John Lickrish talks about his high-octane work bringing stars and big events to Abu Dhabi.
Sunday interview: the man who brought us Prince
If John Lickrish is feeling a little tired three days after the arrival of his new baby son, it doesn't show. He is more concerned about the unsettling effect little Lachlan is having on his older brother Kai, aged 22 months.
Also vying for his attention is a certain gentleman by the name of Prince. The rock superstar has been confirmed as the headline entertainment during next month's Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and the Khalifa Park offices of the events organiser Flash Entertainment are buzzing with excitement.
As if that weren't enough, also on the menu are the American rapper Kanye West and the rock band Linkin Park, so Lickrish has his hands full, both metaphorically and literally.
Handing the baby gingerly over to his wife Anissa and giving Kai a reassuring hug, the 42-year-old managing director of Flash admits that it was just as chaotic first time around when his elder son was born.
"Last time it was George Michael whose concert was two days after Kai was born and I was standing in the corner of the delivery room clicking away on the BlackBerry with last-minute organisation. The concert was a lot of fun but I hadn't slept for three or four days trying to juggle family and work," he says.
Since his arrival in Abu Dhabi in 2008 to help organise the sell-out Justin Timberlake concert, Lickrish has barely had time to draw breath. After the success of that event and the follow-up Bon Jovi concert, he was given the task of setting up a company that would put Abu Dhabi on the entertainment map. Starting out with only two people, the company he formed, Flash Entertainment, now has a staff of 71 dedicated to bringing world-class artists to the capital and producing a year-round programme of music, sporting and outreach events.
In the space of two years we have seen Shakira, Elton John, Bon Jovi, Coldplay, Andrea Bocelli, Christina Aguilera, George Michael and Alicia Keys perform and there are more superstars in the pipeline, although Lickrish won't even hint at the names he's talking to. Indeed, he has been known to spread disinformation until an artist is confirmed, which may account for the false rumours that took fire last year that Madonna and ACDC were coming to the UAE. The fact is that there were talks with both managements, but their schedules just didn't work out.
"Usually it starts with the talent manager making contact and then he comes and talks to me. It used to be something I did myself, but it's very time-consuming. People are very good at keeping secrets within these walls, but as more departments become involved it usually leaks out. People can't help themselves and everyone pesters you to find out who is coming.
"I usually give out some disinformation, perhaps talking about the artists that have rejected the possibility. You have to say something when people ask."
Signing Prince for the Formula One race-day concert was a real coup, he says.
"Prince doesn't do that many concerts. It was something I was very excited about, then very sceptical, so when I got the confirmation there was a huge sense of relief. I had forgotten how many fantastic songs he had; there are about 12 I could sing every word of. People started calling and texting and the reaction in the press was very positive."
But it doesn't stop with Prince. Flash has just launched a new series of weekend concerts featuring the Jonas Brothers, Nelly Furtado and Guns N' Roses, all chosen to appeal to different age groups and make Yas a family destination.
"We designed the Yas Island Show Weekends in a way that meant people of all ages and tastes could come and get involved," says Lickrish.
Lickrish confirms that there have been talks with Madonna's management, but the dates just didn't work out. He did, however, make a personal trip to New York to watch the star in her final rehearsals and to check that the show's content was suitable for the UAE. Clearly, it's one of the perks of the job.
"She was rehearsing in a sports arena in New York, and when I arrived there were four chairs sitting in the centre of the arena. Three other people got out of expensive cars and took three seats and invited me to sit in the fourth, but otherwise there was nobody else there. Madonna used a body double so that she could stand at the side of the stage to see how it all looked. Then she got up on stage and did her performance. She's a perfectionist. It was a great experience but for me it's always been about the crowd. Without the crowd it didn't have the element that pushes it over the top, looking around and seeing people smiling."
Even though he's been running events for more than 20 years, Lickrish has never lost his sense of enthusiasm and clearly feels a strong sense of pride for his team when they are successful. He also takes it very personally when they are not and described the last-minute cancellation of the DJ Tiesto show at Adnec on October 1 as "absolutely devastating".
"I got home at 3.30am after my son was born, called my parents and sat outside thinking: 'What a great day.' My son was born healthy and happy, I was looking up at the skies, I had a sold-out show with Tiesto whom I like a lot and thought this is going to be awesome. I wanted to do a really strong event and make it really special
"Next day the team got a call to say there was a technical problem and the show couldn't go on. I went down to the venue in a mad panic to see what had happened and the health and safety people said they needed to shut the show down because there was a safety issue. It was absolutely devastating," he says.
In the scheme of things, it was a small glitch in an otherwise hugely successful two years for the Scottish-Canadian Lickrish, who previously ran his own events management company in Toronto working with high-profile clients such as Philip Morris and Smirnoff Experiences. He also had a small record label.
Frankly, Lickrish is happy to be alive after a freak accident four years ago almost put an end to his career just a few weeks before he was due to get married. He had just spent a week in Abu Dhabi talking to an old friend who holds an executive position with Mubadala, the state-owned development company, and had flown to Scotland for a few days of golf and relaxation with his father, two brothers and best friend.
