Been There, Done That, Still Figuring It Out: Video Interview With Industry Veteran Allan McGowan

For our next video interview, we sat down with Allan McGowan, a true veteran of this business.

Manager, agent, promoter, editor, journalist, producer, illustrator – there’s hardly a field in the entertainment world, Allan hasn’t worked in.
He’s credited as one of the first agents to work out multi-date touring circuits, a given in today’s live entertainment business. 
As panel moderator and consultant, he has helped shape many of today’s well-known music conferences, including MIDEM, ILMC, ESNS, MaMa and more.
Allan, who turns 72 this summer, recently stepped down from his moderating capacities as well as his role of associate editor of IQ Magazine, of which he is also the founding editor. 
In the issue accompanying this year’s ILMC, the magazine’s editor Gordon Masson wrote: “The magazine and much of what we do at ILMC, IFF and the numerous conferences and events we attend during each year, would not be possible without Allan having laid thee foundations, and for that, squire, we humbly thank you.”
Pollstar met Allan at his local pub in Brighton, England, to talk about…everything.
Pollstar: Do you remember the moment you fell in love with live music?
Allan McGowan: Yes, I sort of do. Where I was living, in Watford, around that whole area, we were very well of for venue. Watford Trade Hall, clubs in Harrow, all over the place.
In the early days, there was everybody, from the early Fleetwood Mac, to The Who when they were The High Numbers, to John Mayall, whatever. There was stuff going on the whole time.
It was really live music that I kicked off with. I was a big John Lee Hooker fan, I was really into blues. When all my friends were into Motown at the time, I was more into twelve-bar, I was more into blues.
Do you remember the first concert you saw?
Grant Tracy and the Sunsets, I think, was the first band I ever saw. Beyond that, it was two or three times a week that we’d go to gigs, from the age of 16, 17.
When did you know that you wanted to work in this business?
Everything was by accident. I got into working in record shops, that was the real kick-off, in Watford and later in Portobello Road. The record shops led into everything, really.
It was after doing that that I saw an advert in Melody Maker, which lots of people started through, for Chrysalis Agency, saying they wanted something with eight months to a year’s experience, and I lied completely after my three weeks, and got the job.
That’s how I got into the agency business.

Allan McGowan
– Allan McGowan
In the 1970s, with better hair than Michael Bolton.

You’ve worked in many roles throughout your career. Did it ever occur to you to pick one for good?

I figured that I would end up drawing for a living. In those days, when I was at school, the term commercial artist was used a lot. You don’t really hear people talk about that now. But if people asked me what I was going to do, I said I’ll be a commercial artist.
I didn’t end up doing that all the time, but I did do a bit of that, but managed to fit it in, alongside the music business stuff.
Do any of the record shops you worked at still exist?
No, I don’t think they do. When we had a shop in Brighton, our rivals were Virgin. When Branson first decided he’d be in the music business, he set up record shops. Not far from here was one of the first ever Virgin record shops, and we were down the road with a much smaller shop, but in rivalry with them at the time.
The Brighton Virgin one was famous for people going in, and sitting on cushions, sitting back and listening to a lot of stuff, and not really buying things.
And, in fact, the place turned into a venue, it was the last remaining sprung dance floor venue in the whole area, the [Regent Dance Hall]. I remember the first few acts that played there: the Stones played there, Curved Air was the first act to play there, Elton John in his early days played there.
You were one of the first people to work out European tour circuits. How did that come about?
When I was at Chrysalis, they specifically appointed me to do clubs. It was difficult running the clubs, at one point there were financial problems in the country, and a lot of clubs actually found themselves not making a lot of money. I was still booking those, you were lucky if you were getting 40, 50 pound a night. 
I’d figure there must be some other venues to look at, there must be some other ways. And I discovered that in Holland the clubs were subsidised, some of the German clubs are subsidised. So, I’d ended up getting to know some of these promoters, and started booking acts into Europe.
I was, sort of, quite ahead of the game at the time. I remember, I used to have other agents going, ‘let me get this straight, do you actually just book all these other dates in other countries, and in some cases you just make one phone call and you get four or five dates, while we do one date at a time?’
I said, yeah, that’s the way it works, it’s a circuit. You get to know it.
I was working with [the late] John Van Vueren in De Hague, Holland, and he knew all the other clubs in Holland. So I would sell him a date on a UK band, and he would then call up these other clubs, and I would do a deal with him. 
Suddenly we found that there were two dates in Belgium, there were some dates in Germany, that’s when we first started doing European touring. Rock Werchter, for instance, run by Herman [Schueremans], I sold him his first UK act. 
Odd TV shows, there were some TV shows in Germany, we used to just book television dates alongside normal club dates just to expand what you were doing.

