The O2 Turns 15: ‘A Living, Breathing Music Machine’

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The O2 in London. A building that has amassed 50-years worth of history in only 15.

Imagine planning to build a house. A piece of land becomes available, and you decide to take a closer look. You call a cab. You give the driver the address, and he immediately asks you to get out of the car. “I’m not driving to that part of town, sorry,” is his explanation. Would you still consider building your house there? Now imagine not talking about a house, but an entertainment temple for 20,000 spectators and the world’s biggest artists.

When Oak View Group (Pollstar’s parent company) co-founder and CEO Tim Leiweke was faced with this exact scenario in 2001, it did not discourage him. Back then, at the helm of AEG, Leiweke was looking “at probably a dozen different spots on where to potentially build an arena” in London, a market that had been very underserved when it comes to large-scale indoor venues (and still is, according to Leiweke). The address that spooked his cabbie led to the Greenwich Peninsula in southeast London, the old site of London’s Millenium Dome, constructed to host a major exhibition on the third millennium that lasted from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2000. After the exhibition ended, the building was put out for tender, and Leiweke wanted to find out whether AEG should make a bid. His team is credited with reviving what the Los Angeles Times called “a moribund section of downtown” LA with the construction of Staples Center (now Arena), as well as breathing new life into an ailing downtown Kansas City with Sprint Center (now T-Mobile Center). So, the mere fact that some people avoided Greenwich Peninsula like the plague wasn’t going to discourage him. He briefly considered whether his reluctant cabbie was indicative of potential transportation issues down the line, but shortly after discovered the Jubilee line, the London Tube service connecting the city to Greenwich. In fact, it stops right in front of The O2.

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The O2 – AEG’s flagship building in Europe.

Once on site, Leiweke was immediately taken in by the giant tent structure, and the 12 yellow support columns, which make The O2 one of the most recognizable buildings in the world. It was legendary British promoter and producer Harvey Goldsmith who had urged Leiwecke to take a look and who introduced the AEG team to the people who ran the old Dome. Jessica Koravos, president at The Really Useful Group and co-chair of OVG International, was part of that team. She remembered putting in a bid when the building went out for tender at the end of the millennium year. “We lost to Nomura, the Japanese bank, who pulled out [last minute], and AEG found itself the proud preferred bidder at extremely short notice,” she told Pollstar.

Now it just had to be built. Leiweke said, “Up until Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, The O2 was by far the most difficult design and build I’ve ever seen. We couldn’t go down, because of the Thames, and we couldn’t go up, because of the tent. We had to literally build the arena from the event floor up.”

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During construction. (Picture courtesy of Populous).

Nicholas Reynolds, senior principal at Populous architects, and design principal on The O2 project, told Pollstar how this was done. His team used strand jacks, a system of heavy-duty cables. “You build the entire roof – the roof covering, the structure, the under cladding, a lot of the secondary framing, etc. – on the floor. The entire roof is then lifted off the ground using jacks that are positioned on top of the concrete cores that have first been built. The jacks are pulling the roof structure up to the level it needs to be, which is four meters underneath the [50-meter high] tent. Once that’s in place, the strand jacks are replaced by the formal structure that holds the roof on each of the cores.”

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A cutaway render of the arena, courtesy of Populous architects. Senior principal Nicholas Reynolds said designing the building was “pure excitement.”

Reynolds said designing the building was “pure excitement,” as there hadn’t been a custom design project for live events in London since the Royal Albert Hall, which just turned 150 years old, and it gave his team “a chance of creating something very special, with a client that has such a great track record in designing and delivering entertainment buildings.” The tent also allowed Populous to design an open concourse with an outdoor feel, while sheltering visitors from the English rain. It also meant “we could take quite an interesting approach to some of the spaces; [things] that hadn’t been done before. It was the first real entertainment venue of that scale in Europe, so it gave us some really great opportunities as designers.”

Reynolds finds it reassuring to see how the original design withstood the test of time, as productions got more elaborate and event genres diversified, “whether it’s a music concert with drones continually circulating the venue, whether it’s the giant infrastructure of the YouTube concert three years ago, or ATP tennis, for example. It really is this machine for live entertainment, and it continually is able to adapt to accommodate anything they want to put in there. For me, as a designer, it’s fascinating to see that, because the content really brings your buildings to life.”