"It was my stag party and we were staying in a hotel overlooking the 18th green of the St Andrews golf course. It was a short balcony and I went out for a cigarette. I leaned over to try to knock on my brother's window in the room next door when I fell on to the metal railing below with its spear tips. I landed arm first on one of these spear tips and it pretty much severed my arm.
"They patched me up in a local hospital in Aberdeen but the next year was all about nerve transplants, bone grafts and having a metal plate inserted into my arm. My arm wasn't usable for a year."
Lickrish doesn't like to dwell on the accident because he says he isn't looking for sympathy, although he admits he felt "as if the sky had fallen in on me".
"I would get a lot better and then it got worse and then it got better again," he says.
When his friend at Mubadala asked him to help with the Timberlake concert he welcomed the opportunity to change direction. "It's a land of firsts for us. My wife and I were both very excited about coming to Abu Dhabi. We knew people here and Anissa always likes going to new places. It was quite a change, leaving family and friends behind. We didn't have too many visitors the first year but the arrival of a new grandchild changes everything."
The Timberlake concert was sold out within an hour of tickets going on sale and the Bon Jovi show in the grounds of the Emirates Palace was also a sell-out. "So they realised it wasn't a fluke success and there was a need to establish a company. My friend called me and said he wanted me to develop a major events company. It was quite a challenge but it was really exciting and I will never forget that day sitting in his office listening to his plans. It was exhilarating."
Along with the successful concerts, Lickrish cast his eyes around for other events to bring to the emirate and the World Tennis Championships was the result.
"I knew that the idea was to bring events to Abu Dhabi to make the city exciting as well as making money. I had been reading everything I could about the city and the master plan and the history and tried to put these things into perspective. We basically had a blank slate," he says.
Creatively he might have had a blank slate but, contrary to perceptions, not a blank cheque. Every time you book an artist there are two things: one is the schedule and the other is how much money they're going to want. We don't have a blank chequebook. The first thing my boss said was: 'You can do anything you want to as long as there are returns. I don't care what you pay for it as long as you don't lose money.' We do not get blank cheques to do what we want, that's the farthest from the truth although that's the perception."
Flash has managed events for the government and for Adach, the culture and heritage authority, as well as for the tourism authority, and Lickrish hopes that the success of the various and varied events has helped to dismantle negative stereotypes about the Middle East. At first he needed to do a lot of persuading to get American stars to come here but not any more.
"I think when you don't know about a place there's a lot of nervousness," he says. "There are always questions about security. There's a lot of negativity about the Middle East and you have to tell them that's not the UAE. Once they get here you can just tell that immediately they relax. Christina Aguilera's security guards were very aggressive to begin with, but very soon they were sitting having a drink and Christina was doing whatever. In the music industry artists won't go to Mexico, for example, without armed guards. But it's getting much easier here.
"Justin Timberlake was extremely open to everything. He's a young guy coming back from Australia and it was really attractive to him. We took him golfing and we took him to the islands. His girlfriend was here and his mum, and we had a big celebration party at the end of the tour."
They had their final dinner party for the crew in one of the Bedouin camps and went out to see the falcons and camels and some of the traditional elements.
"Andy Murray was also very interested," Lickrish adds, "and stood and peppered me with questions about the place for nearly an hour. Tom Jones was at the cigar bar till 3am and he would go over to the piano and pick up the microphone and sing two or three songs with a jazz quartet that was performing. It was pretty cool."
Lickrish plays down any talk of rivalry with Dubai and is cautious about calls for the building of a national arena to attract the 30,000 to 40,000 audiences needed to fill it: "I've heard a lot of different groups talk about it, but an arena needs to be sustainable and multipurpose. There are a lot of venues and facilities that are here already, some that haven't been used that well. Just putting in an arena isn't going to solve any problems. We'd have to bring a lot more content in to support that arena.
"The consumer group is very small and it's better to focus on one city. It's very difficult to manage all of the processes of what we're doing. We are working with all sorts of different authorities, traffic management, health and safety. It takes a lot of work to produce one of these events."
He argues that it's too early to think about working with other cities: "Flash needs to get on with its own work. We're just working to make our company function better. Right now, what we're trying to do is run great events in Abu Dhabi."
Lickrish says his priority is to give concertgoers a smooth, pleasant experience: "We'd all like to rock up, park the car a few feet from the entrance, get a pop in your hand and a burger in the other and have the artist come to sing to you personally, but that doesn't really work. We like to see people move in and out as quickly as possible, make sure it's a very secure place where the safety elements are taken care of. We want everyone to have a great experience and keep the sponsors happy too."
He concludes: "I feel really proud to see the artists and bands perform and I'm proud of my staff and I love to stand and look at everyone enjoying it and spot those little moments that people have, high-fiving each other or hugging each other or that really big smile that you see and know that their cheeks will be aching the next morning."