Mr Power

If you're among the throbbing thousands at the Reading rock festival on August Bank Holiday, or if you followed Van Morrison and endless other musicians to the Phoenix festival at Stratford a fortnight ago, or if you sweat it out in one of many London venues, you owe it all - you pay it all - to one man. Report by Andrew Davidson. Photographs by Dario Mitidieri
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Vince Power is, depending on whom you believe, either an organisational genius or a table-thumping huckster. "Oh, I'm not going to tell you what I really think," laughs yet another of his associates. "I want to keep my kneecaps!" Really? "Nah, Vince isn't like that - just winding you up."

How they love to laugh in the music business. Well, except Power himself, kingpin of the London live music scene and now the biggest festival organiser in Britain. Suggest to him that he cultivates a tough-guy reputation and you get the barest grimace of recognition. Sitting in his little first- floor office over the Mean Fiddler club in Harlesden High Street, the Irishman responsible for this month's Reading festival is clearly quite capable of stone-facing it out with the best of them. "My strengths?" he says in a Waterford accent so soft you could wrap cut glass in it. "I think it's about having ideas and carrying them through regardless of what anyone else thinks about it." And then he just looks at you with the most piercing blue eyes.

Power is on a roll at the moment. At 49, he has emerged seemingly from nowhere to run a venue and event organisation that turns over about pounds 15 million a year, employs 140 staff, and is growing like topsy. As well as Reading he runs the Phoenix, Tribal Gathering and Fleadh festivals - all highly complex operations with ludicrously large numbers of acts, tens of thousands of fans, multiple stages, comedians, funfairs, bazaars: whole community gatherings with big opportunities for profit.

If that weren't enough he also runs an ever-increasing number of clubs in London: the Mean Fiddler, where he started, The Jazz Cafe in Camden, the Grand in Clapham Junction, the Forum in Kentish Town, the Garage in Highbury, Subterania in Notting Hill and The Crossbar in King's Cross, most of them small to medium-sized venues, well-established on the touring circuit for up-and-coming bands.

To these he has just added a new Mean Fiddler in Dublin, and is talking about sites for another in New York or Boston, all of which has led some to ask if his ambitions aren't getting a little unwieldy and his control over the live music scene a little unhealthy. As he is also a stern, shy man, who made his first fortune selling secondhand furniture and who rarely presses the flesh at his clubs or ligs backstage at his gigs, he remains to some a rather mysterious figure.

But by most accounts that is how he likes it. Sitting behind an old desk with his hambone hands wrapped neatly in front of him, Power exudes pent-up caution. A broad man, crop-haired, with those trademark blue eyes twinkling out of a big, bristly doughnut of a face, he looks, as even his friends remark, more like a bouncer than the millionaire he undoubtedly is.

