Dubai's Mr Showbiz, Thomas Ovesen, contemplates the state of the entertainment industry in the UAE and elsewhere.
Big acts need arenas
Thomas Ovesen is old enough to remember the guitar-smashing, room-trashing, crazy days of the big touring rock bands and young enough to be secretly quite relieved that he doesn't have to deal with that sort of thing any more. And yet Dubai's Mr Showbiz sounds wistful as he contemplates the state of the entertainment industry these days. The music promoter responsible for bringing some of the biggest names in music to the UAE, including Bon Jovi, Kylie Minogue, Iron Maiden, Backstreet Boys, Keane, Rod Stewart and Spandau Ballet, could tell some hair-raising tales of diva demands of yesteryear, but he says today's stars are really much better behaved.
"Rock and roll has left rock and roll," he says, and I could swear there's a note of disappointment in his voice. The genial Dane, who hails from Copenhagen and has made his home in Dubai for the past 12 years, says today's touring stars are much more professional in their approach. "They don't smoke and don't drink and they tend to go to the gym and eat soya products and healthy foods. There was a period when they were all demanding Fiji water on the riders. It's very rare these days for artists to throw a diva tantrum. You might get a bit of it in hip-hop, but it's pretty stylised. You get the sense that when you have a bit of attitude it's done for the cameras," he says.
The old days, however, were quite different, and Ovesen has a few stories that are unprintable in a family newspaper and sadly must remain confidential. But he speaks amusingly about the rock star Tommy Lee, of the glam metal band Motley Crue, who was once married to the Baywatch actress Pamela Anderson. Lee went straight into a sound check after a long and tiring flight and came off thinking he had just done the concert. When the slightly confused star was asked if he didn't think the audience of about 20 people was a bit on the low side, he drawled: "Heck, I've played to less."
Ovesen certainly knows all the stories and mentions one giant ego who demanded a rainbow selection of female assistants to fetch and carry for him. "But I've never been asked for 'only green M&Ms', for example. "With the big rock bands of the late 80s there was a lot of that sort of thing. Also people around the office might play up their role by putting such silly demands through. I think it's perfectly reasonable if an artist wants a humidifier in their bedroom and dark blinds," he says.
You get the feeling that the tall, good-humoured 40-year-old could handle any amount of stroppy or demanding behaviour with his easygoing brand of charm and patience, essential qualities in the uncertain business in which he has been so successful, first at Mirage Productions and later heading up AEG Middle East as managing director. One of the world's biggest promoters which specialises in filling 20,000-seat arenas, the company decided last month to close its permanent office in a region that doesn't have any arenas.
Ovesen and key members of his team have now joined up with Done Events, a subsidiary of AMG and will represent AEG across the Middle East. It makes perfect business sense to tie up with the media company. "AEG is an arena company. Its foremost raison d'être is to fill arenas. We started talks with AMG in the spring. It was an obvious fit for a company that wanted to step up its presence. There are so many synergies," says Ovesen.
His new offices in Dubai Media City are a hive of activity, with his 20-strong team bustling about on a new project for the autumn. They're mostly young, casually dressed and energetic men and women who have come into the business via a variety of routes. Ovesen himself trained and worked as an air-traffic controller before moving into music promotion. "I used to work as a volunteer at the Roskilde Festival outside Copenhagen. It was the Glastonbury of Scandanavia with 80,000 people attending. Volunteers would get a wristband for free and access to the best camping location.
"Most music promoters get into the business through ways that are not obvious. It requires a skillset involving project management and the ability to convince clients, motivate staff and a knack of understanding what will sell in a certain area and at what price. A music promoter is not an event manager. I would hire people based on how they come across and how they appear to me," he says. The experience of putting on live music is what motivates him. It's a unique experience that can't be reproduced.
"We're selling the only experience in today's world that can't be put on a piece of plastic. You have to be there, smell it, hear it, feel it and experience that live emotional thing. It's something that can't be replicated. The record industry is in dire straits, so the future for artists is all about performing live. "You have to love that excitement when you sit with a team or partner planning the concert. How you experience your music is a lifestyle thing. For Harry Connick Jr and Rod Stewart, it might be all about seating comfort. For the big bands like Bon Jovi, it's all about getting as close to the stage as you can."
His major concern is the lack of a major arena anywhere in the Gulf, which means that Dubai and Abu Dhabi can't compete with other big cities for the really top names all year-round. The touring season is limited by the weather and outdoor venues have to be specially created. Without a Madison Square Garden or an O2 arena, it takes considerable powers of persuasion to get the biggest touring bands to make the UAE a regular tour stopover. Ovesen believes that until somebody takes the risk and starts building an arena, the entertainment industry will struggle with this.
