Interview by Andy Inglis
Ross has fifteen years’ experience in music, media and technology. He was formally Head Of Ticketing at upstart mobile ticketing and event discovery app DICE, and before that held the awkwardly rhyming job title of Head Of Events at counterculture media organisation VICE. He has run and booked some of London’s most successful venues – including The Old Blue Last and Birthdays – and produced large-scale events for organisations such as Adidas, Unilever, Ray-Ban, Dr Martens and pretty much every brand of tequila on the planet. He currently works as a consultant and educator, as well as running the concert promotions arm of label collective Pink Mist, through which he promotes left-leaning punk rock shows across London.
AD: Welcome back to Sørveiv, Ross! You were one of our guests last year and we’ve broken our own rule by having you back again, despite you having to change your flight at the last minute, a grudge which we’ll carry to the grave. Why did you accept our invitation?
RA: I genuinely got a lot out of the experience. It was great to see other perspectives represented and to have an environment where people could speak without being shouted down. It’s not that I’m against lively agreement, because I love that stuff and last year certainly wasn’t short of it, but where I felt the format really succeeded was in that it was structured in a way where a diverse set of voices couple participate, not just the usual assholes like me.
AD: You’ve expressed an interest in “empowering a generation of new (and hopefully diverse) leaders in both the creative and the business side of our industry.”What do you think’s wrong with the leaders we have at the minute?
RA: We’re in the midst of a slow-motion crisis. In an industry that is defined by mavericks there is a hard fact we have to face: mavericks do not always make the best leaders. The organisations they build are all too often focused around the ego of a single individual, and that individual is all too often middle aged, male and white. Over the last two decades it’s become evident just how harmful this can be. These structures stifle innovation, restrict diversity and they lead to a profoundly immoral waste of human potential. That’s why it’s taken the music industry the better part of two decades to get any sense of how we handle the shift to digital. Previously new technologies had always gone in our favour – CDs, vinyl, satellite TV, those things were great for music – but as soon as we hit a bump in the road the bottom falls out and none of these so called “leaders” knows what to do, because they all look the same and they all think the same, so they stick their heads in the sand and look at ways to wring more money out of the fan. Because that’s gonna fix it, right? No. We need new companies and a new approach to running those companies, otherwise – and you can see this happening already – we’re gonna lose all the best people to tech companies where you get paid well, treated well, you get a voice, and you get to be creative full time.
AD: One of our themes this year is failure; how we need it to learn, how the music industry brushes it under the carpet. Which (professional or personal) failure have you learned the most from?
RA: It’s hard to pin-point one specifically because I fail every day; it’s my primary metric for success. We can start right at the beginning if you like: when I was looking at degree courses to do I had a choice of either doing a highly academic degree – something that comes pretty easy to me – or a music-based programme, which is something I have almost no natural aptitude for. I choose music. It was three years of pretty much relentless failure, and even though it drove me into alcoholism it did instil in me a level of grit I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Then, when I get out there into the world of work I’m fundamentally un-hirable, and I’d always considered myself as being special in some way, like I was gonna get out there into the real world and would be hired immediately and be running the company by age twenty-five. But of course I’m applying for dozens of jobs and not getting any offers… This experience made me realise two things: 1) when it comes to a career, no matter how smart you think you are, you’re not entitled to a thing and 2) if it’s difficult for a white middle class male to find their way in this industry, what’s it like for those who are subject to structural inequalities, right? So yeah, I set up my own thing, something for which I didn’t need anyone’s permission, and that set me on a path that I’ve found hugely fulfilling.
AD: You and I first met through our mutual running of grass-roots music venues in the UK¹. How would you judge the state of them these days? Do you still care about their fate?
RA: Like so many things these days there’s more than one narrative. If you’re running a venue in one of the major cultural cities – London, Manchester, Glasgow, Leeds, Brighton, Bristol etc – you’re probably in a pretty great shape, because your audiences are concentrating in those ares. If you’re not it’s probably because you have either neighbour troubles, which is a legit thing, or you’re doing it wrong. The worry is the towns and smaller cities. In my opinion two major forces play against those places. Firstly, your audience leaves as soon as they can and moves to one of the big cultural hubs where there’s more opportunity, never to return, and secondly because labels can’t afford to support touring bands anymore, they are for the most part only playing half a dozen cities, so they’re not doing ya know, Hull, or Carlisle, or Northampton, or at least they’re doing them a lot less. For those cities there’s no easy answer, because these forces are way out of their control. That said there’s certainly some real success stories out there that we can learn from; I think Dom and the team at The Boileroom down in Guildford² have done an amazing job of diversifying their business model so that they’re not relying solely on touring bands. The venue is basically the hub for the town’s entire creative community, so you have tattoo artists working out of there, screen printers, they do markets and fairs. The odds were stacked against them for day one, and here they are, ten years later, thriving. That’s due to smarts and persistence. There’s also the policy route, where we could look at say, reducing VAT for cultural businesses… But then you gotta ask, with everything that’s going on in our society is that really where we should be spending the money? I just don’t trust these government quangos or whatever not to just give the cash to people who look and sound and act just like them.
AD: If you could change one thing about the music industry, what would it be?
RA: I’d change the whole fucking value chain, because it’s built for an industry that doesn’t exist any more.
AD: I hear you’re helping Vice develop a new craft beer. How many more craft beers do you think the world needs, exactly?
RA: The world needs thirteen craft beers, because that’s the number of craft beers produced by the Cloudwater Brewing Company. If the Cloudwater Brewing Company decided to make fourteen beers, then that is the number of craft beers the world would need. The thing with the Vice beer is that it isn’t a craft beer, it’s a mass produced lager which we’re brewing in a great big brewery in Newark, New Jersey. When you’re out there drinking great craft beer, it’s kinda the star of the show – and that’s great – but that’s not what we’re trying to do here. Old Blue Last Beer is a beer for drinking, not for fussing over. Also, it tastes great and it’s called “Old Blue Last” which is a brand I have a great affection for, for obvious reasons.¹
AD: You offended me recently by suggesting that Edinburgh is “like a big, fancy, Scottish version of Guildford”.³ Would you like to apologise now, or by phone, when you arrive at Kjevik Airport, wondering where your ground transport is?
RA: Nothing offends a Scotsman like reminding him how charming, gentile and affluent his hometown is.⁴
¹ Ross booked The Old Blue last venue in London for five years
² 40k south-west of London
³ Ahhhhh. I thought he was calling Edinburgh a shit-hole,
when in fact it has as a volcano, a castle, and the world’s largest arts festival
⁴ He may have a point