If you’re in London on March 6th, there’s no better place to be. For tickets visit Eventbrite

Read about my trials and tribulations as a charity promoter here: David Gray, Bono’s Sunglasses & Me

My life as a promoter

I am running a gig for the small charity Moxafrica – that’s if I don’t have a nervous breakdown first.

Neil McCormick's son Finn wearing Bono's sunglasses

My son, Finn, tries Bono’s sunglasses on for size
1:18PM GMT 29 Jan 2013

On Wednesday March 6, I am presenting a charity concert at the Islington Assembly Hall in London, featuring David Gray, The Magic Numbers, Gabriella Cilmi, David Ford, Bo Bruce and a few other musical friends and associates. Please buy a ticket and prevent an out-of-depth rock critic’s nervous breakdown.

I was not cut out for the life of a promoter. Indeed, I’m not sure anyone is. I was in bands for long enough in my younger years to know how fretful staging a gig can be, involving a huge advance effort in getting musicians, equipment and venue ready, with no guarantee that anyone will turn up and make it worthwhile. “Why do you think all promoters look permanently stressed?” a band manager sympathetically said to me, before adding, “You’re looking a bit peeky yourself, mate.”

I’m doing it for love. Well, specifically for my wife. She is an acupuncturist involved in a small charity, Moxafrica, who run a research project in universities in Uganda and South Africa, investigating the treatment of TB with Chinese medicine. It is not an obviously appealing cause, like food for the starving. Yet Moxafrica is having results with potentially wide ranging implications for the developing world, where drug resistant TB is epidemic (it kills someone every 20 seconds in Africa). Although the sums required to support Moxafrica seem small in the grand scheme of things (£16,000 would keep them going another year), it is a tough time for all charities right now and Moxafrica is in danger of coming to a premature end. I listened to lots of conversations about little schemes to raise small amounts as the clock kept ticking, until, almost against my own better judgment, I uttered the fateful line, “You know you could raise that in one go with a gig.”

And so I have entered into another world, of promoters, managers and agents. I have been spending time in empty venues, looking out from empty stages on to empty floors and empty seats, the most beautiful concert halls and lavishly appointed clubs all taking on a strangely bereft atmosphere without the throb of humanity that brings them to life. “An empty venue is of no use to anyone,” is an oft-repeated line, and I have been offered top night spots on attractive terms.

“The money’s on the popcorn,” is another much repeated phrase, meaning, if I could guarantee a certain number of people through the doors, the venue would make its real profit behind the bar.

But I also learned that January is a hard month to sell tickets, because everybody’s broke after Christmas, and payday doesn’t come ‘til the end of a long month. And February isn’t much better. In freezing offices, huddled around heaters, I learned about bottom line costs and narrow profit margins, watching overheads mount as backline hire, stage hands and security staff were added in, and came to dread questions like “have you got public liability insurance?” One initially attractive space started off with a price of £400 and wound up, with all additions, costing closer to £7000. When I expressed concern about selling out a particularly capacious venue, worrying how stars might feel playing to a half empty room, a chorus of voices responded, “We’ll dazzle them with lights!” To complicit laughter, I was informed that you never tell artists the venue isn’t sold out. “They’d get nervous. You just turn the lights in their eyes so bright they can’t see past the front row.”

The mood amongst backroom professionals was friendly and bluff, with a shared comical disdain for the musicians people pay to see. “I bloody hate artists,” one venue manager told me. “That’s why I employ people to keep them away from me.”

The hardest thing, for me, personally, was opening my contacts list to call stars and managers that I have at least a tentative relationship with. I meet a lot of musicians in sometimes intense and intimate circumstances, making a brief yet strong connection, but there is always a necessary quality of distance, because I have to reserve the right to criticise. So while particular artists may have appreciated a good review at a crucial moment in their careers, I certainly don’t feel anyone owes me a favour. Yet that is exactly what I was asking for: artists to lend me their time and talent for no remuneration.

