we were launching in New York. After that I was on my way to meet Wham! And, frankly, when this opportunity came to me I couldn’t wrap my head around it. But the day after I got home, Bob was there and he said: “We’ve got to do this”, and the journey began.
How hard was the event, logistically?
I insisted we had a clean stage at all times. We set up three stages on a turntable, with one band in the front ready to go, and one ready to go off, so we kept it continuous. We were very conscious of keeping the right timing. I spent most of my time saying: “I don’t care when a band goes on, but I care when they go off”. I even wore a huge clock around my neck all day to remind people of time. If a band went on too late it was out of their time.
I spent my whole time on and around the stage managing really, really tight changeovers. We had a lot of crew on stage who were all geared up for it. They did a tremendous job.
Which other events do you reflect on especially fondly?
The biggest concert I did was The Wall in Berlin. 400,000 turned up for that. Most big open air shows aren’t so much about the music, they’re about the largesse of the event and people gathering together, but the one that stands out as being all about the music was the Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton show at Blackbushe in 1978 for 175,000 people. It was an amazing event!
Which events do you look back on and cringe?
One stand out gig that could have been a disaster was a Pavarotti concert. The night before the event, the police were concerned people wouldn’t have enough water for the heat, but it started raining and didn’t stop until the next morning. The concert went ahead, regardless, and it was a great classical concert with a 96 piece orchestra – who were under cover – but when Princess Diana decided to get rid of her flunkies with umbrellas, the whole concert really took off and it was extraordinary.
Another experience I look back on and cringe over was when I ran the Crystal Palace Garden Parties series. All throughout one of the events, the test match commentary would keep overriding what we were doing because of the huge telegraph pole.
In the middle of a set we’d get commentator Peter May talking over the top of us about England vs Australia. It was about learning how it worked in order to remedy it.
Another mishap was when I managed Lynyrd Skynyrd and persuaded them to do a gig at Earls Court. It was my first event with my own business and I got sweet talked into putting in delays for the echo effect that occurs in Earls Court. I listened to the engineer and agreed to put in this delay system, but it completely and utterly fucked up. It was the worst sound of any concert I’ve seen, and the sound bounced everywhere. The band looked at me in disbelief.
Nowadays delay towers are standard, but it was probably the first time it had been tried, and it actually amplified the echo effect, making it ten times worse! It was probably my worst ever experience.
Which people or companies do you look up to?
All the technology and innovations that production companies have created at the request of artists to make it a great experience have been amazing. The companies that started off early like Brick Row have done fantastic things, as did people like Jim Marshall.
You’ve remained independent. Is this something you insist on?
I value my independence. I believe my role in life is to entertain people, so I sit as happily doing pop shows or promoting Smash Hits as classical concerts and operas. I worked with Pavarotti for 26 years.
I persuaded Cirque du Soleil to come to the Albert Hall, then the Rolling Stones. I wanted the flexibility to do all that. I’m involved less in touring now, but more in immersive theatre at concerts in a structured framework. Some of the concert groups have become so big that they’ve just become bureaucrats, following formats. I like to say: “Just do it”.
Is experiential a new concept?
Experiential is not a new concept. It was coined by ‘Dill’ Driscoll and his wife Susan Driscoll. He ran a massive agency called Momentum, and invented the Olympic torch relay, and did a lot of work for Coca-Cola. Susan left because she couldn’t get any higher in the company so between us we formed Ignition.
I stayed in touch with key people who were freelancing for me over my career. I have the best production team on the planet, and without them I couldn’t do anything. I revere the work they do. Jim Bagott produced 19 Ultra Festivals last year and he’s at it again this year. We all came together, with Mark Bustard and Grant Campbell, to pool our resources and form a new agency. It’s called Nvisible because we want to be a pure white label agency, that supports agencies bidding for business and puts the best support team behind them.
In an ideas-led business, how do you come up with ideas, and is there a special onus to get it right for the many charities you work with?
Every day I go to my office, look at my emails and phone messages and a new idea floats by. I’ve become an idea factory. It’s not about what I do do, it’s what I don’t do. I’m always working on several projects at once, and if I can see an idea, why it’s different, then I can grab it and try and make it work.
Because of the work I do, every charity wants me to do a project, and assumes I can get the Rolling Stones, etc at the drop of a hat, which I can’t. I’ve always believed it’s as easy to take it out as to give it back. Some do, some don’t.
