Industry Profile: Martin Elbourne
By Larry LeBlanc
This week In The Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Martin Elbourne
For nearly two decades, Martin Elbourne was the main booker of The Glastonbury Festival in the UK.
While Elbourne remains involved in the British arts and music event that celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2010, particularly in booking emerging new acts on two stages there, the festival’s owner Michael Eavis, his daughter Emily, and her husband Nick, handle the bulk of the booking responsibilities.
Since 2006, Elbourne has overseen The Great Escape Festival, the three day event that he co-founded as a joint venture with Channelfly, the parent group of the Barfly clubs. The May 13-15, 2010 event will features more than 350 bands in 30 venues in Brighton.
As well, Elbourne is also the booking consultant to Lovebox, Guilfest and Jersey Live annual festivals, and co-promoter of the annual M For Montreal.
There are 450 festivals annually in the UK, but the Glastonbury Festival located on Eavis' Worthy Farm in Pilton, Somerset is in a class of its own. Eavis decided to host the first festival, first called the Pilton Festival, after seeing air Led Zeppelin concert at the nearby Bath and West Showground in 1970.
Glastonbury 2010 will take place June 23 - 27, 2010. An estimated 177,500 tickets went on sale on Oct. 4, 2009, and the event sold out in less than 24 hours, no doubt due to U2 making its first appearance at festival.
Muse is also headlining Glastonbury 2010.
Elbourne began booking bands in the late ‘70s, when he was at Bristol University. He then promoted local shows, published a magazine, and co-promoted the first WOMAD Festival with Peter Gabriel in 1982. The latter attracted 15,000 people, but lost a great deal of money.
After the first WOMAD, Elbourne moved to London, and worked for four years as an agent at Rough Trade Booking, overseeing such acts as the Smiths, New Order, the Fall, Sisters Of Mercy, and James.
During the ‘80s, Elbourne managed Green on Red, Gaye Bykers On Acid, and Trinidad singer David Rudder.
Elbourne, already an informal advisor to Michael Eavis, then became more involved in his annual festival, notably booking Oasis off a demo tape for Glastonbury in 1994.
Where are you located?
I live in Redhill (Surrey, England), close to the Gatwick Airport. It’s 30 minutes into London. Two minutes from my house and I’m in fields. I’m not sure it’s the ideal business set-up.
Where are you from originally?
I was born in Carlisle but (my family) left when I was two. I was mainly brought up north of London in Hertfordshire. My father built motorways. Whenever I’m in a car in Britain, I can say, “My dad built this motorway.” He built most of the motorways in Britain.
Do you travel still to music industry festivals and conferences with so much on your plate?
I keep trying to cut down (traveling). I’m looking at each event, and going, “Which one to go to, and which one not to go to?” I spent this autumn traveling almost non-stop. I had the Jersey Live Festival which I am a consulting. Then I had a week’s holiday in Italy. I came back, had a day off and I went to the WMCAs (Western Canadian Music Awards) in Brandon, Manitoba. Then I went to India for a week. Then I went to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia for Nova Scotia Music Week which was really good. I really enjoyed it. Then to Montreal (for M For Montreal).
I made the mistake of doing Canadian Music Week (in Toronto), and South By Southwest (in Austin) back-to-back. I got ill from going outside in Toronto when it was hot in the hotel, and on to Austin where it was hot outside, and freezing in the room.
I’ve done my score of going to weird places in Canada. I like going to these small events, but they are tiring. If you get a flight, there might be layovers and (the delays and flight) really takes it out you.
What is your involvement with Glastonbury now?
At Glastonbury, I still book the Other Stage and the John Peel Stage. I am still partially involved in the Pyramid (stage), and the TV stuff and what have you. But Michael (Eavis) is gradually turning the event over to his daughter Emily and her husband Nick. I am totally cool with that. I much prefer booking new bands than booking old bands. Booking old bands is a pain in the ass because of dealing with egos and money.
Your role at Glastonbury had expanded over the years. It now has changed?
My role did expand and now, to some extent, it is contracting. I’m cool with that because I have so many other things that I’m doing. Despite Michael being 74, it is still totally his event. Emily and Nick are getting more and more involved because the event is going to continue. It will continue, obviously, for the next couple of years. Whether it will continue for 20 years, who knows.
Glastonbury is an absolutely lovely event. I am proud and privileged to be involved with it, and I will carry on for years, if they let me. But I can’t rely on Glastonbury for my living. Nobody gets paid a lot for Glastonbury. You do it as a labor of love. You do it willingly.
