An interview for The Vine. Excerpt below.
Interview: Mos Def tour promoter Sam Speaight: “I literally broke down and cried.”
One year ago, acclaimed American hip-hop artist Dante Smith – stage name Mos Def (pictured right) – was set to tour Australia for the first time. Eleven shows were booked, including headline festival appearances at Soundscape in Hobart and The Hot Barbeque in Melbourne. After failing to appear at his first scheduled performance in Adelaide, he went on to randomly skip four shows of the itinerary. Such was the ensuing confusion, that following the postponements, cancellations and sternly-worded press releases from the promoter, Peace Music, became something of a sport here at TheVine. For background, revisit our news story ‘Mos Def gone missing on Australian tour’. (I’m pleased to note that he made it to Brisbane for his Australia Day show, which was actually pretty great.)
What did those four cancellations mean for Peace Music, though? The promoters were awfully quiet for the remainder of the year, which posed the question: “Did the Mos Def debacle put an end to their live music interests?”. In late 2011, I contacted the company’s managing director, Sam Speaight, requesting an interview about the logistics of touring American hip-hop artists in Australia. “I’d love to do this,” he replied via email. “So often promoters are dragged into the street and shot (proverbially speaking) by the ticket-buying public over hip-hop artists’ cancellations and their childlike antics. Few people understand that, in many cases, the promoters have driven themselves to the brink of sanity and financial ruin to avoid an artist cancelling.”
A couple of days later, we connected via Skype. “The total chaos that seems to govern most of all the management side of these artists’ careers is just dumbfounding,” Sam told me from his new pad in London. “If people knew what went on behind the scenes, if nothing else, it would be a spectacle worth reading about.” He’s not wrong.
AM: Tell me about the Mos Def tour, Sam. Was this your worst experience with touring hip-hop artists in Australia?
SS: Oh, yeah. That was definitely the worst example of madness and insanity from an international artist that I’ve ever seen, or heard of. Utter madness permeated everything that happened, in terms of the artist’s management, the delivery and management of the artist’s live engagement. He’s since pulled similar things at the Montreaux Jazz Festival. They’ve just gone through a similar experience to what I did, but fortunately, they only had one show to deal with, whereas I had an entire headlining tour.
Let’s go back to the start. When you first confirmed the booking, was there a point at which you realised that things might not go to plan? Were alarm bells ringing at any point during the lead-up to his arrival in Australia?
Good Lord, yes. Even before I signed the contract with his “management”, in inverted commas, I was aware that this was a difficult, tricky, potentially trouble-fraught artist to deal with. I structured as best I could my strategy for dealing with this artist to minimise the potentiality for misadventure in the establishment phase of that project. But all the pre-planning in the world couldn’t have prepared me for the living nightmare that was the reality of doing that tour and dealing with Mos Def. [Laughs] I literally broke down and cried partway through the tour.
You need to set the scene. Where were you when you broke down and cried?
[Laughs] I was at home. It was a Sunday afternoon, if I recall correctly, at my house in Redfern – which I’ve now sold, by the way. I’ve moved to the other side of the world to try and forget all about this experience! [laughs].
I was at home, hanging out with my lovely girlfriend, Gillian. Earlier in the day, Mos’ tour manager had called to advise that the rescheduled make-up show, which had been put in place in connection with one of the shows that he’d cancelled on his tour – the Tasmanian show. He advised that the make-up show would not be going ahead, and they would be unable to play it. Which was a disaster. One of a string of disasters that occurred on that tour. I was in an awful state of mind as a result of that, because it meant yet more massive financial losses, and yet more damage to my company’s name and reputation insofar as I was delivering the show to a promoter in Tasmania, I wasn’t promoting it myself. So there was a third party affected by this madness.
A few hours after I dealt with that disaster, I got a call from my tour manager, to say that he’d been asked a question via [Mos Def’s] managers, the question being: “Are there any other shows that we can play on this tour? Can you please investigate booking us some more shows? We would like to try and play some more shows.”
This is three or four days before the end of the tour. I remember reaching this psychological breaking point, where I’d been assaulted by this emotional nightmare every day for a month, in the lead-up to the rescheduling of, then delivery of this project. I said to my tour manager, “I can’t believe you’ve just asked me that question. You know how much money I’ve lost here. You know that the tour’s four days from completion. Are you totally insane? Who in the southern hemisphere is ever going to book this artist ever again? After what’s gone down here, for a start. And further to that, how on earth would I be able to organise any new shows within the space of four days given the fact that I’m staring down the barrel of financial ruination?”
That was basically just what tipped me over the edge. I just remember being in my living room, just losing the plot. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back! [laughs]
But it gives you an insight into just how warped and twisted, and how absolutely separated from reality the awareness of management – within the scope of that being a professional function – is, in the minds of these artists. They seem to live in such a bizarre, self-constructed reality that is so far away from what you might describe as career management, business, or just basic logic. [Laughs] Their worldview and outlook… it’s difficult for people like me — and I assume like you, too — to understand people who have to justify their existence by earning a dollar, which is then pursuant to them doing a good job of things, and being a professional. This is just a world that a lot of these people seem to be able to avoid living in.
And Mos Def’s a great example. If you Google, you’ll see that in the last 12 months there’s been a spate of these absolute last-minute cancellations. If the cancellation or postponement is done in a way that allows the promoter some opportunity to minimise their losses and to at least deal with the ticket buying public in a professional fashion, so that it doesn’t damage that artist’s fanbase and the promoter’s business, then cancellations are unfortunately sometimes a part of doing business in the music industry. But that’s not the approach that’s usually taken in these situations by these American hip-hop artists. More often than not, there’s very little justification if any given for it. It’s oftentimes just a childish whim, whereby they’ve decided that something about the project isn’t to their liking, or they’ve got something better to do that day, or they don’t feel like getting out of bed that morning.
As a result of that, they’re perfectly happy to – in some promoters’ cases – turn people’s lives upside down, and send peoples’ whole businesses spiralling toward the ground without any thought for basic humanity.
This is probably a long bow to draw, but I see a lot of this same attitude toward happily disregarding other people within the scope of business, and totally ignoring the massive financial ramifications of doing something like cancelling a show 24 hours out, to the problems we’re seeing across the entire global financial system at the moment. You’re basically talking about an approach to doing business that is morally bankrupt. It’s the exact same underpinning ideology that I see caught up in the actions of Goldman Sachs, and Bank of America, whereby these people are perfectly happy, without a single qualm in the world, to destroy peoples’ lives, trash peoples’ businesses, send people broke, without even a second thought. Just as long as – whatever they decided to do that day, gets done. I think that’s what really drives at this. The financial system that these people are participating in, and their actions, by association and as a function of that system, are absolutely and utterly morally bankrupt. But that’s a very long view, I guess. [Laughs]