The MT Interview: Harvey Goldsmith

It's a rum old game, being a promoter. What with the talent's demands and the risks, only the toughest survive. After Bob Dylan and Live Aid, the Harvey Goldsmith says you've got to look on the bright side of life.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

If you wanted to hire an 'impresario', what would you put in the job description? 'Straight-talking, charismatic ring master/wheeler dealer wanted. Needs to be able to handle moody artists, avaricious record companies and rent-squeezing venue owners. Steel cojones, chutzpah and self-belief obligatory. Must never take no for an answer, but always be willing to tell others where to stick it.'

Harvey Goldsmith has 'impresario' in his passport -and for 45 years he has been one of the UK's finest. Now 65, he's been in the promoting game since he was at college and there's little in the impresario's handbook he doesn't know or hasn't done.

Goldsmith was in attendance when Keith Moon, The Who's drummer, threw his first television from a hotel window and into a Leicester hotel pool. He was looking on at the Crystal Palace Bowl in 1971 when Pink Floyd filled the lake with dry ice, killing all the fish that bobbed to the surface. He didn't bat an eyelid when Alice Cooper demanded a separate hotel room for his snake. He coughed up £1m he didn't have - then the highest artist fee ever paid - to Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton to persuade them to appear at his Blackbushe aerodrome Picnic event in 1978.

Time and the demands from the talent went on. When Queen ordered up a mud-wrestling ring with four combatants on the rider, he shrugged his shoulders and went off to Lillywhites. And, of course, he was there for Live Aid, which he created with the assistance of Bob Geldof's legendary mouth in 1983, making sure Phil Collins got onto Concorde to perform in Philadelphia having done his bit at Wembley.

Of his relationship with Geldof, which was even made into a BBC drama, When Harvey Met Bob, he says: 'I am the face of reality; he is the face of not caring what you say.' Goldsmith always let others do the dreaming. He was, in his words, the one left with the task of getting things done - 'barging your way through', as he puts it.

After a lifetime of barging and cajoling and doing his impresario bit, Goldsmith has become something of a national treasure and even went on Desert Island Discs. (First record? Led Zeppelin's Kashmir. Luxury item? A grand piano.) Among his other yarns, he recounted to Kirsty Young how Miles Davis threatened to kill him after Goldsmith provided what he believed was a thoughtful buffet of watermelon in the greenroom. Davis saw it as the worst kind of racist slur. Goldsmith had to take it on his rhino hide behind.

The reality of being a music promoter has always been tough and these days it's a whole lot tougher. The truth is that old-school British impresarios such as Goldsmith are pretty thin on the ground. There is the huge summer festival scene, including Reading and Glastonbury, in which he plays no part. In London, there is the O2 machine - now the busiest music venue in the world - which Goldsmith helped rescue and turn around after its dodgy birth as the Millennium Dome. It is owned by Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), the largest outfit of its kind in the world.

We meet in his office at the top end of Regent Street in London's West End. The meeting room is covered with posters recalling huge tours by The Stones, Led Zeppelin, Elton John. Goldsmith is quite short and probably a few pounds over his fighting weight. But he has real presence. For someone who is possessed of a legendary temper and is said not to suffer gladly even those who clearly aren't fools, he appears quite mellow and almost contemplative, having enjoyed a nice lunch.

Goldsmith was born into a classic north London Jewish family in March 1946. Up in Edgware were many young families trying to make a new start for themselves in the austere post-war years. His father was a tailor, his mother a milliner. He attended Christ College grammar school, was clearly bright, but always preferred 'larking about'. Never one to toe the line, he was bored stiff by his twice-weekly religious classes.

Off he went to Brighton Poly to study applied pharmacy, which included a work placement in a local chemist. It wasn't long before he was diverted from his studies by a rag ball - and one thing led to another. He opened Club 66 - in 1966, of course - a live music venue. He put nuts and candles on the tables, making a bit of an atmosphere for the punters to revel in. By the end of the year, he was on the finance committee at the poly itself, with his own secretary.

