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Swansea

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14 February 2020

With two major cities on the journey to reach it from the Bristol channel, Swansea has often struggled to attract the top names. But a new concert hall and major local authority investment in the area is opening up the market, and its venue operators and local promoters are ready. Allan Glen reports

It’s perhaps fair to say that the biggest challenge for Swansea promoters is more geographical than musical.

With Cardiff less than an hour’s drive away – and Bristol less than two hours by train – competition for touring acts in this part of the country can be tough, if not brutal.

And common with places such as Inverness and Penzance, there’s usually only one way to go after the show, back the way you came.

It’s to little surprise that some local promoters are hoping a new 3,500-capacity arena, funded by Swansea City Council and operated by the Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG), could be the venue to raise the profile of the area.

“I think if the Ambassador Theatre Group can encourage great acts to their new arena, it will drive a more positive attitude to music in the area,” says Angie Dickinson, artistic manager of Pontardawe Arts Centre (cap. 500).

Also hoping the currently-named Swansea Arena will improve business is regional promoter Pablo Janczur of Orchard Entertainment, who outlines his thoughts about the city and the new venture.

“Swansea is a university city and second city of Wales,” he says. “There is a strong music scene and heritage here so our shows there always do well. We have an excellent relationship with the local authority, which has a can-do attitude, and is very pro-active.

“It’s more of a partnership, which works very well, with good support from local businesses. People will come from further afield to the west and mid-Wales for events as well.

“Hopefully with the onset of the new indoor arena larger touring acts can be attracted to the city.”

More on both Orchard and Pontardawe Arts Centre later but first to the arena.

The new venue is due to open its doors in 2021 (see LIVE UK issue 239), with work having already begun. Once complete, ATG expects it to stage 160 performances a year across live music, comedy, theatre and gaming, potentially attracting 230,000 annual visitors annually to the city; positioning Swansea as a desirable destination for both leisure and business.

Located on the waterside, the venue also marks the first phase of its £135 million regeneration of Swansea Central, which includes shops, restaurants and two multi-storey car parks providing 960 spaces.

The council and ATG are now discussing the arena’s content to ensure it complements programmes offered by other Swansea venues.

Council leader Rob Stewart says the start of the redevelopment marks a huge step in the evolution of the city.

“From our spectacular beach and historical landmarks, to our world-leading universities and institutions, Swansea provides a wealth of opportunity that has been undervalued for too long,” he says. “Alongside the other transformative projects taking place across the city, Swansea Central is a missing piece of the jigsaw that will attract more people to the city centre, and greatly strengthen our economic buoyancy.”

ATG currently operates more than 30 venues across the UK, including the Empire (2,369) in Liverpool, Edinburgh’s Playhouse (3,035), Glasgow’s Theatre Royal (1,505) and the Sunderland Empire (1,955), while ATG Tickets processes more than 11 million tickets a year.

The new venue is being developed by RivingtonHark, with a planned completion of phase one in mid-2021.

“More than ever city centres need local authority intervention in order to thrive, and Swansea is a positive example of what can be achieved with a forward-thinking local council at the helm,” says RivingtonHark’s executive director Mark Williams.

Stadium landmark

Elsewhere in the city, at the top end of the market is Liberty Stadium (29,999), which opened in 2005 to provide a home to Swansea City AFC and Ospreys Rugby team.

Since the stadium’s launch which was built along with the Morfa Retail Park just a few minutes from Swansea city centre, has hosted artistes such as Elton John, P!nk, Lionel Richie (all Marshall Arts promotions),Olly Murs, JLS, Kings of Leon (all Orchard shows), Little Mix, The Killers (both SJM Concerts), with other acts promoted directly by the club, as Rebecca Edwards-Symmons, head of commercial, explains.

“We fully promoted a show by The Who ourselves and bought everything in for that one,” she says. As for logistics, Edwards-Symmons says there is a wide range of flexible options open to promoters.

“The licence capacity for music events is 29,999, although, practically, the actual figure is approximately 27,000, which includes a pitch capacity of 14,650.

“The venue has a summer window between sport seasons and seeks to attract a minimum of two music events during that time,” she says. “There are no events planned for summer 2020.”

There are, however, plans for events elsewhere in the city this summer, as Orchard’s Pablo Janczur points out.

“For 2020 we’re working in partnership with DHP Family for a one-day event in Singleton Park headlined by Catfish and the Bottlemen, You Me At Six, Feeder and Yonaka,” he says,. “We’re running this event in a 20,000-capacity configuration, with tickets at £35.

“We have run events in the park for a number of years now, promoting  artistes such as Paolo Nutini, Alfie Boe, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, Olly Murs, Jess Glynne, and Pete Tong and the Heritage Orchestra Presents Ibiza classics.”

Other acts the company is currently promoting in the city include Only Men Aloud, Marti Pellow and George Ezra at Brangwyn Hall (1,280) and Stand Atlantic and Dreadzone in Sin City (500, 250).

“We regularly run shows in venues such as Sin City and the Brangwyn Hall, amongst others, while we’ve also run a couple of shows in the Liberty Stadium, the last one being Kings of Leon in 2014.”

Ticket sales at present, he adds, remain good. “Swansea has a very enthusiastic audience – they like to have a good time.”

Key for concerts

The Grand Theatre (1,020) and Brangwyn Hall come under the jurisdiction of Swansea Council.

Brangwyn Hall is currently the largest venue in Swansea and acts which have played there include Wheatus, Delirious and the Manic Street Preachers.

