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Big Concerts: Attie Van Wyk

An accountant with musical aspirations talks to entrepreneur about how he built South Africa’s biggest live events promotions company.

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Attie van Wyk of Big Concerts

It was Courtney Love who, perhaps in a rare and sober moment of clarity, said, “Rock is all about writing your own script; it’s all about pioneering.” She may not (yet) be one of the artists promoted by Attie van Wyk, but her statement couldn’t be more true or descriptive of his journey. It’s a journey that has seen an accountant with musical aspirations become a hit song writer, band member, music producer, tour organiser, and concert promoter extraordinaire. Wherever South African music and live concert boundaries were being pushed, Van Wyk – the founder and CEO of Big Concerts – was at the forefront. In the process, he’s built a business that’s gained the respect of the international heavyweights in music.

The story of Big Concerts started in 1992 when, after helping to negotiate the end of the cultural boycott against South Africa, Van Wyk brought out Paul Simon, one of the first international acts South Africa had seen for a long, dark time during Apartheid. But, to understand the success of Big Concerts, you need to look further back to when Van Wyk’s musical career started. It was here that the seeds of passion for making and promoting great music were planted, and where Van Wyk first started to prove that he could move obstacles and make things happen.

 
“Back in the 80s I was a songwriter for a band called Ballyhoo when I got an offer from the Dephon Record Company, which was part of the Gallo stable, to join them as a music producer. So I quit the band and joined them, producing records mainly for music targeted at the black market in those days,” he says. Between 1982 and 1992, Van Wyk produced over 120 albums, including many for Yvonne Chaka Chaka for whom he also wrote songs. “At that time, I realised that the only way to sell records was to put the artists on a touring circuit.” The fact that no one else was doing it at the time and that he knew precious little about live music tours and concerts didn’t deter him from, as Van Wyk puts it, ‘giving it a bash’.

“We went on tour and played all over the country on weekends,” he recalls, “but in the process I realised that I was paying a lot of money to sound and stage companies, so I figured I may as well go and buy my own staging system. I also ended up buying my own trucking to transport us all over the country while we toured.”

The tours worked and Van Wyk helped to shoot local artists to relative stardom. “Around that time I teamed up with another guy who had a lighting system. I had the sound, we both invested in staging and we started promoting shows,” he relates. Big Concerts was officially born in 1989. But, the cultural boycott prevented the company from securing international artists, so Van Wyk started out with music festivals that featured local talent such as Mango Groove, Johnny Clegg and Lucky Dube, teaming up with local radio stations to bring out a series of  ‘Big Birthday Concerts’.

And then came the tipping point. “I got a call from a guy by the name of Ray Phiri, a guitar-player for the band, Stimela, which played on Paul Simon’s Graceland album. He was in New York with Paul who he said was very interested in putting on a concert in Southern Africa, so I flew to New York to meet them and on my return, started working on getting the cultural boycott lifted,“ says Van Wyk.
His skills in diplomacy, now honed to a fine point after years of dealing with difficult artists and their agents, stood him in good stead during that time. “We did it through the Musicians’ Union and it involved a lot of negotiations with the ANC, Mandela, Pik Botha and the like, to get buy-in from all sides,” he relates.

Many will remember the Paul Simon concert as one that signalled the beginning of a new era for live entertainment in South Africa, but it was also one that lost Van Wyk a lot of money and got his offices bombed. “Hand grenades were thrown into our offices in Johannesburg to protest against the lifting of the boycott, and although Paul Simon said the show should go on, there were protests outside the arenas and people were afraid,” he explains. The show went ahead but tickets didn’t sell and Big Concerts took a R1,2 million knock – a lot of money in 1992.


The process was invaluable as a business learning experience, as Van Wyk outlines: “We were totally green and there was nothing to work from, no existing concert route and we had no idea what anything would cost. We didn’t even have a template for how to budget – we literally pulled figures out of the air and scribbled them down on pieces of paper. So the tour was nerve-wracking but it gave us yardsticks. At least we knew afterwards what things like sound, lighting, accommodation, transport and equipment would cost. And it was from there that the costing system and template we use today – which has over 150 detailed items – was developed. Now if an act comes to the country, we have both a budget template and a timeline template. In business you learn from your mistakes and we certainly learned from that early experience.”

