Making Up For Lost Time: Glasgow Is Back In Business

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A fan wrapped in a Scottish flag enjoying Tom Grennan’s set at TRNSMT 2022 on Glasgow Green. (Photo by Jane Barlow / PA Images / Getty Images)

Chvrches, Dire Straits co-founders Mark and David Knopfler, Angus and Malcolm Young of AC/DC, Simple Minds, Franz Ferdinand, Primal Scream, Lulu, Amy Macdonald, Belle & Sebastian, Donovan. That’s just a pick of the crop of world-famous musicians hailing from Glasgow.

The harbor city is “a real hotbed of musical creativity across all genres,” according to Susan Deighan, chief executive of Glasgow Life, one of Scotland’s largest charities committed to improving the lives of Glaswegians and visitors alike. “The opportunity to enjoy music in the city any night of the week and to attend music events, from intimate folk sessions to sell-out stadium tours and major festivals, is hugely important to the people of Glasgow and it’s a real draw for visitors and tourists,” she explained.

Susan Deighan Chief Executive Glasgow Life
Susan Deighan, chief executive of Glasgow Life, one of Scotland’s largest charities committed to improving the lives of Glaswegians and visitors.

According to stats from Glasgow Life, the city hosts over 130 gigs every week, more than in any other UK city outside of London. As Deighan points out, “the UK Live Music Census 2017 named Glasgow as the third strongest performing music tourism city in the UK, behind London and Manchester, contributing nearly £160 million ($177 million) to the UK’s live music economy annually.

Pre-COVID, music was generating an estimated £75 million [$83 million] for Glasgow’s economy each year and almost half (circa 500,000) of all music tourists to Scotland were attending performances in Glasgow.” Glasgow is the UK’s first, and Scotland’s only, UNESCO City of Music, and according to Deighan, it “lives and breathes music all year round. We’re fiercely proud that we’ve built a reputation for providing one of the world’s most immersive live music experiences.”

Glaswegian Zeal Powers Glasgow Live Music Scene

Swedish House Mafia lighting up the OVO Hydro. (Photo by Michael C. Hunter)

With all of that in mind, it’s no surprise that, after a challenging few years for the industry, live music has returned with a vengeance. Debbie McWilliams, director of live entertainment at the Scottish Event Campus (SEC), confirms, “since our doors reopened in September 2021, we haven’t stopped – it has been a busy year, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Swedish House Mafia, Andrea Bocelli, a Kevin Bridges comedy residency, Blondie, Amy Macdonald, Stormzy, and Genesis are just a few of the top acts that graced the OVO Hydro stage over the past year, in addition to blockbuster events like WWE or classical concerts like London Philharmonic Orchestra. As both Pollstar’s box office reports and cWilliams confirm, “tickets are selling well cross-genre, and we’ve seen some of the best sales yet demonstrated recently with a five night sell out run of Glasgow’s very own Paolo Nutini [Dec. 13-20].”

Debbie McWilliams, director of live entertainment at the Scottish Event Campus.

The challenges of making concerts and shows happen in the current climate have been well reported, and the return to normal many hoped for in 2022 will be a long time coming. Yet, there are things that haven’t changed compared to pre-pandemic times, like this industry’s ability to adapt to whatever obstacle is put in its way. McWilliams is “especially proud of the venue team whose focus has continued to be the delivery of the very best events for our clients and the people of Glasgow.”

Her team is also the main reason McWilliams was able to maintain a positive outlook throughout, as well as “a strong belief that live was far too important and would return with a bang. I had to be ready, the team had to be ready – that provided a focus. The beauty of live is that there is always something to look forward to,” she said.

Artists taking the stage at the Hydro walk past a giant clock, which states, “Time to meet the best fans in the world.” It’s those same fans who have made Glasgow’s live comeback possible, according to McWilliams, who said, “They are the heart and soul of the venue, and this has been even more prevalent as they’ve returned in record numbers to Scotland’s home of live entertainment, trusting us to deliver events as the world was adjusting to the ‘new normal.’”

Q’s With SEC Director Of Live Entertainment Debbie McWilliams: ‘The Coming Year Is A Very Exciting One’

Glasgow’s city slogan is “People Make Glasgow.” The accuracy of this slogan has never rang more true than in 2022. “The way the Glasgow events community pulled together to support each other was not unexpected in spirit, but never something we’d thought we would have to do at that scale. The combined commitment of key stakeholders in the city to get the industry back on its feet was a collaborative effort, borne from a love of this industry and in recognition of its importance to the people of Glasgow,” McWilliams explained.