You also wouldn't believe anyone could run a pounds 15 million-turnover business from here: boxfiles tumble round the floor by his feet, paperwork spills out of the old junk-shop bookcases behind him and I can barely hear what he says above the rumble of buses outside and the clatter of two assistants wedged over phones in the corner. It is the week before his Phoenix festival in Stratford-on-Avon - Dylan, Suede, Van Morrison and another 200 bands on six stages over four days with 35,000 tickets to sell - and you get the feeling the whole juggler's loop of balls could at any minute come crashing down. He doesn't like interviews, that much is plain. He stood me up for our first meeting, then kept me waiting an hour for our second. His answers are frequently stopped mid-sentence, and then he just stares in silence. Perhaps he is more interested in the c onstant yacker on the phones. It means that in interview, as well as pre-interview, you can spend a lot of time waiting. So why give interviews? "Ego, I suppose," says Power rather grumpily. It is this taciturnity, I am told, that explains all the industry jokes about not wanting to get on the wrong side of Vince. "He gives so little of himself that people are always filling in the gaps," says one ex-colleague. "Hence the tough-guy reputatio n." Power is not an Irishman with the blarney. "Let's put it this way," chortles Barry Dickins, chairman of ITB, the biggest booking agency, and one of Power's old sparring partners on the music circuit, "Vince has never been an easy lunch..." With a name many novelists would kill to invent, Vince Power is no stranger to the digs and jabs of his fellow men. Before opening the Mean Fiddler, he had followed a pretty standard Irish-in-London career path: living in Kilburn, working on the demoliti on, shop jobs, factory jobs - the only difference was that he wanted to get seriously rich. and had gone some way to achieving that through setting up a string of junk shops. Before that, in the Sixties, he had lived with an aunt in Hemel Hempstead after being sent over from Waterford by his forester father. Power, one of seven children, says he turned down a scholarship to train as an artificial inseminator to come to England. "I didn't fancy that," he says, absolutely straight-faced. Instead, his aunt got him a first job at Woolworths - "Wilwerts", he calls it - and the retailing nous obviously stuck. Later, when he was tearing up roofs and looking for ways to get rich, he noticed that people were throwing out their old furniture as they moved into the new tower blocks. He started collecting it, opened a junk shop on a short-term lease on the Harrow Road - The Bargain Shop - and never looked back. By the mid-Seventies, after the first oil crisis, he had several shops and was buying tons of bankrupt stock, shifting it round his premises in huge lorries. For relaxation he would go to America and sit in honky-tonk bars in Nashville, where he got the idea of running his own. He knew nothing about the bar business but a fair bit about property, so when he saw the Mean Fiddler premises were up for sale he thought it was worth a look. He just wanted a short lease, but the local police told him the only way they would approve a re-issuing of the club's licence was if he bought the freehold. "There had been several illegal things going on," he says, "drinking after hours, that sortof t hing. It was a fairly heavy place, I believe." He talked the Ind Coope brewery and the Bank of Ireland into backing him, and pounds 120,000 later the place was his. Why should a brewery back someone with no track record? "Oh, they had a charge on the pro perty and I think they looked on it as a calculated risk," he says casually. In fact it was a complete failure in its first guise as a country music venue. He opened it in 1982, but never made any money. The only regulars were American servicemen who would appear once a month on the Saturday night after payday, sparking punchups with the locals when they tried to steal their girls. After about 18 months the Bank of Ireland started asking for its money back, so Power changed the style, putting on acts such a the Pogues and Los Lobos, and, crucially, discovering in his cellarman D ave Philips a booker who knew the music scene inside out. Bookers are the key players in the venue business. The club went from strength to strength, putting on many now-famous gigs, including Roy Orbison's last London concerts (Power's own favourite), a nd has since been expanded. Now it makes a good profit, says Power. How much? "Oh, between pounds 150,000 to pounds 250,000 a year, maybe." From there his interests just grew, as he snaffled up clubs and venues in prime spots usually after mismanagement had threatened them with extinction, allowing him to get them at a good price. He says most of his venues make decent money though he is qui te happy to run some at a loss, waiting for better times, absorbing it through his organisation. The Grand, which cost a small fortune to sound-proof and years to get licensing for, was probably not one of his better investments (rivals estimate it has l ost him pounds 600,000 since it opened). The Forum in Kentish Town, which he doesn't own, has now hit hard times as well because of competition from the Empire, a similar size venue in