Glaswegian Zeal Powers Glasgow Live Music Scene

Stephen Hosey
There’s music to be heard at almost every turn in Glasgow, with the SSE Hydro arena at its center.

The Scottish city of Glasgow has given rise to some of the greatest live acts of the past and present. The list includes AC/DC’s Angus and Malcolm Young, Dire Straits co-founders David and Mark Knopfler, Primal Scream, Simple Minds as well as The Vaselines, Del Amitri, Optimo, Chvrches, Belle and Sebastian, Hudson Mohawke, Franz Ferdinand and Mogwai among others.

Glaswegian music fans enjoy a worldwide reputation. Just ask any band that’s had the fortune of performing at the Barrowland or King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, where to this day a gig is considered a rite of passage. The energy stemming from the crowd at those places, though palpable, is hard to put into words. Perhaps the Scottish term “braw,” however, which is a combination of great, superb and/or awesome, comes closest. A braw Glasgow crowd is born ready with no need for warming up. All they expect is that the act returns the favor. 

If they don’t, Glaswegians have a history of not taking phoned-in gigs kindly. There are many stories of comedians performing at the historic Glasgow Empire in the ’50s and ’60s who bombed miserably. Famous English comedian Des O’Connor, for instance, once pretended to faint when his jokes whiffed. 

Liam Gallagher experiencing the energy stemming from the Glasgow audience at this year’s TRNSMT Festival.
Ryan Buchanan
– Liam Gallagher experiencing the energy stemming from the Glasgow audience at this year’s TRNSMT Festival.
Promoter Mark Mackie, one of Glasgow’s own and CEO of Regular Music, said the crowd’s zeal traces back to the city’s sociological history: “It was the second city of the [British] Empire, a heavy-industrial city, and  very proud of its steel works and ship building – which was world-renowned. The people of Glasgow worked long shifts in terrible conditions. When they got to the weekend, they wanted to party,” Mackie explained.

“Glasgow audiences have always been very vocal. They want the band to know they’re there. They don’t want to just sit back and enjoy, it’s a two-way street for them. Glaswegians can be loud and brash, and then they sway. It’s a friendly loudness.”

In the ’70s and ’80s, the 3,500-capacity Apollo was the city’s main concert venue. It’s where Mackie saw his first live concert, the Boomtown Rats. The building got demolished in 1985, but by then the Barrowland Ballroom had reopened, a pivotal moment in the city’s live music history.

Simple Minds, which is to Scotland what U2 is to Ireland, shot the live video for their song “Waterfront” at the Barrowland in 1983 – and unwittingly consecrated a rock temple in the process. David Bowie, Oasis, U2, The Stranglers, The Clash, The Smiths, Big Country, Muse, Foo Fighters, Franz Ferdinand, Snow Patrol and many more have played the 2,000-capacity venue since.

Two years later, the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre opened, giving the city its first 10,000-capacity concert hall. Then, in 1990, Stuart Clumpas, founder of Scotland’s biggest promoter DF Concerts, launched King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, the iconic 300-capacity club, where Oasis got signed, and bands like Radiohead, Kings of Leon and Massive Attack played their earliest UK gigs. 

Mancunian Turned Glaswegian:
– Mancunian Turned Glaswegian:
Geoff Ellis of DF Concerts.
Today, Geoff Ellis, who took over as CEO of DF Concerts in 2001, runs the venue. Ellis is originally from Manchester, England, but has been living in Glasgow for the past 26 years. He remembers the day he arrived at King Tut’s in 1992 to start work: “The first person I met was the bar manager. She introduced me to her boyfriend, who was sitting at the bar and was Gerard Love from Teenage Fanclub, who were one of my favorite bands back then.”

It took Ellis one evening to realize that the Glaswegian people were a different category of fan. “There’s something about the Glasgow audience that’s incomparable. It’s a passion, it’s an energy,” he said.

Ellis was also the booker of T In The Park, Scotland’s most famous festival, from its inception by Clumpas in 1994 until it was forced to shut down after the 2016 edition because planning restrictions had made it economically unviable. TITP attracted 85,000 visitors per day at its height.

Glasgow still got a major festival in 2017, when DF Concerts launched TRNSMT, which has a daily capacity of 50,000. Ellis also promotes the annual 35,000-capacity Glasgow Summer Sessions at Bellahouston Park, which just announced Foo Fighters and The Cure as next year’s headliners, Aug. 16-17. 

Both TRNSMT and Glasgow Summer Sessions are metropolitan festivals without camping offerings. According to Ellis, “The market has changed, audiences have changed, and not just in Scotland, but the UK in general. It’s only really Glastonbury, Reading/Leeds and Creamfields that are doing the big numbers as a camping event. Millennials now want different experiences each year. They may have a great time at a camping festival, but the next year, they’ll want to do something different.”

Because city festivals were so easy to reach, one was less dependent on the regular clientele and could count on new visitors each year, the promoter explained.

The Glasgow audience is world-renowned for the energy that it generates during concerts.
– The Glasgow audience is world-renowned for the energy that it generates during concerts.
Since 2013, major tours stopping in Glasgow have a new home: the SSE Hydro, which has a maximum capacity of 13,000 and was the No. 6 arena on Pollstar’s 3Q worldwide ticket sales charts. It was the most successful UK venue in terms of reported ticket sales, just ahead of Manchester Arena. 

When the venue opened five years ago, it created a real buzz in the district of Finnieston, where it is located. It encouraged entrepreneurs to open bars, restaurants and hotels around it. There’s even a brand-new whisky distillery in walking distance. “People call it the Hydro effect,” Ellis said.

Tours too big for the Hydro visit Hampden Park, Scotland’s national stadium, which sells more than half a million tickets a year for soccer matches and concert tickets combined, according to general manager Peter Dallas. He said, “Concerts are an important element of our business model. We usually host three or four concerts a year with anything up to 55,000 on each occasion.”

But Glasgow can also do boutique, as Mark Mackie proves each year with the 12-concert series Summer Nights At The Bandstand in Kelvingrove Park. This year’s headliners included Van Morrison, Bryan Ferry, Pretenders and Jimmy Cliff. 

The Bandstand’s capacity is just 2,250. There’s a special atmosphere in the park, particularly at night, when all the trees are lit up while the River Kelvin streams by behind the stage, a sight that made even Van Morrison “almost smile,” Mackie joked.

“From day one,” he recalled, “it was no burgers and chips, no chemical Portaloos. It had to be good bar service, good catering.” The formula proved successful: For the first time in its five-year history, the concert-series hit £1 million ($1.3 million) at the box office this year, July 30-Aug. 11. 

Debbie McWilliams, head of entertainment of SSE Hydro.
– Debbie McWilliams, head of entertainment of SSE Hydro.
The one thing remains a constant is the enthusiasm of Glaswegian fans. As Debbie McWilliams, head of live entertainment at the SSE Hydro, explained, “Before any artist takes to the stage at the SSE Hydro they pass a large clock which carries the message ‘time to meet the best fans in the world,’ and there is no better depiction of the Scottish audience, who are the most vocal, musically knowledgeable, discerning and loyal. If the Scottish fans take you to their heart, you are in there forever.”