– Nikki McNeill.
Founder and CEO of Global Publicity.
There are days, when it feels like almost every press release about a European festival is coming from Global Publicity, the company Nikki McNeill founded in 2007.
She has been instrumental in putting some of Europe’s most famous annual events on the map internationally. The 15th anniversary of her own company was the ideal occasion to have an extensive chat about her fascinating career.
Pollstar: Do you remember the moment you fell in love with live?
Nikki McNeill: That’s got to be when my brother took me to my first festival when I was 15, Knebworth 90, the same location where Oasis later did their big gig [in 1996]. There were all kinds of artists there from Tears for Fears to Paul McCartney, Genesis and Pink Floyd. I remember that amazing light show with Pink Floyd at the end and being quite wowed by that. That was probably my lightbulb moment, ‘wow, what is this? I’m in a field with all these amazing artists, feeling the energy from the crowd.’ It was a lovely experience, and it was nice that my brother introduced me to that.
Did you already make career plans to work in live back then?
I knew I wanted to work in music since listening to KISS FM, when it was still a pirate station. I was an avid listener of the shows of Judge Jules, Danny Rampling and Colin Faver, all of those. There was a competition to win a radio rig for your school on Dave Pearce’s show, and me and my friend entered, and won. So, we had this radio rig [delivered] to our school. Graham Gold, one of the breakfast show presenters at the time, also came. He was talking to us, and we learned how to make a program.
I must have been maybe 15, 16 years old at a secondary school. I remember talking to him, and he said, I’d be good in promotions. It hadn’t been something I’d looked at, because being a fan of KISS, I wanted to be a radio DJ and he gave me tips on how to start out in radio and to maybe look at working in promotions as well.
“That’s why I love working in festivals: the mixture, the juxtaposition of rock acts, rap acts, electronic artists. It’s nice not to be pigeonholed.”
You did stick to radio for a while, though, didn’t you?
Graham Gold suggested, I should consider starting out on hospital radio and be trained there, so that’s what I did. I started to collect records for the station to play, but then when it came to learning how to present, I was told they didn’t want any more under-18 presenters. I was a bit hurt by that, but there was a guy named Ian, who said to me, ‘I also have a show at the university, why don’t you come and try out?’ I was really excited, went down there, and they showed me how to use the equipment in like 10 minutes. I made a little demo, and they gave me the Saturday show.
I thought, ‘great!’, until I realized that no student wants to do a show on Saturday night, which is probably why I got the show. I called it the ‘Bassline Breakdown’. I couldn’t drive then, so my dad used to drop me off at the University to do my show, and then pick me up again afterwards. That’s when I started ringing the record companies to get records to play on my show. The first person who said yes was Richard Russell from XL [Recordings]. He probably wouldn’t remember this, but he was one of the first to agree to send me the records. I got braver and started inviting the people who were sending me records onto my show. Richard Russell did come, I also invited someone from KISS, Big Life Records, and others.
I used to listen to Judge Jules a lot, and one of the record company representatives said, ‘why don’t you ask him?’ So, I wrote a letter to Judge Jules at KISS, asking him to be on my show. I remember it like yesterday, I was sitting at home watching East Enders, as you did in those days, and my mum comes running in going, ‘Nikki, there’s someone on the phone called Jules for you.’ I was 16, 17, and thought ‘Oh, my God, Jules is calling me!’ He agreed to be on my show and I’ve probably still got a cassette recording somewhere, I’ve definitely got photos. It was about being brave, about talking to people, and it just progressed from there.
– Nikki McNeill (right).
With other “amazing women in the industry at Brighton Music Conference.”
Is it fair to say, your heart beats most for the electronic music genre?
I love a lot of things, and I love that I’m able to work in both rock and electronic music. I work on things like the Amsterdam Dance Event, and I work on festivals that are multi-genre like Lowlands and Eurosonic too. Growing up, I loved Tears for Fears, INXS, Depeche Mode, then listening to KISS got me more into the electronic stuff, as did my brother, who was a DJ at the local club. I used to sift through his records when he wasn’t there, and record some to cassette, things like M.A.R.R.S. “Pump Up The Volume,” and stuff like that in the early 1990s. A lot of the jobs I got taking my first steps in the industry were on the electronic side, but I like lots of other genres as well.
That’s why I love working in festivals: the mixture, the juxtaposition of rock acts, rap acts, electronic artists, someone singing opera, a circus performance. It’s nice not to be pigeonholed, isn’t it, and to enjoy lots of different things.
Before you then started working with festivals, there were a few more steps involved after Uni. Can you take us through those right up to taking on your first event PR role?