Shepherd's Bush. Yet it is the manner in which he runs everything that amazes those who do business with him: his crumpled demeanour and well known dislike of anything flashy permeate his whole organisation. And he is famously ruthless. Peter Dyer of Tarsin Entertainment , the company that supplies all Power's sound systems, remembers a conversation he had with him soon after he took a half-share in the old Powerhaus club in Islington. Dyer had taken his son there and rang Power the next day to tell him how good theband had been. Power cut him short. "Was the club full?" he asked. "No," said Dyer. "The band were crap, then," said Power, finishing the conversation. But whatever the appearance of his dishevelled headquarters - Harlesden is not exactly up-market London - he is obsessive about what he does. He is either constantly on the phone or dashing between clubs and festival sites in his old Buick or one of his two VW Beetles at any time of the day or night. "It's seat-of-the-pants management," says one rival dismis sively. But it works. It is a haphazard style that spills over into his personal affairs, too: he puts his money into flats and houses (11 in west London at the last count) and has a famously complicated love-life, having had seven children, aged 28to t en months, with three consecutive partners. "He's just one of those guys who wants to celebrate every relationship with a baby," sighs one friend. Really? "They are the only three girlfriends I have ever had in my life," says Power quietly. The beefcake hands are now squeezing themselves a bit anxiously. "I don't mind talking about my personal life," he continues, when I ask him about his current partner, Alison, with whom he works, "but I don't want to get too..." And he just trails off and stares. I t hink I get the picture. If this makes him sound rather intimidating, his is a business where any kind of front helps. When he first bought the Mean Fiddler premises, local Harlesden heavies used to trash his Volkswagen every night after he barred them. Worse, he says, werethe villains in Notting Hill, upset about his decision to gut and rebuild Subterania, the venue under the Westway. They used to pull up in their expensive cars, slowly buzz down the electric windows and just stare at him. "If you're trying to let a certain c ustomer in and not let others in, they get annoyed," he shrugs. Doesn't he get frightened? "You just try and get out of it," he says coolly. Early on, when he often worked on the door, he was threatened more. "Now my doormen get threatened and I see it in the management reports," he says. It's an occupational hazard. To this day, when people come up to him in his clubs and ask "Are you Vince Power?" he always replies "No." Likewise, with so much cash sluicing though your business, you have to have a firm grip on employees and complete trust in your managers. Power's three eldest children work for him and many of the rest of the team are Irish - often relatives from Waterfo rd sent over to "Uncle Vince" for work - which has led to accusations that he is running a mini-Murphia, something he dismisses with a wave of his hands. More pertinent to his success is the unusually close bond he has formed with the brewers. Carlsberg-Tetley, for instance, which sponsors Power's festivals, also provides the finance for some of his venue deals, secured on the property. The reason? "Vinc e has always had a knack - for selling incredible amounts of beer as well being a music man," says Peter Hutchens, Carlsberg-Tetley's regional sales director. Hutchens was previously sales director of Ind Coope, which took the original risk on the Mean F iddler. It was a risk that paid off. The Mean Fiddler, according to Hutchens, sold more Castlemaine XXXX in 1989 and 1990 than any of the brewer's own pubs. Another who is regularly linked to Power is John Murphy, the Kerry-born multimillionaire who has built up a sizeable fortune in construction and property. At 71, Murphy is estimated to be worth about pounds 60 million, and owns large chunks of northLond on. Two years ago he was at the centre of an acrimonious dispute over the future of the Town & Country Club in Kentish Town (now the Forum). The club, at one time the most successful rock venue in London, had been run on a short lease by two rivals of Po wer's, Mick Whelan and his booker Ollie Smith. After Murphy, who owned the freehold, announced he was going to demolish it to build offices, Smith ran a vigorous campaign to save the venue. In fact the building was never demolished; to Murphy's annoyanc e, it was listed. Murphy passed over control to Power. The subsequent falling out between Power and Smith, who now runs clubs in Leeds and Watford, is famous throughout the industry. The two had been friends, but now dislike each other so much that some of Power's suppliers will not even quote for Smith's bu siness for fear of upsetting the Mean Fiddler owner. Power says there was never any underhand dealing, just that Whelan and Smith handled Murphy badly, publicly supporting the listing application, and burnt their own boats. Smith says that he still feels misled over Power's intentions - he told him he wasn't interested in taking over the venue. "Vince disappointed me," says Smith bluntly, "I thought I knew and liked the man, but he turned