Vince Power: The man with the Power to innovate
Interview by Margareta Pagano
'Throw me out into the street with nothing and I'd find a way of making money. I always have: that's how it is," says Vince Power.
'Throw me out into the street with nothing and I'd find a way of making money. I always have: that's how it is," says Vince Power. He makes his claim quietly, no boasting, just stating the facts, and it's why he gets exasperated when people ask him to go to schools or colleges to lecture about entrepreneurship. "It's usually a complete waste of time, all that stuff. Either you've got it or you haven't; it's in your bones."
Power has those bones, Irish ones to boot. He's already made one fortune by creating Mean Fiddler and turning it into the Europe's biggest music empire, and now the 63-year-old is making another. This time, he's doing it in a Kentish hop field and on 3 July he's got Bob Dylan starring at his third Hop Farm festival. Power expects around 30,000 music fans will be coming for the two-day camping festival, which includes Van Morrison and Mumford & Sons. It will be what he calls "a proper one" – no sponsorship, no VIP lounges, no links with radio stations, no pink or green wristbands; which means you can go wherever you want.
"Proper" for him is live music in a homely atmosphere with as little commercialisation as possible; all the ale and food is "slow food" and mainly locally produced. So Power makes his money – he won't say how much Dylan is charging for his only UK appearance this year – from the ticketing, £110 for two days, as there will be no branding or advertising.
But before you think that Power, once described as a "6ft lump of Irish meat and gristle", has gone soft in the head or is being hypocritical, as his other festivals were sponsored, he adds with a big smile: "But if Carlsberg came along and said they want to sponsor us, well, then I would just have to start another festival."
Ah, thank goodness; the old Power who became godfather to the 1980s generation of music-lovers – introducing new acts such as The Pogues, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, and The Men They Couldn't Hang – is still there.
At one time, Power was running eight festivals, including Reading, Leeds and Glastonbury, 14 live music venues, restaurants, bars and organising tours for stars such as Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera.
Actually, he's never gone away, but was back on the road two weeks after he sold his share of Mean Fiddler for around £13m to the US media group Clear Channel, five years ago. As well as the Hop Farm, Power also owns the Pigalle Club, off Leicester Square, The Camel, 101 Bar, Powers Bar and the Bloomsbury Ballroom.
He runs this new empire – Vince Power Music Group – from a 1960s-style warehouse on the Kilburn edge of West Hampstead, in north London. You know he's there because of the big Lincoln motor – one of his passions – parked outside. Inside, it's scruffy, papers and files stacked all over, mainly because the building has just been flooded, but also because he wanted a simpler business after Mean Fiddler which, at its peak, had a turnover of £55m and 300 staff. Today, he's got 12.
Power has a fearsome reputation, one of challenging the industry by dealing directly with artists and taking a hard line with anyone who comes up against him – most notably in his ding-dong with Glastonbury founder, Michael Eavis. But then Power arrives, coffee in hand, looking as though he's just got out of bed, with his shirt hanging out, and he's unfailingly courteous, with the gentlest of manners. What surprises you most is how such a quiet voice, made softer by his Irish lilt, comes out of this big, stocky man.
What happened to the hell-raiser? He's calmed down since running Mean Fiddler, which listed on the City's Alternative Investment Market in 2001. It wasn't the happiest of experiences, and he sold after four years.
"The City was difficult to talk to, and I always got into trouble with analysts and the financial press accusing me of hyping the shares. We would say that Britney Spears or Kylie Minogue was going to be doing an event and I was accused of ramping the shares when all I was doing was promoting. Or they would want tangible stuff, like not understanding why we didn't own the field where we held a festival. They didn't understand that I didn't need to," he says.
Time is a great healer, he adds, saying he wouldn't dismiss the idea of floating again. "I've learnt a lot. I was a bit stubborn and maybe not in very good shape, and maybe I didn't have good enough people around me."
Two weeks after selling Mean Fiddler he headed straight to Spain to meet the two brothers who ran the Benicassim festival outside Valencia, and came back with an 80 per cent share. "That was long enough; any longer I think I'd have become a drunk," he laughs "It's my sense of self, building up something from nothing. It's a lot to do with where I came from, how we struggled. I seem to need to keep proving to myself I can do it again."
Now he owns all of Benicassim, a festival that draws around 50,000 visitors each year, as well as contributing about €25m to the local economy. Ironically, it was visiting Europe's big music festivals, such as Denmark's Roskilda in the 1980s, that gave Power many of the ideas that he introduced to Reading and Leeds.
"Before, in the UK, if you didn't like a band, you peed in the bottle, very male and like a football match. So we introduced the moving stages, brought more contemporary bands in and turned the festivals into more of an event, friendlier and more accessible," he says. "But the industry is tougher today. Although, strangely enough, with the trend towards downloading and decline of CDs, live music is more important than ever. Musicians don't last in the same way as they did; many come and go in a year or so, as tastes change. Are there any stars who will be the next Dylan, around for decades? I don't think so."
Four of Power's eight children – from three partners – have followed him into the music business, which he loves. He himself is the fifth of 11 children – seven survived. He was born in Kilmacthomas, County Waterford to a forest-worker father and a God-fearing mother. He once said his early life made Angela's Ashes look easy, but it was a happy one, and full of music.
When he was 16, he moved to Hemel Hempstead, in Hertfordshire, to stay with an aunt to look for work. He found being in England difficult and was so homesick he went back six times in the first year but then settled, first as a Woolworths assistant and then as a demolition worker. Soon he was collecting the furniture from the houses he demolished. It wasn't long before he opened a shop dealing in second-hand furniture, then several more.
Power was always a keen country and western music fan, and in 1982 he opened his first honky-tonk bar, in an old Harlesden cinema, and that was the start of Mean Fiddler.
"It was 9 December and the club was due to open at 7.30pm. At 7pm, the tiler was still finishing off the bathrooms, and the place smelt of fresh paint. We had a Scottish band playing and it was packed," he says, and you feel he still smells the paint as well as the excitement of that first night. And it's clear that Power is just as excited about next month's festival, and, who knows, maybe another stock-market appearance?