Allan McGowan was presented with ILMC
– Allan McGowan was presented with ILMC
The international live music conference wouldn’t be the same without him.

How did you gage if there was even interest for these artists in those territories?

Calling people up, phoning people. There were still lots of people in those territories that were actually taken up by British acts, British acts were famous, even through reading Melody Maker, Sound, and a lot of the UK press that was around at the time and had a lot of influence of people in Europe.
Would you sill manage the right artist if he or she came along?
Funny enough, I just been asked to get back into management, a couple of people approached me. Who knows.
Do you find the business has changed a lot?
It has in as much as huge companies moving in. When SFX first moved in, before becoming Live Nation a lot later, that changed things an incredible amount. For a long time you were still working out deals on the back of an envelope. People like Carl Leighton-Pope, Barry Dickins and all those guys who were around at the time, were working things out in their own way of doing things, and doing it very well.
Did you miss some of today’s professionalism in the old days? Did you always get paid?
Why, you didn’t always get paid. When acts were touring at that time, everything was in the back of one small truck, equipment was not great equipment, but people were doing ludicrous amounts of gigs. You just about made it through a lot of the time.
You had to know your circuit. You knew if you had a Tuesday night, you were likely to be playing in Quaintways Club in Chester, because they had a Tuesday night. If you wanted to do more than that, you had to find someone that had a Wednesday night, or maybe you didn’t play the Wednesday night, and you slept in the van.
To keep going, you had to know the clubs that were operating on a certain night, you had to know what you could talk them into paying you, which was never really much.
The whole thing about it was to actually tour and get known well enough to get a record deal. Hopefully the record deal would take off, and that’s where you’d make your money.
What do you remember from your Brighton Soul Society days in the 1970s?
We were doing a lot of soul and funk acts, and we had one particular venue that we used, which was Brighton Top Rank, which is a 2,000-capacity venue, which would cost you £750 to rent, and then you’d work out what your ticket prices were, which were actually, in the early days, probably three, four pounds to work out.
We did a lot of soul acts, we did a lot of reggae acts. You would negotiate a particular fee, you knew exactly what you’d make if you sold out. 
Then they started to introduce other ways of doing the shows, which was percentage deals. Percentage deals didn’t exist for a long time, the idea that you would offer a band a certain amount of money, if they broke even, and then, once you went beyond the break even point, you would decide how you would divide the money that was made beyond that – which as a promoter you hated doing, but as an agent…there were times when you found yourself being schizophrenic.

After the first Brighton performance of The Comic Strip - a sell out show.
– After the first Brighton performance of The Comic Strip – a sell out show.
From left: Peter Richardson, who ran the Comic Strip in London Soho, Ade Edmondson (later to become Vyvyan in the Young Ones), the late Rik Mayall (Rik in the Young Ones), Nigel Planer (Neil), Allan McGowan, and Alexei Sayle.

After five years of promoting concerts, you switched to comedy. Why?

It was getting difficult to make money. Acts were asking more, bands were getting more professional, as well. Whereas you had one small truck with a few people, who stuffed into it turning up, you were now getting two huge trucks turning up. Riders were getting bigger and bigger, there were more demands coming in the whole time. And they were demands, which were well-right to do, if you were acting as an agent as well then you enforced that stuff. But as a promoter you went, ‘oh f***, how much more do you want?’
That got to a point where I was thinking, ‘this is ridiculous. We’re cutting down on the amount of money we can make with all these things going out. And it just occurred to me at the time that I’d seen a couple of place with one man on stage doing comedy and earning some money. No trucks, no whatever.
How did you get your first comedy acts?
Well, I went up to see the Comic Strip and the Comedy Store, which were running in London at the time. Basically, it was all the guys who suddenly became the Young Ones after that, Alexei Sayle, Nigel Planer, Ben Elton. Ben Elton was my compère for quite a long time.
I went and met these guys in London, at the time they were only playing in London. I went up to see them, [and said]: ‘What about working outside of London?’
So we put on the Comedy Store and it sold out. There was another venue that I was renting, so we started putting all these guys on, who later became really successful in TV. So, I carried on doing that for a while and then I made a huge mistake: it got to the point where these guys started getting offered TV work, and I was thinking: ‘gone about as far as this can go now, actually, I’m not going to get a lot more income from straight-forward comedy gigs, I think it’s about time to move somewhere else.’
And it did go quiet for a while, but then it went boom. So, I blundered. I should have stuck with the comedy at the time. And now, I mean, it’s ridiculous. You got acts that aren’t funny but are selling out huge stadiums.
You programmed concert nights at MIDEM, when it was still a very swanky event.
Yeah, just ridiculous. I mean, the things that went on then were unbelievable. The opening parties were huge affairs, people were going down there and staying awake for 48 hours. You used to get all sorts of things going on, I was talking to somebody about that the other day, that, in the Martinez Hotel, we were all standing downstairs, and from about four floors up some guy drops a vase about this size. It just shattered, and god knows how people survived it, suddenly there was shrapnel all over the place.
Also, there was a guy, whose name I forget, who used to run a recording studio in Worthing, and he was a very short man. Somebody bet him that he wouldn’t dance along the top of the bar. Gave him a hand up, he danced all the way along the top of the bar, kicking off every glass, it shattered everywhere.
You get asked what MIDEM meant, which is Marché International du Disque et de l’Edition Musicale, but what we used to say was it stood for Must I Drink Every Moment?

