The man who's selling Diana to the people

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Indy Lifestyle Online
SHORT, balding and bespectacled, he looks a bit like Nick Hornby. Dave Brett could have turned out to be a real-life version of Rob Fleming, the music-obsessive around whom Hornby based his best-selling novel High Fidelity.

Like Fleming, he rejected the option of a regular career in favour of setting up a back-street record shop. But while the neurotic Fleming allowed his life and his shop to drift, Brett has turned his business into a pounds 30m- a-year operation.

Not only does he now own six record stores, he is fast becoming Britain's Mr Box Office. He now presides over the largest ticket agency in British ownership. With sales reaching over a million tickets a year, he can now give the two giants, American-owned Ticketmaster and Canadian First Call, a run for their money.

Yet until now few people have been aware of Dave Brett. They think they are buying tickets from radio stations and NME and Melody Maker when in fact they are buying via his Nottingham-based Way Ahead group, which has kept the name of the tiny record store Brett opened 17 years ago.

Then earlier this year, Brett won one of the most coveted deals ever: Way Ahead was chosen as the agent with the sole rights for selling all the tickets to the Diana museum at Althorp Park, the final resting place of the Princess of Wales.

Way Ahead is used to coping with demand: when Oasis played at Knebworth in 1996, it shifted a quarter of a million tickets inside a day and took 60,000 fans to the show in a fleet of 1,200 coaches. But nothing could have prepared the company for the onslaught on their telephone system on January 5, the day that tickets went on sale for Althorp. Although the ticket lines did not open until 9am, the company received 10,000 enquiries between midnight and 6am.

Rob Wilmshurst, Way Ahead's 28-year-old general manager, says that when the lines did open, many callers were emotional and, believing they were calling Althorp, asked to leave messages of condolence for the Spencer family. Within four days, 140,000 of the 152,000 tickets had been sold.

Many callers were so keen to visit the museum that they called as soon as they could, without knowing exactly where Althorp was. But they were keen to know what they might see. In fact, each ticket allows them entry to the museum in a converted 18th-century stable house, filled with memorabilia including family photographs, cine film and other mementoes with a selection of tributes and condolence books that were sent to the Spencer family.

Earl Spencer was severely criticised for charging pounds 9.50 per ticket, and Way Ahead is at pains to stress that this is not a profit-making venture for the company. But the deal buys it prestige it would take years to otherwise obtain.

"[Althorp] are not doing this for any commercial reason. They are not going to advertise this," Mr Wilmshurst says. As a consequence, nearly eight thousand tickets remain unsold, with Althorp due to open its gates for two months on July 1.

He is convinced that the explanation for the unsold tickets is that the public firmly believes all of them were sold in the stampede of the first week of January. "Without a doubt people would be surprised to find out that tickets are still available," he says.

"This moves into a completely different area from the rock and pop arena."

Indeed, Dave Brett has come a long way since the days when he sold Judas Priest LPs for a profit margin of one and a half pence a copy.

The ticket operation began as an across the counter service, a way of helping some of his record shop's customers get to concerts out of town by laying on coach trips. It was the revolution in independent radio, the opening of the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, and Brett's willingness to embrace new technology, that made Way Ahead the biggest box office operator outside London.

It is technology that has transformed people's ticket-buying habits. The days of fans queueing for hours to buy tickets outside a venue as soon as dates were announced are long gone. When tickets recently went on sale for the Spice Girls live shows in London and Sheffield only five people bothered to queue outside Way Ahead for tickets. By contrast, 1,000 booked via the Internet.

Now 44, Brett recalls watching "just about every band on the live circuit". His lifestyle today, though, is "not very rock'n'roll": he lives alone in a Nottinghamshire village and drives a Range Rover. The man who used to rub shoulders with Bono now concentrates on showing his prize-winning bull mastiff, Molly, at Cruft's. "I've got 16 orders for puppies from all over the world," he says, with as much pride as if he was announcing a ticketing deal with the rock superstars of the age.

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