Geoff Ellis tell his story and how he became Scotland's top Promoter




Having just attended Glasgow UNESCO City of MUSIC: INSPIRING ENCOUNTERS with Geoff Ellis an having found the event and Geoff very engaging I thought it would be a great idea to write up some of my thoughts as I know that I took a lot away from the event, and also think that many of our bands and students should be looking to tonight for inspiration and I’m going to try and highlight some of that here on the off chance it might be of interest to someone.

As someone who has started a business as a fresh university graduate I’ve been lucky enough to attend many events and hear a lot of inspiring speakers through SIE, PSYBT, Scottish Enterprise and Strathclyde Entrepreneurial Network. I have heard Dan Germain from Innocent Smoothies talk about how important the little things in your brand matter and that fighting for them is just as important, I’ve had many conversations with Fraser Doherty from SuperJam who took his grannie’s lessons in jam making and turned them into an international business before he had turned 20… in fact I could sit and list so many different stories and snippets of other businesses that have inspired me or given me unique insights into my own ventures at YRock and tonight I’m wondering why exactly it has taken 5 years for me to sit at an event and hear somebody speak about their own experiences from the industry and profession that has absorbed my whole life for so many years. Too often I’ve heard people question the industry and suggest business models more structured and safe like the window cleaner, web designer or phone salesman and have had the grand parents ask why I don’t have a real job…. I’ve always been told that the music industry is a fickle place and very high risk… hard work, and difficult to get into…. In fairness, I wouldn’t really say Geoff said anything that would argue with this description, however seeing how successful you can become from working in the industry at the ground level and working your way up is important and very “inspiring” for someone who is working hard to grow a business, particular in this pleasant economic climate, and continue to run exciting events for bands in Scotland. One thing that did come across is that when you enjoy something it doesn’t feel like work, but that doesn’t necessarily make it easy.

Let’s not mess about here either, if you aren’t sure who Geoff Ellis is, then it’s probably worth highlighting that Geoff is one of the most successful music entrepreneurs in Scotland and he is currently the CEO of DF Concerts and the man behind the now legendary T in the Park festival.

Geoff’s success with DF and T in the Park is well documented, for me the interesting part of his story came from his early days, maybe it is because I felt that he was often describing scenarios that I could relate to and challenges that I’ve had myself or perhaps still have to look forward to, I’m not entirely sure. All I know is that a lot of the things Geoff said tonight really resonated with me and I think that whether you are a musician, event manager, promoter or interested in the industry in anyway then there is something that could be learned from tonight’s talk. There was also someone filming, so you might still be able to catch it if you check out Hear Glasgow’s site.

Starting from the ground up, initially as a volunteer organising events for his student union down in England, Geoff worked his way up and worked very much as a freelancer and runner for other promoters. This seems to be a really common story in this industry, another great example of this would be the Marmite man himself Simon Cowell, who I believe started in the mail room at EMI (or possibly one of the other big labels). This was a big part of tonight’s tale and bringing the story back to DF and those keen to work or volunteer with DF concerts and T in the Park it was very clear that one of the important things about the music industry is respect for others and also the willingness to do the simplest tasks. Geoff gave an example from his days working as a runner, when he was asked to drive all the way back to a hotel for a pair of gloves…. While many would probably moan about this and feel it was beyond them, Geoff took this in his stride and while it turned out the gloves weren’t even at the hotel, it was the fact he was willing to take the journey and the positive manner in which he did this that led him to be offered another role on the video shoot he was working on, a small step maybe, it all matters though.

I think this is a really important lesson that needs to be valued in today’s industry, having worked regularly with students over the years and also now actually doing a bit of teaching up at Cally I see just how important it is to get work experience for students. I reckon that when I was at uni I must have put in about 40 hours a week into voluntary work as well as my coursework and the value I got from that is incomparable. So if you want that glamorous job, be prepared to do the photocopying, make the cups of tea and keep that smile on your face, if you can do that then maybe someone will trust you with another job. But, as Geoff said tonight…. If you canny make a cup of tea or do the photocopying, don’t expect to be given a gig to run.

It is definitely getting harder to find employment, so if you are a student or are looking to change career and move toward the music industry we now know that even Mr T (in the park) was there too and the only way to move up the ladder is to start at the bottom and get experience. Geoff also talked about how another student venture of his was the creation of a music focused student magazine as there was nothing like that in his University, seeing an opportunity and then doing something about it is a common story with all entrepreneur’s and it’s great to hear that Geoff was just the same in his early days. Richard Branson and Virgin Records started as a magazine venture and slowly moved toward the record label when they realised there was further opportunities to build the business. So, maybe journalism and media is a platform worth looking into. It’s always worth remembering that every man and his dog has a degree these days, I’m pretty sure that you can buy them from the internet with a PayPal account, the degree proves you have the ability to learn and have a core knowledge. If you are looking to get that exciting job you need to remember that a degree isn’t enough, employers need that life experience and “more than a degree”. Something that Geoff highlighted when talking about the way in which most of his 30 strong team at DF Concerts had in abundance and it was the ability to achieve things on your own that he looked for in promoters and employees. Likewise, if you don’t have a degree, that shouldn’t put you off, gaining more knowledge is always an advantage, the proof is in the pudding though and if you can get results then that’s ultimately what will make the difference.

