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Celebrating a concert giant

Features
22 October 2019

From the Tsunami Relief concert in 2005, standing in for Wembley Stadium during the latter’s reconstruction and Ed Sheeran’s record-breaking four sell-out nights there, Cardiff’s Principality Stadium has enjoyed many landmark moments in its first 20 years. Christopher Barrett reports

Very few cities benefit from having a stadium, let alone one in its centre, and the impact the Principality Stadium has had on Cardiff since opening in the summer of 1999 has been profound.

Owned by the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU), it is Wales’ national stadium and the home to Welsh rugby internationals. It has hosted a myriad of sports events including World Championship boxing title fights, football fixtures including the UEFA Champions league final in 2017, and annual events such as Monster Trucks.

Formerly known as the Millennium Stadium, its name change came in January 2016 as the result of a 10-year partnership deal with the Principality Building Society, which was an investor in grass roots rugby.

Over its two decades, the stadium is estimated to have contributed £2.7 billion in economic output and £1.95bn to the local economy.

With its retractable roof and robust pitch covering systemm enabling the biggest of concert productions to be accommodated no matter what the weather, the venue has become a landmark on the European touring map for artistes at the peak of their careers.

Since hometown band Manic Street Preachers became the first act to play the 66,000-capacity stadium on New Year’s Eve 1999, there have been many musical highlights in the building — not least Ed Sheeran’s record-breaking four-date run last year, attended by 240,000 fans overall.

Located on the bank of the River Taff, a stone’s throw from Cardiff Central Station, the venue has not only attracted artistes such as the Rolling Stones, Beyoncé, Pink and Take That for full-capacity shows, but can also adapt to several alternative formats.

It can be configured to host short-hall configurations ranging from 20,000 to 45,000 – an option that has worked for acts including Neil Diamond, Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M.

The stadium’s standard concert season is May to the end of August but concerts can be staged year-round due to the stadium’s retractable roof, which can be closed in around 20 minutes.

Pablo Janczur, events director at Cardiff-based promoter Orchard Live has worked with the venue for the past 15 years and recalls a great example of an event that demonstrates the remarkable flexibility on offer.

Orchard Live was integral to the success of the Welcome To Wales celebration concert at the stadium, which marked the start of the 2010 Ryder Cup.

“That involved a 20,000-capacity gala concert attended by Prince Charles and all the big names in golf, with performances by acts including Katherine Jenkins and Shirley Bassey,” says Janczur. “It was filmed as a 90-minute show that was broadcast on commercial television, the BBC and online.

“On the other side of the curtain in the bowl, we had set up a massive dinner for 15,000 people. It was a two-pronged event; one was corporate and the other public.”

Benefit landmark

An earlier example of the management team’s professionalism and imagination came in 2005 when Orchard and the venue collaborated on the biggest charity concert held in the UK since Live Aid, nearly 20 years earlier.

Following the catastrophic impact of the Indian Ocean tsunami on Boxing Day 2004, then chief executive at the stadium, Paul Sergeant came up with the idea of organising a fund raising concert. It was successfully turned around in just three weeks.

Sergeant, who was at the stadium’s between 2003 and 2006, worked with Orchard to get 20 acts, including Eric Clapton, Manic Street Preachers, Keane and Snow Patrol, to play at the Tsunami Relief Cardiff show on 22 January.

The event was a sell-out and raised £1.25 million for victims of the tsunami.

“It was a challenge from start to finish, in three weeks we had to get the whole production in place, lights, site management, staging, booking the artistes and dealing with the broadcasters,” says Janczur.

WRU Group event sales & operations manager at Principality Stadium, Alex Luff was taken on by Sergeant to join the newly-formed events management team in September 2004, and oversees all major events there.

“The Tsunami Relief Cardiff show is a great example of what we are capable of as a team and what our culture is all about,” he says.

“Pre my arrival, the stadium had existing relationships and exclusive contract deals in place with promoters to bring in shows but it was very much feast or famine.

“The stadium was not going out to proactively attract business, so the decision was taken to set-up the events division to put a more professional spin on marketing and selling the venue. My first role was to identify potential events,” says Luff.

“As a result we saw a steady increase in the number of events coming into the building, across a range of types, from touring shows and one-off concerts to family entertainment. We are not just a fixed rental venue, we do variable deal models and work with promoters on a risk-share basis.”

An early win was persuading Feld Entertainment to bring Monster Jam, the super-size truck racing event, to the stadium in 2007. It has been staged there ever since.

“A great stadium and a fantastic team made the decision easy to choose Cardiff for the very first Monster Jam stadium event in the UK,” says Feld’s VP of
international motorsports Magnus Danielsson, whose brother is one of the event’s drivers.

Four-show record

While Luff cites the tsunami fundraiser as an obvious landmark, among the many other events he is proud of is the four-night run by Sheeran.

“We have done two-night shows on numerous occasions but we were able to go to market with four shows and sell them out — that was a tremendous challenge for us and our stakeholders, but the stadium was able to deliver,” he says.

