Introducing UNO guest editors Mitch Lowe, Pato Alvarez, and Toby Burrows, aka music promoters with the mostest.
WORDS JENNY RUDD / PHOTOS GARTH BADGER + SUPPLIED
Imagine walking into a paddock in the middle of nowhere. Listen to the tweeting birds and baahing sheep, marvel at the lack of buildings and the expansive view. Now, take a notepad and work out how to put on a party for 20,000 in that spot.
Pato Alvarez, Mitch Lowe and Toby Burrows could do that. They know how many toilets, burgers, bottles of water and beers you need to keep a crowd happy, and by how many each of those numbers changes if it rains or shines. They know who that crowd listens to and how to persuade those artists to come to New Zealand, what kind of stages they need for each act and how the sound needs to be engineered. They know how to select and brief a whole team of security to keep everyone safe and smiling, what to do if an earthquake hits and how to get everyone out. They know how to manage drainage so that dancing feet stay dry, and what products their partygoers consume so sponsors can get involved. They know how to keep things moving, even if an artist breaks a leg or decides on a whim not to turn up.
If you’ve been to a musical event in New Zealand in the past year, there’s a fairly high chance you’ve bought a ticket from one of these guys. Between them, they’ve sold about 350,000 in the past 12 months alone. They own around eight festivals (the number increases every few months) and have put on about 300 shows. The breadth of the music they’re bringing to the country is incredible. Pop, hip-hop, thrash metal, ’70s disco, ’80s rock, megastar DJs, reggae… they’ve got every genre covered.
Pato, Mitch and Toby each has their own pedigree as a music promoter. Toby is one of the godfathers of New Zealand festivals, having been involved in Rhythm and Vines and BW Summer Festival in his hometown, Gisborne, for many years. Pato started Tauranga reggae festival One Love in 2010, and Mitch has been selling tickets to events since he was a teenager and now co-owns Bay Dreams with Pato. This year, Bay Dreams has expanded to include events in both Tauranga and Nelson.
The trio have been friends for a while through the industry, booking artists through each other and doing projects together, but the triumvirate was solidified when they started Neptune Entertainment in 2017. Neptune tours legacy acts, and according to the boys, that’s a huge space to occupy. Fans’ love for the acts of their youth only intensifies with age, as the music represents their golden memories, and such gigs can often be the last time these types of bands tour, which makes seeing them live all the more special. Take Bryan Adams, for example. He was the first act the boys toured under Neptune and the response was epic. So much so that they’re bringing him back to Aotearoa in March.
It’s not easy to get to the bottom of what exactly the guys do and who owns what. They have around 15 businesses together, all owning varying proportions, and they contract themselves to each other as well. They all rave about their fantastic CFO, Shannyn Derbyshire, who keeps them organised contractually, and consider themselves equal partners in everything. “We all have clear direction within the group, but we’re walking our own paths,” says Mitch.
They can clearly all organise an event from the ground up, but since they’ve solidified as a team, they’ve brought their individual strengths to the fore. Mitch handles sponsors and marketing, Pato negotiates with acts, and Toby’s operations and logistics.
Despite running a multi-squillion-dollar music-industry empire from Tauranga, they keep everything about relationships. “We’re very proactive with giving each other time off and supporting each other when things are challenging,” says Mitch. “It’s what keeps our relationship healthy. That, and our trick of realising the most fantastic and unrealistic goals.”
A skilled negotiator and persistence personified, the owner of Pato Entertainment says he knows this is what he was born to do. It takes a lot of hard work to deliver the best, but he also believes business should be fun, and that’s a sentiment that filters right through from the spark of an idea to its realisation in a crowd of happy revellers having the time of their life.
“My brain pings awake at about 4am, especially in the run-up to festival season when we’re booking acts. We’re talking to hundreds of different artists and their management at the same time. Most of them are in the UK, New York or LA, so the morning is a good time to talk to them. I like to stay on top of these conversations, because within 24 hours, the opportunity might be gone.
When we’re at our busiest, staying fit becomes vital. I go up the Mount, or to F45 or the gym to clear my mind.
This is such a risky business. Every time we book an act, we put everything on the line. It’s like going to the casino and playing roulette every day.