When an opportunity arose to promote Chris de Burgh on tour the following year, Van Wyk was understandably nervous, but his fears proved unfounded. “We initially went on offer with 12 shows around the country and ended up selling 21 shows to 105 000 people. It was through the roof,” he says, smiling. Duran Duran followed and the floodgates to international talent opened, with the company promoting 12 to 16 international artists annually.

 
But, bringing out bands like U2, Billy Joel, Sting, Robbie Williams, Michael Jackson and Phil Collins is not like promoting a local artist on a weekend tour. It requires
professionalism, savvy, extraordinary negotiation skills and a fine-tuned feel for how the industry works. Van Wyk had a lot to learn. “I worked in Swaziland on a concert with Eric Clapton, Joan Armatrading and Jonathon Butler, and there I met an international promoter called Andrew Zweck who today is involved in Live Nation, the biggest promoter in the world. He took me through the ropes and taught me a lot about the business, the line items, how sponsors work, what contracts need to be included and the like,” he says. But, while being a pioneer meant he had to learn everything from scratch, it had its advantages as well, one of which was that Big Concerts could take ownership of opportunities ahead of competitors. In this respect, Van Wyk has been smart. Today the company owns a substantial chunk of the live events value chain and derives additional income streams from merchandising and liquor sales at shows. What started out as a team comprising Van Wyk, his wife, Isa, and an accountant, has grown into a company with eight departments that source the talent, organise and promote the tours, manage the shows, secure sponsorship, handle production and technical issues, keep the artists happy while they’re here and negotiate offers with agents.

This last item is perhaps the most trying part of the business and one for which Van Wyk takes personal responsibility. “It involves a lot of negotiating, a great deal of diplomacy and occasionally having to bite your tongue,” he laughs. “While the artists are mostly lovely people, their agents can make impossible demands and you go back and forth with an offer, listening to comments like, ‘My artist won’t get out of bed for that money!’ and reworking things until it’s signed and everyone’s happy.”

But he’s quick to point out that he still makes mistakes. He gives a recent example: “We always put our artists up in five-star accommodation, but in the past we’ve not stipulated which hotel. It’s never been a problem before but I had one incident recently where artists wanted to be put up in a specific five-star hotel that costs four times what other five-star hotels cost. And offers are accepted subject to what’s known as an artist’s rider, which is a 50 page document that details, amongst other things, the fact that the hotel is to be chosen by the artist. I’m afraid I lost that argument. So you learn things all the time,” he says.


After the personal demands of artists, price is often the biggest point of negotiation, and something that in the past few years has caused Van Wyk no small amount of frustration. He explains how a competitor promoter, keen to make their mark by landing big name artists, regularly undercut his prices. The promoter in question has since become embroiled in concert disasters, breach of contract litigation and artists subsequently cancelling their acts – but not before they did some damage. “We’d get involved in negotiations where an agent would want to go with us, but would need us to match the price that the other promoter was offering. And the easiest thing is to go back to the spreadsheet and force-fit things, increasing the ticket price for example, to make the numbers work. On paper it looks great but then you encounter public resistance in ticket sales, which don’t go as well as they should. I did it once or twice because I wanted the business but it went against my gut feel and in the end with a recent act, I pulled my offer and walked away from the deal,” explains Van Wyk.

 
On that point, he adds how important it is to read the market correctly when determining the price of tickets. “It takes five things to pull off a successful event – a happy audience, acknowledgement from artists that the tour was successful and professionally run, sponsors who get a return on their investment, good media appraisal and last but not least, money in the bank for the promoter. There have been times when I’ve had the first four, but not the last one, and the reason is usually ticket sales,” he says. Sometimes the market is flooded, or perhaps the entertainment Rand is being spread too thinly between things like cell phones, casinos or the lottery. “You also learn that an older artist will attract a demographic that’s older, in a higher LSM bracket and therefore able to spend more money. Also, no artist has a fixed price because certain artists mean more in certain territories,” he explains.

