Probing the Download boss - John Probyn

United Kingdom United Kingdom | by Steve Jenner | 08 June 2009

Download fans have had a bumpy ride over the last few years, with the festival undergoing some major changes that have left the festival's consistency as irregular as a Tory expense account. For example, last year’s site reshuffle was labeled disastrous, but KISS’ headline slot was one of the most talked about shows in recent festival history; while My Chemical Romance were booed and bottled when they topped the bill in 2007, yet the crowds turned up in their thousands to a glorious weekend of sunshine.

2009 could be seen as a make or break year for the event, with the challenge of new rock festival Sonisphere, as well as another rebalancing of the festival site and an untried fourth stage. But the signs look good: a reformed Faith No More headline, with several rock legends – Def Leppard, Whitesnake, ZZ Top, Journey – all thrown in for good measure. The weather is also set to be a scorcher as an almost sell out crowd prepares for the return of one of the sweatiest and loudest festivals on the planet.

VF founder Steve Jenner chatted to head honcho John Probyn about this year's festival, what he’d learned from the past, what to expect from the future and more.

Steve Jenner: How's 2009 shaping up for you?
John Probyn: "This year is probably going to be our best year. All our festivals are selling well. Download is going to have a record year, so is Hyde Park. You can always do better but compared to previous years I'm very happy - we will maintain our good fortune this year."

SJ: What do you accredit this to?
JP: “I think in light of the current doom and gloom in the economy, firstly people still want to be entertained. I think the other thing is, a lot of people aren't going on holiday and seem to be going to festivals instead.”

SJ: What does your summer look like?
JP: “For me it starts at Download, then down to Hyde Park for two weekends [Blur gigs, Wireless and Hard Rock Calling], then over to Ireland for Oxegen. Then I'm off to New York for the Nelson Mandela concert. Remember we did the one in Hyde Park last year? LiveNation are producing one in New York this year. When I come back, it's Global Gathering and then after a brief holiday with the family to calm down after the madness I shall go ligging at V and Bestival and have a good time at the end of the summer.”

SJ: Download appears to be back with a vengeance this year…
JP: “Fantastic, it really is. It's a killer line-up but I think the loyalty we've got from fans is absolutely fantastic. I put in a lot of work myself chatting to them on the online forums and it's paid off. We've been honest with them, admitted where we've gone wrong and need to get things right, we've worked and met with them, listened to them and I think they now see that we're not just a money making machine but people who really do have a passion for putting on Download and want to make it better and include the fans in that process, making sure they have a say in it.”

SJ: How important do you think fan loyalty is compared to line-up because only a minority of attendees are active on the forums and most people go to festivals to follow their favourite bands or friends?
JP: “Oh yes, a lot of people just go for the line-up, there's no doubt about it. We saw ticket sales drop last year because a lot of people weren't happy with the line-up but we still did around fifty thousand people and in this day and age, that isn't bad. I can think of a few other festivals that would die to have that many people. So I know everybody wrote last year off as a flop, ok it wasn't the ninety thousand we've had in the past but every festival has a bad year. It was our turn last year but we're back with a vengeance and really happy.”

SJ: Was Download's future ever hanging in the balance after last year?
JP: “Not at all. I know there was various speculation, mostly by people who should know better and I've said many many times that I will continue to stage Download as long as people continue to buy tickets. If we're only selling twenty thousand tickets then it might be a different story. We did make mistakes last year. We didn't get the site right, one or two other things, but overall people had a great time.”

SJ: The perception is that Download's biggest competitor has always been Reading and Leeds. Now they're owned by the same parent company [LiveNation], is there a degree of cooperation or is it out and out competition?
JP: “There's as much cooperation as can be. At the end of the day, Melvin Benn tries to put together the best line-up he can with the resources available, the same way we do. It was unfortunate last year that he managed to get a line-up that everyone had expected to play at Download.”

SJ: At LiveNation, is there anyone in a position to control the line-ups across both events to ensure they work best for the whole rather than the individual festival?
JP: “I wouldn't want that. That would be like in Formula One when the team boss tells the driver to slow down so his team-mate can catch up. In my mind there's nothing wrong with a bit of competition. We do share ideas, not only with Melvin - around Europe as well.”