When booking a new artist, you have no idea if they’re going to work. You might choose the wrong date, the wrong city, the wrong venue, the wrong time of year. In the past decade, I’ve built up knowledge and experience of what will and won’t work, which is invaluable, but it doesn’t completely inure you against loss when it happens.
When I started out as a promoter, it’d take forever to get a response from managers and agents. They’d find it hard to commit as they didn’t know who we were. We get answers much quicker now because we’ve built a name for ourselves as people who put on quality events and always give 100%, regardless of whether we’re winning or losing on that show.
If you cut corners, everyone knows. We want everyone – customers, artists, staff – to choose us because they know they’ll get a quality experience. Even when we lose, we’re winning: we’re meeting new artists, learning about the venue and gaining new customers who’ve had a brilliant time at our shows.
When I’m booking an artist, I need to be able to feel the energy of what they’ll be like on stage, and visualise the whole show from start to finish. I’ll quickly get an idea of how the event will look.
Everyone wants the same bands and artists. It’s taken us three years to get Toto to come and play in January. We started talking to them in early 2016, but there’s only one Toto in the world – they’re not touring constantly and they’re not young, so if you want to
book them, you need to be persistent and patient. I just never stop chasing.
I’d been trying to book Jamaican artist Tarrus Riley for One Love, going back and forth for two years and getting nowhere, so I jumped on a plane to Jamaica – and it took a 20-minute meeting to book him. I’m old school – I know contracts are important, but with most of my acts, I look them in the eye and shake their hand. If I say I’m going to do something, I do it, and I expect others to do the same.
I love getting deals across the line, and I’m passionate about music. It gets me up day after day. We’re very good at it, too – that’s why our festivals sell out and keep growing. It can be hard, though, when you’ve pitched to an artist, negotiated for a year or so, visualised the whole show and then they say no. But you just have to keep going – because if you stop, you’ll never have the chance to book them again.
You have to love this job to do it well. It’s 24/7 and never switches off. I’ve always been wheeling, dealing and hustling to propel us forward. I’ve done business using no money at all, and I’ve brokered multimillion dollar deals – they all give me the same buzz. We work hard to be fair – we don’t want to underpay or overpay anyone. The people we work with become friends and that’s how it should be.
We’re really settled in New Zealand, and have built a great foundation. But at some point, we’ll move into Australia, America and South America, where I’m from. We started as a bunch of friends who like to have a good time and put on a party and, in many ways, that’s stayed the same. We now have people on our team with impressive qualifications and experience, but we all share the same goal – we like bringing people together.”
Mitch’s key domain is sponsors and marketing, but he also manages acts through his agency, Tenfold. He’s an electronic music nut and has been selling tickets to events since way back.
“Our days finish late, so I’m not often up before 8am. If I’m at home, I’ll feed the animals, then drive the few minutes to our new office building at Windermere. Pato and I bought the building because our business is growing so fast. Two years ago, we doubled in size; last year, we tripled. But although we’re getting bigger, it’s getting smoother. We work very hard to find people at the top of their game and get them to come and work for us.
For the past few months, my time has been split between sponsors, the acts I manage, touring DJs and running Ohakune Mardi Gras. I don’t want sponsors to feel like we just ask for money to put their logos everywhere. There are so many ways sponsors and ticket holders can benefit from a sponsor’s involvement. One might have the assets to set up a really cool chill-out area, for example. This year, I worked with Burger King on a really fun activation for Bay Dreams called Where’s Whopper? There will be people in the crowd dressed up as the ingredients of a Whopper, and if you get a selfie with all seven, you could win four tickets, accommodation and flights to a major international music festival.
I’ve visualised what success looks like since I was 14, and every goal I’ve set myself since, I’ve hit. It’s amazing how many people I’ve met who share the same technique of visualisation, and the bigger the vision, the better. I find it much easier to work with people with huge goals.
Music is the focus, but it’s key to diversify. I’m a big believer in saying yes to opportunities. We’re now in the tech space developing systems to help us as we move into food, beverages and property. We’ve invested millions in assets too, like our audio equipment. Our next goal is to diversify even further. We’re always looking for great opportunities. I love being unpredictable.
I diversify without ever losing my business values of providing the absolute top quality in everything we do, making sure we give back in some form or another, and having fun. The ‘work hard’ theory has never sat well with me, because hard work sounds like no fun. I want to love what I’m doing so much that I want to do it more. And that’s how it should feel for everyone who works for me.
