Renaissance: Alex Hill sees an uplifting future for venues
It’s difficult to imagine an industry hit harder by the pandemic than live events, but the man behind some of the country’s biggest venues strikes a surprisingly uplifting note.
Alex Hill, chief executive of the European arm of live music giant AEG – which owns London’s O2, Hammersmith’s Apollo and the SSE Arena in Wembley – says bookings are flooding in for this year and next.
‘It could quite easily be the busiest ever year, in 2022, for venues up and down the country, including the O2,’ Hill says, fresh from hosting this week’s Brit Awards at the O2.
If his prediction proves correct, it would represent a startling renaissance for the 20,000-seater O2 venue that was born out of the ashes of London’s much-criticised Millennium Dome project.
Tomorrow, its 30 bars and restaurants will reopen to indoor customers – and Hill, 48, says customers have largely hung on to tickets to a string of rescheduled concerts now due to take place this year.
The coming boom, he says, is down to a combination of pent-up demand from fans desperate to get back to gigs and pop stars keen to tour new work recorded in lockdown. ‘Some of the shows that are going out right now are selling like crazy,’ he adds. ‘Younger demographics just want to get out there and experience life and have great fun.
Some of us who are a little over the hill might take a bit more convincing to get out there, but I know everyone will [return in time].’
Hill says enquiries are already coming in for 2023 and 2024 as diaries fill up, but before next year’s rush the gig scene may have a red, white and blue hue.
‘I don’t really envisage international tours taking place again until some time in 2022,’ he says. ‘I think we’re lucky in the UK that the music industry is the jewel in the crown of our culture and we have loads of brilliant talent that will play in our venues.
UK artists want to get out there and play in front of their fans so I think that’s a great opportunity.’
Hill is speaking to me over Zoom from his house in London’s leafy Wandsworth the day after attending the Brit Awards. The annual televised music industry bash was a Government test event for the short-term future of live gigs.
Social distancing and masks were ditched, with the 4,000-strong audience – including 2,500 key workers – instead required to take a Covid test 36 hours before the event. Performers included Dua Lipa, Rag’n’Bone Man and Elton John with Olly Alexander.
Gone were the crammed tables of boozy music industry execs on the arena floor (they were up in the hospitality suites) while some of the artists got changed in a nearby hotel as backstage was ‘bio-secure’.
But Hill says that didn’t stop the event living up to its reputation for being a glitzy– and boozy – night.
‘I might be feeling a little bit jaded,’ admits Hill, who’s still catching up with the TV coverage. ‘The frontline workers gave it such a buzz, I’m just super pleased to see fans back. It shows we can have a safe return to live events.’
True Brit: Dua Lipa, in a Union Jack jacket, performing at last week’s Brit Awards
All restrictions on venue capacities are set to lift on June 21 and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove has been tasked with studying Covid passports to smooth the return to more normal live events.
Hill says he broadly supports the use of testing to reopen live events, but as a ‘temporary measure’. And he believes other Covid measures used at the O2 last week are likely to stay – including new air purification technology, hand sanitising stations (the Greenwich venue has 256) and paperless tickets.
He reveals: ‘Everyone’s got digital tickets now, and you can order food and beverages 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 worldwide. Hill is coy on the damage to its balance sheet but says revenues across the industry are down more than 90 per cent.
The company is backed by US mogul Philip Anschutz’s investment vehicle and its deep pockets leave it in decent shape to bounce back. Hill reckons reliable revenues are unlikely to return in the UK until September, while in mainland Europe where AEG has venues in Germany and Sweden the vaccine rollout has put their live schedule ‘a couple of months behind’.
AEG staff are slowly coming off furlough and Hill hopes to have brought all employees back by the start of August.
The company was forced to push back its annual outdoor shows, July’s huge British Summer Time gigs in Hyde Park which were due to feature Pearl Jam and Duran Duran, into next year. And Hill argues that Britain’s vibrant festival industry is in a perilous position: ‘There’s no commercial insurance market for dealing with Covid [so] we’re looking for some sort of Government-backed insurance scheme.
‘I think there will be more festivals that cancel their shows. It’s why we’ve seen the likes of Glastonbury and Boomtown have to cancel because those are very complex bills, huge projects that take months.’
He argues some of the money left in the Government’s Culture Recovery Fund could be allocated to backing the festival season.
Like the venues he runs, Hill appears polished and bereft of the chaotic rock’n’roll energy his industry was founded upon. He sits in front of his collection of house plants, and a book on 1001 walks, and lists middle-of-the-road rockers The Killers playing their Hot Fuss album as his dream gig.
A business studies graduate, he spent his early career at consultancy KPMG, before running the numbers for broadcaster Flextech and TV producer Fremantle.
Despite the ravages of Covid, AEG is getting back on the front foot – even splashing out on venue revamps in London, at Olympia and Wolverhampton’s historic Civic Hall during the pandemic.
Could there be more deals in the offing? Hill says: ‘We’re not frightened of investing and I think if we found the right opportunity we would be able to do so.’
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