It was Courtney Love who, perhaps in a rare and sober moment of clarity, said, “Rock is all about writing your own script; it’s all about pioneering.” She may not (yet) be one of the artists promoted by Attie van Wyk, but her statement couldn’t be more true or descriptive of his journey. It’s a journey that has seen an accountant with musical aspirations become a hit song writer, band member, music producer, tour organiser, and concert promoter extraordinaire. Wherever South African music and live concert boundaries were being pushed, Van Wyk – the founder and CEO of Big Concerts – was at the forefront. In the process, he’s built a business that’s gained the respect of the international heavyweights in music.
The story of Big Concerts started in 1992 when, after helping to negotiate the end of the cultural boycott against South Africa, Van Wyk brought out Paul Simon, one of the first international acts South Africa had seen for a long, dark time during Apartheid. But, to understand the success of Big Concerts, you need to look further back to when Van Wyk’s musical career started. It was here that the seeds of passion for making and promoting great music were planted, and where Van Wyk first started to prove that he could move obstacles and make things happen.
“Back in the 80s I was a songwriter for a band called Ballyhoo when I got an offer from the Dephon Record Company, which was part of the Gallo stable, to join them as a music producer. So I quit the band and joined them, producing records mainly for music targeted at the black market in those days,” he says. Between 1982 and 1992, Van Wyk produced over 120 albums, including many for Yvonne Chaka Chaka for whom he also wrote songs. “At that time, I realised that the only way to sell records was to put the artists on a touring circuit.” The fact that no one else was doing it at the time and that he knew precious little about live music tours and concerts didn’t deter him from, as Van Wyk puts it, ‘giving it a bash’.
“We went on tour and played all over the country on weekends,” he recalls, “but in the process I realised that I was paying a lot of money to sound and stage companies, so I figured I may as well go and buy my own staging system. I also ended up buying my own trucking to transport us all over the country while we toured.”
The tours worked and Van Wyk helped to shoot local artists to relative stardom. “Around that time I teamed up with another guy who had a lighting system. I had the sound, we both invested in staging and we started promoting shows,” he relates. Big Concerts was officially born in 1989. But, the cultural boycott prevented the company from securing international artists, so Van Wyk started out with music festivals that featured local talent such as Mango Groove, Johnny Clegg and Lucky Dube, teaming up with local radio stations to bring out a series of ‘Big Birthday Concerts’.
And then came the tipping point. “I got a call from a guy by the name of Ray Phiri, a guitar-player for the band, Stimela, which played on Paul Simon’s Graceland album. He was in New York with Paul who he said was very interested in putting on a concert in Southern Africa, so I flew to New York to meet them and on my return, started working on getting the cultural boycott lifted,“ says Van Wyk.
His skills in diplomacy, now honed to a fine point after years of dealing with difficult artists and their agents, stood him in good stead during that time. “We did it through the Musicians’ Union and it involved a lot of negotiations with the ANC, Mandela, Pik Botha and the like, to get buy-in from all sides,” he relates.
Many will remember the Paul Simon concert as one that signalled the beginning of a new era for live entertainment in South Africa, but it was also one that lost Van Wyk a lot of money and got his offices bombed. “Hand grenades were thrown into our offices in Johannesburg to protest against the lifting of the boycott, and although Paul Simon said the show should go on, there were protests outside the arenas and people were afraid,” he explains. The show went ahead but tickets didn’t sell and Big Concerts took a R1,2 million knock – a lot of money in 1992.
The process was invaluable as a business learning experience, as Van Wyk outlines: “We were totally green and there was nothing to work from, no existing concert route and we had no idea what anything would cost. We didn’t even have a template for how to budget – we literally pulled figures out of the air and scribbled them down on pieces of paper. So the tour was nerve-wracking but it gave us yardsticks. At least we knew afterwards what things like sound, lighting, accommodation, transport and equipment would cost. And it was from there that the costing system and template we use today – which has over 150 detailed items – was developed. Now if an act comes to the country, we have both a budget template and a timeline template. In business you learn from your mistakes and we certainly learned from that early experience.”
When an opportunity arose to promote Chris de Burgh on tour the following year, Van Wyk was understandably nervous, but his fears proved unfounded. “We initially went on offer with 12 shows around the country and ended up selling 21 shows to 105 000 people. It was through the roof,” he says, smiling. Duran Duran followed and the floodgates to international talent opened, with the company promoting 12 to 16 international artists annually.
