Rebecca Kane, gm of London’s O2, confesses she’s amused and surprised – not that the entertainment complex she runs on the Greenwich peninsula has rewritten the live-music record book, but that her love of tap dancing, a history degree at Cambridge and a stint as a concert booker for a stately home have led to her job at the most successful music venue of its size in the world.
Since 2009, the 20,000-seat O2 Arena has topped its class on Billboard’s year-end Boxscore charts. It repeats that achievement in the 2014 midyear recap, thanks to recent sellouts by stars like Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Drake.
Kane, 38, manages the entire complex, which also houses the 2,700-capacity Indigo at the O2 and smaller venues (including a U.K. branch of Brooklyn Bowl), along with bars, restaurants and an exhibition space. In 2013, 9 million visitors walked through the O2’s doors.
The former Millennium Dome, which shut down one year after its grand opening on Dec. 31, 1999, was transformed from an enormous albatross into a powerhouse live-music venue when it reopened as the O2 in 2007. The continued growth of the O2, which is managed by AEG, has been guided by Kane since early 2012, when she arrived with a background in venue management and booking, as well as her life experiences as a music fan and performer.
“My first-ever gig I went to, I think, was 5 Star, and I was a massive Bros fan,” says Kane, remembering the British pop landscape of the mid- to late 1980s. “But I was also performing — ballet, tap and dancing — in musicals and so on.
“When I went to university, I did a history degree, which probably throws people even more,” she adds with a laugh. “But I also got involved in organizing the annual May Balls, creating a whole nighttime activity until six in the morning for Cambridge undergraduates. That was my first foray into the music side.”
Sidestepping expectations she would become a history teacher, Kane got a job at the preservation agency English Heritage, booking events at stately Kenwood House in north London. In 2009, she moved to the north London venue Alexandra Palace. “There, the challenges were the recession and a building that was beautiful but falling apart,” she says. “In my first year, we had two concerts. By the time I left, we had 28.”
Such achievements brought Kane to the attention of AEG. “From what I’ve heard,” she says, “they were curious to find out why ‘Ally Pally’ had started taking a lot of the business from north London. A few months later this role came up and I was asked if I wanted to apply.”
Ironically, Kane had a great view of the O2 from her office window, which helped as she pondered her future. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really doing music on a completely different level. What a phenomenal opportunity,’ ” she recalls. “But it was already the world’s No. 1 [venue], so there was a lot of fear of ‘What do you do to improve that?’ That’s what I’ve really focused on for the last couple of years with my team: ‘How do we keep sustaining that position?’ That’s what keeps me up at night.”
Becoming the London venue of choice for the likes of Beyoncé is only part of the story. Of 2013’s 9 million visitors, Kane points out, only 2.3 million had arena tickets. One million alone visited the cinema, while countless others hit the 24 bars and restaurants.
Of course, it’s the visiting superstars, booked by arena programming director Emma Bownes, who make headlines. But Kane is equally proud of the venue’s pre-eminence, under festivals and events director Milly Olykan, as the home of other shows, such as the BRIT Awards and the Country 2 Country Festival. This year’s C2C attracted 50,000 attendees at evening concerts and free daytime pop-up stages, compared with 17,000 in 2013.
Asked what advice she has for arena management colleagues, Kane cites Bownes’ emphasis on the importance of knowing your market and keeping up with the music scene. “Emma is having daily conversations with promoters,” she notes. “And stay on top of all your ‘pencils’ — we can have five or six shows provisionally booked in on one date.”
The O2 also has conducted a major website redesign. “We’ve changed the hierarchy of it to say, ‘Music is key, but there’s much more here,’ ” says Kane. “Phase two is having real-time social media and digital platforms.”
In 2012, the O2 even launched its own ticketing platform. “No disrespect to Ticketmaster — they’ve got a great product — but we were almost giving our relationship with the buying customer to a third party,” says Kane. “That’s how you learn why they come, what they do when they’re here and what’s bugging them.”
Kane rejects the often-heard complaint that there are fewer genuine stars to book these days by simply noting that 2013 was the O2’s busiest year.
“If more acts are coming from, say, X Factor than from traditional record-company models,” she says, “then if at some point that ebbs away, something else will replace it. People love music and want it. I’m confident it will be fine.”