SJ: How much of a threat to Download is Sonisphere [new Knebworth rock festival produced by ex-Download boss Stuart Galbraith]?
JP: “If I had a pound for everyone who's asked me that recently. To tell you the God's honest truth, I have paid no attention whatsoever to Sonisphere. If I got all bitter and twisted, well life's too short. I hardly ever see Stuart these days. When I do we say hello and that's that. He's getting on with his thing; we're getting on with ours. Do I hope it rains? Of course not. [Laughs]”

SJ: But do you think the heavy rock festival market is really big enough for Download, Reading, Leeds and Sonisphere?
JP: “The audience deserves the choice. Reading, Leeds and Download are very different animals in their traditional line-up, the venues and the way they are booked. I have no doubt that Sonisphere will be completely different to anything that Melvin or I do and good luck to Stuart. The audience will decide.”

SJ: Are you going to go down to Knebworth and take any notes?
JP: “Unfortunately I can't - I'm away in Europe at that time. No doubt people on my forum will give me feedback anyway.”

SJ: What are you most excited about at Download this year?
JP: “From a personal point of view there's two things. We put a lot of time and effort into the site design and layout. I can't wait to get the feedback from the audience when they come through the gates. It's a fantastic arena - ten times better than we've ever had.”

SJ: What changes can we expect?
JP: "Massive changes. We've moved the arena completely and made bigger, better, safer, it's all on grass, facilities are improved, we've introduced a fourth stage. The other thing I'm particularly looking forward to is the retro rock night, in particular ZZ Top, one of my favourite bands ever.”

SJ: How has your role in the festival changed since you stepped up to fill Stuart's shoes when he left?
JP: "I'm more hands on now. I've handed over the reigns of the day to day planning to Hannah Simon, our festival manager now. What I thought would be a tricky process actually turned out to be quite easy because I've got the best team in the world and we just got on with it.”

SJ: How's Wireless shaping up this year?
JP: “Wireless is good. It's only two days this year. We've got Basement Jaxx one night, Kanye West the other night and, looking at the sales and tracking them against how that sort of show would traditionally run, they're on a course for a sell-out, which means we're looking to have seven sell-out shows in Hyde Park this summer. We've also added the ten Serpentine shows now too and two of those have already sold-out. I think eight will end up selling out which is brilliant.”

SJ: Hard Rock Calling's certainly gone from strength to strength...
JP: “Hard Rock Calling's brilliant. I'm so looking forward to that. The Killers are one of my favourite bands, Springsteen I saw at Villa Park a few years ago and it's still the best gig I've ever seen. So much energy on-stage. And Neil Young is just a legend.”

SJ: Are Wireless and Hard Rock Calling sufficiently established now as to be permanent fixtures, i.e. it's not just a case of "If we can get the headliners"?
JP: “Oh absolutely, we've done a long term deal with Royal Parks for their future. The big objective for us is to deliver diversity and from Neil Young, The Killers, Springsteen, down to Kanye West and the Serpentine gigs, there's something for everybody.”

SJ: It’s VF’s 10th Birthday this year. What have been your top three highlights of this past decade?
JP: “From a professional point of view, Live 8 at Hyde Park without a doubt was probably the best moment of my career so far. Just actually pulling that off in eight weeks, with the minimum amount of trouble and problems on the day. Closely followed by Download, obviously, being involved in the creation of it and seeing it grow to where it is now. The other highlight is how the industry has evolved to a point where we are now all talking, major festival organisers talking on a regular basis. I went to a meeting a couple of weeks ago in Reading that Melvin organised where he got all the police forces from around the country together with all the security companies and all the festival promoters, not just LiveNation people, everyone turned up. That just wouldn't have happened ten years ago. So that just shows that we as an industry have grown up and can work together.”

SJ: What have been your lowest points over the past decade?
JP: “The morning after Live 8 [laughs]. It was just dull - you wake up and it's all over! Big anti-climax. We had some trouble in the campsites at Download three years ago [see news story here] in the campsite. That was a massive, massive learning curve. We came out of that, sat down, analysed where we'd gone wrong and put it right, moved on. Because of that, our relationships with the police and security companies have improved and everyone's very proud of the fact that we managed to come out of it and make things better. I think that was the only real low point.”