In his element:
– In his element:
Allan McGowan has moderated countless panels at many of the world’s most famous music business conferences.

When did you discover your talent for moderating panels?

Having done MIDEM, suddenly there was Popkomm, SXSW, which I did 18 of at various times. And I got involved with ILMC, because Martin Hopewell, who used to run it, he and I used to work together at Chrysalis, and at one point he said, ‘do you want to come and help me out?’ 
So, I was helping putting those things together, but it never occurred to me that I would actually start moderating. One day, I forget who it was, we had a panel set up, and both the guys that were going to moderate, two quite well-known promoters, they both fell ill on the same day. There was only one thing to do, which was do it yourself.
So, we did it, and I suddenly found it was quite a natural thing to do. From there, I suddenly started finding myself being invited to more and more events to actually come in and do the moderation.
Do you still get nervous when hosting a panel?
I was always nervous before, and I still am. But once you’re there…I’ll be nervous the night before, thinking, ‘what the fuck are we going to talk about?’, but once you’re actually sitting there, with people around you, I always found it comes, and I’m able to change things around in the midst of things if I’m thinking, ‘actually, this isn’t working, this should work.’
Did you ever lose your temper during your career?
When I was managing The Jags, we did a gig in Dundee, where, at the end of the gig, the guy turned around and said, ‘I’m not paying you.’ And I said, ‘what do you mean, you’r not paying me?’
‘Well, we haven’t got any money,’ or whatever. I said, ‘well, you are paying me.’
And my partner at the time was a man, who you didn’t mess around with, he walked in, grabbed this guy by the back of his head and bit through his lower lip.
And I said, ‘that’s a bit over the top.’ Next thing, I turn around, and this guy’s partner is coming towards me, and I said, ‘I’m about to do the same. Give me money.’ 
Do you have a favorite live act of all times?
Captain Beefheart.
Do you have a favorite festival?
Either Pohoda, which I really like, or Paléo. I saw one of the best show’s I’ve ever seen, which was Robert Plant’s band a couple of years ago, and did a gig, which I thought was…’that’s a gig.’ And it just seemed to be so well supported by the way that event ran itself.
Exit, mainly, I suppose, because I’ve been there for so many years. I’ve always liked the way Exit builds itself, particularly what it has built itself upon. You had to respect the fact that a load of those people, who were involved in it, were imprisoned and whatever, but they managed to build things.
Pohoda, because I just love the way the Eastern Europeans have actually developed what they’re doing, Exit fits in with that, as well. They just seem to have a really…they treat people well. And they’re aware of developing. And Michal [Kaščák], who runs it, I think is a really together guy.
For instance with ILMC, when we used to do things on the developing markets, it was almost as if we were trying to tell them something. Now, a lot of these festivals running are telling us.
Best Pub in Brighton for beer?
The Battle of Trafalgar.

At the ILMC 26 closing drinks:
– At the ILMC 26 closing drinks:
(From left) Allan McGowan, ILMC head Greg Parmley and Pollstar co-founder Gary Smith

Favorite venue of all times?

