Music to their ears

Music to their ears

When most pub operators talk about hosting live music, they’re usually referring to local bands and open mic nights. At DHP Family, things are taken a little more seriously. Over the last two decades, DHP has developed its musical offer and built relationships and a reputation within the industry that can only come from years of expertise and experience.

Back in the 80s, the company’s portfolio was more diverse, featuring arcades, casinos and bookmakers. Rock City in Nottingham – previously a space for boxing and variety acts – was taken on by George Akins’ father (also George) as an added extra to the business in 1980. It wasn’t until 2000, after other avenues of investment had been trialled and abandoned, when that attention was fully focused towards the music side of the business.

Expansion and refurbishment

Akins became managing director of DHP in 1994, when he was 18 years old. Back then, the estate solely consisted of Rock City. He now owns venues in London, Nottingham and Bristol, as well as running concert operations when gigs are held at Manchester Cathedral. The Rescue Rooms opened in Nottingham in 2001, followed by The Social, which became The Bodega. By the time DHP had bought Thekla in Bristol, the company was a live music business. Acquisitions dried up during the recession, so the company focused instead on running tours for big artists across the UK, generating the skills and relationships that would carry them forward.

That was when we started becoming not just a promoter of concerts in our own venues,” says Akins. “We started by doing shows outside our venues in Nottingham and Bristol, and then in Manchester, Birmingham, London, all over the country – Rufus Wainwright, The Human League, The Flaming Lips, James Blunt, Ed Sheeran. Our main point of difference is that we deal with live music. We’re not talking about pub bands – we’re talking about major touring artists. You don’t get relationships in live music in a year, you get them over 20 or 30. When we started nationally promoting and doing concerts for big international artists, it had taken us years and years to build up the roster of artists and the trust from the industry to look after their artists.”

Three years ago, DHP restarted its acquisitions, entering London for the first time. Oslo opened in Hackney then DHP took on leaseholds at The Garage in Islington and The Borderline in Soho. With the latest freehold acquisition in Birmingham, the geographical spread continues and the company’s experience running concerts across the UK means it has the know-how to set up in any city. Akins has ambitions to add five sites in the next five years, but acquisitions will be organic, determined by finding the right site in the right city to create the right concept.

“As the team grows we can do more,” says Akins. “We don’t have a brand we can just fold out – it’s not what we do. We’ve come from an independent attitude and we try to keep that. Our venues have to have their own soul, their own essence. We won’t be putting mobile phone company names over our doors. That is not what rock and roll is about. You’ve got to think about someone listening to live music at the grassroots stage.”

A glance across the estate reveals that independent approach. Akins enjoys coming up with the concept for each site, identifying spaces that can be used, areas that can be improved, layouts that can be altered. Major refurbishments at The Borderline and The Garage were intended not only to spruce up venues in need of a facelift, but also to create spaces that will stand the test of time and not require any further tinkering.

“When we do a major refurbishment, we try and make that work for life,” says Akins. “We spend big upfront once and it’s there. We don’t need a five-year payback because our venues don’t last five years, they last 50 years. We want to get all the elements in place and take that headache away, so that we can concentrate on the real thing, which is our customers.”

A 360 degree experience

Over the years, Akins’ business has changed in many ways, but a major shift has been driven by the kind of people visiting his venues. In the 80s, live music gigs started at 11pm and were frequented by 18 to 30-year-olds. Now, as live music has overtaken recorded music as the highest grossing part of the industry, the demographics have expanded massively – both in terms of tastes and age groups – while changes to licensing laws have enabled DHP to put on live music earlier and set up the nightclub a erwards.

“The 60s and 70s generations have grown older, but they’ve not stopped going to see live music,” explains Akins. “Now the concert-going public runs from the age of 14 to 60 or even 70 years old. You can treat live music like a cinema experience. We have concerts that finish by 10:15pm, so our customers are home for the babysitter. We can clear it again and reopen for 11pm and the club night can run until 3am. We suddenly get two bites of the cherry from Monday to Thursday. That was a big change.”

Another wider trend revolves around the rising customer expectations and the growth of premiumisation. Live music venues, like any others, have had to adapt. That means that when I visited The Borderline last month, the drinks list included a strong range of craft beers – on draft and in cans – cocktails and spirits, all served in high quality, plastic glasses by attentive staff.

“Back in the 90s it was about volume,” says Akins. “Service standards weren’t a key part of what we were about. Our whole attitude to product range, mix, staff training has completely changed in the last 15 years. The customer is no longer only coming for a live music experience; they want to come because you do a good live music experience. We get people coming in when the doors open to have a drink because they like the set-up rather than having a pint round the corner because that’s the only place they can get a decent drink.”

The change in attitude towards food and drink has been part of an overall expansion of the offer at a DHP venue – what Akins calls the “360 degree experience”. DHP no longer concentrates solely on the musical aspect of its offer; it is now embracing every aspect of the customer experience. All DHP venues bar The Borderline serve food, while Oslo combines a restaurant offering table service with a bar, a live music venue and a club all in one site.

“People’s attitudes to going out have changed,” says Akins. “They’re no longer thinking ‘that’s a bar, that’s a restaurant, that’s a nightclub’. There are still specialist places, but customers are quite happy to go for the 360 experience now. So when we look at a new site or try to create a new business, we try to do that whole 360 experience, and if we don’t know how to do it then we’re going to learn how to do it.”

Staff

The changes in approach have been built around having staff who are willing and able to implement them. Recruitment and retention in the on-trade are ongoing challenges, so DHP has taken steps to attract the right people, then invest in them to make sure they stay and grow. Students in university cities like Nottingham and Bristol working in the bars can bring important skills to the company after they’ve graduated, and Akins trades on the appeal of music to retain them and move them to the back offices. Staff members are sent to other sites to gain further experience – almost every general manager has managed Thekla at some point.

“People work for me because they love great music,” says Akins. “That’s part of our strategy. Do you really want to be an accountant at a solicitors firm when you could come and work here and when you’re finished go and watch a gig? We tend not to employ people who don’t give a shit about live music or music in general. It means we’re more likely to hold onto those people because they’re passionate about what we do.”

The attitude to staff training has changed as markedly as the drinks lists, with investment expected to grow further still. The company employs training managers, offering training at all levels up to senior management, and Akins is keen to see bigger and better systems put in place, particularly when it comes to marketing. If changing customer expectations have driven refurbishments and the overhaul of the offer, the way that customers receive information requires a constant evolution of approach. With a wide range of age groups after a wider range of musical acts, Akins needs to understand how to market to each group and keep ahead of the latest trends.

“We have to tailor our marketing to different elements – we’ve got club night marketing and live music marketing,” he explains. “We’re investing in database technologies. We have to find ways of making it more automatic and staying ahead of it because what was working last week is not working anymore. Hand flyering moves onto postering, which moves onto Facebook, which moves onto Instagram, which moves onto Snapchat. And as you think you’ve mastered something it changes again. You often find that methods that worked a decade ago that stopped working have been reintroduced and are working again.”

The live music industry is a challenging one, requiring the flexibility and awareness to keep things fresh while investing time and energy building relationships. There are political challenges ahead, but Akins has no interest in worrying about what he can’t control. Instead, he will focus on his staff, his sites and his acts to ensure that his primary concern – the customer – is satisfied and coming back for more,
bringing music to their ears.