Attie van Wyk | Music Entrepreneur and CEO of Big Concerts

Attie van Wyk is the CEO of Big Concerts, South Africa’s largest premier live entertainment company. The company has promoted more than 1600 shows with an excess of 300 international artists to an audience of more than 10 million people. In 2013, Attie was named as the Business Leader of the Year.

Attie van Wyk

Music Has Always Been Part Of My Life | I have always wanted to be a musician and at the age of 8, I started taking piano lessons. In 1971 I was granted a bursary by the Public Service Commission to study B Comm at the University of Pretoria. During my varsity career, I played keyboards for various Bands which enabled me to subsidize my student lifestyle. After I completed my degree in 1973, I had to work as an accountant for the Department of Agriculture Marketing and Economics for 3 years but I only lasted 3 months. There were 2 reasons why I resigned:

1) I was told by my boss to go to ‘Put Sonder Water’ to analyze the financial statements of a cooperative

2) My salary of R215 per month was half of what I was earning per night as a musician, so (in the words of Albert Hammond) I gave it up for music, and a free electric band.

Studying And Playing Music | I subsequently studied classical piano at The Conservatoire of Music in Pretoria, enrolled in a correspondence course in music arrangement through Berkley School of Music, and became the keyboard player for The Blarney Showband for 3 months. Two of the band members  decided to break away and, together with two South Africans, we formed Ballyhoo. Ballyhoo recorded 4 albums of which the most popular was  “Man on the Moon” (I wrote the music and my wife Isa and Shane Mahony wrote the lyrics in 1980). When my son Justin was born in 1981 I decided that it was time to make a change from the Rock n Roll lifestyle and I became an in-house producer/songwriter for a record company. In the years to follow I produced more than 50 albums and ended up writing dozens of songs for various artists of which Yvonne Chaka Chaka was the most successful.

I saw an opportunity to promote the artists that I produced at the time and invested in a sound and stage company which led to the start of Big Concerts in 1989. A series of Big Concerts followed at Ellis Park Stadium which also included The Concert for Peace, Hope & Prosperity, to celebrate the release of Nelson Mandela who personally attended this concert.

These concerts were organized in support of transformation of our industry and helped to pave the way to international concerts, but I have to admit that it has not always been a walk in the park to promote concerts and there were many incidents that were obstacles in our road to success.

How I Got Started | I often get asked how I ended up as entertainment entrepreneur or impresario (as we are known) and my answer is: I did not choose the profession, the profession chose me.

Big Concerts First International Gig | In January 1992, I staged the first international concert tour featuring Paul Simon who recorded his highly acclaimed album ‘Graceland’ in South Africa with fellow South African musicians. After an intense negotiation process, the end of the cultural boycott was announced and his tour was held to celebrate this occasion. I will never forget our joy when Paul Simon arrived – a cocktail party (which was attended by several politicians including Madiba, Thabo Mbeki, Cyril Ramaphosa and Pik Botha) was arranged to welcome him.

Unfortunately the celebration was dampened shortly after midnight by an incident that involved 3 hand grenades that exploded at our offices in Goud Street, downtown Johannesburg. The people who claimed responsibility for this incident explained that the reason behind their action was that they were against the uplifting of the cultural boycott…. but the end of the day it turned out to be rebels without a cause!  I remember breaking the news to Paul Simon and his management a few hours after the incident. He was clearly rattled and speechless. I mentioned that we were insured against ‘acts of terrorism’ and if they would like to consider canceling the tour, we could claim against this policy. The response (after a long silence) was …the show must go on…and these words stuck with me throughout my career as promoter.

Taking Big Concerts To The Next Level | Over the years Big Concerts has had a steady growth and we promoted on average a dozen tours per year, however in 2011 we reached the next level when we were able to unlock a lot of opportunities as a consequence of the world cup stadiums, becoming available for concerts. For the first time in our history we were able to offer fees to artists on par with other countries like the USA, England and Australia.

How We Negotiate Fees | Once we have established that an Artist has a strong profile, we prepare a feasibility study in order to ascertain local market value and ticket price potential, relevant to target audience.

Based on the study, consideration of agent’s guidelines to performer’s remuneration and technical and non technical requirements, we submit a detailed offer to agent.