[With the exception of technical and security staff, Glastonbury is mainly run by volunteers.]
What other festivals do you work with?
With Lovebox, I am half booking it and half being a consultant. With GuilFest, I’m a consultant and the same with Jersey Live. My main thing nowdays is The Great Escape. That’s an event where I am a shareholder. It is the event closest to my heart, and that I know, in theory, will last for the next three years.
How did you come to work more on Glastonbury with Michael?
He knew about me through WOMAD and, I guess, we just got on. He used to have gigs in his barn with bands like the Only Ones, one of the great bands who never made it, and should have. I kind of knew him from that, and through WOMAD. When I became an agent, he kept in touch. Michael is not stupid. I think he looked at the WOMAD people, and thought, “Who should I keep in touch with here?” But we’ve always got on well together. I am close friends with all of his family.
When did you make the transition from advising Michael on bookings for Glastonbury to being more involved?
I can’t remember the year, but we eventually set up the second stage with half indie bands and half world music bands. Now we have about 20 stages. Michael and I were part of the Bristol scene. There was a guy called Mark Simpson who was the main promoter for post-punk bands in Bristol (Ashton Court Free Festival benefit gigs). We are all connected.
The Great Escape is leading to bookings for newer bands on the John Peel Stage at Glastonbury.
Exactly. It fits in perfectly. And, it’s what I like doing.
Well, U2 is playing Glastonbury this year.
I wasn’t involved in those discussions. I am really pleased that it is happening, but I am glad I wasn’t involved in those discussions because they would bore me shitless.
Had U2 been asked to play Glastonbury previously?
Every year for the past 20 years we have rung up U2 and asked if they were interested. They have always been really polite. They always got back to us within two days saying, “No, it’s not going to happen this year.” I think that having U2 is fantastic, particularly (because) it’s going to be U2 without all of the staging that they have today. They are literally flying back from the States for the show. It’s going to be U2, unstripped. As a punter, I don’t want to see the big show with all of the production. I’m sure it’s good but at Glastonbury, I want to see the band doing their thing.
A few years ago, the British papers reported that you had said that the Rolling Stones had demanded £1 million to play Glastonbury.
It was a misquote.
There’s rumor that the Stones will play Glastonbury 2010.
Everybody I know in the Stones’ camp says that they aren’t good at doing things where big money isn’t involved. But, maybe Mick (Jagger) has rung up Michael. It’d be that personal
Muse is doing the festival.
I don’t think that’s been announced, but it’s very definitely happening.
Glastonbury 2010 sold out in one day.
if I wasn’t involved in the festival, I’d pay to go. It is the best festival in the world. Obviously, if it’s pissing down with rain, it’s not the best festival. But if it’s a good one, it’s so good that you just can’t beat it. I have never been to any event in the world that can beat a good Glastonbury. So if you can get that high, it’s worth paying the money for.
Glastonbury has become famous almost as much for its weather as the music in recent years. The opening day in 2005 was delayed by heavy rain and thunderstorms. In 2007, the site was turned into a mud bath by rain.
We are used to that here. The event is well organized now. Where the site is, however, is close to sea level. It’s in a valley. It’s stunningly beautiful, but it’s also impractical. Michael has spent millions of pounds in developing the site.
Since winning the broadcasting rights from Channel 4 in 1997, the BBC has expanded its Glastonbury coverage significantly.
If you are in the UK when Glastonbury is on, and you are not at the event, you know the event is on. You watch it on TV. We didn’t plan it, but that’s the way it turned out. There are only so many TV opportunities that bands have in the UK, anymore. Glastonbury is now vitally important (for exposure.)
You were involved in setting up the TV coverage.
Originally, it was with Channel 4. Waldemar Januszczak (head of arts at Channel 4) said, “We should cover this event.” We were kind of wary (of TV) in the early days. Then, the BBC hijacked it because they had more money to spend. They do a great job. We have 30 hours of coverage on the BBC. So the whole country is watching the event.
[The BBC is wary that its coverage of Glastonbury has the potential to offend viewers—a combined audience of over 15 million TV viewers, and nearly 6 million radio listeners. Three years ago, the BBC was forced to apologize after the Arctic Monkeys used bad language before the 9 o’clock adult entertainment curfew. It has since introduced a 30-minute time delay for acts most likely to swear.]
Were some of the bands reluctant to be filmed early on?
