The Interview: Vince Power, Chief Executive Of Mean Fiddler

Rocking and rolling all the way to the bank
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The Independent Online

Vince Power, chief executive of the music promoter, Mean Fiddler, has come a long way from the rural outback of Co Waterford that he grew up in. The multimillionaire - who says hello to the Duchess of York with impressive ease as she walks past his Mayfair café - runs a business that dominates the live music scene in the UK.

Vince Power, chief executive of the music promoter, Mean Fiddler, has come a long way from the rural outback of Co Waterford that he grew up in. The multimillionaire - who says hello to the Duchess of York with impressive ease as she walks past his Mayfair café - runs a business that dominates the live music scene in the UK.

While he has a quiet, laid-back charm that can comfortably glad-hand the rich and famous, Mr Power is more familiar with rock royalty. Paul McCartney is headlining at Glastonbury - in which Mean Fiddler has a 32 per cent stake - next weekend and is an old friend of Mr Power.

The festivals business is booming and with only a few days to go until Glastonbury, Mr Power has reason to feel pleased. This is the biggest ever Glastonbury, the third that Mean Fiddler has been involved with. Some 115,000 tickets were sold at £115 a time.

Glastonbury is no longer a festival for grungy, down-and-out free spirits of the 1970s. It is big business, an established part of the middle class's social calendar. It is, as Mr Power says, a "national brand".

"I noticed the change in what Glastonbury had become to the British people one year when the weather was absolutely terrible. It was bucketing down, people were up to their knees in mud, and weather forecasters were headlining all their reports using pictures of the Glastonbury Festival," he says. When he was given the chance to get involved with the running of the festival, he jumped.

Just don't mention the ticket sales process, though. He got a torrent of abuse from an outraged public earlier this year after people sat up all night to buy tickets on the internet and failed. The website took 25 million hits and the system jammed. "We just didn't anticipate the demand," he says, promising to have a better system next year.

Despite the growing success of Glastonbury, Mean Fiddler is still making a loss, because of an unwise over-expansion in to restaurants and bars. It is focused on live music once again and its performance is improving dramatically. Sales were up 13 per cent last year to £44m. As well as the original Mean Fiddler venue, the group owns London's Jazz Café and Astoria, promotes tours for some of the world's biggest pop stars such as Justin Timberlake and Beyoncé, and runs the Reading and Leeds festivals, among others. Some 500,000 tickets were sold for the Justin Timberlake tour at an average cost of £20.

Wearing a crisp white linen shirt and black jeans, Mr Power looks more like a celebrity chef than a swaggering rock impressario. His list of friends, which includes legends of the music industry, means people expect him to have leather-clad rock 'n' roll arrogance about him. But his voice is barely audible and he has a natural reticence when it comes to talking about himself and his success that makes him seem, well, surprisingly shy.

Mr Power's stake in Mean Fiddler is now worth £20m - a sum his mother could hardly have imagined he would amount to when she packed him off to an agricultural college in Galway to study artificial insemination. Somehow Mr Power thought there might be more to life that handling bovine semen, so he came to London and had a variety of jobs before becoming a demolition man. This was busy work in London in the late Sixties, where rows of houses were being knocked down to make way for high-rise blocks. "Every one was in such a rush to get in to their new flats, some just left their old furniture in their houses. I went round collecting it and selling it. I built up a chain of shops and then sold them to buy the Fiddler."

Always a music fan, particularly of country-and-western, he got the idea after a visit to Nashville. "I'd go to these really nice bars where there was great music playing and you could sit and drink a beer. There was nowhere in London like that." Power built the Fiddler on the same model and credits himself as one of the first importers of Budweiser to Britain.

That was 1982. The model hit a chord and the demand for experiencing live music in the UK is still growing. Mean Fiddler's stake in Glastonbury will next year rise to 40 per cent. That is its limit, so what are the long-term growth prospects for the business, given that there are not many more weekends available for new festivals?

"The music festivals scene is pretty much saturated now in the UK," Mr Power admits. "That is why we are expanding into Europe, particularly Spain and Germany where there is a big demand."

Mr Power is also planning a string of open-air gigs in the UK aimed at more specialist audiences, and at promoting the Jazz Café brand. A number of outdoor jazz concerts are being staged in the grounds of stately homes, such as Kenwood House next to Hampstead Heath in London. Mr Power hopes it will appeal to a more family-orientated and older crowd than Glastonbury. Another Jazz Café is planned for Paris.

But by far the most exciting prospect for the group is its venture in to music downloads. "This has the potential to take over and become bigger than the whole group," Mr Power says. Through the Mean Fiddler website, customers will be able to buy tracks for £1 a time that will be charged to their phone bill. In the face of growing competition, he hopes to draw in customers with recordings of the live events staged by Mean Fiddler.

"People want to download music legally and it should be available in a way that pays the artist and the record label. If it doesn't, then it does affect the whole industry," he says.

Sound prospects, then, but Mr Power makes an unlikely figure in the City, and with a 35 per cent stake and a languishing share price, there is often surprise that he does not take the company private.

He admits that the company came to the market only after being swept up in the excitement of the boom. It listed in May 2000 - right at the end of the market high - and shares inevitably crashed.

It has had a bumpy ride, but Mr Power wants the company to stay public and the City to realise the company is entering a new era. The doors have been opened to Denis Desmond, another Irish music promoter. "I've been fighting with him for years but we decided it made sense to collaborate and combine our strengths in the market," Mr Power says. Mr Desmond has taken a 24 per cent stake in Mean Fiddler and the two hope to be able to leverage their positions.

Meanwhile, Mr Power is looking forward to listening to some good music over the next few months and will be seen among the crowds at tomorrow's Fleadh festival in London, where Bob Dylan will top the bill.

Playing a mean game...

Age: 57

Lives: North-west London. Has been married three times and has eight children

Pay: Received basic salary and benefits of £401,000 in 2002. His stake in Mean Fiddler is worth £20m.

Career: Held various jobs including floorman at Woolworths before working on a building site. He then set up a furniture wholesale and retail business which he sold to buy the Mean Fiddler in London in 1982. The company listed on the stock exchange in May 2000. He also owns the Berkeley Square Café in London's Mayfair.

Other interests: Arsenal Football Club, his family, music, work - "I'll retire when I'm six months dead," he says.