Today (June 24) marks the return of BST Hyde Park after two years away. Its eighth edition will kickstart with Elton John, before seeing other legends such as Adele, Duran Duran, Pearl Jam, The Rolling Stones and Eagles playing sets. Here, AEG Presents’ CEO Of European festivals, Jim King, tells Music Week the inside story of how its roaring back to life...
What, in your mind, makes BST Hyde Park a truly unique festival?
"I think first and foremost, the most important point is the location. There is such a great history of Hyde Park and outdoor music events. I think that in itself drives a great excitement for people from all around the world to come to visit Hyde Park to watch music, as much as they might want to go to a magnificent stadium to see a football match, because they've heard about the nostalgia and the history. I think we're very blessed that Hyde Park has that iconic name attached to it in relation to coming to see the amazing bands in the world. Secondly, there is the practical side of it. It is in the centre of one of the most important music cities in the world, and one of the most important cities in the world, so if you're coming from overseas, or if you're coming from around the UK, or you’re just coming from the greater London area, it is a great experience from anywhere. So, I think those elements – that it's easy to get to, it's easy to get home from – all add to the experience.
"Obviously, working in partnership with the Royal Parks, we've been very lucky that we've been able to really reimagine what we felt the live experience should be in this iconic park in this iconic city. I was blessed that we were able to go and do all of these really creative things, to have the time and budget available to us to create installations like the Great Oak Stage, because we wanted to create an iconic stage for the setting. And we have all of these other creative buildings and the environment. The whole ethos behind BST was it should be more than just the performance of the headline artists. People spend the whole day here, and treat it like a full day out. There's amazing food, amazing bar areas, support stages, it all gently builds into the rhythm of the day, building and building and building until then the mothership arrives and these incredible artists walk out onto the stage and deliver these great performances. I think that is what makes BST Hyde Park stand out from what's been here previously – and stand out as well from many other major city-based events."
It is your first time back after a couple of years off due to the pandemic – how difficult was it to pull everything back together?
"We had already planned some changes because we're in the new contract now. Within that, we'd already planned for some quite significant updates in the site's creative and in its production. So there is an updated Great Oak Stage, which is just fantastic. We worked with [stage designer and artist] Es Devlin and her team again. And then the other creative buildings, if you like, that are around it have all been updated too and there are new creative zones. Even people who have been many times before will see many, many new things. So that was already in the plan but then, obviously, when we had the two-and-a-half years off the problem was we weren't really able to get to work on any of it, because no one knew when exactly when we would be coming back. Then on top of that, post-Covid, the industry was greatly impacted – the supply chain, especially so, in the live music sector. So that has brought its challenges and, certainly, the fabrication of major materials, and bringing things in from overseas has been a challenge for everybody. But it would be remiss of me not to say how strong the industry has shown its capabilities to bounce back. The supply chain has shown, even with all of those challenges, it can deliver and I think when people come this weekend they will see an even bigger and better BST Hyde Park, in spite of all those challenges, than they've ever seen previously."
When people come this weekend they will see an even bigger and better BST Hyde Park
Looking at the headliners for this year, it seems you have scooped Vegas getting Adele to play.
"Well, look, we're really fortunate across the whole bill. It's our biggest line-up. We've moved from seven shows to nine shows, and it's certainly the biggest line-up we've ever had across the whole series. Just take this weekend alone. To come back after three years and have Elton John, The Rolling Stones and The Eagles this weekend, and then go into Adele and the Rolling Stones again, before finishing off with two Pearl Jam shows, and Duran Duran playing the biggest show of their career, it's pretty exciting to be able to pull all of those artists together."
In the past, your headliners have sometimes played Glastonbury too, but this year's bill is independent of that. Has that been a conscious policy or a product of disrupted global touring schedules?
"Firstly, we set out every year to have the biggest headliners that we can, who are in the marketplace. And it's a very competitive market. Some artists just want to play their own shows with their own production, and some artists just miss our part of the calendar. That's just one of the ongoing challenges for booking major artists. I think that there's always a natural alignment for acts to play both Glastonbury and play in London, as well as other markets in that window. We're really happy that they do that. We're huge fans of Glastonbury, and the fact that they're close to us in time can only help us insofar as people wanting to come in and play shows."
Your headliners obviously have great in-built fanbases, how much work do you as an event to attract an audience from outside that core? For example, younger fans who will come to the festival again in future years?
"Well, I think we've achieved that actually in a large part. That was one of the great transitions which we had to do when we first started BST. Obviously, no one knew what BST Hyde Park was because it didn't mean anything when we first started, it was completely new. The big challenge for any promoting team in this regard is to build the value of the event, so when the artists come in there's a multi-generational audience in place who are looking for their Hyde Park experience. What we've then found from that is you're getting music fans of all generations coming to our shows. Obviously, a large number who come solely because of a particular headliner, but we've seen from the success of many of the shows where the size of the audiences and the speed of the show selling out is greater than what an artist's previous headline value may have been. What we're seeing from that is there's a very big multi-generational fan base for BST Hyde Park. We are regularly seeing artists who are perhaps doing two O2s – so they're obviously tremendously successful artists to be able to sell two arenas out – but when they come to Hyde Park they're doing twice as many tickets. That's because of two things. One: there is a wider foundation who want to come out because they love that artist and naturally want to come to the show. But also two: I think we act as a catalyst for those wider fanbases of artists who perhaps haven't seen them live for a very long time, but have heard about coming to Hyde Park. It goes back to that sense of, 'Wow, wouldn't it would be great to see X artist in Hyde Park!' and that motivates those fans who perhaps don't go to as many concerts to come and see them in this setting."
