Curating memorable events on his terms
Company name: T.O.P Entertainment
Tell us a bit about yourself and your journey in the entertainment industry.
It's been quite a journey. I'm Danish, originally from outside Copenhagen. I came to the Middle East in the late 90s as an air traffic controller. Eventually, I found my way into entertainment. For the past 20-plus years, I've been doing a variety of ticketed events in the market and also bespoke events. I've conceptualised and produced festivals and worked on talent bookings for various government and private events across the region, sometimes even internationally.
In 1998 you moved to Bahrain as an air traffic controller; how did you transition into entertainment?
It's only in this part of the world that that's possible. So the nature of being in air traffic control in this part of the world and as an air traffic controller brought in from outside was that I mainly worked night shifts. Once I'd done a couple of night shifts, I would have three or four days off. I ended up in the Rugby Club or the British Club and being the one who was always sitting around able to assist with things. So when there was an event on, I was asked if I could help with this or that. Eventually, I started booking some DJs and putting some events on, and I guess I just found that really intriguing. And when one of the very few promotion companies in the region asked me to assist with a show, I think it was in Lebanon, I jumped at it and got hooked.
Tell us about your entrepreneurial journey and T.O.P Entertainment.
Whether you are employed or, at least in my case, whether I was employed or running my own business, this industry was always one that embraced the entrepreneurial approach. So I've been very fortunate to work with people who either had their own money invested in the business I was taking care of, or corporates that asked me to run the entertainment part of their business. So I feel very blessed, and I've certainly always treated other people's money as if it was my own, which is probably why I'm still able to do business in the market. Now, I'm 100% independent.
Now tell us about T.O.P entertainment?
I needed to have the ability to have a licence and operate out of the UAE. So I set up that company three years ago, and within the last year or so, as lives, in general, came back and opportunities in the region were offered to me, I realised that it was time to come back and promote shows again.
And this time, I chose to do it fully independently with some amazing support from global operators in the form of agreements that deliver talent or assistance with underwriting and financing the shows.
Why the Middle East, and Dubai?
The opportunity to do entertainment came as I was in Bahrain. As I said, I naturally had the time and ability to do it. I was also very fortunate that one of the local promotion companies asked me to assist them. That's how I got involved in the late 90s, which was when Dubai was emerging as the entertainment hub, perhaps taking over from Bahrain, to some extent, and eventually by far establishing itself as the entertainment destination in the region.
So I moved to Dubai around the turn of the century. Dubai was just this place where if you put some effort in, no one was going to ask if this was a natural business for you to be in. I applied everything I had learned through my career as an air traffic controller, but also my upbringing. I was able to make it in the entertainment business, and I think that was a journey I couldn't have had in many other places. I think Dubai is one of those places that allows you to do that and rewards you if you do it well.
What's your definition of success?
When you have an event and people who paid their hard-earned money to attend, they walk out of the venue with a smile on their faces, humming one of the last songs they've heard at the concert, that's certainly a success for me.
Of course, there's a checks and balances way of looking at it. The bottom line should be positive, but it's about being able to bring artistes who make a difference. They haven't been here before or do something, offer people an experience that they haven't had before. In the early days, when I started doing shows, most of the concerts that took place were either in ballrooms or small gardens at hotels. There was one ticket category, perhaps two.
I remember with Nokia supporting live events, we came up with this idea of having a premium pit close to the stages, and we called it the Nokia pit. That's now a standard that you have a fan pit at most events, but before that, we didn't have that in the market. So I think these kinds of new developments or changing the experience for the fans is something that I like.
So success, for me, would be to bring top artistes, but also to bring some entertainment that otherwise wouldn't have come to the market; not just being able to offer more dollars than perhaps my competitors can offer, but overall business has to be profitable.
Now, tell me about some of your favourite shows.
I was fortunate enough to bring Destiny's Child to the Middle East, which led to a relationship with Matthew Knowles, Beyonce's dad. So, for a couple of years, I booked a lot of Beyonce's shows in the region. I was also fortunate enough to take her to Africa for the first time.
One of the shows I would think back on with great memories would be Addis Ababa, where Beyonce performed, and we had Ludacris opening, that was fantastic. Thirty-two thousand people out for One Direction at the Sevens Stadium was fantastic, too.
I also think getting involved with bringing some of the top UK comedians to Dubai… well, before I got into comedy, I had been putting on comedy on a regular basis, but we hadn't seen the peak sort of arena-style shows until years after. I was part of bringing those shows to the region, so that was great.
