Live music: new brand owners and revenue growth?

I heard something on the radio the other day: some exec from music retailerHMV explaining that they were getting into the live music venue business. They’re doing this because it’s “well-known” that that’s the fastest-growing part of the music business.

I was a little surprised by that. I’d think that economic downturns would keep people from buying concert tickets. Nevertheless, HMV is taking over and branding nearly a dozen venues around the UK, including a couple I frequent:the Borderline and the Hammersmith Apollo (the latter was previously branded, and I presume part-owned, by beer company Carling).

Last week I noticed that another company was continuing to do this as well and had made some acquisitions while I was out of the country at the end of last year. Mobile phone company O2, on the back of having such success withthe O2 arena, took over several other Carling venues, notably the Academy chain found in many UK cities (including Brixton in London). They’ve also taken over the Shepherd’s Bush Empire.

I guess there’s not much difference between corporate ownership by a beer company and corporate ownership by a mobile phone service provider. I do have to say that O2 have done a bang-up job with the arena.

Leonard Cohen live

I’m just back from London’s O2 arena and a Leonard Cohen extravaganza. It was awesome.

Cohen toured the UK earlier in 2008 for the first time in over 14 years. I didn’t go then because I resisted the notion of seeing a performer like him in a large stadium. Then I read the reviews. They were very good. So when he added some more London dates, I got a ticket.

Cohen was the absolute epitome of cool. He and his band were dapper, smooth, and charming. They were elegant and professional, and if it had been anyone else singing other than this bass poet it would have been boring. But Cohen is profound, and defies any crass attachments. He is old – 74 years old – and had lessons to teach us.

Intensely classy lessons that went on for more than 3 hours, as it turned out. He started the evening by acknowledging both the economy and the O2 as he thanked us for braving such dizzying financial and architectural heights. It was quiet, you could hear every word of his vocals. The musicians were given chances to solo, but tastefully, and quietly. Everyone wore a hat. “Bird On A Wire” was stunning and moving. “Who By Fire” had a great Spanish guitar intro. The backup singers delivered “If It Be Your Will”. “Tower of Song” and “Hallelujah” were touching. “First We Take Manhattan” is simply the coolest song ever recorded.

Given the recent American election, “Democracy”‘s refrain – ‘Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.’ – got an enormous cheer every time it was repeated.

Despite his 74 years, Cohen never walked on or off stage; he ran and skipped, full tilt, each time. He was, simply, class. His songwriting is in the league of Dylan, but his sauve delivery is unparalleled.

He sang:

  • Dance Me To The End of Love
  • The Future
  • Ain’t No Cure For Love
  • Bird On A Wire
  • Everybody Knows
  • In My Secret Life
  • Who By Fire
  • Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye
  • That Don’t Make It Junk
  • Anthem

Intermission

  • Tower of Song
  • Suzanne
  • The Gypsy’s Wife
  • The Partisan
  • Boogie Street
  • Hallelujah
  • I’m Your Man
  • A Thousand Kisses Deep
  • Take This Waltz

1st encore

  • So Long, Marianne
  • First We Take Manhattan

2nd encore

  • Famous Blue Raincoat
  • If It Be Your Will
  • Democracy

3rd encore

  • I Tried To Leave You
  • Whither Thou Goest

Leonard Cohen

Photo from jonl1973 via Creative Commons license.

“And still the dark stain spreads between his shoulder blades”

Last night I was at the O2 arena to see Roger Waters on his first London night of his Dark Side of the Moon tour. It was, as expected, amazing.

I saw Roger once before, about 8 years ago in Montreal on his In The Flesh tour (with my good pal M_Blogler). He was good then. He might have been better last night. Close call.

On this tour, Roger is playing a set of highlights from his Pink Floyd and solo career, then a set where the band performs the entirety of the classic Dark Side of the Moon album. I was pretty excited to hear that. And interested to compare his show with the David Gilmour show I saw at the Royal Albert Hall two years ago.