You toured with the Rolling Stones – do you have a nostalgia for the heyday of British rock?
I do. I think we’ve seen the best of it. I was lucky to work in the 60s – the single most creative period we’ve seen in music, fashion, style, art and literature. It was post-war. A time when young people wanted a say in society, whereas before they were seen and not heard. Back then, I’d wake up in the morning and think: “Do I put on Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, The Who?”. Then the next minute someone else would come along with something new, like David Bowie.
In that period it just went on and on and on. We don’t have that today, and I’m the boring old fart who for the last six or seven years has been speaking at conferences urging that we invest more in music and nurture new acts.
We’re in the pop phase now, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not lasting. We need some kindness from angels that don’t expect too much too early, so that the next generation has great songs and presents themselves brilliantly.
With 90% of material today, you won’t remember the name of the act or the tune. It rarely has a longer shelf life than two years, with obvious exceptions. However, 2017-2018 were record years for live, contrary to what people expected. People want to go out more, so we need to sustain and establish talent. Festivals currently can’t find headliners, and it’s a nightmare. Those that are around are pillaging and it doesn’t allow businesses to take risks.
What can promoters and the music industry in general do to improve things?
As a promoter you have to go with what your head tells you. There are no rules, but if you want to be with the top acts it’s often about ‘how little do you want to earn?’, and its counter productive. There’s bands that drop off quickly, which is devastating when we’re planning really far ahead. In 18 months all sorts can happen, they can go bust, split up, get sick, fall out of fashion, so we have to hope they sell out fast enough to cover that risk.
As a producer you’re always at risk. A big problem today is the business push to do one extra show. To do three arena shows instead of one. Promoters are scared they’ll lose an act so they go along with it.
I grew up thinking demand should always strip supply, but you’d then get pushed. It’s hard to put your foot down and say: “I don’t think that will work”. The last thing an artist wants is a show that’s not sold out. But they don’t understand what’s behind it, the bidding wars are insane. We should be a demand business. That doesn’t mean doing one Hammersmith Apollo show when you could be doing ten O2s, but it is a balance.
Promoters gave up ownership of ticket distribution, the ticket brokers are now in control and they have no skin in the game. It doesn’t matter to them if act A or B sells. When one act is not selling, they put efforts into ones that are.
The distribution system is also still really bad. People get shifted to websites that cost ten times more. We need to get to a fair system even if it can’t fill demand, and we should push government to not be a commodity to be bought and sold.
Let’s not over-exploit artists. They pushed Rhianna into doing big stadium shows, but they were a disaster. If they’d held back, the next year she no doubt could have done two such shows.
Every time Queen came to London they played Wembley Arena, then Wembley Stadium, but people were getting bored of seeing the same show in the same venue. So I said: “We need to do something else, let’s do a stripped back tour in smaller venues”.
So they went off in a huddle and came back and said: “Let’s do it”. We played 12 ballrooms in London, including The Lyceum, and five shows at Hammersmith. All we had was six spotlights and some equipment. It was stripped back and the band had an absolute blast.
The next time we came back, we played Knebworth twice and sold it out. Sadly that was near to the end for Freddie.
Customers need a bit of variety and artists need to think through their careers.
The fan wants to see you in your best light. With all the technology at festivals, the sound is still lacking.
In general, is the industry a better managed, more professional scene nowadays? Fyre Festival aside, of course.
Fyre Festival was a con from to start with, and proves my point about instant success and celebrity factor. It had nothing to do with music. When I heard about it, I had a weird feeling, and what happened didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was how people in the industry stuck by it, and agreed to take the money – not good for the business. As an exercise it’s a stroke of genius, but everyone suffered really badly.
But the industry is much more professional in general. Weeley Festival (1971) was a classic example of how not to do a festival – it was the most bizarre event, held on the East Coast, but people didn’t know back then. The recent Fortnite event was another cheap rip off, like the cheap winter shows which disappoint children, and end up with them being stuck in a field. Unfortunately, the public are gullible, but overall most event organisers are run very efficiently and well.
What kinds of technology and IT innovations would benefit the industry?
There’s been a huge number of experiments on data management, on watching people flows, with RFID systems to manage bars, etc, but it’s still a big pain to understand how patterns of people work.
Regarding ticketing: there is no reason why a ticket can’t simply be just on your phone. Sim cards are secure and individual.
The industry has to decide how honest it wants to be – the public are our customers and if we keep taking the piss and overcharging them, they’ll kick back.