From here on it gets tough, which I often refer to as ‘dog eat dog’ as some of the negotiations end up unfriendly and aggressive like “my artist won’t get out of bed for that sort of money”.

In many cases I have dug in my heels and have lost an artist to another promoter and the lesson I have learnt is,  if you want loyalty, buy a dog!

Unusual Requests From Artist | We are bound to NDA’s but we have received some interesting requests, which include the supply of underwear, condoms, masseuses, ENT specialist on standby, rare French Champagnes and Wines (which we always substitute with SA wine and which the artists happen to love!) and ZZ Top requested M&M sweets but that we remove all the blue sweets from the packet.

Dressing room requirements have ranged from a fully equipped laundry for Whitney Houston, a gold and white themed dressing room for Lady Gaga, to creating an African Playground feel in the case of Michael Jackson.

In this instance my wife Isa, who has been decorating these rooms for years, used African Carpets, Dolls, Tin Cars, Craft, instruments, streamers, whistles, soft toys, remote controlled cars and Licorice!

Elton John’s Dressing room had to be decorated with 300 Roses of which the length had to be exactly the same.

Other unusual requests have been armored vehicles between the One and Only Hotel and Cape Town Stadium, a Rolls Royce and a Porsche for Justin Bieber.

U2 requested that we remove the entire pitch of the World Cup Stadium to build a 200 ton stage (we had to replace the pitch at a cost of R1.5m per stadium)

Duran Duran stipulated that there must be no brown curtains or carpets in their hotel rooms, whilst Enrique Iglesias requested total blackout windows during the day so that he could keep his body clock on American time.

Dealing With Challenges On Tour | Once we go into the tour mode, we have to deal with any  crisis or unforeseen circumstances such as the breakdown of trucks, illness of the performer, or the performer cancelling the tour, inclement weather, artists temperaments, picketing by disgruntled would-be employees, security risks, cash in transit risks, crowd control and dealing with young fans that fainted from excitement (like at the Justin Bieber concert), but whatever problems we have encountered, our motto has, since the Paul Simon tour, remained “the show must go on!”

Measuring Our Success | At the end of a tour we always ask ourselves what we have achieved: A successful tour means: audience comfort and enjoyment; sponsor satisfaction; media praise; a profit for the promoter and last but not least performer’s gratification;

Perks Of The Job | In most cases we have the opportunity to take the principle artist for dinner: the likes of Cliff Richard, Chris de Burgh, Bryan Adams, Sting, Phil Collins, Bon Jovi, U2, Michael Flatley, The Eagles, Joe Cocker, Lionel Richie, John Cleese, Billy Joel, Enrique Iglesias and Bryan Ferry and I can honestly say that all of them go home as Ambassadors for SA and spread the word that SA is the best kept secret!

Building A Business Of Success | Big Concerts has over the last 24 years grown into South Africa’s premier live entertainment promoter. In 2011, 2012 and 2013, Pollstar, the word’s biggest live music industry magazine, listed Big Concerts as  one of the top twenty concert promoters in the world.

Do What You Love And Love What You Do | I am privileged that my hobby became my career. To quote Mick Jagger and Keith Richards….”I know it’s only Rock n Roll but I like it!”

Know What You Want | it’s very important to identify what you want to achieve. You cannot try and do everything. I believe that whatever you take on in life, you need to only focus on that. Specialise in it and give it your best shot.

Take Risks | If you don’t take risks you’re not going to pull through.  Use your experience.  And then, be creative.

How I Use My Mind | Be optimistic, but be realistically optimistic.

Trust Your Gut | I always trust my gut, but this instinct also comes from doing a lot of research.  And I never stop doing research

Values I live By | You have to be honest and diplomatic. You can’t be arrogant.  

Not Trying to Do Everything | You cannot try and do everything.  You can’t be a successful songwriter, record producer, arranger, promoter, sound engineer, etc.; I believe you’ve got to specialise.  Then you become passionate.  I very often want to break away and go back to music, but then I know I’m going to neglect this business and I can’t do that.

Work Hard | You’re not going to become wealthy if you don’t work hard.

The Meaning Of Life | It is important to find real love, to be loved, to have a happy family. They say you’re as happy as your unhappiest child.