Ed Sheeran in Dubai: What it takes to put together a stadium concert for a global star

The National goes behind the scenes of the mammoth two-night show set to be one of the biggest ever in the UAE

Ed Sheeran will bring his Mathematics stadium tour to Dubai this month. Photo: All Things Live Middle East
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Before the big gig comes the big build.

Stadium concert preparations normally begin two weeks before gates open to the public, in which infrastructure for the show is constructed.

For Ed Sheeran’s mammoth two night stand at The Sevens Stadium in Dubai, it also includes building a security fence line around the perimeter of the sprawling complex as well as archways, entrances and queuing lanes. Lorries of various sizes pour into the site, delivering everything from Portaloos to scaffolding equipment, which will be used to construct audience stands.

Meanwhile, within the bowels of the site is the rugby pitch where the contours of a 360-degree revolving stage is being built. The finished product will be surrounded by six 30-metre-high masts made from 7.5 tonnes of truss. These pillars will harness a Byzantine network of cables holding up to 55 tonnes of suspended kit such as lights, speakers and screens.

Watching the action is veteran concert promoter and All Things Live Middle East chief executive Thomas Ovesen. He looks at his watch and grunts in satisfaction.

“We are on schedule and that’s the most important thing,” he tells The National. “Everything you see in a large open-air concert is built in stages, so everybody has to do their part in order for somebody else to do theirs.

“So right now with this stage we are building what we call the ‘production skeleton’. So when Ed Sheeran's technical team arrives with their freight relatively close to the show they will have what they need to do their thing.”

Keeping it on track

Ovesen is in his element not only due to a history of sold-out concerts at the venue, such as Justin Bieber's debut UAE gig in 2013 and One Direction’s show two years later, but also his previous career as air-traffic controller for the Danish air force and Bahrain International Airport.

The latter six-year stint in Manama, beginning in 1998, laid the foundations for a successful career as a concert and festival organiser.

“It's all about having the ability to think on your feet, multi-task and not losing control of the task at hand,” he says. “I didn't know that then, of course, but when I eventually moved into event management these skills guided me well.”

Ovesen is now attempting to make the biggest landing of his career.

With the second show on January 20 sold out and sales strong for the first date, he is confident Sheeran is already the highest-selling live music event in the UAE.

While no official data is available, industry consensus is that The Rolling Stones hold the title for the highest-selling concert – achieved in 2014 when 50,000 people attended Abu Dhabi's Etihad Park to see them.

“We already sold out all 55,000 tickets between the two Ed Sheeran concerts so I feel we are already there,” he says.

More than the professional pride, however, Ovesen hopes the high sales could usher in a new wave of large-scale outdoor music events and festivals in Dubai.

The once thriving market of pop, rock and jazz festivals and stadium shows took a hit as a result of the pandemic and tougher economic climate.

The arrival of top-notch facilities, such as the Coca-Cola Arena, Dubai Opera and The Agenda, also made promoters more inclined to use them rather than repurpose an outdoor venue from scratch.

“Ultimately these venues are all a big win for music lovers here and the industry because it allows us to bring shows throughout the year and not be dependent on the weather,” Ovesen says.

“But I think for those who have lived in the UAE for a while and remember going to these outdoor shows will know how magical they can be, because they were the only place that can hold big concerts at the time.

“It’s almost a communal atmosphere with everyone standing or sitting shoulder to shoulder outside to hear music under the stars.”

Taking the risk

Conjuring that kind of magic is also expensive business.

“The business model of outdoor concerts in general can be cost prohibitive for new event organisers,” he says.

“First of all you are probably spending one to two million dirhams in setting up the venue, that means paying vendors a lot of their money in advance so they can mobilise.

“Then, of course, you need to get an artist who can sell as many tickets as possible in a stadium and they are only a handful and expensive. “So again, you are looking at significant cash flow requirements and thereby you are taking a big risk.”

Ovesen experienced some of that financial pain in a 2007 gig by Aerosmith at the Dubai Exiles Rugby Ground.

“It was a great show and we sold 10,000 tickets but I completely miscalculated the appetite of the fans in terms of the experience they wanted,” he recalls.

“I built these expensive grandstand seats at the rear of the venue where you can sit in comfortable chairs and watch the show. But people wanted to be on the floor close to the stage and singing along so we ended up not selling very much of that.

“Factor in the lack of those premium ticket sales and the scaffolding and building expenses involved and I took a severe hit. And that's how it is with big events, it's such a fine margin that if you sell 2,000 tickets less than expected then ultimately you can be a million dirhams or so out of pocket.”

The show will go on

Then again, staging a Sheeran concert is probably as sure a bet as you can find in the industry.

Running until September, his Mathematics tour has sold out nearly all of its dates, with more than five million attendees. According to Forbes magazine, it was the third highest-grossing tour of 2023 (behind Taylor Swift and Beyonce), making $240 million.

Ovesen says he is taking nothing for granted as outdoor concert organisers know the best laid plans can still go awry due to sudden weather changes.

With the exception of unsafe conditions, Ovesen says Sheeran’s concert will go ahead even in the unlikely chance of a light drizzle.

“It takes an extreme situation for these shows to cancel and I always find that artists are ready to play for their fans,” he says.

“I remember in 2012 I brought The Eagles to this same venue and on the day of the show there was a massive sandstorm earlier in the day that blew their speakers off the stage.

“When I told the band the situation and how we are rectifying it they simply said, ‘Listen, if you have power and it's not dangerous then we are playing.’”

Ed Sheeran performs on January 19 and 20 (sold out) at the Sevens Stadium, Dubai. Doors open at 4pm and the show starts at 8pm. Tickets starting at Dh595 are available at www.edsheerandxb.com

Updated: January 10, 2024, 3:03 AM