Pulling off successful (and profitable) events time and time again has kept the big names coming back and Big Concerts has developed a reputation for excellence that means it can stand shoulder to shoulder with top-class promoters from around the world. The company was recently included in the Pollstar list of the World’s Top 100 Promoters, reaching position 21. No other African promoter features in this Top 100. The secret lies partially in being driven to deliver excellence at all costs and in partnering with the right people. “Over the years we’ve put a lot of pressure on the technical companies we work with to meet international standards and invest in state-of-the-art equipment. It’s been in their interests to do so because they get so much business from us, but it has also been an important factor in our own success, and the feedback we get from artists time and time again is that we are certainly on a par, but probably more slick than promoters in bigger countries,” says Van Wyk.

This undoubtedly has a lot to do with Van Wyk’s energy. He may be 55 but he shows no signs of slowing down. He can still party up a storm with the likes of
Enrique Iglesias (although he admits it wears him out) and he says his sons help to keep him in touch with who’s up and coming on the music scene. “I have all the latest stuff on my iPod,” he laughs, and then launches into rapturous praise for Muse’s latest live concert DVD filmed at Wembley. He knows too that the music industry is a rapidly changing one but like all pioneers, he’s got his finger on that pulse too.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Die Groot G Kol

    Jun 6, 2012 at 16:34

    He could have made a few extra thousand on the recent Moodies tour. I wanted VIP tickets. None where available, so they said. And a on arrival enroute to my ‘gate’ I had to pass the VIP entrance, where people were graciously welcomed. WHAT A SHAME!
    I did not want to be Grand, I only wanted to treat my family to an experience they would for certain never have the chance to see again.

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I think what you do is think about the great expanse of time ahead of you and try to make sure that you’re planning for that in a way that’s going to leave you ultimately satisfied. This is the way it works for me. There are a lot of paths to satisfaction and you need to find one that works for you.”

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Expert Advice From Property Point On Taking Your Start-Up To The Next Level

Through Property Point, Shawn Theunissen and Desigan Chetty have worked with more than 170 businesses to help them scale. Here’s what your start-up should be focusing on, based on what they’ve learnt.

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Vital Stats

  • Players: Shawn Theunissen and Desigan Chetty
  • Company: Property Point
  • What they do: Property Point is an enterprise development initiative created by Growthpoint Properties, and is dedicated to unlocking opportunities for SMEs operating in South Africa’s property sector.
  • Launched: 2008
  • Visit: propertypoint.org.za

Through Property Point, Shawn Theunissen and his team have spent ten years learning what makes entrepreneurs tick and what small business owners need to implement to become medium and large business owners. In that time, over 170 businesses have moved through the programme.

While Property Point is an enterprise development (ED) initiative, the lessons are universal. If you want to take your start-up to the next level, this is a good place to start.

Risk, reputation and relationships

“We believe that everything in business comes down to the 3Rs: Risk, Reputation and Relationships. If you understand these three factors and how they influence your business and its growth, your chances of success will increase exponentially,” says Shawn Theunissen, Executive Corporate Social Responsibility at Growthpoint Properties and founder of Property Point.

So, how do the 3Rs work, and what should business owners be doing based on them?

Risk: We can all agree that there will always be risks in business. It’s how you approach and mitigate those risks that counts, which means you first need to recognise and accept them.

“We always straddle the line between hardcore business fundamentals and the relational elements and people components of doing business,” says Shawn. “For example, one of the risks that everyone faces in South Africa is that we all make decisions based on unconscious biases. As a business owner, we need to recognise how this affects potential customers, employees, stakeholders and even ourselves as entrepreneurs.”

Reputation: Because Property Point is an ED initiative, its 170 alumni are black business owners, and so this is an area of bias that they focus on, but the rule holds true for all biases. “In the context of South Africa, small black businesses are seen as higher risk. To overcome this, black-owned businesses should focus on the reputational component of their companies. What’s the track record of the business?”

A business owner who approaches deals in this way can focus on building the value proposition of the business, outlining the capacity and capabilities of the business and its core team to deliver how the business is run, and specific service offerings.

“From a business development perspective, if you can provide a good track record, it diminishes the customer’s unconscious bias,” says Shawn. “Now the entrepreneur isn’t just being judged through one lens, but rather based on what they have done and delivered.”

Related: Property Point Creates R1bn In Procurement Opportunities For Small Businesses

Relationship: “We believe that fundamentally people do business with people,” says Shawn. “There needs to be culture match and fluency in terms of relations to make the job easier. As a general rule, the ease of doing business increases if there is a culture match.”

