Laneway Festival boss Mark Kneebone's rise to the top
A CONFERENCE ROOM, Cannes, some time in late 2006. iTunes and YouTube and Spotify are all looming on the horizon. The giants of the music industry have formed their own compacts with these revenue-threatening streaming services, but the ailing health of the $30 CD has the indie record labels are worried.
Around the table sit such giants of the trade as American Tommy Silverman, a former Warner Music vice-president and founder of Tommy Boy Records (De La Soul, House of Pain, Queen Latifah), the British mogul Martin Mills of the Beggars Group (Radiohead, the Prodigy, the White Stripes) and the Belgian Michel Lambot from giant European distributor PIAS, representing more than 100 labels (and bands including Editors and the Pixies).
And with them as the group Merlin is formed - which now represents 12% of worldwide music and 20,000 labels across 40 countries and cut a deal now worth in the tens of millions to secure streaming rights royalties for indie bands - was a 28-year-old kid from Glen Innes, Auckland, who sat entranced as Silverman recounted tales about the time Jay-Z first played for him.
"I was a real fan boy," admits Mark Kneebone. "Everyone else had known each other for 20 years, but I was the kid from New Zealand, sitting there with wide eyes. The others would talk about major music industry matters, and I would pull him aside and ask 'what was it like recording Three Feet High and Rising [De La Soul's debut album] and he would laugh and tell me stories for the next hour."
It was a "real fluke" of politics and geography, admits Kneebone, that got him around that table but he was becoming used to being the youngest guy in the room (even if he had to go and buy a tie to be deposed at the US Embassy as the debate went to the US courts). The group's chief executive, Charles Caldas, eventually told Kneebone it was time to talk up. "You're here in the room for a reason, you've got to contribute: it was a really good kick in the arse: 'we all get that you are young, but you are here for a reason, pipe up, or else get out of the way for someone else'. It was a massive life lesson: it worked for Laneway [music festival] too - for right or wrong, you've got this festival in New Zealand so you've got to run with it."
Now 36, still young among the grizzled veterans of the promotions game, Kneebone is now co-promoter of the New Zealand leg of Laneway - despite never running a festival before. "He's a smart fellow and he understands things very quickly," explains his best friend, Recorded Music New Zealand chief executive Damian Vaughan.
Vaughan and Kneebone, mates since year nine at Sacred Heart College, lived as students in an "old derelict mansion" in St John's with Vaughan's brother and a bunch of mates and installed their own studio in the giant, decrepit lounge. They entered Rock Quest, played in thrash metal and electronica bands and formed a label, pressing 500 copies of their own drum-and-bass record. Was it good? "Of course," laughs Vaughan. "We were quite proud of it. It's probably dated considerably in the 14 years since."
More importantly, it was then that both resolved they wanted careers in the music industry. Kneebone had studied nearly three years of a law degree, but shelved it, switching instead to communications, first at Monash in Melbourne, then AUT in Auckland. On graduation, there was a choice: a job at TV3, or $200 a week as general dogsbody at a record company called Kog. "It was the best decision of my life. I took the Kog job and have been in the industry ever since. If I'd taken the TV3 job, I don't know what I would have been doing... but I wouldn't be doing this."
Kog provided a lot of experience, very fast. "It was like doing a PhD in the music industry: you had to learn how CDs are made, how a record is produced, what mastering means, how you get a band on the road." He started doing promotions work because "I was good at getting people to say yes on the telephone". One day, he says, he arrived in the office and Kog boss Callum August handed him his new business cards, with the title of promotions manager, and told him he was still earning $200 a week. He supplemented that doing work around the fringe of gigs: anything, he says, from loading trucks to bouncing to running the cloakroom. "But it's not just sitting there taking people's coats for $2, you are talking to the promoter, you get to see how the venue works, what DJs are playing and what they are playing..."
After Cog, he ran Isaac Promotions, a label and music services company. He didn't stop to think about age and inexperience. "You just do it, because I didn't want to go work at Merrill Lynch or something, that had zero appeal. I love music and as cheesy as it sounds, if you're going to do 60 hours a week, you might as well enjoy it, otherwise it makes no sense."
60 hours doesn't seem an exaggeration. He describes a working day that starts at 7.30am, goes through until 6pm, then has a couple of hours break before resuming for phone calls to Europe and the US. "The illusion is that it's all rock and roll. In high school, when they tell you it's 90 per cent perspiration and ten per cent inspiration, it turns out they weren't lying." It may help that he's not settled down; he has no kids, and "got close once" to marriage.
