BIG Concerts lures stars to SA

R&B crooner Mary J.Blige performs at
the Grand Arena in Cape Town during her
2007 tour.
(Image: Celeb woohoo)

Goo Goo Dolls lead singer John Rzeznik
at the 46664 Aids concert held at Ellis Park
Stadium in 2007.
(Image: Daylife)

Tamara O’Reilly

South Africans were culturally isolated under apartheid, but the advent of democracy has seen the who’s who of entertainment beating a path to the country’s door.
During apartheid, the United Nations Cultural Boycott Resolution meant that virtually no country in the world would do cultural business with South Africa. No artist or musician from a member state could perform in the country, and white South African artists were banned from performing elsewhere in the world.
During the early 1990s, with smell of democracy in the air, arts organisations and companies prepared for the lifting of the ban. One of them was BIG Concerts, the company that brought US folk-rock singer Paul Simon to South Africa for the country’s first post-apartheid international music tour. It has since earned the reputation of being South Africa’s premier concert organiser.
At first, BIG Concerts’ BIG Birthday bashes at Ellis Park Stadium promoted the best in South African music talent, crossing all racial boundaries. They have since brought more than 100 artists and more than 1 000 tours to South African audiences – names like Bryan Adams, Simply Red, Diana Ross, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, U2 and REM – with some doing return tours.

What goes into it?

In the honeymoon period after the end of the apartheid and the lifting of the cultural boycott many big-name artists were eager to appear on local stages and share their solidarity with the new South Africa. But according to BIG Concerts chief operating officer John Langford, the industry has matured significantly since then and the company now competes for tours on the same basis as any other.

“Nowadays it’s obviously a financial decision on whether or not the tour will generate sufficient profits,” he says. “Provided that the rand does not weaken substantially, and consumers have a degree of disposable income, there will always be a healthy market for tours. Unlike the recorded music industry, the concert business is showing good growth around the world.

“Concerts seem to survive economic challenges quite well. In times of difficulty, people still look for entertainment, possibly as a way to forget their day to day challenges. However, during tough times you only attract core fans of an artist and not those people on the periphery, and therefore our choice of who we tour is critical.”

The artists

Internationally, BIG Concerts have earned a reputation with artists as Africa’s premier concert organiser. Many artists are confident their demands for a venue, accommodation security and other logistics will be properly met.

Probably the biggest factor for organisers to consider is the concert venue. Most major performances in Johannesburg are held at the Coca Cola Dome, an indoor venue with a standing and seating capacity of 19 000 people. In Cape Town the Bellville Velodrome, with a capacity of 10 000, is popular for major concerts.

“We have a much better choice in venues than a few years back – including great new purpose options like the Grand Arena at Grandwest and the Teatro at Montecasino,” says Langford. “In most cases we do not have to rearrange the site to accommodate our specific needs because these have been taken into account during the construction of venue. Other than the purpose-built arenas, we are always looking for suitable, large outdoor festival sites where we can host concerts.”

A lot takes place behind the scenes before the promoter announces the arrival of an artist. Before approaching the artist, BIG Concerts undertakes research, which includes the reading of international and local trade magazines, communicating with record companies and radio stations, and monitoring the artist’s profile in South Africa. Other factors influencing their approach to artists include suggestions from the general public, as well as suggestions or requests from potential sponsors.

“We have waited more than five years for some tours – so clearly having patience is a critical personality attribute. In most cases there is a reasonable degree of waiting, and negotiating, but the only time we ever draw the line is when it comes to budget parameters or deadlines that cannot be shifted.”

One of the artists the company wishes to see on our shores is Madonna. “She is probably the greatest female performer of all time, and yet she has not performed in Africa yet,” says Langford.


Recently BIG Concerts was the only African promoter – coming in at 21 – to be included in the list of the World’s Top 100 Promoters. Pollstar is the world’s largest resource for international concert tour information which collates and publishes information on concert ticket sales and artist tour schedules.

Locally, the promoter was also voted The Star newspaper’s People’s Choice as South Africa’s top event company.

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