Interview: George Akins of Rock City

Photos: Lamar Francois
Interview: Paul Klotschkow
Thursday 16 January 2014
reading time: min, words

George Akins lived the dream of every music-loving teenager when he was given the keys to Rock City as his eighteenth birthday present. Since then he’s taken it up a notch by adding more venues, a national promotions company and a roster of acts to his empire. By George, hasn’t he done well?

DHP has just won the National Promoter of the Year award for the second year running. Congratulations! Why do you think you won again?
It’s voted for by people: people like working with us. We’ve obviously worked with some heavy hitting acts over the last few years and people respect what we’ve done. Each year we get bigger and bigger, it’s going well.
How significant is it that you won without being based in either London or Manchester?
There might have been a quicker level of success if we were, you always do London and Manchester on a tour, whereas you don’t always do Nottingham. But there is also something about working with a company who is a bit out of sight, you are not on their case all of the time like all of the London promoters who are out at every gig bothering agents with every little thing. We are seen as getting along with our job without annoying anyone and doing it well. It’s progressed gradually; rather than us chasing and chasing and trying to be a big promoter overnight. We have done it over a period of time and been recognised for it. 
How do you stay competitive against larger promoters?
We are a different beast. SJM are a much bigger promoter in the UK and Live Nation bring in the big American acts. We try not to get into many battles with those guys. You get played-off against each other to get the best money and to see what benefit you can do for an act. We’re independent and the smaller player, but there is never any worry that we can’t pay. We do our job as well as the bigger guys.
Has anyone ever tried to buy Rock City or sponsor it?
We’ve been approached about sticking a name over the top of Rock City by brands I wouldn’t associate the venue with. It doesn’t sit well with me, although if the right brand came along I would consider it. The brands of the venues are their own brands and they shouldn’t be tainted with something that isn’t relevant, I don’t need the money that much. There are very few cities now with iconic venues.
What made you decide to open your new club, Oslo, in London?
We’d been looking for a London venue for a number of years. I got the venue some time ago, but there were some licensing issues and I needed planning permission. We do a lot of shows in London, but this will increase the amount. It’s very exciting, we already have an office in London but this gives us a venue base.
Why’s it called Oslo?
I’m half Norwegian; my mother is Norwegian and my family is from Oslo, and I like the name. It’s not a theme bar.

Venues come and go - a recent example being Junktion 7. What are they doing wrong?
You look at the rents that landlords think that they can charge for their premises, they’re completely out of kilter. One of the reasons why we haven’t opened a new venue since The Thekla is not being able to pay the property prices. The property boom collapsed the way it did because rent and property prices were unobtainable. Alcohol prices have increased, the smoking ban has come in, minimum wage has gone up, inflation has gone up but you are not allowed to charge more for entertainment, because there are so many premises meaning competition is tougher. Junktion 7 was a great venue, it had its own character and it worked. You think location, it’s probably very student led, you get no business in the summer. You aren’t able to get enough gigs because we are doing most of them or most of the ones that make money, so you have to find something that supports the gig business. You have to have a bar that everyone loves to go to, but that’s really difficult to make pay. It’s crazy, I know what they were paying at Junktion 7 and no matter how good they were you could never make that pay because the rent was too high. The premises were good, the offer was good, the bands they were putting on were excellent, they did a great job. But the landlord was greedy.
What was the local music scene in Nottingham like when you took over Rock City in 1994?
A band had to stand on their own two feet back then, they didn’t really get any support, certainly not in the way that happens now.

Why was that?
There wasn’t any record companies coming to gigs. There didn’t seem to be a scene. Pitchshifter were very popular, but every time you went out you would hear people bad mouthing them. Local Nottingham people, as soon as as anyone made a success of it, just tore them down. So I think as a city there was some sort of bad attitude, but that has changed in recent years.
We’ve heard complaints about DHP having a stranglehold on live music in Nottingham. What do you say to that?
We are in a highly competitive business and I won’t apologise for being successful. We try not to behave badly. You will always have people moaning about others who are successful, that’s just the English way, isn’t it? But we work with local promoters like I’m Not From London, IKE and Cosmic American, and we cut better deals for those guys than we do for national promoters. It’s a business, I do what I’ve got to do, I’m not trying to suppress anyone. The only people who I won’t work with… well, I won’t get in to it.
Why did you decide to manage Dog Is Dead?
It was the right time for us to do it. I saw them at The Bodega and then I went to see them at Junktion 7. I asked to manage them straight after that. Within a year or so they signed to a major label, had a top forty album and sold out shows in Nottingham and London. The second record will be the making of this band; it’s fabulous from what I’ve heard so far. There’s some incredible songs; Hotel, Funny Bone… I don’t want to tell you too much. Don’t forget they were seventeen when I met them and they’re still young guys finding their sound and talent.
Do you think they would have got signed if you hadn’t got involved?
I’d like to think that they were so talented they would break through anyway, but there’s no doubt they were helped by DHP’s resources and our ability to back them financially. Before them there hadn’t been a Nottingham band signed to a major label for a long time.
Are you looking at taking anyone else on?
We started managing Indiana this summer, who is signed to Sony. She’s just been Record of the Day on Radio One, and in the NME.
Do you regret not approaching Jake Bugg?
It was already all tied up by the time I first saw him. There was a lot of talk about him, however at the time they had good management and they’d approached a large firm in Newcastle. But we promote him in Nottingham, Bristol, Oxford, we did Splendour and we got the Arena gig next year.
Who do you think will be the next Notts act to breakthrough?
I think Saint Raymond will be big. He’s signed to Atlantic, selling a large amount of tickets and has good sales on his EP. There’s also a lot of excitement about Amber Run. You also have people like Harleighblu, Natalie Duncan, Nina Smith, Georgie Rose and Rob Green, who are all fantastic performers with great voices and could all make it. Next year is going to be another big year for Nottingham; you are going to see new albums from Dog Is Dead, Indiana and Saint Raymond, plus Jake Bugg’s second record will already be out.
How is the Nottingham music scene viewed nationally?
Every A&R in the world now wants to know what’s going on. We worked with the Concert Hall on the Nottingham Rocks show and the label who were interested in signing Amber Run came up. The last time I saw that kind of interest in Nottingham was when Arctic Monkeys played an unsigned night at The Social right at the beginning of their career and there was literally every label with open cheque books.
What are the best rumours you’ve heard about yourself and DHP?
That we operate in relation to the Hells Angels? That I stored police cars under Rock City in the caves. I’ve heard all sorts of strange things over the years and none of them true. Some people presume that we are some big bad business that sweeps up everything in Nottingham. What can you do? If you are successful you are going to get shot down.
You’ve spent your life in the live music business - how bad is your tinnitus?
Dreadful. I’ve had bad hearing all of my life, but it has definitely been compounded. I would recommend anyone that goes to gigs or clubbing on a regular basis to really look after their ears. I’m not quite forty and I will probably be deaf in one of my ears in fifteen years time. I have these special filtered earplugs but I never remember them. I wish someone had told me this when I was younger. Then again, I probably did have someone telling me this when I was younger, but I just told them to fuck off, “I’ll be alright, I’ll be dead by the time I’m 35”.

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