In 1967, he booked a $99 for 99 days Greyhound bus pass and got into an open-air gig at Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco where the Grateful Dead were playing. He went backstage and had a natter. They put acid in his Coke and he lost two days of his life. But never mind. Dropping out was the single last thing on his mind. Someone had to stay level-headed and sober if all this great stuff was going to be presented to the British public. That someone was going to be Harvey. 'The Grateful Dead,' he recalls. 'I wanted to gobble them up and bring them back to the UK as fast as possible.'

He learned early on how essential marketing was. He became an expert at creating the buzz and wasn't shy about putting himself up to shout the 'roll up, roll up, roll up'. All the London newspapers and music magazines were eating out of his hand - he had the hot talent and controlled access to it. He enjoyed triumphs such as Luciano Pavarotti's free Hyde Park show in 1991, the Three Tenors at Wembley and a good run with Michael Flatley. In 1994, he first got into bed with Cirque du Soleil and has maintained the relationship until today, selling 98% of the tickets on the market.

His recollection is that things started 'to get more complicated in the 1980s' - the Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan, New Kids on the Block era. 'My rule of thumb had always been that if I calculated I could fill a 12,000-seater, then I'd hire a venue for 10,000. That way you have 2,000 people who'll be first in the queue next time round. But then the lawyers and the business managers came in. They wanted 15,000-seaters and to be paid for 15,000. They just didn't care - they just wanted the money.'

And, of course, there were a few artistic hiccups along the way. Harry Connick, Jr, for example. 'Harry - I literally broke him into the business. He went global with that Sinatra-style crooning. Bit like Buble is today. I even signed him for the Duke of Edinburgh's 75th birthday. So I booked him for 20 shows round the UK. Sold out. All looking good. Then a month before the tour, I get a call from his manager. 'By the way,' he says, 'Harry's had a change of direction. He's got into New Orleans funk.' I said, 'What?' 'Don't worry,' he said. 'They'll get into it.'

'Well, the first night was in Newcastle. He'd been on 15 minutes and I'd given 500 people their money back. I knew it wouldn't work. He's a fucking awful guitarist. I've never worked with him since.' It's told with great timing and a grin, but you can feel his pain.

Quite apart from perennial problems with the egos of the talent, there was a broader problem coming down the line. With the arrival of digital technology and the web in the 1990s, the music business was hit by a train. Its business model of publishing and distributing was shattered after being wrecked by the likes of Sean Parker's Napster, and 15 years later it is yet to properly steady itself and find a new modus operandi.

Goldsmith watched the whole thing, wincing all the while. 'The way they dealt with it was terrible,' he recalls. 'Rather than trying to understand technology and embracing it, they tried to ban it. Then they just panicked and tried to criminalise their customers - completely lost the plot. They had never really previously appreciated the value of live events, but now they had to.' So then he had the record companies trying to muscle in on his patch, but they often weren't very good at it.

'Record companies were simply banks,' he says. 'They made deals with bands to which they paid advances and then they wanted their money back. They may have been banks with very high interest rates, but it was never going to be any good advancing a million pounds on an album if nobody was going to buy it.' He has very little time for the oft-repeated sob stories of bands that did record deals, only to find they remained penniless even when their singles and albums were selling by the lorryload. 'They got shafted because they did lousy deals,' he snorts. 'They certainly didn't complain at the time - they were usually thrilled anyone was taking any notice at all.'

Rock and roll was a rough old game in those days. Goldsmith cites the example of the notorious Peter Grant, the 6ft 5in ex-sheet metal worker from Croydon and manager of Led Zeppelin as someone who stopped this sort of exploitative nonsense. Nobody ever got one over on Grant or his boys and legend had it that he demanded 90% of the gate money at concerts for his client. 'He was a heavyweight, tough manager,' says Goldsmith. 'He understood the most important attribute in his job was knowing when to say no. But, he had a softish underbelly, if you knew where to find it. '

A slightly less successful British story has been that of EMI. What was his opinion of the disaster that has befallen EMI? 'Listen, EMI has been a clusterfuck for as long as I can remember. Funnily enough, I was thinking about it at the weekend when I dug out this document from (then EMI boss) Bernard Delfont from the 1970s. It was saying: "You've got to help me. I've got these two albums from Queen and Pink Floyd that have just got to deliver my fourth quarter numbers."'

