How Music Works: Sarah Casey’s long and winding road to becoming a star booker
Niall Byrne talks to people about their work in the music business. This week, Sarah Casey traces a line from Mayo to Old Trafford, from the Olympics to booking agent
Sarah Casey: "It was a very music-heavy line-up – everyone from Coldplay, Rihanna, Paul McCartney and Arctic Monkeys were there and you needed to know how to work with those people and put on a show."
Call it coincidence, synchronicity, networking or dumb luck, but Mayo-born Sarah Casey’s life in the music business has been propped up by experiences that came through random opportunities.
The Castlebar booking agent was born to a family that lived sports and music. Her mother was a tennis coach, her father a rugby coach. On the music side, Sarah’s grandad plays piano, her aunt was a music teacher in DIT and Sarah herself played piano and flute.
It was teaching piano while studying her Leaving Cert that prompted Casey to apply for a music degree in Salford University in Manchester. While things have since improved somewhat with the addition of BIMM to the Irish college course offerings, 2004’s prospectuses offered less in terms of popular music-industry focus.
Casey was rejected for the music degree course in Salford, though the college offered her a foundation course. Something wasn’t right. Casey had experience and a grade four in piano. A few months in, Casey queried her placement on the foundation course only to find that it was the result of a clerical error.
“I was never supposed to be in the foundation course,” says Casey. “They said it was too late to move into the popular music degree course as I’d missed too much of it.”
A move to the BA in Music course, which had some elements of recording and industry was arranged. She ended up loving her time there: playing in a band and managing one too.
“I was doing everything - printing CD covers, flyers, handing them out, going out on a Friday night to promote the band,” says Casey. “That’s where I really got a flavour of it.”
Mistaken identity at Old Trafford
While queuing for a bank account during freshers’ week, Casey met some fellow Irish students and they became friends. “There was an Irish guy who was panicking as he had to set up a bank account as he was going for a job in Old Trafford,” she remembers.
Casey had yet to visit the home ground of Manchester United so took the opportunity to go with her friend when he was applying for the job.
“I ended up being ushered into the room with them all for their induction, even though I hadn’t applied for it,” says Casey, laughing. “I ended up filling out these forms, as a kind of a joke. I got a callback and got a job as security. I ended up staying for three years and worked at every home game.”
From there, Casey graduated to the press office, where she met all the managers, commentators and media. “The job gave me a taste for working in entertainment, with 80,000 people at your workplace. It was funny because I came from a rugby background, and there was no football in our house.”
A Dublin base
Casey moved to Dublin after college to pursue work in the music industry. “I didn’t have any contacts in London, so I moved to Dublin where I knew a few more people,” says Casey . Those people included her uncle Declan Meehan, a Today FM DJ, and Christy Moore’s manager Paddy Doherty, who put her in touch with people.
A job working at the bar in Whelan’s for six months gave her more practical music-biz experience. “I talked to the merch people, the agents, and I picked up so much about what was happening in the Irish industry through that. I did a Hot Press course called Mix. Jackie Hayden put me in touch with the band Chaplin and said – ‘they need a manager, you need a band to cut your teeth with’, so I started to manage and do PR with them.”
A job in Aiken Promotions followed, as an assistant to Mary Kelly in charge of ticketing and marketing gigs. A summer working on big shows including Tom Waits, Jay-Z, Paul Weller, Eric Clapton and Neil Young.
Her first gig? Bruce Springsteen’s three-night run at the RDS in 2009. Although Casey was an assistant, she was given the task of booking support acts for Weller and Young’s shows.
“I got to email the agents, put forward some suggestions, including my own act Chaplin, get approval and liaise with the bands,” says Casey.
Conscious that work would dry up after the busy summer, Casey got in touch with London-based Irish promoter Vince Power at Mean Fiddler In London about some possible work.
“I showed up for a meeting with him and waited half an hour,” says Casey. “This Irish woman came around to reception and said Vince was called to an emergency, but come in and have a chat with me. She was from Mayo, 20 minutes down the road from me. She interviewed me to be the booker of the Pigalle Club in Piccadilly, which I was not expecting.
“They invited me back for a second interview with Vince in the Soho Hotel and they gave me the job. I was really thrown in at the deep end and it was a really good way to learn. The Pigalle was a popular venue, and record labels would hire it for showcases. I met quite a lot of people in the industry there.”
The job of a lifetime at the Olympics
After a year booking the Pigalle, Casey realised she wanted more freedom in booking acts. Power offered her a role booking the 21st anniversary of the Fleadh in 2011, renamed the Feis Festival.
Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, The Cranberries, Horslips, Clannad, Christy Moore, Shane McGowan and Sharon Shannon were among the acts who played in London for the festival, which ended up losing money, spurring Casey to go job-hunting again, this time at the Olympic Games in London in 2012, as headline talent co-ordinator for the opening and closing ceremonies.
“I went for the interview and Danny Boyle was there along with a team of people who were working on it already. There was a real buzz in there, and my boss had music-industry experience so we shared the same stories. It was a very music-heavy line-up – everyone from Coldplay, Rihanna, Paul McCartney and Arctic Monkeys were there and you needed to know how to work with those people and put on a show.”
Casey said goodbye to the rest of her life for nine months while working on the Olympics. Working on such a big spectacle was a unique challenge and Casey found herself looking after her childhood heroes, The Spice Girls, and their children, in rehearsals. It was a surreal experience looking after so many of the biggest names in music.
“We had three floors of portable dressing rooms. In one corner, there was 12 supermodels, then you have Queen, The Spice Girls, Kaiser Chiefs, One Direction – all next door to each other. They were only allow bring four people each instead of an entourage of 20 or so, everyone had to get checked through security.
“The tough part was making sure it all ran on time, making sure the artists left promptly and didn’t leave their mic, jacket or whatever behind. It’s like a kid’s party, trying to make sure everybody was accounted for. Most of the time you’re spent backstage getting people ready but you would catch glimpses of the dress rehearsals and it was amazing. It was the best thing I’ve ever done.”
The next step-up
While working the ceremonies, Casey met Carl Leighton-Pope, who runs a booking agency looking after artists such as Bryan Adams, Michael Buble, Chris Rea, Billy Ocean and Keith Urban. Leighton-Pope offered her a job and three-and-a-half years later, she’s still there to this day.
“I think it’s important to work with nice people, which we try to do. Carl’s been very encouraging. He’s just turned 70 but puts us all to shame with the amount of energy and enthusiasm he has.”
Casey is the only booker at LPO bringing in new acts to the roster which includes Dagny, Boo Seeka, Last Lynx and the first band she signed – Boston band Lake Street Dive.
“My cousin showed me them on YouTube and said they were selling out shows in America. I brought them into Carl and he told me how to approach it because I’d never done it before. Call the manager, find out what’s happening with them, find out do they have an agent and tell them we’re interested.”
We present Michael Bublé and Bryan Adams as clients,” says Casey. “When I called the manager she said ‘ are you calling because of Michael Bublé?’ and I said no and asked why. She said she had a voicemail from Michael two days beforehand saying he loved the band and how he would really like to help them. So she assumed I was following up as a result. I was only there a month, so I hadn’t even met Michael Bublé yet. It was a funny coincidence.”