There are relative few clippings on Kneebone in the archive. "I prefer it that way," he says, "I would much rather you were interviewing an artist for one of our shows." That said, he's garrulous company: he is, says one fellow music industry veteran, with a fond smile, "the Cockney barrow-boy of promoters".
But he's been involved behind the scenes in some big things: as chairman of Independent Music New Zealand, the representative body for indie labels, he fought controversial,, long-running battles alongside Campbell Smith and Universal boss Adam Holt over radio royalty rights - they secured about another $1m a year in fees for artists - and music copyrights. The copyright case, where the industry sought strict controls amid pirating fears as streaming grew, was much debated. "Cooler heads should have prevailed on both sides," he reflects now.
At the same time, he was promoting gigs and running a label but the jump to running a festival was a chance thing: he was recommended to the Australian founder Danny Rogers by a friend, they had a casual half-hour chat over a burger in Brisbane and that was it. Wisely, industry veteran Manolo Echave, an offsider of promotions king Michael Chugg, was drafted in to share the burden. "It was a marriage of convenience, but it has worked so well," says Kneebone, describing Echave as "the renegade uncle I never had".
Echave says the first Laneway, in 2010, was a "big learning curve" for Kneebone and the original third team member, Ben Howe, but he picked it up quickly. "Oh yes, he's not a silly man."
It's a strange summer for Kiwi music festivals: a larger than usual number appeared, before two - Echo and Soulfest - both imploded. Laneway, says Kneebone, has a reliable hard core of punters - each year two-thirds of them had attended the year before. But, he says, sounding genuine, he will not take them for granted. "Every year, I feel very humbled that people actually turn up." So, he says, he wants to guarantee them a good day: good music but also decent food, shade, reasonable toilets. "I was that kid who went to Big Day Out with $2 in my pocket and no idea how I would get home, and it was the best day of my life." The $2 went on a hotdog, he drank water from the tap, and a mate of a mate dropped him home. "Manolo and I constantly talk about how to give them a memorable day, whether they are an 18 year old apprentice mechanic scraping together the ticket money or a guy who makes 200k a year but this is his one day off a year from the office. You've got to respect it. Are people just going to come? No there are not."
When February 1 comes, his day with end, as it always does, drinking a 2am beer with Echave (one year, all they could find was two warm, dented cans of vodka RTD, but drank them anyway). It will begin at 6am, and he says the five hours before the doors open are the quickest of his life. "It's easily my favourite day of the year," he says.
He remembers the first Laneway, held in more cramped confines at the Britomart precinct in the city centre. "I was standing backstage and got the radio call 'the doors are open'. And just then, there was an almighty smash. A light tower had backed into a van and crushed the back of it. As my start to being a festival promoter, I was like 'shit, shit'. That was it, that was the start."
His dad, who he says had great music taste, and his elder brother, Carlos, who works in insurance but loves his music, will definitely be out front enjoying the show. His younger brother Ryan, first ran his now-prominent burger van, the Bearded Clam, at last year's Laneway. Vaughan is DJing a set. A host of cousins will be there, he says, explaining the high number of Filipinos in the crowd. And his mum, yes, she will be there and very proud too. "But she's still ringing up saying 'when will you become a lawyer?' I'm not kidding, 'When are you going to finish that law degree?' "
That seems unlikely. "I still love it. That's what matters. Music is my absolute passion."
Industry needs to change
30-year industry veteran Manolo Echave - co-promoter of the Laneway Festival - says senior promoters are ready to move to stop a repeat of this year's cancellation-disrupted festival season.
After the collapse of Echo Festival and Soulfest, Echave - whose on festival is firmly on track for February 1 - says it has impacted the entire industry.
"This thing reflects badly on the industry as a whole: it is a negative for all of us no matter who we are becaause when it comes to a situation where the poor old punter is out of pocket, it really does impact immensely on us. We are fortunate we have a dedicated, loyal audience for Laneway, and I think they have a trust and understanding that they are dealing with professional, experienced people, but overall the situation is not as it should be for our punter, and that's what they are: they are all of our punters. Our industry is entrusted with a lot of money over the years and people put that trust in you to deliver a good time."
Echave expects the New Zealand Entertainment Operators Association, chaired by another longstanding promoter, Ian Magan, to move to regulate newcomers to the industry.
"We are the last people on earth to feel any regulation should come into our industry, but I think more and more people are thinking that maybe needs some transparency when people come forward without too much history in business or experience of what they are doing."
Laneway Festival, February 1, Auckland. laneway.co.nz
An earlier version erroneously reported that Raggamuffin had been cancelled. It has not, and it will be held on February 20th 2016 at Auckland's Trusts Arena, tikcets available from https://raggamuffin.co.nz
- Sunday Star Times