The unwieldy conglomerate staggered on and on for decades after Lord Delfont, divesting and trying - but never succeeding - in conquering the vital US market. Then, four years ago, Guy Hands and Terra Firma arrived on the scene. The mere mention of Hands causes the Goldsmith eyebrows to rise.

'I looked carefully at EMI with a group of investors when it was for sale in 2007,' he sighs. 'Our bid stopped at £2.3bn. That was the absolute maximum it could ever have been worth. We were amazed when Guy Hands came in with £4.2bn. He must have just got wound up and have been misled about other bidders.'

The rest is music history: EMI went bust, Hands unsuccessfully tried to sue the bankers who sold it to him, claiming he was misled and EMI currently languishes in the hands of the banks. The key to success, Goldsmith says, is doing the right deal in the first place. You cannot undo it afterwards. 'But there's always a paranoia in entrepreneurial people that they're too scared to pass on a deal because someone else will do it. And then they will lose out.'

But, characteristically, Goldsmith, a far gruffer version of Woody Allen's Broadway Danny Rose, remains ever the optimist. He claims he can see a potentially brighter future for the bedraggled British record label. Citing the woes being experienced by rivals Sony, Warner and Vivendi Universal, he thinks the British outfit could rise again. 'If EMI is given a chance it could go out again, debt-free. It's cleared out the crap and it might be able to blast through. It has still got an amazing catalogue and some great acts. Who knows, maybe old Guy actually did them a favour.'

This is what marks out entrepreneurs such as Goldsmith - you have to see the bright side, accentuate the positive. KBO - keep buggering on, as Churchill said. Now he's really getting into his stride. 'What the world of business needs to understand from the EMI lesson is that our business is about characters, people you can believe in. Ahmet Ertegun (founder of Atlantic Records) was a character. Jerry Moss of A&M was a character. Music companies cannot be run by bloody accountants and faceless wonders. They haven't got the creative juice. They can't make excitement.'

In a way, he's right. But just keeping buggering on was never going to save the music industry - the fact is the game had changed. What was required was a cool, rational and analytical approach - combined with the acceptance that it's a world of sawdust and sparkle that operates according to rather different rules from widget-making.

Goldsmith had one big losing out, where he didn't pass on the deal, towards the end of the 1990s. Previously, he'd had his ups and downs - he lost a lot of money trying to convince sceptical Brits that basketball was the next big thing - but it was an attempt to get into the movie business that proved his undoing. He'd always secretly harboured an ambition to be the next Lew Grade, someone he admired immensely. He didn't just want to promote music but to develop a fully fledged entertainment empire. He wanted to own some content, not just sell seats at stadia. 'Lew was my mentor,' he says. 'He was the only Brit to build up something to rival the Americans.'

Goldsmith's company, Allied Entertainments, put its toe into the murky waters of the movie business and initially did quite well. It had a success with The Lawnmower Man, which was loosely based on a Stephen King novel. This was a grisly little item about a naked freak who eats grass and runs his victims down with a Flymo.

So he and his then partner Ed Simons bet the farm on Lawnmower Man 2. Right from the start, just about everything that could go wrong did. There was trouble with its studio, New Line Pictures, which changed hands. Goldsmith tried to get out of the contract to make the film, but couldn't. His company had to make the film with its own money - an absolute no-no in the movie business. The script was a dog and his movie was slated: 'Mowing the lawn might be more involving than watching this subpar sci-fi sequel, which manages to be complicated and witless at the same time,' said USA Today. It received an 11% rating on film website Rotten Tomatoes and it grossed a pathetic $2,409, 225.