Oh yeah. But nowadays, they all want to get involved. The only artist in the past four years to say no was Leonard Cohen because he was doing his own (production).
Leonard Cohen was a great booking for Glastonbury.
One of the most magical moments of my life was seeing Leonard Cohen at Glastonbury. It was Rob Hallett (at AEG) who got that together. We paid a high fee--for us—but, still a low fee in regards to the rest of his tour. We were lucky. Rob told him he should do the show. Leonard was brilliant.
Booking The Great Escape compares to how you got started by booking new bands.
Our track record at The Great Escape in the four years is pretty astonishing. Obviously, it’s not entirely down to me. I have a good team. But I much prefer dealing with new bands. I was lucky when I started, I didn’t realize that I was starting, of course. I was just a kid interested in music.
You began booking bands while at Bristol University.
A bunch of us got elected to run the student union (the Bristol University Union). One of us was the president, another was the vice-president, and I was, weirdly enough, the treasurer. Part of our manifesto was to open up the Student’s Union’s Hall which was close to the central of the city, and held about 1,000 people. When I first got involved, only students were allowed into the building. Bristol is a city of about 500,000 people, and we had the best hall in the city.
So it was ‘let’s have non-students in for concerts.’
The good thing, and the bad thing, was that this coincided with punk. For the first year, we had a lot of big fights. The student union officials were mostly old guys who weren’t used to dealing with any trouble, apart from a student being a bit drunk or something happening with the rugby club. We had these gigs with the Damned, and the Clash with punks chanting, “We hate students” and the students at the back chanting, “We hate punks.” It calmed down after about six months when we realized we all liked the same things.
It was an interesting time in British music.
It was a brilliant time. We started doing shows with local bands outside of the student union. We started doing shows with local bands outside of the student union. You could put three local bands on and, if you knew your stuff--and being 19, I knew my stuff-- we’d sell a thousand tickets. There was a two year period that if you knew your crowd, you could regularly sell out a 1,000 capacity venue just by whipping on the best new local bands. That happened all over the UK.
Bristol has always been a weird creative city with all of these young students being around. It was once the hippie centre of the world, and it was one of the first (cities) to embrace punk.
Punk was an outgrowth of pub rock and a reaction to the prog rock of Yes, Genesis and King Crimson.
Absolutely. When I was a teenager I was completely into prog rock which now is quite embarrassing to say. Four years ago at Glastonbury, a whole bunch of my college mates ended up at the Jazz World stage when Yes was playing. We had a photograph taken with Rick Wakeman, who’s a very nice guy. None of us sent the photograph to the other. It was like, “No. We weren’t into that band.” But, we were totally into prog rock early on. Then, there was about six months of Eddie & the Hot Rods, and it was like, “Hang about. This is way more fun.” But, for me, the creative period was the period immediately after punk, the post punk period..
After college you formed a label/magazine company?
It was called the Bristol Recorder. It was a double album sleeve (pak) with a 30-page magazine in the middle. We were the first to do that format. We only did about four of them. I was renting this crappy student house, and it was run out of my basement with everybody working for nothing.
I was recently looking at one of the issues. It reads well 30 years later. The quality of the writing was remarkably high. We mixed it up right from he start. We had interviews with Richard Branson (Virgin Records), and Geoff Travis (Rough Trade Records), and we included the local African drumming troupe. We got local companies to advertise on the record sleeve. That paid for the record.
It was never going to take over the world, but it was a cool thing to do at the time. People liked it. The articles were supposed to be definitive, things that you might read in a year’s time. Not the weekend supplement kind of things.
Our real break was (a 1981 interview with) Peter Gabriel who became a long-time friend of mine.
How did the interview with Peter come about?
He rang us up, and asked if we wanted to do an interview. He lived in Bath which is about 10 miles from Bristol. Occasionally, he would make forays to Bristol. He was a pretty major star at the time. Our interviews were three pages long. They weren’t 10 second interviews, and it was young people doing them. He also asked if we wanted to have three live tracks for our vinyl album. I didn’t actually do the interview with him, but we became mates. I met him first in a pub in Bath, and we got on straight away. He’s a lovely bloke.
You were both involved with the first World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD) festival in 1982 that was a financial disaster.
The first WOMAD was a great event, and a mess. It is certainly a leading candidate for losing the most amount of money for one show. Peter and I were officially the co-promoters. It was fairly bizarre booking a festival that featured (world beat acts) along with Echo and the Bunneymen, and Simple Minds. I was in charge of the money.