When I left university, sadly, they weren’t many options to get a job. You either became a receptionist or a personal assistant. There were agencies you would sign up to, that would try and get you these jobs. I remember failing the typing test, so I was never going to be a PA. Luckily, a receptionist job at Richard Branson’s newly launched V2 came up, that’s how I started. Their office was in Holland Park, and for a while, it was just him, his PA called Kim, who was lovely, a guy from Sony, and myself in there.
I saw the company grow, it was interesting, but I realized I couldn’t move up. I kept saying to David Steele, the marketing guy, ‘I’d love to learn can I stay late, if there’s a job coming up, can you consider me?’ But when the marketing job came up the post boy got it. I was very disappointed by that, and just felt like I needed to try and find something else.
“I do feel that when I first started, the only jobs I was told I could get as a woman were PA or receptionist. However, when I went to agencies run by women, they were telling me the same.”
I paid for a music industry course to learn about different sectors in the business. Nick Halkes of XL/Positiva was one of the speakers, and we kept in touch for many years, he’s always been very supportive and helpful. I ended up finding a job at Pioneer. Most people think of them as a hardware company, but they started a record label in the late 1980s. I was label coordinator, and my role was a bit of everything, including club promotions. Back in the day, you had to send thousands of 12-inch vinyls to DJs to play, and they would fax you back their reaction. I think I’ve still got one that I treasured and kept from Paul Oakenfold.
And then you had to do press, to get reviews, and I would do the radio plugging as well, going to all the different radio stations around the country, each of which had its individual dance show back then. It wasn’t like today where they’re all syndicated. So, you’d be driving around all these cities, visiting the dance show in Leeds, Bristol, wherever. I’ve pretty much been to every city or town in the UK doing that. I also got involved in licensing, meeting partners to license the records to. It was a bit of a mishmash, but I got to work with some amazing artists like BT, John Digweed, Sasha, we had the Renaissance label, and we did a lot with Bedrock.
Sziget Festival with journalists on a press trip.
Do you think you being overlooked for the marketing job at V2 was a gender thing?
I really don’t know. I do feel that when I first started, the only jobs I was told I could get as a woman were PA or receptionist. However, when I went to agencies run by women, they were telling me the same. I remember meeting David Steele many years later at a party. I’d had a few drinks, so I plucked up the courage to go up to him and remind him of what had happened, how it hurt me and made me think I wasn’t good enough. He said that he was really sorry, and suggested working together on some of his current artists, but I said ‘no.’ They need to understand what those decisions do, because maybe it would have hurt someone else more and they would have not progressed in the industry and left it all together.
Where did you go after Pioneer?
I went to work at Neo Records, right in the middle of the big electronic music boom, with Serious Records, Defected, Hed Kandi, and all those smaller labels springing up. I mainly did PR and radio promo for them, Darude’s “Sandstorm” is probably one of the big hits people remember, or Basstoy, “Runnin.” I even did a bit of TV, which I really enjoyed. In those days, there were so many more slots for music on television. It was really fun to take your artists into Nickelodeon, Saturday Morning Live, those kinds of shows.
Eventually Neo stopped trading. The man who owned it was Eddie Gordon. His wife Rachel Birchwood ran her DJ agency International Management Division in the same building, and she very kindly offered to employ me. I got to work with people like Pete Tong, Danny Rampling Smokin’ Jo, Danny Howells, which was amazing. And that’s where I learned about live events and festivals and different cities and clubs around the world. Because my job was to get the DJs press coverage around the gigs they played, I’d be contacting the promoter, ‘hey, you’ve got Pete Tong playing, do you want him to do some interviews around the show?’ I was quite intrigued by where they were playing, places that I’d never heard of. It really opened my eyes to the world of events and festivals.
So, how did you end up working in that world yourself?
Some of it happened by accident. I used to answer the phone [for Rachel], because of my receptionist background. It must have been 2003, 2004, there was a festival promoter from EXIT, they had booked Pete Tong. There was a discussion going on about the cost of his private jet, and my boss didn’t really want to talk about it. So, every time they called, I had to deflect the situation and say, ‘I’m sorry, she’s not there.’ Because he kept getting me on the phone, at one point he asked me about my role at the company. When I told him I did PR for the DJs, he said, ‘you should do PR for our festival.’
That’s how it goes in this industry: people know each other, you get recommended and things happen and it just snowballed from there. Lots of my friends kept saying to me, ‘you should set up on your own.’ It probably took me a year of them telling me this for me to actually believe it myself. I made the move to leave [IMD] in 2007. My boss was very supportive and nice about it. At the end of the day, I worked for a strong and inspiring woman in the industry, who ran her own company. I thought, maybe I can be like her, have my own company, too.