According to Paul Hopkins, manager at The Grand Theatre, the opening of the new arena is likely to increase business across the city.

“There is a large mix of venues here, from bars to our 1,000-seated theatre and the Brangwyn Hall as well as a number of large outdoor areas, and, now the new 3,500-seat digital arena,” he says. more than 230,000 annual visitors.

“Swansea is looking forward to being able to meet the rising demands of the modern promoter with a host of artistes and talent that may not have thought about Swansea before. It’s an exciting time for live music, as demand is there from the public.”

Acts to have played the theatre  over the years include Paul Carrack, 10cc, Joan Armatrading, Tony Christie, Tony Hadley, Elkie Brooks, The Proclaimers and The Hollies, while current shows include Daniel O’Donnell, promoted by New Age Theatre Productions, Bay City Rollers (Tangent Management), The Drifters (Artistes International Management) Boyzlife (Mark Ellis), The Sensational 60s, Rumours of Fleetwood Mac and Mal Pope.

“We programme between 20 to 30 live music events per year in a busy calendar,” he says. “Generally performances sell well, with 80 to 90 per cent capacity being attained.”

Club culture

Sin City remains one of the most popular venues in the city. In the past, when it was partly operated by the students’ union at Swansea University, it hosted acts as diverse as The Beat, The Dykeenies, The View, Does It Offend You Yeah?, and The Living End.

Today the venue is owned by Gary Lulham (see LIVE UK, Backstage Star, issue 234), who was originally general manager at the venue several years ago.

“In 2015 the University completed its Bay Campus project which saw a new major campus open in the City, part of this involved several new commercial projects for the students’ union,” he explains. “This meant a complete shift in the focus and approach, so the decision was taken to close Sin City.

“The venue, up until that point had been a labour of love for myself and the team and we’d accomplished some incredible things with limited resources. It seemed like make or break time, so I ended up taking the venue over myself and with the support of the team that we had at the time, managed to save it from inevitable closure.”

According to Lulham, while facing challenges, the market for music is in good shape.

“The music scene in Swansea at the moment is fantastic, not just in terms of the quantity of bands that are forming and playing out on a regular basis, but the quality of the bands is phenomenal,” he says. “There has been a huge surge of young indie bands in the last two or three years, which has become cyclical in nature, as the young fans of these bands reach for the guitars themselves.

“The scene could be improved in many ways – there’s always a new opportunity to be had, or something different that can be done, but I think Swansea’s biggest strength is the dedication and positive approach that we have. That said, if the council let us put up a couple of posters, I’d be over the moon.”

Acts playing the venue, which hosts up to 140 shows a year, include Hugh Cornwell (The Gig Cartel), Black Tongue, Dream State, Milk Teeth, Pete Doherty, Counterparts, Off With Their Heads, Sam Lewis (all in-house), Joanne Shaw Taylor, Goldie Lookin Chain (both The MJR Group), Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes (Kilimanjaro Live), Himalayas, Stand Atlantic (both Orchard) and The Calling, the latter a co-promotion between Sin City and The Bunkhouse.

While ticket sales remain “about as predictable” as the weather and competing with Cardiff is still the biggest challenge, Lulham says there are reasons for local promoters to be optimistic.

“I won’t lie, being Wales’ second city sometimes means that you come in second place, and we’ve probably had more shows than we’d care to remember end up in Cardiff, that we’d have liked on our doorstep,” he adds.

Lulham believes that when it comes to repeat business, there is only one thing that really matters.

“There’s nothing quite like a Swansea audience – people really take pride in artistes coming to their hometown and want to show them a good time,” he says. “As much as I’d like to say that people come back because of the venue, the dedication of the team or because I buy everything on the rider … but really, it’s the crowd in front of them that do it.”

Neighbouring benefits

As a multi-purpose culture venue, the 500-capacity Pontardawe Arts Centre hosts a wide arrange of styles and genres, from jazz to pop, funk to folk.

Located in the village of Pontardawe, 10 miles from Swansea, acts to have played there over the years include Levellers, Squeeze, Turin Brakes, Richard Thompson, Cerys Matthews and Bellowhead.

There have been no major changes to the venue since it was refurbished in 1996, and it currently hosts up to 30 live music shows a year.

Acts playing the venue include Andy Fairweather Low (John Turner), Max Boyce (Handshake), The Manfreds (Debra Franks), Fairport Convention, Sharon Shannon and Seckou Keita (Craig Wylie), Steeleye Span (John Dagnell Promotions), Eliza Carthy (Sarah Coxson), Dreadzone (DMF Music) and Wishbone Ash (Andy Nye).

Artistic manager Angie Dickinson points out the benefits, and challenges, facing promoters in the city.

“We have the most beautiful venue and something about the space encourages great interactions between our audience and the artiste,” she says. “We are an arts centre so we have a mixed programme of music, comedy, drama and also film.

“The downside is that we are in the middle of a tiny town 10 minutes from Swansea and 50 minutes from Cardiff with poor public transport, so most of our audience has a host of alternative options.”

In summing up, Pablo Janczur says when it comes to outdoor events, persuading some of the industry that there is a major market west of Cardiff remains one of the biggest challenges. However, even this hurdle presents opportunities, he explains.

“Sometimes it works in our favour as, for outdoor events, Cardiff sometimes gets a little bit congested. We’ve championed doing more large events in Swansea for a number of years.”

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