The Marquee, of course. I’ve spent so much of my adult life in the Marquee, seeing great bands around at the time. And the Top Rank Brighton, where I used to promote for a long time.
Now, depends what it is, because I like smaller gigs. The Albert, the pub down the road here.
Best place for food in Brighton?
There’s a pub opposite here, the Yeoman, that’s really good. I’ve actually taken people, who have been here for the Great Escape, I’ve taken French promoters, various other people, people who know their food, who’ve always said, ‘yeah, we want to come back.’ So, the Yeoman.
Your favorite spot in Brighton?
Well, I quite like a lot of spots just outside of Brighton, because we got the Downs. I always feel quite privileged that we got country pubs and a lot of good country. 
I suppose here [at the Battle of Trafalgar], really, in terms of meeting friends and doing whatever.
Your favorite spot outside of the UK?
I like being in Paris. It used to be Berlin, but I haven’t been for quite a while?
What do you do to unwind?
I don’t get that wound up, really. I used to play tennis, I’m not doing that as much now. Drink. Funnily enough, one of the things I do to unwind is almost winding. I miss London, because I’m not working in London anymore, or I drop in every now and again. I do, every now and again, think, I just need to get on the train and go to London, because that’s where I came from originally, or whatever, and there’s something about London I would miss.
What’s the deal with Tori Amos?
Well, it’s not just Tori Amos, there’s a couple of them, really. When I was doing the MIDEM shows, I sped things up and I would do an early evening show, which is acoustic, and I had people like Donovan, or whoever, doing that, and then I’d do four main acts.
And this came abut, because East West Records, who used to look after Tori Amos, approached me and said, ‘hey, we’ve got this act we really want to break, it’d be fantastic.’ That was in the early days, when I was only doing the four main acts on the main stage.
I [thought] it didn’t sound like [an act] that would survive on the main stage. And I found this room, it had a piano, and I said, ‘I can put her on early.’ Suddenly Tori Amos was on the bill, it was before Tori Amos was particularly known.
Anyway, we get ready to do this gig, and Tori’s there and she was really nervous. She said, ‘I don’t want to do this,’ I said, ‘yeah, you’re going to come up with me, you’re going to do it, we’re going through that door, and you’re going to do it.’
And just before we got to the door at the back of the show, she crossed her arms around me and said, ‘I want to be you.’ I said, ‘I don’t think you do,’ and I turned her around, opened the door and kicker her in the arse. Once she was at the piano, she was alright.
But afterwards, when she came back out, she was just…and I had this huge snog with Tori Amos.
I had a similar situation with Martha Wainwright, funnily enough.
If you had to put together a panel tonight, what would be the topic?
I think I’d like to do a panel on, like, are we now happy with the business. We used to say the record business was falling apart. Well, actually it isn’t, it’s sort of rebalancing at the moment. And do we have the situation now where things have somewhat rebalanced, and actually we may not always be able to say, ‘live rules,’ because maybe it’s not going to for a while.
What’s the most important quality to succeed in the music business?
Listening. Yeah, to listen and then know what to do with what you heard.
What’s your response when people ask, ‘What do you do for a living?’
Still trying to figure out what I’m going to be when I grow up. Which is pretty much true, really. Yeah, so I’m not sure what I’d do now, because I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m a journalist anymore, and you can only say moderator when you’re actually doing it.
I am a consultant, I suppose. If somebody wants to ask me a question, if they want any advice, I’m prepared to give advice.
Is there anything you miss about the old days (apart from having hair like Michael Bolton)?
It was better than Michael Bolton’s. I tell you what I do miss is good rock acts. Not heavy metal acts, but people like Thin Lizzy and whatever. I do miss sometimes being at a gig where there’s a band that’ll come out and go ‘bang!’
Thank you very much for your time.

What other people had to say about Allan McGowan:
Peter Smith (l.) and Allan McGowan
– Peter Smith (l.) and Allan McGowan
Sharing one of many laughs at ILMC 27.

Peter Smidt, founder ESNS/Amsterdam Dance Event: “I met Allan in 1995 when he was handling the Martinez as a showcase venue during Midem in Cannes, when Holland was the guest country at Midem. I brought The Urban Dance Squad, Claw Boys Claw and Betty Serveert to the Martinez. 

“Then I remember visiting Alan in London with my old friend Paul van Dijk. Since  then I really got to know this up and top gentleman and truly sincere and nice person. Alan became the king moderator at Eurosonic Noorderslag Conference.”
Greg Parmley, head of ILMC: “Allan epitomises the word gentleman, and is one of the most sincere and humble individuals in the business. Most know him as the host-with-the-most, moderator of a thousand panels at hundreds of industry events, but he’s been involved with many groundbreaking artists and projects over the years. 
“That cheeky glint in this eye hints at more than a few stories from over the years as well, especially back when he had hair like Michael Bolton. A lovely human with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the business.”
Ruud Berends, ESNS, music business consultant: “Not sure what year I met Allan but it feels like forever. He is just that kind of a man. I met him in the queue for a party or show at the Stadtgarten in Cologne, Germany for Popkomm, he was talking to a good friend of mine, Manfred Tari. We instantly became friends and that never changed, it only grew. 
“Allan became my star moderator at ESNS and we worked closely together at CEETEP, travelled to EXIT festival for some 10 editions together, had him over to chair panels at EEMC, WWL, Where’s The Music and others, we even spent a holiday in Greece together. 

“Allan is a kind, open, warm and friendly man and both men and women like him. In all my years of working with him I never had one argument or disagreement. The only time Allan get’s irritated or upset is when the transport back to the airport is late. Allan has been a label [owner], agent, promoter, manager, still is a publisher, editor, journalist, writer, very good at drawing, a man of so many talents, it is hard to believe.”