I got to the O2 a bit early. I wanted to try some of the bars they have there before the show. My plans were challenged when I discovered that all the bars, restaurants, cinemas, and shops in the pedestrian concourse meant that thousands of other people also showed up early. I did manage to squeeze in one glass of wine before the fun started. Just before I ordered it, the guy in front of me – who ordered two pints – told the bartender to keep the £10 bill in change he was due. I was startled, but you should have seen the bartender. The customer, a short, bearded bloke in a white T-shirt, firmly told the bartender that he was in a very good mood and the bartender should definitely keep the tenner. Jeez buddy, I thought, I know you’re happy because it’s Roger Waters and all but that’s a bit over the top.

Promptly at 7:45pm the band strolled out with thunderous applause for Roger. They opened strong, with “In the Flesh”. Then they rolled through all the hits that people wanted to hear. They played “Mother”, of course. I was pleased to hear “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”, though the crowd seemed to raise an eyebrow. “Sheep” got a huge response, especially with the requisite giant inflatable pig (emblazoned with assertions that ‘All religions divide’ and pleas to vote for Obama) zooming about the arena. They played “The Fletcher Memorial Home”.

The only solo album songs I noticed were “Perfect Sense Pts I and II” fromAmused to Death, but oh my god: did they ever go over big. Early in the song an inflatable astronaut flew through the stadium, drifting slowly above our heads. By the end, the whole 20,000 of us were singing along at the top of our lungs. It was a powerful performance.

For me, though, nothing can top the back-to-back-to-back performance of three songs from my favourite album, Wish You Were Here: “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”, “Have a Cigar” and “Wish You Were Here”. Wow.

Please observe your nearest fire exitPicture from Erik Luyten Photography under Creative Commons license

There were spotlights and coloured lights and flares and flame too, of course. There was a huge projection screen behind the band too; much of the time it simply showed psychedelic patterns, colours and lights. Sometimes the video was tied to the song content, as when they did “Southampton Dock” to scenes of poppies and soldiers.

The only song I found disappointing was newest tune “Leaving Beirut”, about an experience Roger had hitchiking in Lebanon as a teenager. It was moving, for sure, but it’s a little too earnest and obvious (especially when the screen behind them plays out the story in comic-book form, and projects all the lyrics).

Then there was a 20 minute break, after which the band returned and playedDark Side…It was great. Tight, smooth, and the dance ’round madness it was meant to portray. Unsurprisingly, Roger did much less singing here (since Dave sang most of that album), so the other members capably took up vocal duties. One of the backup singers did a note-perfect version of “The Great Gig in the Sky”. “Us and Them”, perhaps my favourite song on the record, wasstunning. There were white floodlights of such intensity during the loud chorus bits that the front half of the stadium was completely enveloped in a sea of brightness.

Even that wasn’t quite enough. Our applause continued and they came back out to play an encore of “The Happiest Days of Our Lives”, “Another Brick In the Wall Pt. 2”, “Vera”, “Bring the Boys Back Home” and “Comfortably Numb”. That last is one of the five greatest rock songs ever. It retains that reputation. The show finished at about 10:30pm, nearly 3 hours of music.

It was a great show song-choice-wise, sonically, and visually. Roger sounded better throughout than I thought he would. He sounds as good as he did 8 years ago, and better than he did at Live Aid three years ago. But he also seemed happy and engaged and excited and into it. His unshaven visage and black T-shirt made him seem intense and vital.

It was all really good. It’s sometimes hard to believe that one man could have his hand (often the sole hand) in the creation of so much unique, exciting, thoughtful music. If I had to compare it to David Gilmour’s show I’d say that David’s show is classier and more focused, whereas Roger’s is more emotional and rock ‘n’ roll. I’m so glad I’ve seen them both.

Not as glad as the guy I spotted in front-row centre, though. He was up cheering and waving his arms at the start of nearly every song. I’ve never seen a short, bearded bloke in a white T-shirt look so happy.