“At the same time we hosted a Danny Boyle film crew who were shooting the film Yesterday, they filmed overnight between each show. Delivering four shows while hosting a major Hollywood film production, once again, demonstrated what we are capable of.”

When it comes to capability, Principality Stadium has an advantage on its peers with its retractable roof, which not only means an event can be sheltered from inclement weather, but production equipment can be hung from above. As a result, production costs can be reduced and sightlines maintained.

Stage and rigging specialist Star Live has worked with the venue from day one, having been brought in to work on the joint opening ceremony of the stadium and the Rugby World Cup in 1999.

“At the time it was not permitted to hang anything heavier than some balloons from the roof as it wasn’t designed for that,” says Star Live special projects director Roger Barrett.

“It became apparent that not being able to hang from the roof was major issue, it meant the venue was losing potential revenue from concerts. We were engaged by Paul Sergeant to look into whether the situation could be improved. We went to the original construction engineers and verified that the sliding roof had a substantial rigging capacity.

“We were then offered a deal to become the house rigging contractor, which continues to this day, so if anyone wants to do a show and hang something from the roof structure then the Star team handles it,” says Barrett.

Retractable advantage

That the majority of concert productions in the venue make use of the roof, he says, and in so doing eliminates the need for towers that kill off sightlines.

“The heaviest show to date was the Michael Jackson tribute in 2011, when we had 140 tonnes hanging from the roof,” says Barrett.

Acts who have heaped praise on the venue range from the Spice Girls to the Manic Street Preachers who said the venue has “the best atmosphere in the world”.

“Speak to any artiste that has played here in the last 20 years and they always comment on how loud and passionate Welsh fans are,” says Luff. “They like to have a party and no more so than on a big gig night here. When the roof is closed there is no louder venue, it creates a remarkable atmosphere that the artistes feed off.”

Britannia Row Productions director Bryan Grant is another long term associate of the venue, having first worked there during the tsunami relief event. Over the years the audio has moved from supplying the venue with a Turbosound Flashlight system to L-Acoustic V-Dosc and K systems.

“The audiences in that stadium have always been fantastic, boisterous, good natured and happy to be there – just what an artiste wants,” he says.

Barrie Marshall of Marshall Arts has brought artistes such as Tina Turner, Paul McCartney and Pink to the stadium and is among the many promoters who consider it to be an essential stop-off on a stadium tour.

“Many cities claim to have the greatest fans in the world but in Cardiff that’s no exaggeration,” says Marshall. “One particular moment that stands out was standing to the side of the stage and hearing the capacity crowd sing Hey Jude along with Paul McCartney in 2010, with all the passion that only a mass of Welsh voices can deliver.”

Crosstown Concerts, Conal Dodds says the undoubted highlight of his time working with the stadium was the 10 December 2005 show Noise & Confusion, which had Oasis, Foo Fighters, Razorlight and The Coral on the bill.

“I’m pretty certain the venue bar record was smashed that day,” he says. “It’s a great stadium to work in.”

Consolidating power

Despite being 20 years old, Principality Stadium remains in good shape having been continually upgraded. One of the biggest recent projects was the installation of an uninterrupted power system.

“It means that in the event of a power shortage from the main grid our system will kick in automatically. We can ensure events are protected,” says Luff.

When it comes to raising awareness of events, the stadium has accumulated a database of engaged customers and a significant social media presence. It also has a StadiumVision system, including 500 screens around the venue that can be used to deliver tailored content to fans.

“We also have an LED ribbon around building’s viewing area, on two levels, that is available for promoters to push events, and a comprehensive broadcast studio in the building, that can be used to deliver TV programmes for event holders,” says Luff.

Looking back at the impact Principality Stadium has had in the past 20 years, Luff is understandably proud.

“Cardiff has been transformed since the stadium opened and the venue has been a catalyst of that change, not just economically but also in terms of the city landscape and the developments that have come through,” he says.

Luff is also proud of the way in which the stadium has helped raise the profile of Cardiff, and more broadly Wales, on the international stage.

“The stadium is one of Wales’s biggest assets, it promotes Wales to the world through the events we either attract or develop,” he says. “Tourism as a whole has really taken off here and the stadium was a launch pad to develop that.”

At the heart of the venue’s success has been its team’s ability to adapt to and drive change, with many promoters praising its positive, hands-on approach to hosting events.

Live Nation Entertainment president of international touring, Phil Bowdery has booked the stadium on numerous occasions for artistes such as Jay Z & Beyoncé, U2 and Madonna.

“I’ve worked with Alex personally for many years, he’s always available at the end of the phone and nothing’s ever too much trouble, and his team are a pleasure to work with,” he says.

AEG Presents senior VP of live music Simon Jones has taken acts including Justin Bieber to the stadium.

“The facilities are first class,” he says. “If all venues were able to be as dynamic as the Principality then maybe we’d have the year-round possibility of stadium shows.”

Looking back at 20 years of “fantastic experiences”, Luff says he is hugely appreciative of the strong ties that have been forged with the music industry’s leading promoters.

“We look forward to working with them in the next 20 years to keep putting on these memorable nights in Cardiff.”

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