John Lickrish almost lost an arm, built Flash from scratch, and would love to bring U2 to Abu Dhabi (where the streets have new names). Mona Al Marzooqi / The National
John Lickrish almost lost an arm, built Flash from scratch, and would love to bring U2 to Abu Dhabi (where the streets have new names). Mona Al Marzooqi / The National

Abu Dhabi concert chief has U2 in his sights

The Canadian John Lickrish, 47, is the founder and chief executive of Flash Entertainment. Since 2008 it has organised more than 2,800 live music, sports, comedy and cultural events at its two Abu Dhabi venues – du Arena and du Forum – including performances by Madonna, the Rolling Stones and Rihanna. Previously, Mr Lickrish ran the Canadian record label Blue Recordings, specialising in electronic music, as well as sister companies Blue Events and Blue Bookings.

What brought you to Abu Dhabi?

I came for about five days in 2006 to visit a friend who was working for the UAE government, who wanted to kick-start an entertainment industry in Abu Dhabi.

A few days after that visit I went to Scotland, where I severed my arm falling 20 metres from a balcony on to a spike fence. I spent the next year-and-a-half getting it working again, with 15 surgeries, including bone and nerve transplants. My friend asked me if I would take a job with Mubadala, which was in the process of booking Justin Timberlake. When you have a life-threatening accident, everyone tries to support you and it becomes quite suffocating. I decided a bit of separation from everyone would be good, so I took up the job offer in Abu Dhabi.

How did you then develop Flash?

While I was with Mubadala, it was felt we should have a dedicated company. I worked for about six months on a strategy for developing live entertainment in the city. At that time, we didn’t have security companies, food and beverage vendors, ticketing, proper understanding from sponsors, emergency evacuation procedures or health and safety codes, so we spent two years developing all that from the ground up.

What’s the time frame involved when bringing over a big name talent?

Bringing over Bon Jovi last October was a crazy eight-year-long process. We had kept in touch after they played in Abu Dhabi in 2007 and I would sometimes go see their shows in other cities and chat with their manager. One time I had a contract signed, but they had to then cancel because of a change in schedule. The process involves agents, management, sponsors, talking to F1 if they wanted to have them. There were late-night negotiations when I’d get really close to squeezing them into a schedule of tour dates around Abu Dhabi, but it just never clicked until last year. My chairman was so fed up of me telling him, ‘this year we’ll have Bon Jovi. He eventually said, ‘I don’t want to hear this any more. Every year you say the same thing’. So this time we didn’t mention anything to him until the contract was ready to sign.

Is it a challenge getting the entertainment visas sorted for the performers?

You have to ask the artists for their passport copies and some of them don’t want to give them because they don’t want to show their real names or ages. But the process here is very streamlined, and we work well with the authorities. There are the occasional hiccups. Some of the artists’ entourage forget to get visas and end up being told they can’t enter the country. Shakira’s Argentinian [boyfriend] was the first to violate – he came out of the US and when he arrived in the UAE they said “no way”.

What do the entertainers like to do in their free time?

They’re very secretive – they don’t like to tell us because they think we’ll leak information to the press, then the press will be wanting to take photos – it’s not really like that here, but it is in the States. We’ve had artists visit Dubai and the drivers calling us to say they have just switched their hotel.

They like to go see the desert, Emirates Palace, the Grand Mosque … Sometimes they get private dinner invitations from important people here. But the artists aren’t as crazy as you might think. They work a lot. There has only been one incident of hotel room trashing. A young American band moved the furniture so the whole room looked upside down. I got pictures from our team. I was actually impressed, it was a lot of work and was done really well – they didn’t break anything. They were here for four days and got bored with rehearsing.

Who would you still love to bring over?

Given our record, you can assume that U2 would be big on that list. But everyone wants them. It’s all about routing. Flying from London to New York gives them an opportunity now to do about 40 or 50 gigs, whereas flying from London to Abu Dhabi gives them the opportunity to do maybe two. And then you have another five-hour flight to go somewhere else. U2 can play New York and then they can play Philadelphia. There’s nothing else preventing U2 coming through – Bono has been to Abu Dhabi and I know the people he has met with. They are looking to play this region because they haven’t done so before. It would be the worst-kept secret in the world, if it does happen.

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