I've had Eric Clapton ironing his own trousers backstage at a Media City Amphitheatre show. Phil Collins out at the Autodrome was fantastic. Shakira's first show in the UAE was also at the Autodrome, where, unfortunately, we stopped traffic in the surrounding area. There's been a lot of shows and artistes like Paolo Nutini that, perhaps, many people don't know about, have been great working with.
I've also had some less favourable moments; perhaps that second to last show Amy Winehouse did was with us here at Festival City. So it's a mixed bag. Lots of amazing shows to think back on, and they're not necessarily the biggest in ticket sales or the highest ranking artistes that necessarily define that.
Talk to us about upcoming concerts:
- 50 Cent, what are you looking forward to the most?
I've conceptualised a festival that many people here will know called RedFestDXB, where we booked urban artistes, but it was very much based on Virgin Radio playlists. I would say this is probably the first sort of urban show that I'm putting on.
I was fortunate enough to see his show in Copenhagen, a couple of weeks back, with 30,000 people split between a young audience that knew his songs but hadn't grown up with him and an audience that came to reminisce. It's just an hour and a half of fun hip hop and rap, taking you through some of the most classic hits. So that's just a great party; definitely looking forward to that.
- Justin Bieber: Favourite Bieber moment? What is most exciting about the upcoming show in Dubai?
With Justin, it's a return. He's coming back for the third time, what would be our fifth show together in the UAE, and he just grows as an artist and as an individual.
So I'm looking forward to the most relaxed experience with him because there have been some interesting moments over the years. And, of course, two packed nights here at the Coca-Cola Arena.
What aspects of the entertainment business are non-negotiable?
Someone has told me several times over the years that it's only the movie industry that's worse than the live concert business. It's obviously because the industry, to some extent, has a bad reputation with regards to hustling. It's also just one of those businesses where, sometimes, people perhaps claim to represent an artiste they don't or an event is put on sale and is cancelled for mysterious reasons. I think Dubai has come extremely far with regards to its credibility as a destination, and our industry as an industry. So, for me, there's no replacement for the truth.
If you are honest about your own abilities or the situation you are in, it'll always come back to you, even if it doesn't seem like the best thing at that particular moment. So, for me, if you lie to me, then I can't deal with that.
Once you have made a commitment, you honour that commitment, even if it's not necessarily in your own best interest.
What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?
I think being Danish, if I think back, I would never have thought that it would be possible, even perhaps, to change careers. I think the way the world works today; you should expect to have several careers in your life. I think I would benefit from, perhaps, being a bit more aggressive with regards to taking new opportunities than what I thought of when I was at that age. This place naturally gives you those opportunities.
I would say, don't get stuck in something; there's always something else you can do. And even if people advise you against doing something, if your heart is in the right place, then you might be able to succeed.
What are some of your everyday habits?
I live down in Jumeirah, and I try to get out of bed around 5:30 or 6 o'clock in the morning, get on a bike and ride along the beach. This is a humbling experience; it reminds me of how lucky I am to live here, considering the weather back home.
So that's normally a great start to the day, and it allows me an excuse for not being on the phone for at least 45 minutes. In this industry, I deal with agents and managers across the world, so the early morning is when you catch people in the US before they shut down, and then the day runs from there on.
I enjoy working from home, at least when I have to make many calls in the morning and late in the evening. And then, it's so nice again being able to do face-to-face meetings, so I'll try to squeeze a few of them in during the day as well.
How do you look after your mental health?
As I alluded to before, I've been in this business for a long time. As you get older, you get rounder in your personality, I think, too. I think my younger, more aggressive self when it comes to wanting to achieve and perform, would probably have been more exposed to the downsides of not being able to deliver on certain things or questioning yourself. So I don't feel particularly vulnerable in that sense, but I enjoy being with the family and knowing that this business is my own. So, instead of making it a challenge for me or a potential risk that everything is on my shoulders, I see it as an upside that I can make the decisions.
I actually enjoy the fact that there's no one else to blame. So if anyone ever feels that I'm blaming them, I can assure you, I take full responsibility. It's all on my shoulders, and that makes it feel good even when, perhaps, I make the wrong decisions or when things don't go as I had intended. So, I'll suck it up and move on.
What should we be looking forward to next from T.O.P Entertainment?
Loads more events, not just here in the UAE, but across the region. Certainly, more of lifestyle-type events. I'd love to go back and learn some festival brands I've had, such as the RedFestDXB, Blended and Fiesta de los Muertos. I would love to do more in that area. Comedy is a thing that I'd get back into, so over the next couple of months, we'll make announcements in all those fields and we'll put more pop and rock shows on sale as well.