This relates to understanding what your client needs, how they want to do business, their user experience and customer experience. “We like to call it sharpening the pencil,” says Desigan Chetty, Property Point’s Head of Operations.

“In terms of value proposition, does your service offering focus on solving the client’s needs? Is there a culture match between you and your client? And if you realise there isn’t, can you walk away, or do you continue to focus time and energy on the wrong type of service offering to the wrong client? This isn’t learnt over- night. It takes time and small but constant adjustments to the direction you’re taking.”

In fact, Desigan advises walking away from the wrong business so that you can focus on your core competencies. “If you reach a space where you work well with a client and you’ve stuck to your core competencies, business is just going to be easier. It becomes easier for you to deliver. Sometimes entrepreneurs stretch themselves to try to provide a service to a client that’s not serving either of their needs. This strategy will never lead to growth — at least not sustainable growth.”

Instead, Desigan recommends choosing an entry point through a specific offering based on an explicit need. “Too often we see entrepreneurs whose offerings are so broad that they don’t focus,” he says. “Instead, understand what your client’s need is and address that need, even if it means that it’s only one out of your five offerings. Your likelihood of success if you go where the need is, is much higher.

“Once you get in, prove yourself through service delivery. It’s a lot easier to on-sell and cross sell once you have a foot in the door. You’re now building a relationship, learning the internal culture, how things work, what processes are followed and so on — the client’s landscape is easier to navigate. The challenge is to get in. Once you’re in, you can entrench yourself.”

Desigan and Shawn agree that this is one of the reasons why suppliers to large corporates become so entrenched. “Once you’re in, you can capitalise from other needs that may have emanated from your entry point and unlock opportunities,” says Shawn.

Building a sustainable start-up

While all start-ups are different, there are challenges most entrepreneurs share and key areas they should focus on.

Shawn and Desigan share the top five areas you should focus on.

1. Align and partner with the right people

This includes your staff, stakeholders, partners, suppliers and clients. Partnerships are the best thing to take you forward. The key is to collaborate and partner with the right people based on an alignment of objectives and culture. It’s when you don’t tick all the boxes that things don’t work out.

2. Make sure you get the basics right

Never neglect business fundamentals. Do you have the processes and systems in place to scale the business?

3. Understand your value proposition

Are you on a journey with your clients? Is your value proposition aligned to the need you’re trying to solve for your clients? Are you looking ahead of the curve — what’s the problem, what are your clients saying and are you being proactive in leveraging that relationship?

Related: Want To Start A Property Business That Buys Property And Rents It Out?

4. Unpack your value chain

If you want to diversify, understand your value chain. What is it, where are the opportunities both horizontally and vertically within your client base, and what other solutions can you offer based on your areas of expertise?

8. Don’t ignore technology

Be aware of what’s happening in the tech space and where you can use it to enable your business. Tech impacts everything, even more traditional industries. Businesses that embrace technology work smarter, faster and often at a lower cost base.

Ultimately, Desigan and Shawn believe that success often just comes down to attitude. “We have one entrepreneur in our programme who applied twice,” says Shawn. “When he was rejected, he listened to the feedback we gave him and instead of thinking we were wrong, went away, made changes and came back. He was willing to learn and open himself up to different ways of approaching things. That business has grown from R300 000 per annum to R20 million since joining us.

“Too many business owners aren’t willing to evaluate and adjust how they do things. It’s those who want to learn and embrace change and growth that excel.”

Networking, collaborating and mentoring

Property Point holds regular networking sessions called Entrepreneurship To The Point. They are open to the public and have two core aims. First, to provide entrepreneurs access to top speakers and entrepreneurs, and second, to give like-minded business owners an opportunity to network and possibly even collaborate.

“We believe in the power of collaboration and networking,” says Desigan.

“Most of our alumni become mentors themselves to new entrants to the programme. They want to share what they have learnt with other entrepreneurs, but they also know that they can learn from newer and younger entrepreneurs. The business landscape is always changing. Insights can come from anywhere and everywhere.”

The To The Point sessions are designed to help business owners widen their network, whether they are Property Point entrepreneurs or not.

To find out more, visit www.ettp.co.za

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