Garth Brooks: the inevitable live music mess of the year
An ongoing lax approach to licensing live events was always going to end in a situation like this.
How and where do you start with a story like this? A classic omnishambles ensued yesterday after the decision by Dublin City Council to grant a licence for only three of the five sold-out Garth Brooks’ shows at Croke Park. Every possible angle and every piece of speculation was covered in the fallout, from the sensible, obvious ones (consumer rights, residents’ reaction, promoters Aiken Promotions’ comment on the affair etc) to the WTF ones (talk about simply moving the whole kit and kaboodle to another venue, attention-seekers offering their fields of dreams, people giving out about tickets being sold subject to licence when this is how tickets for outdoor shows are always sold in this country etc).
It’s a story which will certainly continue for another few days given the singer’s insistence last night that it has to be five shows at Croker or none at all. Bet the Kilkenny hurlers wish they could have been so single-minded when it came to their failed drive for five in 2010.
Let’s start parsing the mess with the artist’s statement from last night. For most people, that statement reads like a threat, but for anyone who works in the live music business, it makes perfect sense on many levels. Brooks announced these shows in February after negotiations with the promoter Peter Aiken which began in late 2013. The shows have been planned since then with Croker’s dimensions and logistics – and the economics of the ticket revenues – in mind. Remember that these are the only shows which Brooks is playing worldwide this summer. They’re one-offs, as he’s not touring, so the entire production set-up (everything from the stage to the sound specifications) is bespoke for Jones Road. This is highly unusual, but Brooks’ huge popularity (400,000 tickets sold in jig-time) allows him to do that. This was not a case, as with Bruce Springsteen last year, where you could dole out the gigs to GAA stadiums around the country.
All of which means moving this show to another Irish venue with three weeks’ notice is not a runner for a variety of reasons, ranging from production requirements to licensing (a lengthy process is still required under S.I. No. 154/2001 of the Planning and Development (Licensing of Outdoor Events) Regulations regardless of where the gig happens) to ticketing. To suggest otherwise is just to either simply ignore the law (which is kind of what got us into this mess in the first place) or apply an Irish ‘sure, it’ll be grand’ to the proceedings. Brooks and his people, you can bet, do not do ‘sure, it’ll be grand’. They will also not be overly moved by some prankster from Cavan trying the typically unfunny thing of offering a local GAA pitch (“we’ve had Mickey Joe Harte and The Sawdoctors here”) with the bonus of surrounding fields for car parks (“we’ve had the second cut of silage done already”), as was the case on the John Murray Show earlier this morning.
Actually, ‘sure, it’ll be grand’ may be a good way of summing up how the licensing process for these shows actually works. As we now know, the tickets for the show sold out before the license was granted – indeed, before the application for the licence was even made – because this is how Irish promoters have to work with the laws. They can’t wait for the licence to be granted to announce the show or put tickets on sale because it takes weeks and even months for the local county council to go through all the procedures involved in the process. Do you really think you can have the act, the stadium and the production on hold for four or five months and then put 400,000 tickets on sale three weeks out? It might work for an indoor show at the O2, but an outdoor show or series of shows attracting 400,000 people is another matter entirely. Please don’t say it works for the All-Irelands either: this is a far different kettle of fish.
The procedure for for any outdoor show involving temporary structures and an audience in excess of 5,000 people goes a little like this. The promoter books the act, hires the venue, puts the tickets on sale “subject to licence” and applies for the event licence. The council do their work in the background, objections are noted and a decision based on the application and responses is made. In 99 per cent of the cases in this country, the license is granted, sometimes subject to a raft of conditions and clauses involving health and safety and other concerns and sometimes after some courtroom skirmishes. One of the few times an application was turned down flat, for example, was when Clare County Council refused permission to Aiken Promotions for the revived Lisdoonvarna festival back in 2003 which they then moved to the RDS in Dublin. Remember that it was legal challenges over U2′s shows at Dublin’s Lansdowne Road in 1997 (which were initially supposed to be held in the Phoenix Park), which lead to the current planning regulations when it comes to live events.
The timeline when it comes to the granting of these licences is also worth noting because in most cases, the application is only granted a few days before the event is due to take place. For example, if you looked at the Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council website last Monday evening, you’d have seen that the application by Festival Republic/MCD for the 41,000 capacity Marlay Park shows was still pending. This was the day AFTER the Arcade Fire show at the veneue which caused so much post-gig Arcade Ire due to transport problems. Now, I’m sure the application was granted – MCD/Festival Republic simply do not run gigs without adhering to the proper, legal proceedings at every stage – but the lax update on the website is indicative of the “sure, it’ll be grand” approach (see Kildare County Council and last summer’s Oxegen festival, when the application was still pending 24 hours before the gates opened).
The only time the council move fast is when they know they’re going to be in the public eye. An example of this was Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council’s approach to the David Guetta concert in Marlay Park in 2012. Following all the shenanigans over the Swedish House Mafia gig in the Phoenix Park in July 2012, the council issued the licence a month in advance with 53 conditions attached for the shows at the end of August at the south Dublin park. Contrast this with their approach to this summer’s shows.
In the case of Croker, however, there was a serious problem around the poisonous relationship bewteen the venue’s owners the GAA and the local residents, exacerbated by how the former have treated the latter over the years. Living a puck of a sliothar up the road in Fairview, I know how inconvenienced those living directly around the stadium are by these concerts (the matches in July and August are another thing entirely).
It all came to a head after the U2 shows in the stadium in 2009 when locals protested at the venue and blocked the band’s trucks from leaving to go to the next show. Residents have always pointed to a decision by An Bord Pleanala in March 1993 during the redevelopment of Croke Park which rules that the number of “special events” at the stadium such as “concerts, conventions or exhibitions” should “not exceed three per annum”. The legal eagles have probably had a field day with the definition of events in the meantime (do three One Direction shows in a row pass muster as one event because it’s the same act? What about the very successful Convention Centre – are its events included in this number?), but the recent report by mediator Kieran Mulvey appears to be a lot clearer on this and other contentious points.
But all of this didn’t seem to figure earlier this year when the GAA allowed Aiken Promotions to add more and more Garth Brooks’ shows at the venue without any consulation whatsoever with the local residents. The GAA were probably looking at their rental fees (a million per gig is believed to be the going rate and, as anyone who deals with the GAA HQ when it comes to money knows, they like their cash on Jones Road) and rubbing their hands with glee. The GAA gave the approval to the promoter for the unprecedented run of shows knowing how hot under the collar the locals were about their behaviour and attitude. The GAA also appear to operate on the basis of “sure, it’ll be grand” and it’s telling that they’re the one party in this omnishambles who have stayed very quiet to date.
It all comes to a head because this was a very rare time when the licensing authorities decided to say no, kicking off the crazed speculation and reaction of the last 24 hours. It would not have happened if the GAA had sat down and talked man to man (or woman to man or man to woman or combinations thereof) with the locals. It would not have happened if we had a proper licensing system for live events in this country which works for the benefit of all parties. And it would not have happened if we didn’t have that dreadful “sure, it’ll be grand” attitude to things. Hey, it’s never boring on the live music beat.