With a purpose-built arena, costs for production, scaffolding, catering and security would come down, because the infrastructure would be built up around the venue. It would also see the end of the major irritation for concert-goers of long queues for food and drinks and the voucher system which means people have to queue twice. "It's because caterers here don't trust their staff with money. With a purpose-built venue, that would all change because you would have permanent staff.
"Currently, the audiences are just not big enough and the volume isn't there yet to justify a fully fledged industry," he says. Artists like Bon Jovi or Beyoncé, who are certain to sell 20,000 tickets, can only come here during the cooler months when an outdoor venue will be created in the grounds of the Emirates Palace or at Yas Island at a cost of about $600,000 (Dh2.2 million). While the new Abu Dhabi Hall is a superb facility, it only holds a maximum of about 6,000 people. So stars won't come because the venues just aren't big enough, and promoters aren't prepared to pay inflated artists' performances fees when they won't get the returns on their investment.
"When I left Mirage in 2008, one of my frustrations was that at that time we were talking about a consolidation for the UAE, going from an emerging market to a proper tour venue. If they had started building a proper arena venue then, it would have been ready by now. It would cost about $100m to build to seat 15,000-20,000 people. "If we all put our eggs in the same basket and built a venue it would allow us to do events all the year round," he says.
In Europe, it's much easier for a music lover to jump into his car and drive hundreds of miles to a concert. "If you look at the region, a guy from Bahrain could not get in his car and drive to the UAE, whereas someone from Birmingham would think nothing of driving down to London for a concert. If it involves getting a flight, there is a much bigger commitment," says Ovesen, who calculates that there are only around 500,000 people here who are interested in live entertainment.
Bureaucratic red tape can be a headache with police checks necessary on every individual in an artist's team, which could number 40 or more people. Until those clearances are given no tickets can be sold, which often leaves promoters with little time to work up the necessary publicity. It has caused the demise of several smaller promoters. "Legislation in the UAE was not made to cover live entertainment. Other problems include the artists themselves and what is acceptable when it comes to dress and lyrics.
"Then there is the ticket tax and we have to pay the money up front. There are just so many bureaucratic delays that it makes it difficult and expensive to produce shows. "It's not an environment that encourages private enterprise," he says. However, the changing face of the community is helping the business. When Ovesen first came here, there was very little in the way of international entertainment or touring bands, and people were grateful to see any star who cared to turn up in Dubai.
"A different type of person has moved here now. The new type of person is more picky. When you simplify what the expat is about, it's people who have an earning capacity more than they would have had at home and aspire to a lifestyle that they wouldn't have at home. There is a novelty factor about big-name concerts and you can't bring an artist to this area more than once. People feel that if they have seen them that's a tick in the box and they don't need to go again," he says.
The complexity of the population along with the age range, different nationalities and the varying degrees of exposure to culture and entertainment are all factors that have to be considered when bringing an artist to the area. "We look for talents who had their prime period when the current executive level were at a university. So right now we look at bands like the Eagles, Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and U2. These are the bands that people had their early great experiences to. Artists like Rod Stewart have an appeal for so many different types of people. And Keane at the Madinat showed that even in the middle of summer people are still willing to go out and spend money.
"As well as that, there is the very young community, so the big appeal is Hannah Montana [Miley Cyrus], Justin Bieber and the like." One upside from the artists' point of view is that they get royally treated when they are here, right down to the dancers and back-up teams who are often billeted in three-star hotels in other parts of the world. "We take them out into the desert and look after them and they love it. There aren't paparazzi around chasing them wherever they go so they can relax a bit," he says.
Ovesen has got to know many famous names over the years, and says some are nicer than others. He describes Ronan Keating as "such a professional and a genuinely nice person", and admires the way Alicia Keys would take herself off to a warehouse in Al Quoz every day to rehearse for several hours. Today, Ovesen is working on a new series of small 4,000-ticket concerts for the autumn with "the occasional blockbuster" thrown in. A new beach venue for 5,000 is likely to be announced shortly, an area where one or two concerts a month will be staged. "And we're looking for a big name or a big touring band for November," says Ovesen.
He would also like to see artists in residence, such as those in Las Vegas, something that would help hotels sell extra nights and boost the holiday trade. The recession has hit the music business in the same way that it hit every other business, but Ovesen is optimistic. Coming from Denmark, with his British-born wife Debra, whose family hail from St Kitts, and their nine-year-old son, Joshua, who was brought up here, he thinks of himself as a typical expat.
"To even contemplate going somewhere else would be difficult. The recession has been bad, but not bad enough for me to run off. When the market swings back into action, as it will, I would love to be part of the team. "After all the hard work we have put in I want to see it through."