2023 will mark the OVO Hydro’s 10th anniversary, and the building will enter its anniversary year having received A Greener Arena certification by British non-profit organization A Greener Festival (AGF) that helps events, festivals and venues reduce their environmental impact. The AGF criteria for awarding its certifications are no joke, and the OVO Hydro is the first arena in the world to earn it for its holistic approach to sustainability. It was “a proud moment for everyone at the venue and OVO, our naming rights partner, who supported us throughout the process,” McWilliams said.

See: OVO Hydro World’s First Arena With ‘A Greener Arena Certification’   

The Killers King Tuts 8th July 2018 Credit Rob Loud
The Killers At King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, one of the UK’s most famous grassroots music venues. (Photo by Rob Loud)

Most of the artists that sell out the Hydro today made their first steps inside a grassroots music venue, of which Glasgow boasts one of the most famous in the world, certainly in the UK: King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut. The word “legendary” gets bandied about often, but King Tut’s track record of bringing some of the world’s biggest acts to Glasgow for the
first time speaks for itself: from Oasis and Radiohead, to Florence + The Machine, Fontaines DC, Lily Allen, and The Killers – “Tut’s,” as everybody refers to it, is where people get the opportunity to see future headliners in an intimate space before they blow up. Since reopening, the 300-capacity venue has hosted future stars like Black Country New Road, CMAT, KennyHoopla, and Sam Gellaitry to name a few, as well as hosting special intimate shows for huge acts like Blossoms.

“Business is back,” said King Tut’s booker, Chris Loomes, who describes himself as “a big believer in people needing to be around other people to survive. Having that stripped away from us over lockdown was awful and having a space like King Tut’s where we can bring strangers together and harvest an atmosphere of pure joy is amazing. There’s a special atmosphere in King Tut’s that can’t be bought or, in my opinion, re-created in any other room.”

Chris Loomes
Chris Loomes, booker at King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut.

Running a grassroots music club is challenging during the best of times, let alone coming out of a pandemic that has led into a cost-of-living crisis. It wasn’t possible without a steadfast belief that live would come back. “At times it did feel like we would never get live music back the way it once was,” Loomes said, “but I’m incredibly grateful we have and that we are back to business. Having the venue shut for such a long period of time was really weird. There were a lot of challenges reopening in a post-pandemic world. Luckily we have an incredible team in Tut’s who have worked tirelessly to help deliver concerts seamlessly, safely and provide an experience for both customers and artists that is overwhelmingly positive. The look you see on peoples faces when they walk in for the first time, and their first show in Tut’s always reminds me how privileged we are to do what we do.”

Loomes grew up in Glasgow and has lived there all his life, so he’s biased when he says, “I genuinely believe Glasgow is the best city in the world. It’s a bit of a cliché but the people are what makes it. Artists all over the world cite Scottish crowds as the best in the world – and we’re really proud of that. We also have a world-class music scene that would rival any other from around the world. It’s welcoming, supportive and nurtures incredible talent. We have a plethora of iconic venues and a rich history in producing world-class artists. This will continue until the end of time – it’s a special place and breeds creativity.”

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Sigrid carrying a Scottish flag while performing on the main stage of TRNSMT in Glasgow, July 10. (Credit: Rory Barnes)

The list of iconic venues also includes The Barrowlands, the O2 Academy, as well as the Royal Concert Hall and the opera. But it’s not just indoors, where music fans and artists alike get to experience the special atmosphere of Glasgow. Glasgow Green, for instance, hosts the annual TRNSMT festival by DF Concerts, which quickly became one of the UK’s festival mainstays since launching in 2017. Because of the anomaly of 2020, this year marked TRNSMT’s fifth anniversary, and what a celebration it was.

The 50,000-capacity festival, July 8-10, formed part of 33 days of outdoor shows between June and August, which covered other notable Glasgow venues like SWG3 Galvanizers Yard and Bellahouston Park, plus Hampden Park and Ibrox Stadium. And that’s not even touching the 140 indoor shows promoted by DF Concerts, which celebrated a record-breaking summer, contributing an estimated £25.9 million ($28.7 million) for the city of Glasgow alone, according to DF Concerts CEO Geoff Ellis.

See: DF Concerts Celebrates ‘Record Summer’ In Scotland

Geoff Ellis, CEO of DF Concerts.

