Everyone always says that there's not many acts out there that can play Wembley, but I don't necessarily buy that. I reckon at any one point there's probably about fifty acts that could. It just depends how many tour.
That's the opinion of Wembley Stadium's Head of Music and New Events, Jim Frayling, the man responsible for clinching the deals that have brought George Michael, Muse and now Madonna and the Foo Fighters to the new venue. In this final instalment of our interview with him he talks about last summer's gigs and explains the behind the scenes features that shape the sound at the new Wembley, but first we asked him how many dates the stadium has for music:
Next year we've definitely got six clear weekends for gigs. We can do up to about thirty-seven events a year, but with planning and scheduling constraints we'd do very well to approach that. After any summer England friendlies we generally have a block of dates for gigs in June and July, then in August we go back to sport mode with the FA Community Shield, an England home friendly and the Rugby League Challenge Cup final. We sometimes have dates in September for gigs, but then from October to mid-November there are England games and
currently the NFL. It's quite rare that we can't find dates for people unless they're simply touring when we're unavailable, particularly in May and August. Quite a few seem to have done that this year, I think because they wanted to avoid Euro 2008, which in the end wasn't such an issue unfortunately!
Frayling showed us some of the features built into the stadium to help with putting gigs on, such as the expanding corner exits that allow 25,000 people standing on the custom pitch cover to exit the bowl within a target time of eight minutes and the metal seating at one end that can be lifted out hydraulically to make way for a stage that is both off the football playing surface and offers good sight lines. But what kind of artists look to take on this giant space?
You can't force someone to tour, so they have to be touring already. Once that happens they start thinking about routing and then they will get in touch, so it's my job to keep as close as possible to the people who could hold events here. We usually negotiate with the
promoter, not with the band. More often than not I have a very good idea who the bands are, but genuinely sometimes I don't know. My rule of thumb is that if you can headline a festival, or do two nights in a big arena in the winter you can play Wembley. Muse did that and then they came here. People were surprised when it went to two nights and completely sold out, but I knew they had a tremendous live following and that they'd also done two nights at Earls Court, which holds about 19,000. Then you come here and it varies between 60,000 and 75,000
depending on your production. Reading and Leeds have just announced The Killers as headliners and I think they could do a stadium gig now without breaking sweat. We're deliberately agnostic about music genres. We want everyone to feel that, if you want to draw a big crowd, then Wembley's the place to do it.
How did it feel when George Michael sang the first notes in the new Wembley?
Amazing! I have to run round so much at gigs and I always try to get a moment where I actually watch the band and enjoy it. George's first song was sung behind the video screen in the centre of the stage. It parted and from behind the stage I watched him step through after singing most of the first song. I heard the reaction of the crowd and I looked diagonally up into the corner and I could see people going absolutely crazy in the top tier. He launched into a more upbeat number and it was spine tingling. There was this massive sense of overwhelming happiness because we'd been through a lot to get there.
Picture of Muse, balloons and aerial acrobats at Wembley via Georgio's Flickr stream.
Metallica joined George Michael in headlining during Wembley's debut year, but probably the band to cause the biggest buzz from doing so was Muse:
Usually we deal with promoters, managers and agents but we did get to know Muse quite well. I think their promoter, Stuart Galbraith, gave them a lot of confidence. The management were up for it as well and they're a band who like to take things on. We had them here for the press launch, but before that the actual band came for the production visit which is quite rare. As they looked round I could sense they were quite nervous. One of them said, "It's a lot bigger than an arena!" You could see it was sinking in and then they just rolled up their sleeves and said, "How are we going to attack this?" Their whole crew pulled it off, led by them, because they get really involved in their gigs, looking at creative solutions. We have a big stand behind the stage and you can just drape that, but they put these giant spheres there that lit up and which really added to the experience and made it feel more intimate. The aerialists were a challenge to stage safely and working out how you get someone flying above the heads of a crowd is a slightly alien concept to people who look after health and safety, but to their great credit everybody really knuckled down. In the end there were two people holding the wire that tethers the acrobats and we basically cleared the area between the front pit and the main crowd and they ran up and down there, in and out, to control the height. I think those HAARP shows just cemented Muse's reputation as great live performers even further. It came as no surprise to me that Muse received a number of industry awards for 'best live act' and their show definitely contributed to Wembley twice winning 'Best Live Venue'.
Wembley is already renowned worldwide for Norman Foster's signature arch helping to support the roof, but the construction of an up-to-the-minute stadium gave the opportunity to incorporate the latest in techniques to make the best possible outdoor soundstage:
The thing that really hurts sound in venues is having flat surfaces that bounce back sound. At the rear of the lower tier you can see some mesh panelling that absorbs it and up the back where sound would normally bounce around because there's just glass and seats there are more of the same panels. The fronts of the boxes and suites are all at slightly different angles. They're like a concertina that's stretched out. Where possible we've tried to minimise the amount of bare concrete. You'll also notice the speakers we've got. A very advanced system has been put in, designed by people who are well-respected within the industry and tested by people like the guys who do U2's sound. Our challenge is to make that work as well as we can, but we don't think people have really used it to its optimum yet. Sound is a difficult thing to talk about objectively, because everyone has their own preferences. I was standing on the pitch for one gig and I had my radio and Wembley jacket on and someone came up and said "I can't hear anything!" Maybe it was their first gig and they might have been comparing it to their 5.1 system that they use at home with their CD. Your live experience is never going to reflect that because you haven't been tweaking it in the studio forever. We've got clearer sound lines to people than venues that have got a big overhang with a balcony and we have sound measuring points that are pretty well spread out. Our roof meets the supporting walls and the glass so there's no spillage which means we can go louder. We have had occasional issues where a speaker has gone down and so on, but by and large we have good sound and we can go loud safely. There's no reason now, with the technology that we have, why a stadium gig can't be as good as an arena gig or even better.
The big bands making lots of noise is obviously what most people expect from music in stadium venues, but some time ago Frayling talked about an idea he had for a mini-festival held around Wembley's various spaces and it's still something on his radar:
We've got a bunch of restaurants which take 1000-1900 people seated and it's something I'd like to pursue. The restaurants are mini-venues within themselves. It would need the right kind of partners who'd be a bit creative about it, but you could do smaller things in different spaces and then have everyone come out into the bowl for a major event. The first year here was about establishing ourselves and getting things up and running. We've only scratched the surface of what this place can do.