See: O2 London Announces New Sustainability Measures

Responsible for content at The O2 in its early years was Robomagic CEO Rob Hallett, AEG Presents’ longtime president of international touring. Hallett said, “No one’s going to pay a dime to go and see an empty building, even the best building in the world. Until it’s living and breathing, and has a heart and a soul, no one’s going to go there.” He was promoting a lot of Bon Jovi stadium shows at the time of The O2’s opening, the band and AEG enjoyed a close relationship, so “there was only one band to open the building, and it was Bon Jovi,” Hallett recalled. Coming up the Thames, walking into the building for the opening concert on June 24, 2007, seeing the crowd, feeling their hearts beat, hearing the sound was “spine chilling. It was tremendously exciting, a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Hallett.

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Bon Jovi performed on The O2’s roof in 2010, kicking off their twelve-night residency at arena. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

Bon Jovi manager Paul Korzilius agreed, “it was truly a very special night. Bon Jovi had opened many AEG buildings during their time with AEG and this was certainly the most spectacular of them all. The paint was still fresh, the carpets were being vacuumed on the day, by Tim [Leiweke]. Tim is a hands-on guy; when he comes in, he takes care of business. Who would ever think about building an arena underneath a tent? You don’t understand how big it is until you go there. Remember, there’s a whole city underneath there.” Korzilius was referring to the entertainment district, which is also housed underneath the tent and surrounds the main arena. It includes shops, restaurants, a cinema, and the 2,800-capacity Indigo at The O2 venue, where Hallett interviewed Bill Clinton in Aug. 2007.

“We considered how to get it on a map. I booked the living hell out of it, I went to every superstar going, ‘You’ve got to do this, you’ve got to be part of this.’ For the Indigo at The O2, I came up with idea of interviewing Bill Clinton. I guessed Bill’s people wanted someone with gravitas to conduct the interview, so I tried to book Jerry Paxman or someone like that. But they said, ‘We don’t care, just send us a CV, as long as it passes the FBI test it can be anyone.’ So, I sent my CV, and had the honor and privilege of interviewing Bill Clinton on stage. We were trying to think of innovative and different ways to make people realize that The O2 was the best building on the planet, that you needed to go there, or you were missing out. And I think we achieved that.”

It took an act of Bon Jovi’s caliber to prove the doubters, of which there were many during The O2’s construction, wrong. UK agents didn’t think a concert arena on a neglected peninsula could work. Hallett said, “I’m not going to name names, but there were a lot of Doubting Thomases out there, a lot of teeth being sucked, and breaths being drawn. We Londoners are cynical bastards. I may have joined in if I hadn’t been part of it. It didn’t take long for people to come around, but it’s probably no coincidence that many of the opening acts were American.”

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Rob Hallett, CEO of Robomagic, but back then president of international touring for AEG Live, interviews Bill Clinton at Indigo at The O2, Aug. 16 2007. (Picture by Brian Rasic/Getty Images)

Leiweke never doubted the project, because “we surrounded ourselves with a bunch of like-minded, positive people. Jessica Koravos was a huge addition for us, to help us think outside the box. [DEAG executive board member and then AEG’s main man in Europe] Detlef Kornett was involved early on. And then [AEG Europe president and CEO from 2005-11] David Campbell came on board and did a wonderful job of the entertainment district. [AEG CRO] Todd Goldstein played a critical role in thinking through the contractually obligated income. We started building a world-class staff, and many now work for me at OVG on our Manchester and Cardiff projects. Having Harvey [Goldsmith] as a partner helping us think through the project was huge. I can’t give enough credit to the folks at the Olympic Committee, and how excited they got at what we were going to do with The O2 as part of the Olympics.” London, in particular, lacked a basketball arena.

AEG’s bid for the Dome would change that. “We were the only private facility built for the London Olympic Games. And despite them bidding against New York, we got behind the London Games as an American company and gave them significant wind in their sails to win the Olympic bid. So, while most everyone else was betting against us, we knew that this was the right direction to go. It was really down to three things: transportation, which is always an issue in London, no matter where you’re at; the ability to find that piece of dirt, design and build it; and making a deal. And we were able to do all three with what became The O2.”