Be proactive, don’t expect to have these opportunities land at your feet, they won’t.

I think another key part in this story was the move from down south (I’m saying “down south” because I can’t remember the exact location, I want to say Coventry but certainly London areas “ish”) when he was given the job role of venue manager at King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut.

Now…. there aren’t many venues that have bands begging to play them, venues that give musicians more excitement than present time on Christmas day.

King Tut’s is one of those venues.

Everyone wants to play Tut’s.

A fact that doesn’t always make my life easy when trying to book bands and I think a lot of this was again down to hard work and building relationships with labels, Geoff actually brought his bar manager and door manager up from down South, somewhat accidently by the sounds of it, but to me that shows the importance of having a good team and working well with others. That team, who already worked well together elsewhere, clearly turned Tut’s into what it is today and it is a venue that has that little bit of magic that every Glasgow unsigned band wants the excitment of playing and I’m pretty sure if you talk about Glasgow to any band in the UK it’s King Tut’s that they’ll talk about. That’s an impressive brand and reputation for a small venue.

For any bands eager to work with Tut’s or DF… or of course YRock for that matter, Geoff also clarified something that I’ve known for a long time, and feel that bands need to be aware of and that’s how promoters work.

“If you are in a band a promoter doesn’t book you because of your demo” – or nowadays your online music.

Geoff talked about how promoters need to know that a band has a following and will bring a crowd, and this is true whether you are playing a small intimate venue like Captain’s Rest, King Tut’s or the playing the big guns like SECC. The promotional tools and the methods to market might differ as the venue size and band popularity increase, but the simple maths of the industry remains the same and bands looking to work with promoters need to work hard to build and keep their core following of fans interested in their music. Sometimes in the past I’ve booked bands that think the opposite of this and I’ve always felt that it’s not just about being talented musicians and writing amazing songs, it’s also about working hard and developing your band as a brand and nowadays there is really no excuse as the online tools are available and extremely easy to use. It was great to hear that this is of course how the industry works all the way up, and if you’re in a band I guess the best thing you can do is work with promoters and look for mutual benefit. On a personal level it has always been really important to me that I understand the goals of a band, and certainly in 2012 I’ve set out to really focus on this and hearing Geoff talk about the relationships he has created over the years was really reassuring and helped cement and validate the ideas and promotions I’m planning for this year.

I never got to ask Geoff a question, no excuse really, I was right at the front, but by the time I’d put my hand up too many people had ironically taken the opportunities of self promotion as appropriate questions, trying to get Geoff to support their cause and eaten up valuable question time. There were a couple of great questions about how to start making the move from running gigs to running small festivals and another good question about the radio and importance of media in the industry… On the off chance that Geoff is as vain as me and decides to Google himself one day, here’s the question I wanted to ask:

“How do you manage the financial risk of making the move from booking unsigned bands on ticket deals to booking the big shows with the big bands, and should the likes of Creative Scotland actively be recognising upcoming promoters as a legitimate part of the music industry and provide funding support for this part of growth?”

Why did I want to ask this question, well… Geoff touched on bits with this, but there is a clear leap or chasm in this industry and in a recession it’s a very risky leap to take on big shows… I also feel that there is no support for promoters, every other business has funders and people supporting the grass roots, I’ve been pretty successful in getting the generic business support offered in Scotland… but in the 5 years of running YRock I’ve never had support for the music promotions side of my business, YRock School and all of my social enterprise work has received a lot of funding, but the music promotions side of things seems to be looked down on by funders like Creative Scotland and I do feel that somebody needs to identify promoters as up and coming and hope that one day this is recognised. I do wonder how Geoff would have answered this, and maybe one day I’ll get to ask him. He certainly wasn’t given any funding when DF was at the stage I am at, so maybe that’s the answer.

All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable and thought provoking talk. I would like to thank Geoff for talking the time for talking to so many of us, and also think that BBC Radio’s Vic Galloway did a great job of hosting the evening. If you are looking to get yourself along to similar events keep your eyes on Hear Glasgow and UNESCO City of Music as I’m sure they have some more great events lined up for this year. I’ll definitely be there.


This article has been written by Grant McWhirter, founder of YRock.

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