SJ: Some of my own most memorable festival experiences over the last decade have taken place at Download. I'd like to mention three of them and get your perspective as they all came with production challenges, I imagine!
JP: “Fire away!”

SJ: One of my most amazing experiences of all time was when Metallica turned up without their drummer and had to wing it...
JP: “I wouldn't say that was a highlight for me - I've never held my breath so long in my life as on that night! I saw their production manager backstage at lunchtime and he was smoking a big, fat cigar. My theory on Americans and cigars is that they smoke cigars when it's all gone really well or something's gone horribly wrong. And the band hadn't been on-stage yet so I immediately asked him what was up. They told us what had happened and we just had to go into overdrive to work a way around it. There was no way I was going to walk out on-stage and say to 100,000 people "I'm sorry, Metallica aren't going to play". When we came up with the idea to use different drummers, there was a lot of convincing to be done. The drummers were all up for it, but the band weren't so sure. But the show was one of those legendary moments where people will tell their kids "I was there at Donington when Slipknot's drummer had to fill in for Metallica". Before they came off stage it was all over the website, just brilliant.”

SJ: The following year [2005] gave me an image I don't think I'll ever be able to get out of my head forever. It was the Society One gig where their singer Matt Zane was suspended from the rafters by meat hooks through his own flesh...
JP: “Yeah that was a weird one. I remember when they first told us about it. Normally the way we work around things like that is we tell them "alright, send us the risk assessment, and we might look at it". And that's normally the last you hear. And then absolutely huge amounts of paperwork turned up and when we went through it we realised that, actually, these guys did know what they were doing. I think it appealed to the sense of humour of the average Download fan.”

SJ: My other one was Guns N' Roses in 2006 - quite a legendary headline performance, though not necessarily for the right reasons. How did that one play out for you? [During the fourth song frontman Axl Rose slipped over on-stage and stormed off. Festival bosses eventually succeeded in persuading him to continue with the show after a tense 20- minute break.]
JP: “Classic example of "don't wear brown leather-soled shoes when you're about to walk out onto a stage". Yeah, for us that was a difficult night but we got through it and that's that.”

SJ: Would you have Axl Rose back?
JP: “Oh God yeah, we'd have anybody back. The more trouble they give you, the more memorable the gig - clearly! One you have missed is The Prodigy in the second stage tent on that same night. That was literally one of the most unbelievable things I've ever seen. The council wouldn't let us start until we'd got all the kids down from the tent poles. My first thought was "If I go on-stage now, I'm gonna get bottled" and they wouldn't take a blind bit of notice anyway. So I turned to Keith Flint and said, "Look, you know, if they don't get down you can't start singing" so he got the microphone, he walked out and he just said "Get the fuck down!" and everybody just got down! [Laughs]. It was brilliant.”

SJ: It was - I remember some of them actually jumped about 50 feet off those poles!
JP: “Yeah that was a bit scary but they had a carpet of bodies to soften the blow!”

SJ: Any other big production challenges at Download that stick out for you?
JP: “The zip-wire for Kiss at Download last year was a bit of a challenge because the original design they sent through meant that he'd leave the stage and smash into the floor! So we had to adapt it and trying to get them to understand that was a bit difficult. But our production manager is an absolute genius at that sort of thing - very laid back and hands-on so it worked.”

SJ: Is it usually a case of meeting bands halfway with their crazy concepts?
JP: “Yes, I've worked on the road as a production manager for bands and you do always ask for more than what you know you're going to get and that's the way it is.”

SJ: Is there anything particularly challenging this year?
JP: “No I don't think so. There's a lot of bands down there, we've got a fourth stage for the first time, it's not knowing what the site's going to work like until we actually get it built. We've always sold the campsite out and the arena will most likely sell-out this year. I'll be glad when we're there and can get on with it!”

Download Festival 2009 takes place at Donington Park, Castle Donington this weekend from 12-14 June.

Click here to read our Download preview.

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