– With Dave Clarke en route to Tomorrowland.
Were there many PR agencies specializing in festivals at the time?
I suppose I was in my little bubble doing my little thing, but there weren’t many people doing international festival promotion then, and there definitely weren’t many festivals promoting outside their own country. So, I was probably one of the first people getting involved in that for sure. It was an interesting idea to promote outside. Will it work? Should we do it? Not as many people were promoting trips abroad as they are today, and it was exciting to realize there was an audience outside your home country.
Which country has the best festivals?
Holland. I’ve worked on ADE, Eurosonic, and Lowlands, and they’re just so easy to work with. Everything’s so organized, and I’m constantly getting good feedback from journalists on the check-in process, the staff, or the facilities.
Do you remember the last time you went to a festival just as a guest?
I might take up some invites this year, because I’ve missed going out and seeing people so much.
Do you have a favorite venue?
I really like going to see bands at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London. It’s one of my favorite little spots, because it’s not too big, it’s quite intimate.
What are the most significant changes you’ve observed in the business of live music during the time you’ve been working in it?
The obvious one is competition. When I first started, there was hardly anyone promoting to UK audiences to go to festivals abroad. Now, it’s a massive thing. Also, the money some of the festivals have, their big budgets for marketing and booking the biggest acts. I work a lot for independent festivals, and it’s harder to persuade the journalists that your festival is amazing, and get them to work with you, even though you don’t have the budget. That’s definitely become more difficult.
“In PR, you have to be everyone’s friend. You can’t upset anybody, you have to take all the shit and still give a polite response and try to remain professional. “
– More impressions from Sziget Festival in Hungary.
“The best part is the amazing people you work with and get to hang out with,” says McNeill.
What else has changed?
I’ve noticed that artists and their management are less willing to do interviews or promo at festivals. When I started, they would do hours of promo whenever they were in a new country, because it helped them get more gigs and therefore more money. But now, I find it very difficult to get promo out of artists.
And it’s very difficult to get broadcasting rights and things like that. I’m not sure, why, but they probably want to control all the content more nowadays. Before, an artist would be happy to be broadcast live on TV in a certain country. But now that it has additional value because of streaming etc., they probably want to protect the brand more.
Oh man, the anecdotes of pompous behavior you must have…
Sometimes, I’m negotiating for weeks, the festival arrives, and you’re still not sure if it’s going to happen. You might have to send a picture of the promo area in advance, tell them how far it is from the dressing room door to the promo area, and tell them exactly what you have planned. I get it, they must protect the artists but sometimes you do have to jump through a lot of hoops to prove that you can do it professionally and safe and that the artist isn’t going to be jumped by a million journalists.
I understand that their performance is 100% the most important thing, and promo does detract from that, but equally, you need to sell out the festival and you need the media to help you do that. There has to be some kind of payoff where they get an interview or some kind of content. Negotiating artist interviews is definitely the most difficult part of the job.
I always say, my job is managing people’s disappointment. I’m the one telling the journalist that the artist has changed their mind. And a lot of the time you can’t tell them the real reason, you don’t want the artists to look bad. We once had interviews scheduled with Gogol Bordello, and the tour manager was saying, ‘he can’t do it, he got sunstroke doing his soundcheck.’ Fair enough, I thought, but as I went backstage to pick up another artist for some interviews, I saw the lead singer sat on a table, playing the guitar. I thought, ‘that’s a funny sunstroke.’ But at least they came up with an interesting excuse instead of just no!
– Posing for Yourope’s Take A Stand campaign.
Picture taken “probably” at Westway Lab, Portugal.
I guess you never said anything to the manager.
In PR, you have to be everyone’s friend. You can’t upset anybody, you have to take all the shit and still give a polite response and try to remain professional. Sometimes people are really rude to you, and you just got to take it and carry on.
How do you maintain professionalism when talking with somebody who clearly doesn’t deserve it?
You’re there as a representative of the festival. You don’t want anything to reflect on the festival in a negative way. I guess you get used to it, which I know you shouldn’t. No one should shout at or be rude to you. But in the heat of the moment things happen. Maybe the artist has lost a bit of equipment and they’re super stressed because they need to perform, and you’ve just come along at that wrong moment. You do have to bite your tongue sometimes, it’s difficult, but it gets easier with time for sure.
What’s the best and the worst part of running your own business?