Koravos never doubted the project “because of the then newly minted Jubilee line, and because I had seen what AEG, then with Tim Leiweke at the helm, had done in downtown LA with Staples Center. I figured that if it could be done in downtown LA, it could be done in North Greenwich!” Nicholas Reynolds said. “We didn’t doubt that a live entertainment arena in Greenwich would attract an audience because we were in the very fortunate position of knowing exactly what the venue was going to be, that it had the functionality, sound, acoustics, rigging, hospitality and bars that no other venue in London had. London was dramatically underserved with music venues. And a company like AEG was quite clearly going to come in and provide the kind of venue that would make it an obvious destination. Given the expertise of the people within the team, we were very confident that what was being designed and created will be a success in time.”

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Gorillaz perform a free gig for NHS workers and their families at The O2, Aug. 11, 2021. (Photo by Joseph Okpako/WireImage)

Some of the world’s biggest artists have performed at The O2 in its 15-year history, so many, in fact, that it somehow feels more like a 50-year anniversary. One of the people responsible for promoting many of those concerts is Live Nation’s executive president touring international music, Phil Bowdery. From U2 to Barbra Streisand to Justin Timberlake to BTS, “With all of those different acts comes a different set of circumstances,” he said, “and The O2 has been very adaptable in in the way they work with us. They understand that if the venue looks after the artists then the artists are going to want to come back.” Bowdery promoted the last three nights of Genesis’ “The Last Domino?” tour in March, which also marked the band’s first concerts at The O2. “The atmosphere was just incredible,” he recalled, “I moved the shows three times. To go and actually play them really was something to see. I don’t know of any artist that doesn’t enjoy playing there.”

Genesis gave the last concert of their career Saturday, March 26, at The O2 in London. (Photo courtesy of Barry Brecheisen/EMC Presents.)

Hallett described The O2 as “a living, breathing music machine,” that has “helped change the whole economics for promoting, suddenly having a 16,000-seater in London, raising that kind of money for the artists, the promoter, the building and everyone else.” Bowdery agreed, saying Wembley Arena served the market well, “but when you suddenly have a building in London with 7,000 more seats on your general show, that’s going to make a big difference. I would welcome even more arenas, not to take anything away from The O2, but I think the more possibilities we have for everyone, the better.”

See: O2 London Dedicates Part Of Arena To ‘Young Voices’ Choir

Bowdery praised The O2’s team, “obviously starting with [AEG Europe COO] John Langford, but also Emma [Bownes, VP of venue programming], Christian [D’Acuña, senior director of programming, Steve [Sayer, VP and GM]. The building is merely bricks and mortar. You’ve got to have the people to give it the heart and the soul, and they certainly do.” It was “one of the big visions of AEG” to make customer service paramount, said Hallett. “The training that was given to all the staff at the opening was very important; you were greeted at the door with a ‘Hello,’ instead of a ‘Where’s your ticket? Get over there.’ Customer service was a big part of AEG, I think it still is, and I think that was game changer in this country.”

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Steve Sayer, VP and GM of The O2. (Picture by Luke Dyson)

Sayer said his team is “the best in the business. They’re the main reason that we are the world’s most popular music, leisure and entertainment venue.” The numbers support this claim. Since opening in 2007, The O2 led Pollstar’s quarterly and yearly worldwide arena rankings every year until 2018, when AEG stopped reporting the building’s box office figures. Sayer continued, “The team here are constantly raising the bar, and never cease to amaze and inspire me to do my best for them. It’s always our aim for the inclusive and best-in-class culture that we encourage for staff at The O2 to translate through to the service we give to the fans, bands and brands that support us. We’ve certainly been through our fair share of challenges over recent years, as has the rest of our industry, but I’m so proud of how everyone has pulled together to ensure that we continue to wow our customers and ultimately provide the very best experience we can for everyone that comes to The O2 – whether they’re a fan, shopper, diner, partner brand or an artist.”

He said working at The O2 felt “very special. I walk in every day and still get a buzz when I see the iconic yellow masts and The O2’s main entrance. That moment was made even more special when we reopened the doors to the arena for first time in 18 months back in August 2021 following the lifting of government restrictions for the pandemic, when Gorillaz played to a sold-out crowd of ecstatic NHS workers. It was one of my absolute favorite moments working in live events and something I’ll never forget.”

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