Do you think having that connection with audiences as an event allows you scope to put on and develop newer acts that could headline in the future?
"Absolutely, if you look at some of the support groups we've had over the years, we try and move as deeply as we can across all of the stages – we are promoting it as a full day out and not just a headline show. It is a festival in that regard, insofar as there are 20 acts each day, and if you get here at two o'clock, and you stay till 10:30 we want you to see as much music as you can throughout that day, across different stages. I think that the development of artists, and the ability to play on these huge production stages, at these huge shows with the biggest artists of the world, is a massive opportunity for them to not only showcase what they do and reach new fans, but also to experience this type of event. So I think if you look down these bills, especially on that main stage, I think this is a really good career and development opportunity for those artists."
Some events in London have been quite public about their issues recruiting bar staff and other event professionals. Have you had any issues with staffing?
"Well, I think it's beginning to even itself out. The casual labour market was hugely affected coming out of Covid as people moved away from live music venues or venues of any type, sporting as well, into doing other jobs. That has been well documented. So encouraging those people to come back has been difficult, certainly at the back end of last summer when some of the live industry reopened again. But we're blessed with a lot of young people wanting to come in and experience working in the live industry. So it naturally regenerates itself with young people going to university or young working people who want second jobs. It's just taken a while. The challenge is bringing that skill level and experience level back up. It's been challenging, but I think it's been met, and I think it's a situation which will continually improve as we go across this next year."
Are you happy with the length of your run? There are some city festivals around the globe that go on for whole months, have you considered a longer stint in the future at all?
"We're happy with the number of days that we have, I think it's the right number of days for all stakeholders involved. Ultimately, if this is a 65,000 capacity event and there are only so many artists in the world who are able to sell that number of tickets. We need to be respectful that we're in a public space too. We feel we add a great deal of value to the park and its users because it's not just about the concerts, we have Open House, our free-to-access midweek programme, which is hugely popular as it stages everything from cinema to classical music and everything else that goes on, including a schools programmes. So I think that's sufficient amount of time. Whilst we only use a relatively small part of the Royal Parks' estate, they are parks, and thus it's only right they return to public use."
This is a really good career and development opportunity for support artists
Looking to the future, the economy seems to be changing on a daily basis – inflation and the cost of living are currently rising – so will that have any impact on when you plan to announce and go on sale for 2023?
"We have to be mindful of the impact that the whole country is going through, financially. We factor that into as many financial and commercial decisions as we can, so we can make it easy for fans. Fans want to see their favourite artists, so it's up to us to try and ensure that they come to this venue, and then once we're able to confirm that, the key is to let the fans know as soon as possible that it's happening. So I don't think we'll be looking to unnecessarily delay announcements because of anything that's going on. I think it's our duty really to inform fans as quickly as we can when an artist is confirmed to play in '23 so they can make the appropriate plans to come and see them. Obviously, with payment plans, it all helps when buying a ticket now in advance."
Well, if you want to announce the 2023 line-up now, we'll happily tell everyone...
"[laughs] I can't tell you, but I thought that this year would be impossible to beat – and in some ways it is – but I certainly think we're equal to it next year. We always have this great desire to bring the biggest artists who are touring into the park, and also try and encourage those who aren't touring to come in and do great one-offs like we've had many, many times over the years. Those one-off spectacles, those 'must see' or maybe those last chances to see an artist perform in this country, is something we will always continue to try to achieve."
Finally, as you have responsibility for festivals across Europe for AEG, what is your take on the health of the sector as a whole?
"We are starting our summer programme with the most successful event we've ever had at BST Hyde Park. The most amount of tickets ever sold, the highest gross ever achieved, and the most amount of sponsors and partners coming to the event. Every single metric has been surpassed. So we've started in a great position and we think that will continue through because the quality of the events we're running does shine through. If you look at the European outlook, the really exciting thing for me is that Rock En Seine, which is an event which we co-own in Paris, is about have its best year in since its inception 19 years ago. The most amount of days, the most amount of tickets sold, and the most amount of sponsors. Artists-wise, we've got the best line we've ever had, we've sold the most amount of tickets because the public is really buying into it, and then you see the wider industry wants to be a part of that as well – and you can see that in the sponsorship deals that we're getting through. So we've just seen really positive signs for those events which have been presented at that level of quality. So I feel particularly good about what we've got coming up in Europe in 2022.
"We also have Forwards festival in Bristol, which we've launched this year and for a year one show it is already surpassing our projection or expectations. But we are cautious too. The sheer number of headline concert tours that have been taking place in the market, because of all the number of rescheduled shows and rescheduled tours, has really saturated the marketplace and that has brought challenges. You're trying to sell a summer ticket to someone who still got six tickets on the fridge from multiple reschedule tours. So we are taking a cautious approach."
Interview by Paul Stokes