But, bringing out bands like U2, Billy Joel, Sting, Robbie Williams, Michael Jackson and Phil Collins is not like promoting a local artist on a weekend tour. It requires
professionalism, savvy, extraordinary negotiation skills and a fine-tuned feel for how the industry works. Van Wyk had a lot to learn. “I worked in Swaziland on a concert with Eric Clapton, Joan Armatrading and Jonathon Butler, and there I met an international promoter called Andrew Zweck who today is involved in Live Nation, the biggest promoter in the world. He took me through the ropes and taught me a lot about the business, the line items, how sponsors work, what contracts need to be included and the like,” he says. But, while being a pioneer meant he had to learn everything from scratch, it had its advantages as well, one of which was that Big Concerts could take ownership of opportunities ahead of competitors. In this respect, Van Wyk has been smart. Today the company owns a substantial chunk of the live events value chain and derives additional income streams from merchandising and liquor sales at shows. What started out as a team comprising Van Wyk, his wife, Isa, and an accountant, has grown into a company with eight departments that source the talent, organise and promote the tours, manage the shows, secure sponsorship, handle production and technical issues, keep the artists happy while they’re here and negotiate offers with agents.
This last item is perhaps the most trying part of the business and one for which Van Wyk takes personal responsibility. “It involves a lot of negotiating, a great deal of diplomacy and occasionally having to bite your tongue,” he laughs. “While the artists are mostly lovely people, their agents can make impossible demands and you go back and forth with an offer, listening to comments like, ‘My artist won’t get out of bed for that money!’ and reworking things until it’s signed and everyone’s happy.”
But he’s quick to point out that he still makes mistakes. He gives a recent example: “We always put our artists up in five-star accommodation, but in the past we’ve not stipulated which hotel. It’s never been a problem before but I had one incident recently where artists wanted to be put up in a specific five-star hotel that costs four times what other five-star hotels cost. And offers are accepted subject to what’s known as an artist’s rider, which is a 50 page document that details, amongst other things, the fact that the hotel is to be chosen by the artist. I’m afraid I lost that argument. So you learn things all the time,” he says.
After the personal demands of artists, price is often the biggest point of negotiation, and something that in the past few years has caused Van Wyk no small amount of frustration. He explains how a competitor promoter, keen to make their mark by landing big name artists, regularly undercut his prices. The promoter in question has since become embroiled in concert disasters, breach of contract litigation and artists subsequently cancelling their acts – but not before they did some damage. “We’d get involved in negotiations where an agent would want to go with us, but would need us to match the price that the other promoter was offering. And the easiest thing is to go back to the spreadsheet and force-fit things, increasing the ticket price for example, to make the numbers work. On paper it looks great but then you encounter public resistance in ticket sales, which don’t go as well as they should. I did it once or twice because I wanted the business but it went against my gut feel and in the end with a recent act, I pulled my offer and walked away from the deal,” explains Van Wyk.
On that point, he adds how important it is to read the market correctly when determining the price of tickets. “It takes five things to pull off a successful event – a happy audience, acknowledgement from artists that the tour was successful and professionally run, sponsors who get a return on their investment, good media appraisal and last but not least, money in the bank for the promoter. There have been times when I’ve had the first four, but not the last one, and the reason is usually ticket sales,” he says. Sometimes the market is flooded, or perhaps the entertainment Rand is being spread too thinly between things like cell phones, casinos or the lottery. “You also learn that an older artist will attract a demographic that’s older, in a higher LSM bracket and therefore able to spend more money. Also, no artist has a fixed price because certain artists mean more in certain territories,” he explains.
Pulling off successful (and profitable) events time and time again has kept the big names coming back and Big Concerts has developed a reputation for excellence that means it can stand shoulder to shoulder with top-class promoters from around the world. The company was recently included in the Pollstar list of the World’s Top 100 Promoters, reaching position 21. No other African promoter features in this Top 100. The secret lies partially in being driven to deliver excellence at all costs and in partnering with the right people. “Over the years we’ve put a lot of pressure on the technical companies we work with to meet international standards and invest in state-of-the-art equipment. It’s been in their interests to do so because they get so much business from us, but it has also been an important factor in our own success, and the feedback we get from artists time and time again is that we are certainly on a par, but probably more slick than promoters in bigger countries,” says Van Wyk.
This undoubtedly has a lot to do with Van Wyk’s energy. He may be 55 but he shows no signs of slowing down. He can still party up a storm with the likes of
Enrique Iglesias (although he admits it wears him out) and he says his sons help to keep him in touch with who’s up and coming on the music scene. “I have all the latest stuff on my iPod,” he laughs, and then launches into rapturous praise for Muse’s latest live concert DVD filmed at Wembley. He knows too that the music industry is a rapidly changing one but like all pioneers, he’s got his finger on that pulse too.