In a CMW Keynote Interview on Thursday afternoon, veteran UK concert and festival promoter John Giddings kept the audience entertained with fascinating anecdotes and insights taken from a long and successful career in the business.
Giddings is best known as the man who resurrected England’s the Isle of Wight Festival in 2002, turning it into one of the premier annual fests in the world. As a music-obsessed youth, Giddins attended the third Isle of Wight fest in 1970, a legendary event featuring the likes of Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen that drew some 6000,000 festivalgoers that year.
The fest was then banned through an act of Parliament until Giddings brought it back to life. He describes his job as festival head as “my hobby. I don’t like golf, so this is what I do.” Under his tutelage, the fest has hosted memorable performances from the likes of The Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, Amy Winehouse, and Jay Z. Getting Fleetwood Mac to make a rare festival appearance was a coup for Giddings, who recalled that the clincher was escorting them to the island in a helicopter.
Giddings’ strategy to enter the music business in the early ‘70s was a canny one. “I went to Exeter University solely to become social secretary,” he recalls. The campus circuit was a crucial part of the British live music scene there, and taking on that role put him in touch with all the booking agents for the stars of the day. Giddings singles out booking Genesis to play his university for 600 Pounds as a highlight of his social secretary stint.
He then moved into the booking business full-time, working at the M.A.M. Agency in London. Giddings was smart enough to see the potential in punk rock early on, and he was the agent for The Ramones for their seminal first tours of Britain. Clearly very fond of that band, he laughingly recalls Dee Dee Ramone asking him after one gig, “were we fast enough?”
In 1980 he left M.A.M. to form TBA International with fellow M.A.M. agent Ian Wright, where he went on to work with Paul Young, Alison Moyet, Big Country, Howard Jones, Tears for Fears and Duran Duran.
In 1986 Wright and Giddings parted ways, with Giddings forming Solo Music Agency and Promoters and quickly ascending to the top of the business. He was the agent responsible for David Bowie's concert at Wembley Stadium, and a stadium tour with Genesis. In 1990 The Rolling Stones took on Giddings as European promoter and the likes of U2, Madonna and Celine Dion were added to his roster.
In 2008, Solo managed three of the five top-selling concert tours around the world. The Sticky & Sweet Tour by Madonna ranked highest, grossing $281.6 million. The second-highest tour was by Celine Dion, at $236.6 million, and the fifth-highest tour was by The Police, at $120.6 million.
Also in 2009, Billboard named three of Giddings' clients as the top grossing tours of the previous decade - The Rolling Stones at number 1 with $869m, U2 at number 2 with $844m and Madonna at number 3 with $801m.
At CMW, Giddings singled out David Bowie as a favourite client, “the only artist I ever wanted an autograph from. I do miss David, he had a great sense of humour.” One memorable anecdote Giddings retold here was of booking Bowie into The Kremlin Palace in Moscow, a gig that somehow found them in a desolate alleyway, stepping over a dead cat in the gutter. Ah, the glamour of showbiz.
Canadian references in Giddings interview included his lavish praise of Arthur Fogel as a genius in the concert promotion industry plus warm reminiscences about Celine Dion.
Giddings has worked very closely with Fogel, CEO of the Global Touring division of Live Nation Entertainment, and that relationship strengthened last month with Live Nation taking a majority stake in the Isle of Wight festival.
The Celine Dion connection came about when Giddings visited Toronto to meet up with The Rolling Stones. “I was invited to see [a then largely unknown] Celine perform. She and her team were so nice that when they asked me to book her first show in London, I had to agree.”
“I remember a later UK tour by Celine that we booked and was a huge success. She took me aside one night to ask if I was making enough money. No other artist has ever done that.”