Dedicated to the Business of Contemporary Live Music

Backstage Stars – David Barrow

Backstage Stars
20 May 2019

David Barrow has been running DB Event Services since 2001 and is probably the only promoter who specialises in staging events in forests, but that’s because he has helped Forestry England make wider use of its estate. It started with concerts at four forests and an overall capacity of 40,000, and now runs at six at around 130,000. Artistes who have appeared include Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith, Massive Attack, Paloma Faith, Simply Red, Keane, Kaiser Chiefs, JLS and Clean Bandit.

What are your first live music memories?

“I grew up in Penzance, Cornwall, and my earliest memory would be back in 1977 and being sneaked into a Ramones show with Talking Heads as support in the Winter Gardens [cap. 800].

“In the ‘80s I studied technical theatre arts at Rose Bruford in Sidcup, Kent, and caught loads of shows at Brixton Academy [4,000] and Hammersmith Odeon [then 3,800] and the ones that sticks to mind would be New Order, The Clash, The Jam, Echo and the Bunneymen and U2. These shows were all mind-blowing for me at that early age.”

“Following college I started working at The Bush Theatre and the Almeida Theatre [both in London], which presented cutting-edge visiting theatre shows from directors such as of Robert Lepage, Danny Boyle and Stephen Daldry.”

How did you get into the music industry?

“As luck would have it, I just happened to see a Cambridge City Council advert in the Guardian for a production manager for their big festivals and a load of other mainly outdoor events. I got an interview and met the great Ken Woollard who had founded the folk festival back in 1965. Ken was a gentle giant and post-interview, he walked me out and said, ‘I think I could work with you’. 

“Two months later I was working for Cambridge Council’s recreational department. I loved it, we were organising events all over the city, with huge fairs, concerts, firework displays, even comedy in underground city centre car parks – all alongside my main role of the production and logistics of the Cambridge Folk Festival [10,000]. 

“Cambridge Folk Festival was a really great event and I can recall great sets by Lyle Lovett, Elvis Costello, John Mayall, Christy Moore, Steve Earle, Beth Orton, with two truly memorable ones being Afro Celt Sound System and Townes Van Zandt. 

“The council also owned the Corn Exchange [1,849] and I managed to see shows from: Dave Bowie, Oasis, Pulp, The Cure, Prodigy and Foo Fighters.” 

How did your career develop?

“In 1998 I was asked to join the team at The Junction [850], seeking new outdoor production and programming work for the newly formed Junction Production Services, we soon picked up work for the National Trust organising and programming two concert sites– Claremont in Surrey and Petworth in Sussex.

“In 2000 I met another visionary, Mike Taylor from the Forestry Commission, who had picked up a JPS brochure at a gig.  He phoned saying he thought I could help him do some bigger concerts at Thetford Forest. Mike had done a couple of years of classical and tribute acts, but he was struggling to get more well-known artistes. 

“Mike and I hit it off and having been offered a contract with the Commission, I decided to set up my own company. That year I booked him two concerts, Jools Holland and Levellers, and we also brought in an upgraded production via the suppliers I used with the National Trust.

“Mike wanted to get shows into other forests, and with the Levellers and Jools Holland up for it, Forest Tours was born in 2001 and we began expanding to other sites. 

What were your greatest low and high points?

“While at JPS I invested in and provided services to Suffolk and Good Festival and while it had a great vibe and featured the likes of Richie Havens, Paul Brady, Eliza Carthy and John Martyn, sadly it didn’t stack-up financially, so I had to re-mortgage. That was a low point.

“Another was when the Conservatives decided to sell-off the forests back in 2011. I recall months of uncertainty and meetings, but thankfully the public vigorously campaigned against the idea and the Government was forced to abandon the project. 

  “On the upside, I am immensely proud of how the forest shows have grown in stature, they have to date attracted over 1.75 million customers with proceeds all going to support and sustain our forests. You can’t beat seeing thousands of customers enjoying live gigs in the middle of a forest. 

“Among the best shows must be Pulp [2002], Paul Weller [2004], Madness [2005], Plan B [2012], Paloma Faith [2013], Robert Plant [2015], Elbow [2017] and Kasabian last summer.”

Where do you see the industry going?

“I think the environment and wellbeing will become the next generation’s focus and promoters will need to respond accordingly. You would like to think the forests are well placed for this.

“Forestry England does so much for our forests and they don’t really get the credit they deserve. More people visit a forest than the seaside.

“And, I would love to see Coldplay, Mumford & Sons, Florence + the Machine, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The National and PJ Harvey do forest gigs.”  

How do you unwind?

“I am not that good at winding down, but I can happily sit through a whole series or two on Netflix or Walter Presents  

“My wife Sarah and I live in rural north-east Norfolk, have two daft cats and have just completed our third house renovation. It’s just a mile to the sea and the Broads are three miles away, and we have a few acres with lots of trees and wild-flower meadows.  

“Meanwhile, we have two seriously good award-winning pubs within walking distance so we often visit those at weekends.”

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