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A WALK IN THE PARK WITH AEG's JIM KING


American Express Presents BST Hyde Park is celebrating 10 years of welcoming the biggest artists in the world to its central London festival. Taking place on three weekends in June and July, its anniversary edition will be headlined by acts including Guns NRoses, Bruce Springsteen, BLACKPINK, Billy Joel, Lana Del Rey and P!NK.

AEG Presents CEO of European Festivals Jim King tells us the 2023 outing looks set to shift 550k tickets. Thats more than half of his divisions overall yearly tally of around 1m, boosted in 2022 with the addition of FORWARDS in Bristol (created in partnership with local company Team Love) and a newly revitalized Rock en Seine. We sat down for a pint and a packet of crisps to discuss the history of BST with King, who also offers a state of play for the European festival market.

Youre celebrating 10 years of American Express Presents BST Hyde Park. What are your standout memories of the festival?

We've been blessed with an incredible wealth of artists so the list of highlights is extremely long. It's hard not to look at the opening year with The Rolling Stones because of the complexity of what we were doing at the time, which now feels quite effortless for our team, who do an incredible job. When we started, it was an incredibly ambitious project, both production and delivery. To see it lift off the page from the proposal, which we had to submit to The Royal Parks, to then become a reality, was in itself a highlight.

Musically, Carole King doing Tapestry resonates with me as one of the most important shows weve done. She said it was the first time anyone had asked her to do it, which was quite a surprise. That show sold out so quickly, and she was just amazing. Kendrick Lamar and Florence + The Machine was a really wonderful show. It gave us confidence in our belief that people were having once-in-a-lifetime, treasured experiences at Hyde Park. Weve also had Stevie Nicks play with Tom Petty, Bob Dylan with Neil Young and James Taylor with Paul Simon.

Adele was six, seven years in the making from planting the idea and discussing it with her agent, [WME Global Head of Contemporary Music and Touring] Lucy [Dickins] and the rest of Adele's team, making sure when she was going to play live again. We had a great shot that she would do that at Hyde Park. They were incredible shows. Last year, to have the Rolling Stones, Adele, Elton John, the Eagles, Duran Duran and Pearl Jam play the same summer was quite astounding. It was the biggest year we've ever had by all metrics—ticket sales, gross and everything else.

Hyde Park is a very busy central London location—how difficult was it to secure The Royal Parks license and hold on to it?

Any contract of this scale is extremely difficult to win, and it was a massive piece of work that we had to put in as part of our submission to convince The Royal Parks to go with us. Then you make a great deal of promises and you have to deliver over and above them wherever you can. We place pressure on ourselves to improve the experience every single year, for fans and artists and The Royal Parks—we want BST to be part of the fabric of The Royal Parks offering, not something that causes them a problem.

The whole ethos behind BST when we started is that it shouldn't just be about some concerts that are taking place that resident park users may like or dislike; it should be about an event that encompasses whats best about London and our industry and offers a multitude of content and engagement opportunities for park users and residents, whether they're interested in buying a ticket for one of our concerts or not. So we're always trying to make sure that our offering for Open House during the week continuously improves and becomes more popular. We place just as much emphasis on the enjoyment and programming of those midweek events as we do on concert and festival days.

There's also a bunch of operational processes we've installed, which ensure we work as sustainably as we can. Environmentally, The Royal Parks is one of the most forward-thinking organizations in the U.K., so ensuring that we operate hand in hand with their ideals and values is very important.

Last year was the first BST Hyde Park after a two-year break during the COVID-19 pandemic, right?

That's a very important point. Some events had come back in 2021, but BST had taken two years out and it was a massive return—on every level—for the industry and our team. Being out for two years, like many other people in the industry, had been tough, so to come back with such a big summer with those artists, the success and the output that we had, was incredible for everybody involved.

And AEGs festivals division, which was formed in 2019, had its most successful year last year. Beyond BST, what factors played into that?

All Points East has also been extremely successful for the company and is a great passion for us musically. And we recently took on the Rock en Seine event, which AEG bought into roughly five years ago. We spent a lot of time through COVID figuring out what we wanted Rock en Seine to be. It was a very well-established and respected event in Europe, but like any event that's been around for 20 years, you have to look deep into what you're saying to the marketplace and fans today. We felt it needed to be reimagined and refocused in certain areas. We have a really great team in Paris, and we offered some guidance about where we thought it should be in the next five, 10, 15 years. What you saw last year was a new Rock en Seine. It had more days, and we had the ability to align and book Rock en Seine with All Points East, so we had a lot of artists go between the two. That allowed us to book bigger artists and we sold more tickets than it's sold in 15 years. It wasnt just its most successful event since AEG became a partner but its most successful ever.

