Interview: Geoff Ellis, CEO of DF Concerts

Geoff Ellis of DF Concerts .Picture: Greg Macvean
Geoff Ellis of DF Concerts .Picture: Greg Macvean
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Fresh from the joy of a Manchester derby victory, Geoff Ellis, resumes his focus on events in Scotland

HIS naturally gravelly voice is rougher than usual as Geoff Ellis chats before dinner upstairs at Glasgow’s Oran Mor, where 20-odd marketing professionals await his insight on the branding blueprint behind T in the Park.

Ellis, chief executive of the company in charge of the iconic outdoor festival, has been a fervent promoter of Scotland’s live music scene since coming north 20 years ago. However, that hasn’t dimmed his passion for the love of his youth – Manchester City FC – who last week bested their local rivals to take an edge in the race for this season’s Premier League title.

Less than 24 hours after that clash, Ellis’s vocal chords are still scarred from his sojourn to the Etihad Stadium where he and thousands of other Blues fans bellowed the home team on to a 1-0 victory in a match that some say will shift the balance of power away from perennial leaders Manchester United.

“It was great – really, really fantastic,” Ellis says as a wide grin spreads from one closely-trimmed sideburn to the other, “but that is why I’ve lost my voice.

“We were screaming at Rooney and Ferguson and all the rest. It was the kind of match that you will remember for the rest of your life.”

Ellis is something of an expert in what he frequently describes as “life-affirming moments”, as a big part of his job is organising events that people will recall for years to come.

For the past two decades that has primarily involved staging concerts and festivals, but the aim now is to grab an increasing share of the market for non-musical exploits. To that end, his company recently adopted the expanded name of DF Concerts & Events to reflect its broader skills in organising large-scale gatherings.

Non-musical work has been a small part of the business for the past seven or eight years, with DF involved in things like Glasgow on Ice, the city’s Festival of Light and tall ships events in Dundee. Even so, this normally accounts for a mere 1-2 per cent of turnover.

That was not the case in 2010 – the latest year for which DF has filed accounts – when sales reached £30.8 million. That included revenues from organising Pope Benedict XVI’s open-air Mass at Bellahouston Park, a high-profile event that got Ellis thinking seriously about diversification.

But even in the year of the Papal visit, less than 10 per cent of turnover was generated outside the realm of concerts and festivals. Ellis would like to see that boosted to something closer to 25 per cent, and is bidding for work on a number of major upcoming events in order to make that happen.

“We are shifting the business model from taking on all the risk ourselves in creating our own events,” he explains. “There needs to be more balance with fee-paying work, and there are some significant opportunities coming up.”

The company has made it to the second and final round of bidding for contracts to organise the opening and closing ceremonies of the Commonwealth Games to be hosted in Glasgow in 2014, with a decision due to be announced next month. DF is also bidding for work linked to the Ryder Cup competition later that year in Gleneagles.

Other opportunities are being explored, Ellis says, but then adds that live music will remain the soul of the business: “The industry will always know us as DF Concerts.”

And so it should. After all, this is the company that established what is now one of the UK’s top-ranked festivals at a time when few dreamed of staging any massive outdoor event – other than a football match – in Scotland’s notoriously wet climes.

The 19th incarnation of T in the Park gets under way in July, hosting some 85,000 festival-goers each of the three days. Despite the recession, tickets still sell at a fast clip, but Ellis isn’t complacent.

“Without meaning to be a prophet of doom, it is difficult out there,” he tells guests at the Marketing Society Scotland’s Albion Dinner.

Across the broader business, DF has managed the downturn by placing touring acts into “appropriately sized” venues with the best chance of selling out. The company has also cut its losses where necessary, including a dramatic downsizing of its presence at Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival, where DF’s Edge Festival has been shelved in favour of promoting about 20 individual acts.

“It wasn’t bigger than the sum of its parts,” Ellis says of the Edge Festival, which suffered from the lack of a major corporate sponsor.

“Without that brand activity, the property has to fight very hard to stand out, especially with everything else that is going on in Edinburgh at that time of year. We felt it would be better to spend the money promoting the bands, rather than the event.”

Asked about DF’s more recent trading performance, Ellis says only that there is “a bit of growth, though no-one is going to be retiring on it”.

Majority-owned by LN-Gaiety Investments – a joint venture between Irish promoter Denis Desmond and the Live Nation group out of Los Angeles – DF organised three sell-out Scottish appearances by Take That in 2011. The company also brought Kings of Leon to Murrayfield stadium last year in the band’s biggest-ever Scottish gig.

“The revenues have to go up when you have these sorts of shows on. If they don’t, well…” Ellis shrugs, indicating that the rest is obvious.

DF is exploring the possibility of international expansion, and is currently in talks about organising music events in China. Together with efforts to organise a broader range of events at home, the company should build a bit of a buffer for those periods when fewer bands are on tour.

“It’s a conscious effort not to have all of our eggs in one basket,” Ellis says.