It wasn’t just the busiest summer for DF Concerts in terms of live music, but for Scotland as a whole, he said. “We had our annual festivals – TRNSMT, Bellahouston Park and Edinburgh Summer Sessions – but introduced three new festivals/events to the offering this year: Connect, Dundee Summer Sessions and The Big Top, all of which branched us out into new sites – the Royal Highland Centre to the west of Edinburgh, and Slessor Gardens, Dundee. As well as the festivals and greenfield shows, we also promoted more stadium shows this year than we have in any other year in the past. We had nine stadium shows across multiple venues, which included Falkirk, Ibrox and Hampden. Hampden had a record total of eight shows this summer, of which we delivered six. All of this was in addition to the bread and butter of DF Concerts: our day-to-day gigs. Across June-August, we promoted around 140 indoor gigs from 300 capacity rooms to 14,000 capacity arenas,” Ellis summed it up.

The veteran promoter grew up around Manchester, the second-most important music city in England behind London. It speaks volumes about Glasgow’s live entertainment offering that he immediately felt at home after moving there 30 years ago. “From numerous gigs on offer every night, the vast array of hotels, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, galleries, and museums, its relatively small size and proximity to beautiful Scottish countryside too makes it a good place to live and work,” he said.

Geoff Ellis: ‘Not Just For The Paycheck’

It’s an offering his own company has been contributing to on a grand scale. DF Concerts’ schedule for the remaining year includes around 300 shows of varying genres across Glasgow venues, which averages three shows per night promoted just by DF Concerts.

“2023 is looking like a lot more of the same – lots of gigs, lots of tickets, and lots of music lovers creating new memories. We have already announced the dates for TRNSMT and Connect Festivals, two stadium shows with Harry Styles, greenfield shows with Muse and Arctic Monkeys, with lots more to come, including rescheduled Guns N’ Roses and Red Hot Chili Peppers shows,” Ellis said.

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Belinda Carlisle live at the Kelvingrove Bandstand for the Summer Nights festival in Glasgow . (Picture by Wattie Cheung)

Another renowned outdoor event in Glasgow is Summer Nights At The Bandstand. This year’s lineup, which largely rolled over since 2020, included Suzanne Vega, Belinda Carlisle, Rufus Wainwright, Van Morrison, Rick Astley, Richard Hawley and Primal Scream. The event is promoted by Regular Music, Scotland’s longest-standing promoter and a true independent. CEO Mark Mackie said it was “great to be back after the ‘break’ and the 2022 summer shows were fab. The audience needed to get back out there as did the artists and crews.”

See: Q’s With Mark Mackie, CEO Of Scottish Promoter Regular Music

Regular Music has been back in business since mid-February, realizing a lot of rescheduled shows, some of which had been on sale since 2019, amongst new ones. Of 20 open-air shows in 2020, 16 sold out well in advance, while the other four were really well attended. “And, incredibly, it didn’t rain once, which in Scotland is nothing short of miraculous,” Mackie said, adding that being independent also had advantages when dealing with the pandemic.

Mark Mackie
Mark Mackie, CEO of Regular Music.

“We are pretty light on our feet,” he said, emphasizing that the various government schemes did help. But surviving the pandemic wasn’t solely about saving business. It was also about maintaining a healthy mindset. Mackie, just like many of his fellow Glaswegians, overcame the situation with humor and community, “two great qualities that Glaswegians have in bucket loads,” according to the promoter.

What helped the recovery, aside from the people’s unbridled demand for live, was a ticketing partner processing all the postponed and new shows. In many cases, that partner has been Ticketmaster UK, whose MD Andrew Parsons said, “as a business, we feel an incredibly strong connection with the city of Glasgow and have long recognized the depth of talent here, one that is vital to our business and the reason we have always had a base here. Personally, I have seen some of my most memorable shows in Glasgow. Drake, Taylor Swift, and Kevin Bridges the stand-outs at the Hydro, an early club Franz Ferdinand show, and of course Sam Fender at this year’s TRNSMT. “What really makes a Glasgow show special though is the audiences – this city and Glaswegians really do live for live,” he said.

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The people make this business just as much as the artists on stage and professionals working behind the scenes. This picture was taken at the bar of King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut.

The observant reader will have noticed a theme: the people. They are who make Glasgow truly special. Mackie is aware that “everyone says that – but we are a post-industrial city with a reputation of working hard and playing hard as our ancestors did before us.”

Deighan confirmed, “undeniably, at the heart of the city’s success are our people. Glaswegians are renowned the world over for their friendliness, kindness, warm welcome and good humor – attributes perfectly encapsulated by our award-winning city brand, ‘People Make Glasgow.’ From music, sport, food and festivals to the unique character of our people, Glasgow is a vibrant, culturally-rich city with an unrivaled visitor experience and world-class customer service. Artists and promoters recognize Glasgow is a must-play destination because our music audiences are amongst the most passionate, enthusiastic and welcoming fans you’ll find anywhere.”

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