I had managed to get £30,000 loan, a stupidly large loan, from the local bank—and I had to walk back in with no money on the Monday morning. I got the bank loan for on no collateral. You wouldn’t be able to do that now. I was just supremely confident. Two weeks before the event, I cracked. I knew that it was fucked.
You hadn’t done anything of that size before.
No. I was 22. The experience was pretty bizarre. I learned loads out of doing it, but it emotionally damaged me for quite awhile. We were literally bankrupt. We went into liquidation. The day after the liquidation there was a Chinese band—50 of them—that turned up at Peter’s house demanding payment.
Genesis bailed Peter Gabriel out with a concert.
Oh, they did. Genesis did their concert so every debt our company had was paid off. It probably set a record of the biggest loss ever for one show, and probably the only company in the UK that has ever paid off all of its debts. Thankfully, WOMAD still survives.
How much money was owed?
£250 grand. That was a lot in 1982.
Did you at least enjoy the show?
Not at all. I spent the whole show in hiding. Part of the site was a horse jumping show ring. So I was in the commentator’s box. I could see the whole site but nobody could find me. My brother had died about two months before the event. So everything was crap. I’m in this box with a good friend of mine, who was an accountant, there with me. Just trying to get through this weekend, and then deal with the shit afterwards.
The only guy that found me the whole weekend was Mike Hinc from Rough Trade Booking who, oddly enough, I ended up working for a year later. He was the one person who sussed out where I was. He wanted his 500 quid for one of his bands.
You needed a job after WOMAD?
I went into the dole office in Bristol a week after WOMAD, and they said, “Hello. Mr. Elbourne. We were expecting you.” Then I moved back to London. I was lucky. I had good friends that looked after me. I spent three or four months working for a couple of venues in London, putting up posters, and being a roadie for shows.
What did you learn at Rough Trade, booking the Smiths, New Order and others?
It was a good time. Rough Trade Booking was the new kid on the block. We had, all of the good, new bands like the Smiths, and New Order. We’d turn up to see one of our bands at a venue, walk into the dressing room, and there’d be an agent from one of the big old school agencies in there. It happened all of the time. There was no respect. It was all of the old farts. Most of them are still around. We were sort of like the left field street guys.
The agency wasn’t in central London either.
No. It was in Notting Hill, and it wasn’t a posh area then. There was the warehouse downstairs for distribution, and the other Rough Trade companies, while we were in a little room upstairs.
You inherited Nick Hobbs’ job.
Nick Hobbs is one of the unsung heroes of the European music industry. He created the alternative touring circuit in Europe, and then went on to create the touring circuit in Eastern Europe. He was a real cool and influential guy.
[Manager of Henry Cow at 21, Hobbs first introduced alternative Western bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees and Nico into Scandinavia. Since the mid-1980s, his agency Charmenko has been involved in promoting shows in Eastern Europe and Russia. In 1985, he brought Everything But The Girl and Misty to Roots to Moscow, and he did tours of Russia and Siberia with David Byrne, Marc Almond, the Shamen, Nitzer Ebb, the Sugarcubes, and Peter Hammill in the ‘90s.]
Punk certainly changed the UK scene.
After the initial punk explosion, it was actually the post punk thing that really cemented (the UK music scene). A lot of businesses grew out of that, and there were some really cool bands. One of them I worked with for a long time was New Order. Rod Gretton (manager of New Order and Joy Division, partner in Factory Records, and the co-founder of the Haçienda in Manchester, one of the world best known nightclubs of the 80s) was one of the biggest geniuses I’ve ever worked with. Rob would only book a show, say into Newcastle, if it was a local guy who was doing something else. Kitchenware Records (in Newcastle) for example, was a cool little label that started because Rob said that they could have a New Order show.
Out of that scene came the Smiths, Sisters of Mercy and so on.
Oh yeah. It was the whole DIY thing. Suddenly all of these kids around the country thought, “I can be a band, and I can make an impression.”
How did your relationships with the Smiths develop?
I got a telex from a guy in Zurich saying he had heard of the Smiths, and that he wanted to book them. Someone had given him a cassette tape. I didn’t know the Smiths, but if a guy in Switzerland wanted to book them, I figured I could probably build a tour. We had a little balcony over the warehouse, and I shouted out, “Anyone heard of the Smiths?” Normally, someone would go “Yeah” but this time the guys in the warehouse said, “Never head of them.” A few phone calls, and talking to some mates in Manchester, I found them. I went the next week to Manchester, and met their then manager. How their tape got to this guy in Zurich, I don’t know.