What’s more, big stars are constantly asked to do this, fielding dozens of charitable requests a week. So I prevaricated and procrastinated, carefully phrasing a diplomatic approach that facilitated friendly refusal. Turns out that I was worrying about nothing. Most people do have a charitable instinct, and if they can help, they will. Musicians who couldn’t appear offered donations, or other assistance. Bono sent me a pair of his sunglasses for a rock’n’roll raffle. By my third call, I had a headliner, a major rock star whose enthusiastic response took me aback: “I love these kind of things. Is it all right if I just turn up and do an acoustic set?”

One artist led to another, and I began assembling an eclectic bill, effectively a coalition of the willing. Everything was slightly provisional, however, dependent upon touring and recording schedules. We took a venue and pencilled in a date but I felt like a juggler desperately trying to keep a dozen balls in the air at the same time. Then, one nerve wracking Friday, I dropped them all. With two weeks to go til showtime, we lost our venue, lost the date, and lost our headline star.

I was almost relieved to embrace failure. I had been at it for weeks and it was causing sleepless nights, when all I could think about were the details of the show, tossing one possibility after another around my fevered brain. Then David Gray’s manager called. He’d been on holiday and missed earlier attempts to contact him. “What’s this all about then? Trying to save Africa with Chinese medicine? You’ve obviously gone completely mad!”

We got a new venue, a new date, and a new bill. My sons were dragooned into designing posters and web fliers, hundreds of emails were pinging about between the charity, the venue, our live events producer and artist managers, contracts were drawn up, databases bombarded. A friendly PR sent out a message announcing the show, with a warning not to expect much of a response. “Every time I send out a press release, it’s like that scene in Star Trek, when they fire Spock’s coffin out into the inky blackness and watch it getting swallowed up by the void.” I felt a twinge of guilt, thinking of all the emails I routinely ignore.

Now all I can do is wait in a state of helpless tension. I keep clicking on the Moxafrica ticket site to see whether the counter has moved. It’s worse than Googling yourself but I can’t leave it alone, always wondering what else can we do to shift tickets? It’s a beautiful venue with only 700 capacity and we have a magical bill of fantastic singer-songwriters and great bands doing unplugged sets. So go on, put me out of my misery. It’s all for a good cause. And did I mention you can win Bono’s sunglasses?

Is it time for U2 to call it a day?

November 3rd, 2011

There has been a lot of internet chatter about whether U2 are breaking up, following comments from Bono in Rolling Stone. He has been talking a lot recently about U2 having been “on the edge of irrelevancy for 20 years” and suggested “We’d be very pleased to end on No Line on the Horizon”. Despite a failure to deliver a hit single and a general perception that it wasn’t a classic, the album has recently reached the five million sales mark, and U2 have just completed the biggest, most technologically ambitious and highest grossing tour in rock history. Q magazine just presented U2 with an award for Greatest Act of the Last 25 years. Might it represent an opportune moment for U2 to bow out?

There is no set process for a band to break up. Usually it happens more or less accidentally and spontaneously, through internal conflict. Often it is accompanied by a decline in popularity and increasing creative divisions. But when you have been together as long as U2 (36 years and counting), and successful throughout your career, a kind of inertia can set in, where the band continues to exist just because, well, it continues to exist.

REM have been widely applauded for their recent decision to disband because of a sense that their best  days were behind them. The Rolling Stones continue despite of it, taking the critical flak to deliver music and entertainment for their massive fan base. You can’t say one is right, and one is wrong – it is each according to his own. But REM are close to U2, and belong to the post punk generation for whom an allegiance to rock bands came with high ideals and a sense of purpose. Talking about REM’s break up on Newsnight this week, Mike Mills explained that “It was an opportunity for us to walk away on our own terms. There are no external forces, no problems, we can walk away as friends and feel like we’ve accomplished everything we wanted to accomplish.”