out to be an arsehole." Power assures me the ill-feeling is mutua l. Well, that's the music business for you, but Power does have a knack for rubbing people up the wrong way. His foray into - and near-domination of - the music festival scene is another case in point. Six years ago he was invited in to save the ailingRead ing Festival by its founder, Harold Pendleton, former owner of the Marquee and one of the doyens of the live music business. The deal was done on a handshake and the festival put back on its feet. Three years later, feeling swamped by Power, Pendleton ef fectively kicked his partner out. It was not a wise move. Power set up the Phoenix festival at Stratford-upon-Avon as a rival, then, in order to snatch a deal that excluded Pendleton, he spent months tracking down the ultimate owners of the Reading site - it turned out to be shipping company. "Vince doesn't sm ile much," says Peter Dyer, "but the day he found the site's owners, you couldn't wipe the grin off his face." Now he runs both festivals, and Reading (set for this month's bank holiday weekend) nets him about pounds 650,000 a year in profit, according t o some sources. Wasn't it a bit, well, vindictive? "I was furious," says Power. "I had been well and truly shafted." Isn't Pendleton sore about it all now? "Yeah, he is probably sore at me, in fact he is probably scheming to get it back at this moment." For a second, Po wer looks rather pleased at the prospect. Pendleton did not return my calls to find out if he was indeed scheming, but suffice to say that, after Power snatched Reading back, many in the industry realised that you take him on at your peril. Since then he has developed a veritable portfolio of festivals, and moved into straight promotion with events such as the highly profitable Madness reunion in Finsbury Park two summers ago. Everyone believes that he must have attained his aim of becoming seriously rich now, but as he has such a conspicuously unflashy lifestyle, it is rather hard to tell. How much does he pay himself? "A couple of hundred a week," says Power, with the hint of a smile. What if I look in Companies House? "Oh, you won't find anything there," he laughs. And he is right. Power is listed as a director of 17 companies - each club and event has a separate outfit - but it is hard to find a main holding company paying him a set whack. There was one, Mean Fiddler Holdings, but that has been dormant for two years. Power, say his friends, has always been can ny about money; for instance, he has always kept one furniture shop as a bolt-hole in case times get hard. The downside is that as his organisation has grown, more staff have become disgruntled about the way it is distributed. Dave Philips, the booker who helped rescue the Mean Fiddler in the Eighties, says that much as he likes Power, he split up with him simply because he was tired of working for an operation in which music was no longer fun but just business. Later this month, as he does with every outdoor event, Power will shift his entire office to Reading for a week to oversee the festival, where Neil Young, Bjork and Paul Weller are headlining. It will be the usual malarkey: roadies screaming at technicia ns, whey-faced girls running round with paperwork, 45,000 punters straining to get in, Power striding about grimly with his mobile phones. Why so miserable? Once such an event gets a good reputation, like a Reading or a Glastonbury, potential for profit is huge (tickets are pounds 60 in advance, traders pay concessions, many of the bands come cheaper than you think). Power is always reluctant to admit it, though. One of his friends still laughs over an interview he gave to the Daily Telegraph about the Fleadh, the London Irish music festival which he part owns. "It was a complete sell out, yet Vince managed to convin ce them he was only just breaking even!" Nearly all agree that he deserves his success because he sticks to the basic business of giving fans what they want; popular bands, good facilities, reasonable prices, even if it does seem to mean Bob Dylan and Neil Young year after year. The only worry is that he'll spread himself too thin. Friends note that opening the new Mean Fiddler in Dublin, on the site of the old Wexford Inn, took up much more time and money than Power expected - Power tells me it cost pounds 2 million Irish. Quite how much of that tab he is picking up himself is unclear. What is certain is that he is now keen to establish himself in his home country. His initial foray into Ireland, promoting a Bob Dylan and Van Morrison concert outside Waterford, was a finan cial disaster (locals preferred to stay in the town's bars, which had been given extended opening hours for the event), but his style is to keep on going till he gets it right. "I hope I'm going to get bigger," he says when asked what's for the future, " in the same line of business." The problem, he adds, on the venue side, is just getting the right licences. Ah, so that's why he gives interviews, to boost his public image for all the licensing committees he has to sit through? "No, it doesn't help at all," he says morosely. Apparently at the last one he attended he was told: "The problem with you, Mr Power, is that you are too high-profile..." And then he gives me a wry look as if to say: so be grateful, chum