Can you offer our American audience a state of play of the European festival sector? I know things have been challenging due to shortages in the supply chain and the increased cost of equipment.

Inflation has been a global issue, and the supply chain is greatly affected by limited resources, especially if you're looking to fabricate anything from steel, which is incredibly expensive. Transportation and fuel is incredibly expensive as well. That's driven an almost unworkable increase in prices for many operators. Theres also the cost-of-living crisis, and those inflationary pressures have driven up labor costs. You've got these two massive elements of any budget—labor and equipment—which have suffered drastic year-over-year increases. The availability of kit is then reduced and scarcity of kit and other production essentials drives prices even higher.

There's only so much revenue can do to offset those cost increases. The average ticket price is already high. In many markets around Europe, one could argue that they can absorb it; there are some markets where you would say the concert and festival ticket is actually underpriced for the offering there. Not so much in the U.K., where festivals pay very high artist fees, probably the highest, if not in the world certainly in Europe. So the ticket price can only go up so much.

This will be something we're dealing with for the next two or three years because inflation doesn't look like it's going anywhere fast, especially in the U.K. They're still talking about further rises in interest rates, which puts us under even more pressure as an economy. The concern is that drifts into recession. So the European festival business is certainly not out of the woods. We need to see inflation come down, economies growing again and people having more disposable income to come and enjoy the event experiences we offer.

How are you navigating those challenges?

AEG is a big company. Its well resourced and we have a great owner who backs us and takes a long-term view of how we deal with these challenges. We have a great supply chain as well, which we've taken care of whenever we've been able to, especially through COVID. When you're working collaboratively in the supply chain for a common goal and a common good, you can usually weather the storms fairly positively, however difficult they may be. We try to operate in as open a fashion as we can. If costs have gone up and we have an open-book system with our supplier, we can see that and work with them to help reduce the impact on them, which helps reduce the impact on us.

Now that the dust has settled on Brexit, how do you feel about the U.K. leaving the EU?

I speak personally here, but I think it's hard to say it's not already written in history as one of the biggest political, economic and social mistakes in the modern history of our country. It never fails to baffle me how and why that decision was taken. I don't think the dust has settled on it, unfortunately, because I think these problems will continue to be a challenge for everybody—not just our industry. It affects people with an uneven impact; younger artists, smaller suppliers, the ones who are the backbone of any industry, have been most grossly challenged by this, to the point where it's very difficult for them to operate. Many of them have ceased to operate because of those decisions. It's hard for me to find any positive from that process.

On a lighter note, any future ambitions, dream headliners for BST?

It would be lovely if Ed Sheeran would come and play in our environment rather than playing stadiums one summer. Theres a number of younger artists coming through that you hope will grow into that space where they're able to sell 65,000 tickets and enjoy that process and the experience.

This year, I was really pleased to confirm Lana Del Rey—an artist we tried to book previously. We're still finding every year that there's an act we have a genuine passion to see perform, and not just because theyre one of the biggest acts in the world; there are some acts you know will just own that whole experience for them and their fans and it will be one of those special moments and connections between great artists and their audience. Hyde Park brings that out. Its one of those places. It's so beautiful, and its right in the middle of London, which is one of the best cities in the world. To have one of those great summer days and nights, watching these amazing artists connect so passionately with their fans, it still amazes me and I still enjoy every show as if it were the first.

How about plans for AEGs European festival portfolio generally? Do you have any acquisitions on the cards?

We're always looking for the right opportunity, be that event creation, partnership or acquisition. Our business model is not based on volume and adding more shows to the list; we want to operate the best ones and with that quality, we feel well be successful, financially and strategically. We like the way we grow our business through events aligning and driving value and opportunity that way, like what happened with All Points East and Rock en Seine, for the mutual benefit of both events.

We're working very closely with Cala Mijas and Kalorama in Malaga and Lisbon, respectively. So acts can come through London, Paris, Malaga and Lisbon, as well as Bristol. It's a really great run of shows, especially if artists are coming in from overseas across a two- or three-weekend window. That strategy is how we look to drive growth.

Photos from top: Jim King, Elton John, Lana Del Rey and Billy Joel

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