[The Smiths were soon signed to Rough Trade Records which released their first single, "Hand in Glove" in May 1983.]
In the ‘80s, you managed several acts?
I worked at Rough Trade for about four years, and then I made the mistake of becoming a manager. I managed Green On Red, which was an influential band. I worked with Gaye Bykers On Acid. They were lovely guys. Then I got a guy called David Rudder from Trinidad. I spent a good few years doing hand-to-mouth stuff, just surviving as a manager. People now tell me I was a great manager. But I didn’t make any money.
Green on Red was an American band.
Green and Red had 9 albums released. They could do a 6 week European tour playing 500 or 600 capacity clubs. But, we would barely make enough money (to cover tour costs). Their two biggest territories were Norway and Greece.
Norway and Greece is not a practical tour route.
I remember going to Greece, and we sold out two nights in a 2,000 capacity venue there. Ozzy Osbourne was playing in a (nearby) stadium, and apparently he had 500 people. There were something like 4,000 people in the car park for Green on Red.
Green on Red basically broke Americana in Europe. They were much bigger there than they were in the States. They had nobody pushing them in America.
Nobody back then expected to make money on records.
You just wanted to get a record deal. You didn’t think about the consequences that you would never get to see any money other than advances. In retrospect, that is complete and utter bollocks and thankfully is now being killed off.
“Gas Free Lodges” (Enigma Records, 1985) sold well, but we never got paid a penny. It cost $15,000. We never received one royalty statement. It was partly my fault. I read the contract when I first met the band, and there was a renewal clause. So we went and signed with Mercury Records. Green on Red had a real hardcore group of fans and still do.
[Capitol/EMI acquired Enigma Records in 1989, and merged its operations into Capitol Enigma Records.]
Booking the Smiths got you to Glastonbury?
I was already working at Glastonbury. After WOMAD collapsed Michael kept in touch, and I gave him advice. For about 8 years (in the ‘80s) I was paid about £300 a year.
Michael had been upset about the first WOMAD.
It was two miles away from his site, and Glastonbury was not an established event at that point. He was not happy at all. In those days, Glastonbury (attracted) about 25,000 people. I used to go down. If you were a student in Bristol, and you finished your exams, you went down to Glastonbury. It was very much a local hippie thing. So the Smiths were like the first credible hot new indie band to play there.
What are some of acts at Glastonbury that stick out for you
To me, the best Glastonbury performance ever was by Trouble Funk in the mid ’80s. They were absolutely brilliant. It is a Washington, D.C. band that is not well known nowdays. Just a great live band. Obviously, the Jay-Z performance in 2008 was a seminal moment.
It was controversial booking but it paid off.
It totally paid off for both us, and the artist. Michael got involved personally (in booking Jay-Z). Here’s a 75 year old farmer doing a conference call with Jay-Z, telling him that he wouldn’t be booed offstage. Reading Festival had bad experiences of having rap and urban artists onstage. Michael said that we couldn’t guarantee that the field would be full, but he wouldn’t be booed offstage. And Jay-Z did brilliantly.
2008 was an interesting Glastonbury year because the overall lineup was short on headliners.
We struggled to sell tickets. We ended up selling 99% of the tickets. Glastonbury runs on a very tight profit margin because we give so much away to charity. There isn’t a big fund of a £1 million. That year, Michael, rightfully, was worried. This year, we sold within a day.
Do British and European festivals have difficulty in attracting American acts that might prefer to spend the summer at home rather than going overseas?
The UK and European festival markets are so strong at the moment that if you are a North American act, you’d be a bit of an idiot to stay in North America in the summer. I think one of the reasons why the festival circuit doesn’t work in the US (in the summer) is because there’s a good 8 week period when acts can earn good money playing European and British festivals. I think it’s a real shame that there aren’t more festivals in Canada and America.
It has been said there are too many festivals in Britain.
Sure, there are too many, but the main festivals are all doing great.
How competitive are British and European festivals in booking acts?
It’s pretty competitive. It’s good time for the agents at the moment. (The competition) doesn’t apply to Glastonbury because people want to play it but, with some of the other events I’m involved with, (competition) is a major issue. It will settle down at some point, but, at least, there’s a growth here. Looking at the future, any band worth its salt is going to spend their summer in Europe and not in North America, India or in China.
Larry LeBlanc was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, the London Times and the New York Times.