IMPACT INTERNATIONAL: UK/EURO HONORS
‘Not That Complicated’: Melvin Benn Wants To Save Live
We caught Melvin Benn during a busy week. Not that he’s had many quiet weeks since the world of live got shut down, but when Pollstar spoke to the veteran concert promoter for this piece, he was in the middle of organizing a weekend of four festivals, including two of the UK’s biggest ones, Reading and Leeds. The events marked some of the first major happenings after the UK lifted most domestic coronavirus restrictions on social gatherings. They also marked the completion of an 18-month struggle during which Benn tried to convince decision makers that live gatherings could take place safely, without increasing hospitalizations and deaths as a result.
“I did that every single day, knocking on the doors, saying, ‘You have to believe me, here’s the science.’” says Benn, explaining that sometimes the hard process felt like “trying to push water uphill.”
Benn introduced a “Full Capacity Plan” in June 2020, which outlined what has now become standard practice at events that are allowed to go ahead: making sure all on site have tested negative or are vaccinated. It’s difficult to get mad at how long the reopening took in the end, though, when you’re just a few days away from two of the country’s most famous festivals occurring with Stormzy, Post Malone and Liam Gallagher leading the bill. No wonder Benn describes his state of mind as “exhausted excitement, perhaps with a degree of disbelief of just how hard it is.”
“There’s no question, without the very loyal and experienced team I have, I’m not sure we could have got to the position that we’re in now,” he says.
A delay in UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s reopening strategy meant that the team at Festival Republic had a mere six weeks to put Reading and Leeds together. Supply chain difficulties further complicated things. Forklifts, tents, barriers, toilets, staff – you name it – are hard to come by. Part of it is caused by employment restrictions imposed in reaction to coronavirus, which caused an exodus of professionals into other industries. On top of that, Brexit has taken “a huge amount of mainland Europeans out of London,” including “lorry drivers, hospitality staff, etc.,” says Benn, adding, “Whether that’s just because of Brexit, or whether it’s coupled with the pandemic, I don’t know, but they’ve gone.”
It means that “everything is being stretched to the limit on the supply chain,” he continues. “I’ve got toilets from Glastonbury going up to Leeds, I’ve got toilets from Holland and medics from Scotland go to Clapham Common. Every single one of my Irish-based staff are now based in the UK assisting in getting everything ready, the Lollapalooza team in Berlin are all here helping get everything on the road. It’s intense.”
Aside from his team, the people he can rely on include the UK and Irish-based artists and agents.
“All the agents are letting us know pre-festival about acts that would be available to step in,” he says. “We have [everything from] opening acts to almost-headliners saying, ‘Look, we’re around. If you need anything, just give us a shout, we’re rehearsed, we’ve got a show.’ That level of support has been tremendous. We’ve got acts just hanging out at the festival for us in case they need to play.”
Benn prides himself on being able to deliver, and considers it a hallmark of the entire industry.
“I’ve said time and again, that if any government was in trouble and needed something done, the two organizations that they should go to are the military and the rock and roll industry. The rock and roll industry is populated with people that want to do, and want to deliver, and are capable of doing and capable of delivering. I think that pride has really shone through, that we’re not going to be defeated.”
Benn’s love for producing festivals has kept him going.
“I believe in that importance of being that conduit between the artists and the fan, the importance of young people being able to be out, enjoying themselves,” he says. “If you’re a 16-year-old, you’ve lost 10% of your life at that point, you’ve lost 14 to 15 months of not being able to go out and party, at the point [in your life] when it is the best [time] for you to ever go out and party. I wanted to bring that back, the joy of people being in front of the stage, being enthralled by the artists that they love. And, obviously, for my team, I wanted to get everything back working, so that my team can do what they love to do. That’s what kept me going, it’s not that complicated.”