U2 have certainly accomplished a lot, probably more than they ever dreamt… although they did dream big. I’ve got Bono on tape when Boy came out, in 1980, enthusiastically telling me that one day they would make a record as great as Sergeant Pepper.

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Are U2 really the best band of a generation?

October 25th, 2011

So Q readers have voted U2 the greatest act of the past 25 years. Well, obviously they would say that. Q is a magazine of white, middle-aged rock fans. If you had asked the Radio One audience to vote on the same question, you might have got a rather different answer. Take That and or Robbie Williams maybe. Actually, scrap that. Those guys are way too old for Radio One.  They would probably have voted in One Direction or Justin Bieber.

I was asked to defend the choice of U2 on BBC 5 Live last night. Now, I find myself saying time and time again, music is not a competitive sport. There is room for all our favourite acts, and nobody is forcing you to listen to anyone you don’t want to (though Simon Cowell is certainly doing his best). And before the habitual U2 and Bono haters start hurling the traditional levels of comical abuse in the comments, lets get it out in the open. Yes, I am biased. They are the band I grew up with. If I may quote legendary journalist Hunter S Thompson: “objective journalism is a contradiction in terms”. So get over it. But, like them are loath them, I think the case for U2 being the greatest act of the past 25 years is pretty unequivocal. Here are five reasons why (and why not some of the other artists mentioned in last night’s debate):

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When did Bono become American?

September 9th, 2011

In Toronto to attend the premiere of a new U2 film documentary, When The Sky Falls Down, Bono answered a reporter’s questions about the forthcoming 10th anniversary of the assault on the Twin Towers by claiming he would be “a very proud American  on 9/11.”

Always a man for a soundbite, the Irish rock star elaborated: “It’s just too big a moment in all our lives. Even if you’re not an American, everyone became an American that day.”

It’s a remark that will, no doubt, rankle with many on this side of the pond, particularly those who see only ego and hypocrisy in every utterance of rock’s self-appointed global statesman. I look forward to the usual colourful comments below.

But in America, to the audience for whom it was presumably intended, it will be taken as confirmation of the real special relationship.

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U2 at Glastonbury: sometime’s bigger really is better

June 23rd, 2011

I am not the only 50-year-old virgin attending Glastonbury this year. Friday night’s headliners, U2, are popping their collective festival cherry too. Bassist Adam Clayton, the (former) dope-smoking, model-dating, non-believing one, camped out in 1989, and even left his tent for long enough to play with the celtic soul warriors The Hothouse Flowers. But, as a rule, U2 don’t play festivals. It is hard to fault ever-practical drummer Larry Mullen Jnr’s logic in this regard, questioning why they should play without their own purpose built stage and dedicated production crew to an audience not of their own fans for less money than they make at their own stadium shows. But the romance of Glastonbury has lured them, the chance to show what they can do on a stage that has hosted most of the all-time greats of rock.

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Spider-Man versus The Critics: has the webslinger met his match?

10 Mar 2011

Spider-Man was always the most troubled of superheroes, a geeky teenage prodigy with existential issues. His transition to Broadway musical has been a typically fraught adventure. Peter Parker may swing from the gallery to see off The Goblin and The Lizard in spectacular style, but he has been finding it harder to defeat sceptical theatre critics.

Last night, in the face of overwhelmingly hostile reviews, the producers of Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark announced that the show’s opening (scheduled for next Tuesday 15th) would be delayed for the sixth time, for a further period of rewriting and restructuring. Acclaimed director Julie Taymor has “stepped down”. But before we count our plucky hero out, it should be noted that last week the show took $1.28 million at the box office. As U2 songwriter the Edge jokingly said to me recently, “every time we get another bad write up, ticket sales go up. Maybe we should forget about opening, and just go on previewing forever.”

Reaching over 100 performances last week, Spider-Man is now, officially, the longest previewing show ever on Broadway . And it is still selling out every night.

I have seen the show three times during transitional phases, and while it has obvious narrative problem it is in no way a complete disaster.

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