Working Wonders: The music promoter who brings the stars to Dubai

Thomas Ovesen has helped bring some of the world's most famous artists, such as Prince and Ed Sheeran, to perform in the UAE

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Our Working Wonders of the UAE series takes you to some of the country's most recognisable destinations to uncover the daily duties of the talented employees working there

At least 500,000 people have experienced Thomas Ovesen’s work without necessarily knowing it.

The Dane, one of the region’s most influential and successful music and entertainment promoters, has brought the world’s biggest stars to the UAE.

Mr Ovesen, 53, began staging shows while working in Bahrain when event-management was a nascent business, and ran his first in Dubai in 1999.

He has since held leading roles with Coca-Cola Arena, 117Live, Done Events, AEG Live Middle East, and at Diriyah Gate, Riyadh.

Mr Ovesen, who lives in Jumeirah, is now chief executive of All Things Live, which is staging huge Ed Sheeran shows for 60,000 at Sevens Stadium in January.

How did you get into live events?

I went to Bahrain as an air traffic controller in 1998. I thought it would be exciting to go to an exotic destination.

Once I’d worked two or three nights back-to-back, I would have days off so started helping out in the local British club and rugby club, doing events.

As a young adult in Denmark I had volunteered at one of the biggest festivals, Roskilde, but it was never a career objective or aspiration.

Because my day job was rigid sort of work, I thought doing events must be easy. Obviously, it’s not, but thought that was a great challenge.

How did this lead to Dubai?

After a couple of years doing events in my spare time I got hooked. I worked on a Westlife show in Lebanon, Geri Halliwell, just out of the Spice Girls, in Dubai and Bahrain.

Dubai was just establishing itself as the entertainment hub in the region, and I started doing events as a full-time job.

We mainly saw British artists coming, perhaps in the back-ends of their careers. There weren’t really purpose-built venues, normally we had one ticket category, but we started getting sophisticated when we invented the front [fan] pit.

Have arenas in Abu Dhabi and Dubai made a difference?

Our industry thought correctly that would be the game changer; we could extend the season to 12 months and could deliver quality sound and show experiences for fans instead of what was usually significantly reduced quality and production size.

Pretty much within an arena, you can plug and play. When you build an outdoor venue, you have a significant expense and it’s up front. You build everything from the perimeter fencing to toilet cabins, all planned and paid for in advance.

With Ed Sheeran, we start several weeks before because it’s such a big job. We’re producing the show in the round, which has never been done in the region. I think it’s the biggest show to play the UAE.

Is it a challenge attracting major acts?

In the early days, you had to satisfy artists it would be safe to come. Now it’s not an issue convincing people, it’s sometimes a financial matter; getting someone to expand a tour they hadn’t planned to bring or because of competition between different governments and tourism boards in the region. Sometimes you have to pay premium money to get them to decide to play with you.

Most of the time, money is probably the deciding factor.

Is it a risky business?

Of course.

Radio airplay doesn’t translate to tickets sales necessarily. You have a big consumer segment of young music fans not accustomed to going to live shows; they’re quite happy consuming entertainment and music without necessarily seeing artists live.

People are loyal to artists, not necessarily to going to a live event, so you have to put the right thing on at the right time, and at the right price.

When do negotiations begin?

Because I’ve been in the business a long time, an artist or agent will sometimes reach out. That could be a year or even longer in advance.

Sometimes where a tour is ongoing an agent will reach out and say they have offers in neighbouring countries, what can we do in four months time – and then we make an offer.

There’s another scenario where we think an artist would be great for a venue or the market or time period, and we approach them.

Do the performance fees surprise you?

Yes, and also the money some fans are willing to spend to attend those events. Our business is a matter of supply and demand. Artists will look at that given point in time, what they think they are worth.

Sometimes the most important thing you can do is say, “No, thanks”. I don't have to do an event. If I think it’s too much, I don’t make an offer. I have always treated my stakeholders’ monies as my own.

Then some artists ask for a lot, we do the event, it turns out profitable … so they prove they have that value.

Most of the time, my thoughts would be proven right with regards to how a show performs. But I also get it wrong.

Sometimes, on a positive side, you think an event can sell 8,000 tickets and it sells 12,000. The market is as difficult and challenging to read as ever.

Which artists have you enjoyed working with?

I cannot think of any I wouldn’t like to work with a second time.

I’ve also worked with phenomenal artists who unfortunately are no longer [with us], like Amy Winehouse and Joe Cocker.

I took Beyonce to Africa, the first time she played there, in Lagos, Nigeria. The most memorable show was Addis Ababa, Ethiopia … she was greeted like a princess. And we worked with Prince, a couple of smaller shows in London and Dubai.

Eagles at Sevens Stadium; we had crazy weather early in the day, the venue turned upside down by a sandstorm. We didn’t think we could put on the show, but that night the wind was calm for a magical show.

There are still a good handful I would really like to promote, like Bruce Springsteen. But I will not pursue an artist because I personally want to, only if it’s right business-wise.

Do you meet the artists?

I’ve always felt I should do that. Often that means turning up in the airport when they come in, or meeting them at their hotel and sending them off again, just so they felt we cared.

Any on your Christmas card list?

For sure. Both current and some that have since the left the game.

There’re definitely artists I would say I stay in touch with.

Any strange demands?

We had a very big female artist who wanted a personalised toilet seat.

It was couriered in to be placed on that person’s toilet, which was then locked so only she could use it.

We had a really big pop star who wanted a personal gym with Jacuzzi built near the venue, backstage … despite having those facilities in the hotel. I don’t think he ever used it.

Another wanted the best villa at a deluxe resort with the best view, after which we were told to black out the windows with tape for the duration of his stay.

Updated: December 14, 2023, 6:59 AM