2019 American Music Awards

How a Coldplay Show in a Thunderstorm Elevated an Abu Dhabi Promoter

TCB Team & Martin Pfeiffer
John Lickrish

After growing the UAE market with Beyoncé and Rihanna shows, Flash Entertainment looks to expand deeper into the Middle East and India.

DUBAI — As in most emerging markets, the international concert scene didn’t take off in the United Arab Emirates until the mid-2000s. Among the country’s top live music promoters is Abu Dhabi-based Flash Entertainment, which has been staging gigs with big-ticket acts in its home city for a dozen years.

Formed in 2008, Flash grew from a two-person company to one with over 60 employees which has staged more than 300 major concerts and manages three venues — the du Arena, du Forum, and Yas Bay Arena, which is due to open next year.

Last week, Flash brought down Eminem. Upcoming events for 2019 include after-race concerts at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix by Marshmello, Travis Scott, Lana Del Rey and The Killers, and a New Year’s Eve show by Bruno Mars.

Billboard spoke with Flash Entertainment CEO John Lickrish to find out how the market has grown over the last 15 years, how Flash decides to book acts and how a Coldplay gig where everything went wrong helped turn things around for the promoter.

Has the UAE matured as a touring market for big-ticket international acts?

I’d say the tour market is still building. I think we’ve identified ourselves as a viable stop. We now can pretty much book any artist. They know our capabilities and we have the credentials. We have the credibility to be able to produce an event of a large status like a Rolling Stones or a Coldplay show, which we’ve done three times.

Could you tell us about how things were back when Flash Entertainment was launched?

We started doing one-offs such as the Justin Timberlake concert in 2007. Flash didn’t exist at that time. But I was working for the government’s investment arm. In May 2008, we produced a Bon Jovi concert, after which I was asked to put together a major events company to be owned by the government but to be run like a private sector company.

The first official event was Christina Aguilera in October 2008.

When I got to the UAE in 2006, there were no food and beverage companies or dedicated security companies for concerts. We didn’t have an established health and safety code for major events. Ticketing was printing tickets and driving around and dropping them off at different locations. All of those innovations we brought into the market.

Our concerts are located in the two assets that we own and run. They were purpose-built. We opened the du Arena in 2009 and the du Forum in 2010. The capacity of the du Arena is 40,000 and the du Forum is 4,000 standing and 2,200 to 2,500 seating.

What’s the average ticket price like?

For someone like Dua Lipa, the average ticket price is $100, but when you’re getting up to the Coldplays or Beyonces of the world, it’s higher, around $150-$160. We try and price ourselves similar to LA or New York because we believe the quality of the events we produce is at par with those cities.

What have been Flash Entertainment's biggest shows to date?

The three biggest events we’ve done are the Madonna shows in 2012 — we did two back to back — Coldplay, and the Rolling Stones in 2014. Coldplay has gotten bigger every show. The first show in 2009 was around 20,000 people, the next in 2011 was around 25,000, and then we went to 35,000 the last time in 2016.

Beyonce in 2009 and Rihanna in 2016 both hit our highest capacity. We got to the 40,000 mark. We had to shut the gates. We do events around the Abu Dhabi Formula One race. Beyonce was the first artist to perform at the du Arena on the first night of the first Formula One race. We decided to go in with a bang.

How do you choose which artists to book?

It’s trying to find something that resonates with a lot of different cultures. In 2011, we had Amr Diab open for Shakira because of her Lebanese roots. We had a huge crowd for that, about 25,000 people.

I read a lot of Billboard to find out what’s coming up and what tours are doing well. We look at what radio stations are playing, streaming services, iTunes. We do some surveys of people coming out of our events. There’s a lot of data we’ve collected over the last 13 years of doing events that we continue to build and mine for information. But a lot of it is instinct. Reading industry publications and knowing what albums are coming out, listening to people talk, tallying up record sales and media reviews.

The Lana Del Rey [booking] was based on word of mouth. She seems to resonate well with the Arab community in Abu Dhabi as well as the English community.

Was there a turning point for Flash Entertainment?

Yes. We were struggling with getting a positive return on events. I realized that because we were spending so much money on infrastructure, setting up the Creamfields site and taking it down and producing events every couple of months that we needed to look at amortizing that cost by doing multiple events at the same facility. But in 2009, I managed to book Andrea Bocelli and Coldplay back to back on the same weekend. We felt that was a diverse enough artist selection so you wouldn’t cannibalize yourself by splitting the fans between one of the two shows.

Not only did we sell out both events but there was also a huge windstorm that destroyed our stage on the Tuesday before the show and we had to rebuild the wind wall and could barely put things together for Bocelli’s performance on the Friday.

Then on Saturday, there was probably the worst thunderstorm I’ve ever seen in my entire life and Coldplay didn’t want to go on stage. They thought it was dangerous, but I convinced them that we had already taken precautions for any lightning strikes and that it was more dangerous to let people out of the venue than if we kept them there. They saw that none of the fans had left. It was one of their concerns that we had just kind of given away the tickets for people to show up. At that point, they decided, from a health and safety perspective and also because they didn’t want to disappoint their fans, to perform.

They played for two and a half hours in a giant rainstorm in Abu Dhabi, which obviously doesn’t happen very often. There was lightning going on all over the place. We lost power at one point, but Chris Martin kept playing solo on the piano and bringing people up on stage. There was water leaking from the roof. It was pretty much controlled chaos. But at the end of the day, it was an absolutely mind-blowing event and we succeeded in our original plan of using the venue for two shows and from there, the stories came out that we had not only the capabilities to deliver under the most extreme circumstances but the fans actually showed up and stayed even during those weather events and the artist performed an incredible set. That spread around the world. I think Coldplay said it was their favorite gig of the entire tour. We actually made money on those shows. That’s when we decided to invest in permanent infrastructure.

The word in the industry is that artists charge higher fees to play the region. Do most promoters need brands to cover costs?

Abu Dhabi is quite a distance from any other major market so there’s a logistics cost that needs to be added into that. They also don’t want to come here unless they have a very high guarantee. They’re not willing to risk ticket sales because they don’t know the market that well. What will stabilize things is to have multiple stops in the territory.  

Hopefully we’ll see stabilization in Saudi Arabia and that market becomes a viable stop. We’re looking at surrounding countries like Kuwait and Lebanon and hopefully going into places like India.


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