Renaissance: Alex Hill sees an uplifting future for venues
It’s hard to imagine any industry being hit harder by the pandemic than live events, but the man behind some of the country’s biggest venues suggests a surprisingly uplifting note.
Alex Hill, executive director of the European arm of live music giant AEG, which owns London’s O2, Hammersmith’s Apollo and the SSE Arena at Wembley, says bookings will be included for this year and next.
“It could easily be the busiest year ever in 2022 for venues across the country, including the O2,” said Hill, who just hosted this week’s Brit Awards at the O2.
If his prediction proves correct, it would mean an amazing renaissance for the 20,000-seat O2 venue, born from the ashes of London’s much-criticized Millennium Dome project.
Tomorrow the 30 bars and restaurants will be open again to indoor customers – and Hill, 48, says customers have largely been sticking to tickets for a number of newly scheduled concerts due to take place this year.
The upcoming boom, he says, is due to a combination of pent-up demands from fans eager to return to gigs and pop stars to tour new work that was recorded in Lockdown. “Some of the shows that are going out are selling like crazy,” he adds. “Younger population groups just want to get out and experience life and have a lot of fun.
Some of us who are a little over the hill may need a little more persuasion to get out of there, but I know everyone will [return in time]. ‘
Inquiries are already coming in for 2023 and 2024, according to Hill as the diaries are full, but before next year’s rush, the gig scene could be a hue of red, white and blue.
“I don’t really plan on international tours stopping until sometime in 2022,” he says. “I think we are fortunate in the UK that the music industry is the jewel in the crown of our culture and we have a lot of brilliant talent that will be playing in our venues.
British artists want to get out there and play in front of their fans. I think this is a great opportunity. ‘
Hill talks to me the day after attending the Brit Awards through zooming out of his home in London’s leafy Wandsworth. The music industry’s annual television event was a government testing event for the near term future of live performance.
Social distancing and masks were eliminated, and the 4,000-strong audience – including 2,500 key workers – instead had to take a Covid test 36 hours before the event. The actors were Dua Lipa, Rag’n’Bone Man and Elton John with Olly Alexander.
Gone were the overcrowded tables of drunk music industry executives on the arena floor (they were in the hospitality suites) while some of the performers were moved to a nearby hotel as Backstage was “bio-safe”.
But Hill says that didn’t stop the event from living up to its reputation as a dazzling and boozy night.
“I may feel a little exhausted,” admits Hill, who is still catching up with TV coverage. ‘The front workers loved it so much, I’m just really happy to see the fans again. It shows that we can safely return to live events. ‘
True Brit: Dua Lipa in a Union Jack jacket makes an appearance at the Brit Awards last week
All event capacity restrictions will be lifted on June 21, and Cabinet Secretary Michael Gove has been tasked with studying Covid Passports to facilitate the return to more normal live events.
Hill says he broadly supports the use of tests to reopen live events, but as a “temporary measure”. And he believes other Covid measures put in place at the O2 last week are likely to remain in place – including new air purification technology, hand sanitizing stations (the Greenwich venue has 256) and paperless tickets.
He reveals, “Everyone now has digital tickets and you can order food and drinks on your phone. I don’t think that will go back [to how it was before]. ‘
It’s been a brutal year for AEG, which owns and operates more than 100 venues around the world. Hill is cautious about the damage on his balance sheet, but says revenue has fallen more than 90 percent across the industry.
The company is backed by U.S. mogul Philip Anschutz’s investment vehicle, and its deep pockets make it bounce back in decent shape. Hill believes that reliable UK revenue is unlikely to return until September, while in mainland Europe, where AEG has offices in Germany and Sweden, the vaccine rollout has postponed its live schedule “a few months after”.
AEG employees are slowly leaving vacation and Hill hopes to have all employees back by early August.
The company was forced to postpone its annual outdoor shows, July’s big British summer time gigs in Hyde Park, which featured Pearl Jam and Duran Duran, until next year. And Hill argues that the bustling UK festival industry is in a dangerous position: “There is no commercial insurance market for dealing with Covid [so] We’re looking for some kind of state insurance.
‘I think there will be more festivals canceling their shows. So we’ve seen people like Glastonbury and Boomtown cancel because they’re very complex calculations, huge projects that take months. ‘
He argues that some of the money left in the government’s Cultural Restoration Fund could be used to support the festival season.
Like the venues he runs, Hill appears polished and devoid of the chaotic rock and roll energy on which his industry was founded. Sitting in front of his collection of houseplants and a book about 1001 walks, he lists the mid-of-the-road rockers The Killers who are playing their Hot Fuss album as his dream gig.
A business administration graduate, he spent his early career at the consulting firm KPMG before heading numbers for Flextech broadcaster and TV producer Fremantle.
Despite the ravages of Covid, AEG is on the rise again – even during the pandemic at the historic Olympia and Wolverhampton Civic Hall in London.
Could there be any other offers? Hill says, “We are not afraid to invest and I think if we found the right opportunity we could do it.”
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