'We lost eight million quid. I made a terrible mistake I'll never repeat. We had depleted resources, I was running about all over the world promoting and we didn't have a strong enough administrative core. What I thought was OK wasn't working.'

Just as he thought things could get no worse, Goldsmith got sweet-talked into promoting an event in the West Country to celebrate the 1999 eclipse of the sun. Some 25,000 fans were expected, but fewer than 8,000 turned up, which put another £300,000 debit into the black hole of his bank account. 'What a bloody balls-up,' he moans. 'The Government and the police shut all the roads. Nobody could get there.'

Just before the century turned, the game was up for Goldsmith and he watched his showbiz empire go into liquidation. For a man whose life ran on pride, confidence and never failing to deliver what's promised, it must have been a terrible blow. He always proudly described himself as 'a doyen of order' and having insolvency practitioners Buchler Phillips climbing all over him was very disorderly.

For a while, it knocked the stuffing out of him. It changed his outlook for good. 'It made me much harder. No more partners. I want complete control. I'd never had an overdraft in my life until I got into movies. Never again.' He was bailed out by a number of unnamed friends and it took three years of toil to pay them back.

So, here he is now. 'I am supposedly the most famous promoter in England,' he says. 'It's a strange business, promoting. Looks fun, looks glamorous, but it has become a 4% game. I'm actually a minnow these days. I'm still relevant, but a thousand shows a year? No, thanks.'

Goldsmith 'reshaped his risk profile' and now concentrates his efforts in a number of areas. He manages guitarist Jeff Beck and he has a sport marketing outfit, Ignite. The margins in sport are higher than in music promotion. And he sits on the board of the Edge venture capital trust which has raised £100m and has invested in tech companies and some events, although, he admits, the deal flow is always the hardest thing to get right.

He's had conversations with the team producing events for the Olympics, but they came to nothing. His comments about the cultural Olympiad are unprintable. I ask what he's up to this summer and he mentions a 9 July event to promote Kung Fu Panda 2 at Earl Spencer's seat, Althorp, sponsored by Sainsbury's.

His home life appears to be very stable. He met his wife, Diana, in Brighton, when she was going out with his best friend. They've been together for 40 years and have one son, who decided against showbiz and was until recently one of the maitre d's at The Wolseley. The family has a place on the Algarve, where he goes with his phone each summer in an attempt to relax.

He is someone who has spent his career on the phone and in the wings. Watching and worrying. 'You are the one that takes all the risk. It's always me on the line. I'm the one with my neck in the noose. The enjoyment comes when it's finished,' he admits. 'You move onto the next one. That's the game.'

This kind of life was probably best described by Ian Faith, the legendary and long-suffering manager of spoof rockers Spinal Tap, who after the incident when the mini Stonehenge got trampled by dwarves finally lost it. 'For one thing that goes wrong...

one...

for one single thing that goes wrong, a hundred things go right. Do you know what I spend my time doing? I sleep two or three hours a night. There's no sex and drugs for Ian. Do you know what I do? I find lost luggage. I locate mandolin strings in the middle of Austin!' And you could be sure Harvey could do that too.

FOUR CHALLENGES FACING GOLDSMITH

- To continue to derive satisfaction from his work when he's been there and done all that

- To spot the deals early, but never overpay for them

- To stay away from movies

- To call his own shots

GOLDSMITH IN A MINUTE

1946: Born Edgware, Middlesex

1966: Attends Brighton Poly to read applied pharmacy

1978: Pays Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton £1m to appear at Blackbushe aerodrome, then the highest artist fee ever paid

1985: Organised Live Aid with Bob Geldof. Raised £140m for Ethiopian famine relief

1999: His empire goes into receivership

2002: Bounces back with Bruce Springsteen at Wembley. Tickets sell out in 40 minutes

2006: Awarded Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres and Midem Personality of the Year. CBE follows the year after

2010: Managed Jeff Beck's world tour and this year's European tour

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