Peter Aiken: I felt stress for the first time over Garth Brooks

Concert promotion is in his blood – and he’s the man big names like Ed Sheeran still want to deal with

 

The family business was always going to be Peter Aiken’s calling. He tried accountancy, but the trade kept beckoning him back. The business of putting on gigs, concerts and big outdoor shows trumped preparing spreadsheets, audits and balance sheets in Aiken’s world.

The framed posters on the walls of Aiken Promotions’ Dublin office outline the story so far. Here are many of the acts who have worked with the most successful independent music promoter in Ireland. It’s a glitzy roll-call, from Pink, Justin Bieber, One Direction, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift to the evergreens who have delivered decade after decade: Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young and Paul Simon.

High summer is peak season for big gigs, and Aiken rattles off the shows on his schedule. He’ll have put in a lot of kilometres in his car, listening to sports shows, like Game On and Off the Ball, and classic rock, to take in Chic, Damien Rice, Van Morrison and Noel Gallagher before moving into Croke Park for two sold-out nights next weekend with Ed Sheeran.

The business has changed a lot, especially since his father, Jim, left a steady teaching job in Belfast in the 1960s to start promoting shows.

“He’d an office in Royal Avenue, across from City Hall, and it was blown up in the early 1970s, totally devastated. He didn’t promote a lot for a few years. No one would come, because it was a war zone.”

The Troubles framed Aiken’s own childhood. “The Troubles broke out in 1969, and we thought it was the most exciting thing ever with the troops out on the street. We’d ask them for a badge, and they’d give you a badge, though things turned different later on . . . Looking back now, it was pretty horrific when churches and Masses would get attacked and shot up, but then it was a way of life. Every time you saw something on a news bulletin you just took it as part of growing up in Belfast.”

Meanwhile, his father got on with business. “Planxty coming to Belfast was a big deal. I remember the neighbours on the Andersonstown Road queuing and waiting for Dad to sell them tickets out of the boot of his car.”

Rory Gallagher was also a big draw. “We did two shows on the same day with him in 1972, which was a big thing. Rory was a big act. In 1974 we did four nights with him. There was only one outlet selling tickets – Harrison’s on Castle Street – and people had to get the bus up from the country to buy tickets.”

It was Gallagher who turned the youngster’s head. “The excitement was unbelievable,” he says. “Rory was a quiet guy offstage, but when he hit the stage he was dynamic. You can have all the special effects you like, but you can’t beat an amazing performer.”

By the time Thin Lizzy’s Live & Dangerous tour came along Aiken was hooked. Instead of studying for his geography exam he carted drink for the band’s dressing room from an off-licence into the boot of his dad’s black Austin Princess. “All that gargle! I thought I’d love to be in a band. It was so exotic.”

It was not to be. “I tried a few times, but it was more football, handball and soccer for me than learning to play guitar.”

By then he had started to get in on the promotion racket, selling tickets to school friends and pocketing 20p a time for himself. He even went on tour with Gallagher. “I knew where things went in the truck and got on well with the crew, so we went off and did 20 dates about England, staying in B&Bs. They gave me a jacket which said ‘Rory Gallagher Crew’, and I bought 200 Rothmans on the boat. It was fantastic. I don’t know anything else you could do at 17 that’s better than that.”

Bananarama and Tom Jones

In the mid 1980s, though, the business was not like it is today. “My father always described it as a part-time job, and he was only doing 30 to 40 shows a year then. You could lose so much on one show. There was still the Troubles, and you had bomb scares at shows like Bananarama and Tom Jones. He’d a couple of horrendous hits; he owned a few bars and nightclubs in Belfast, and one of them got blown up.”

Aiken persuaded his dad that he could bring in business, especially when it came to tickets. “In the mid 1980s there were only about 14 ticket outlets all over Ireland. If you made it more accessible people would buy more tickets. I went up and down the country doing that for a summer, selling Springsteen and Moody Blues tickets.”

Aiken Promotions is now a big concern, with Vicar Street, the Live at the Marquee season in Cork, outdoor shows at the Iveagh Gardens and numerous one-off shows. “Instead of doing 30 shows a year we went to a couple of hundred.”

The promotion game remains a precarious business. “It’s hard to have a long-term business plan. We might look at next year – but you don’t know what is going to happen five years down the road.

“Every time you see a big concert coming in you think it will never be done as well again and people will never come out in those numbers again. And then you sell 400,000 tickets for Garth Brooks. Or you keep hearing that you have to have big productions, and someone like Ed Sheeran comes along and sells 160,000 tickets – and it’s just him and a guitar.”

Thanks to Brooks and the shows that never were, the promoter found himself in the spotlight week after week last summer. “It was the first time I ever felt stress,” Aiken says. “I probably caused a bit of it in my time, but it was definitely the first time I felt it. I’d read about sports stars going on about stress before, and I’d always go, ‘Grow up,’ or something, but I realised during Garth Brooks what it feels like. It’s all consuming, and it’s hard to focus on details. You feel like it’s running out of control and you’re not in charge of the story any more, even though you’re the main part of it. I was thinking on my feet. It did take a toll. If I had to go back again I’d definitely do things a little different.”

“I hope Garth will come back”

Despite that fandango, the relentless competition and ever-changing business, Aiken can’t see himself doing anything else. Promoting gigs is in the blood. “Because it’s entertainment and show business and bands and comedians, people think it’s glamorous, but it’s just as competitive as any other business. Live Nation own a lot of business, and they’re taking a lot of business, and people want to sign up with them – and I can’t see that trend breaking for the foreseeable future.

“But you still have some of the biggest acts in the world, like Garth Brooks and Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift and One Direction, who we’re doing in Belfast, who are willing to work with independents like us.”

That independent streak is important to Aiken. “Over the years I’ve been asked if I’d be interested in selling. I don’t know. I’m quite happy with what I’m doing. I’d find it hard to take direction from anybody or have someone questioning why I made a certain decision.

“I think I might be found out a little – found out as in I run my own thing and I wouldn’t like to have to account for every decision I make. I make the decisions, and when they’re good they’re good, and when they’re bad I go, ‘Did I decide that?’ ”

Crowded house: Is there room for another festival?

– “Festivals are going to be smaller and more niche in the future,” Peter Aiken says. “The successful ones in Ireland have people behind them who are able to push the idea and ethos and make sure the festival adheres to it. It’s easy to say something on a press release or an ad, but the hardest thing to do is to see it through.”

– “There might be scope for a hard-rock or metal festival, but you need acts other than Metallica, AC/DC and Iron Maiden to come through and become headliners. Download and Sonisphere cater for that crowd, and a lot of Irish people travel to those festivals.”

– “I come from a country background, and I understand country music very well, and you see those big country festivals they have in America, like Stagecoach. You could look at doing something like that, perhaps, in the future.”