The worst part is that you don’t realize that it’s a business. You don’t realize all the admin, the accounting, you’ve got to be the boss, the businessman, the marketing person, the accountant, and all of that is so boring. People think our jobs are so exciting because we’re travelling everywhere, but I’m sitting in front of my laptop probably about 10 hours a day, in front of a Google doc, with 60 tabs open causing my computer to go slow. That’s the reality. There is a lot of boring stuff, from filling in columns in an Excel sheet, doing reports, and a lot of emails chasing people.
I suppose that’s another thing that’s changed: before, journalists would get back more on things, because they probably weren’t being inundated with a million emails. Now you won’t get a reply from many people, they still might publish something, but they won’t tell you. But the long hours on your laptop are the downside.
The best part is the amazing people you work with and get to hang out with. And because I work internationally on a lot of things, the travel. I never thought I’d be saying this, but I miss airports.
– Honoring the one and only Ruud Berends, head of ESNS conference.
Berends was the first guest on Nikki McNeill’s podcast “Meet Me Backstage”.
What are you currently working on?
I don’t take on too many things at once, and I really try to work only work of things I can feel passionate about. Plus, there’s only me, so I can only do so much. I’ve got a few new ones this year, including Mallorca Live Festival. It’s their first big festival, and they got Christina Aguilera, Muse and C. Tangana headlining.
Then there’s Superbloom, with the lovely Fruzsina [Szep]. I worked with her at Sziget as well, and she’s an amazing, creative mind. I’m really interested to see what she’s going to do with this festival, what kind of different zones and things she’s going to create. And I still have events like Lowlands, Eurosonic and ADE and I started working with A Greener Festival too. It’ll be a busy year, and it’s nice to have a couple of new things to keep your brain ticking over and keep being creative.
You’re involved in shesaid.so, and are also on the board of Moving The Needle. Can you talk about those projects a bit?
What’s unique about shesaid.so is that they have chapters all over the world. They have one in London, one in New York, in Paris, Amsterdam, and I run the Brighton chapter. We do events every month getting people together. Shesaid.so partnered with the IMS conference this year, curating content around women in the industry, and they do lots of events throughout the year. I’m also hosting a panel at AVA for shesaid.so. My work consists mainly of speaking on panels and different initiatives, but I’m hoping to build the Brighton chapter to gain more members and momentum this year.
As far as Moving The Needle is concerned, I got asked to be on the board by my friend, Jenni Cochrane, who runs Get Ahead Festival, which is all about mental health in the industry. Moving The Needle is another women-in-the-music-industry focus group. And they’re focusing more on education, on highlighting different jobs in the industry you might not know about when you’re at school to show people the different options, from lighting engineer to sound tech to tour manager, not just the usual roles like marketing or PR.
I’m also on the executive board of the Association for Electronic Music. I’ve been involved in lots of meetings and am thinking about how to make a difference there. So, I feel like post pandemic, this seems to be my chance to make a difference if you like. I don’t know how I’ve got time to deal with this to be honest, because it’s all voluntary stuff, but I think that maybe this is my time to give back and see what I can do for other people in the industry.
null – Iceland:
Secret Solstice with the crew.
You also launched a podcast recently. Would you say that brings you full circle from you early days in radio?
The podcast for sure was a passion project sparked by my roots in radio. But I also felt that I should use my skill and talent to highlight other people I’ve worked with over the years, starting with people I worked with at the very beginning of my career. It was a way of connecting with these people again, reminding me of some nice memories. I’ve really enjoyed doing it because it brought back so many memories I had forgotten.
What would have to happen for you to contemplate leaving PR?
I guess it has to stop being fun. I have to enjoy what I do. Let’s face it, we all work 24/7, it’s not easy, they’re long hours, it’s quite stressful sometimes. But, at the moment, it’s still fun. I still love being on the ground meeting people, hanging out, even if you get less sleep. I just really thrive on that buzzy vibe of being around the people. I sometimes ask myself, how long am I going to be able to take young journalists in their 20s something around a festival, doing shots and staying up late. We’ll see how long I can keep doing that.
What advice would you give to young people aiming for a career in music PR?
Be brave, don’t be afraid to ask questions, and learn as much as you can about this business. Consider doing internships to get to know different sides of this industry, at least that’s what’s worked for me.
A few quick-fire questions: Coffee or tea?
Outdoors or indoors?
Boutique or major festival?
Major festivals with boutique areas.
Plane or train?
I’d love to travel more by train, but it won’t get me to all the places I need to go. So, I have to go with plane.
Brighton or London?
Thank you very much for your time, Nikki.