John Giddings: “Stay cool, calm and collected”Agent and promoter John Giddings has icons like Madonna on speed dial. Here he talks to the Red Bulletin about thriving on stress and reviving the Isle of Wight Festival
Back in 1970, a small island in the south of England hosted the then-biggest music festival in the world. More than 600,000 hippies made the pilgrimage to the Isle of Wight Festival to witness icons such as Jimi Hendrix and The Doors on stage.
The rush of visitors brought the island to a standstill, and a ban was placed on such large gatherings that lasted more than 30 years. When it was eventually lifted in 2001, John Giddings decided to revive the legendary event.
Despite being one of the world’s most successful tour promoters, with a client list that includes Madonna, The Rolling Stones and U2, the 63-year-old Brit had no idea what he’d got himself into.
THE RED BULLETIN: With 60,000 revellers turning up each year, the Isle of Wight Festival is a success story. But back in 2001, apparently nobody believed in its resurrection.
JOHN GIDDINGS: That’s true! When the ban was lifted, the Isle of Wight council contacted everyone in the music business to try and restart it. But promoters weren’t interested.
Because they thought, ‘who wants to go to a festival on a small island if you have so many others nearby?’ And initially I didn’t believe in it either. I just thought, I was there in 1970, so wouldn’t it be nice to take a day out of the office and revisit the island? I turned up to a council meeting and it was then I realised its potential and signed up for the job.
In 2002 we put on the first event with The Charlatans and Robert Plant. The council lost half a million pounds. The next year I did it myself and I lost half a million pounds, too. In the third year, we booked The Who and David Bowie, and the rest is history.
Wait, £1,000,000 had been lost and you didn’t give up?
I have no idea why I believed in it. Everybody was laughing at me behind my back, thinking I was an idiot. Even my wife asked me, ‘What gives you this belief?’ I was just certain it was going to be successful.
Is optimism the secret of your success?
I like to think it’s passion and a love of risks. I learned my craft in the mid 1970s, in the years of the punk movement, where most of the groups just got up on stage and played. They had no talent, but loads of enthusiasm. As their manager, I had no idea what I was doing either. I still think I know nothing.
But you’ve worked with the biggest names in pop history.
The minute you think you know everything, you’re in serious trouble. You must learn something new every day. The good thing about the music business is it keeps you on your toes. There’s always a drama going on. My jobs is based on problems. If there were no problems, the artists would book themselves.
With that in mind, how would you describe your job at the Isle of Wight Festival?
I’m a fireman. I’m constantly dealing with problems and putting out fires. One time it’s a truck drivers’ strike in France, which keeps Genesis from making it to their show on time, another time Mick Fleetwood from Fleetwood Mac misses the band’s post-show helicopter, because he came back on stage to thank the audience. There is always something going on. But I thrive on stress and problems.
How do you cope?
The key is to be cool, calm and collected. You have to have lateral thinking. Other than that, it’s all about experience, because problems repeat themselves. What seemed like a big issue five years ago, now seems like a piece of cake.
Has there been a situation that has really made you scratch your head?
There was a funny moment in 2010 when Paul McCartney’s manager called me on the morning of his gig and said, ‘Have you got someone on site who can do acrylic nails?’ I was like, ‘What the heck is that?’ I thought he was joking. But then I found a woman in Cowes who turned up with her little box. I thought it was for Paul’s backing singers, but it was for him, because you need to harden your nails to play acoustic guitar.