I first saw one of my Tenfold artists, Mitch James, on TV. He said, ‘Music is my plan A, plan B and plan C’, and told a story about going over to London with $20 and the idea that he’d busk and be discovered, just like Ed Sheeran. He slept rough, and just kept going and going. I could see as he spoke that we shared the same drive, so I called to sign him. I watched his performance on TV, and so did loads of others, but we connected because we think the same way. He wanted to go with someone he felt he could trust, who spoke his language and who had the same vision. We both use visualisation as a technique, and so does Ed Sheeran’s agent – who’s now Mitch James’s agent.
My day starts and ends outside. I live in Ohauiti with my girlfriend, Mik, and we have 16 animals, including goats, ducks, cows, guinea pigs and rabbits. I used to complain that I didn’t have the time to go outside, which is something I love doing. So I changed my life by buying land and animals that mean I have to be outside. The animals are all named after artists. There’s Selena Goatmez, Vincent Van Goat and our two ducks called Adam and Reuben after Peking Duk. I’ve always been amused by goats. I had another named Bennis, after Peking Duk’s manager [Ben Dennis]. When Bennis the goat died, 23 of us got a tattoo of a goat in his honour.”
Toby’s one of the leading festival operators in New Zealand. A shareholder and former director of Rythym and Vines, he’s worked on some of the biggest gigs around the globe and runs event company Fabrik. In an industry in which the notorious unpredictability of artists and weather can unpick even the best-laid plans, he can steer the ship through to calm waters without anyone noticing the rough seas.
“Most days, I wake up at about 6am, and if I’m at home in Gisborne, I’ll go for a surf or do some jiu jitsu or boxing. Most of the acts and agents I work with are based overseas, so I’ll then have quite a few emails to catch up on that have come in overnight.
My house in Gisborne has been converted into an office, so my team all sit around the kitchen table. There’s Johnny Gibbs, the production and operations manager; Haydn Middleton, the events manager; Grace Lloyd-Jones, who looks after customer service and vendors; and Kale Isaac, who looks after campgrounds.
I’m often away looking at venues. I consider what the benefits and potential problems of a particular place are, what events would be good to hold there and how accessible it is. I’ve been looking at venues for well over a decade, so I’m able to analyse them really quickly now.
Bay Dreams has expanded to a second venue, in Nelson. I’m spending a lot of time in the South Island getting it all organised, so by the time this magazine is published, I’ll have set up camp in Nelson for a month or so.
Building a festival from a green field, like BW Summer Festival, the major accommodation arm and pre-party for Rhythm and Vines for 13 years, is like putting together a giant jigsaw. There are endless combinations of elements you have to juggle and interlock to get the right result. I’m always looking at worst-case scenarios and planning for them, because once you pour thousands of people into any plan, the cracks will show, and you need to be prepared for that.
My understanding of how people behave at festivals and what they tend to do has come from working for the past 16 years organising festivals and touring artists. I ensure we have some pretty robust systems for hosting tens of thousands of people in a field, accommodating them and putting on acts they love.
I’ve spent half my life at festivals and in clubs around the world. I’ve always loved music and DJing. I lived in LA on and off for nine years and loved the clubs there and elsewhere in the US. But Berlin probably has my favourite ones.
Pato, Mitch and I are on Facebook Messenger all day talking to each other. It might be at 2am in a club when one of us has spotted someone worth looking into. We just never turn off.
The bit of our job that is the most specialised is coming up with the concept of a tour, booking the artists, lining up the venues and pulling all those initial pieces together. Since Pato, Mitch and I came together officially to form Neptune Entertainment, it’s got much easier, because there are three of us with similar experience who can each add so much to the picture. I’d started talking to Pato a few years ago about booking Toto, and that morphed into a discussion about legacy acts and how huge they are. The fans of all the bands from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s froth hugely for these acts.
I try not to open emails too late at night anymore, because you can end up in some lively conversations that make it impossible to get to sleep. So I like to listen to podcasts, like The Joe Rogan Experience. His martial arts background and the range of topics he covers make me a huge fan. I got to meet him once as he’s a friend of a friend. Of all the stars I’ve met, he’s the most impressive.”