21 January, 2001

Mean Fiddler Calls the Tune

Rags-to-riches music king floats to fund digital channel. Profile of Vince Power by Nick Mathiason

Woe betide anyone who gets in Vince Power's way. This 6ft lump of Irish meat and gristle is the UK capital's most powerful music venue owner. And he didn't get there by being a pushover.

'I'm two extremes,' he whispers in one of his central London bars where, on a bitterly cold day, the heating has packed up. 'I'm very soft and I'm very hard and I'm trying to find the middle ground. If anyone tries to turn me over, I take a very hard view of it.'

Let's hope the heating engineer turns up pronto then.

Power (definitely his real name) once spent the best part of a year trying to gain revenge on a former business partner he believed 'shafted him' on a deal to run the Reading Festival. So what did he do? He bought the land on which the festival was sited. Job done.

Power's rags-to-riches story is the stuff of showbiz legend.

He rose from an impoverished background to own, under the Mean Fiddler banner, a dozen of the capital's top venues, including the Forum and the Astoria. He runs some of the country's major music festivals, including Reading and north London's Fleadh, plus a quoted internet broadcast business. His businesses and joint ventures combined turn over close to £40 million and make profits of about £4m.

In the 18 years since Power opened his first club - a Nashville-style honky-tonk auditorium in run-down Harlesden - he has crossed swords with, and defeated, established promoters, rival venue owners, agents and landowners to become a millionaire several times over.

'He has a team around him who are fiercely loyal,' said one rival promoter. 'A lot of them are family. That helps. But where Power scored is that he always went straight to the artist. He pissed off managers and agents, but he got the acts. And now they all have to deal with him, because in London there's only the Brixton Academy and the Apollo that he doesn't own.'

Last Tuesday, the man dressed in black jeans and leather and sporting a closely cropped beard entered the City big time. Power announced that he was reversing his meanfiddler.com operation into his other interests.

The deal values his venues, restaurants and bars at £32m. He hopes to raise £10m from the float, which he will use to fund a digital music channel based at his venues and to open more venues.

So within months Power will become chairman of a plc. Not bad for a man born into a poor Waterford family, one of 11 kids of whom four died at birth, including his twin sister.

Growing up in Fifties Ireland was hard. But at the age of 17, 'yer man' won a scholarship to study artificial insemination at a Galway agricultural college.

To the disappointment of his mother, Power decided that playing the role of a bull for the rest of his working life was not what God intended.

He left for the mainland, and his aunt found him a job as a Woolworths shop assistant in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire.

It wasn't until Power hit the smoke that life started looking up. His various odd jobs in Sixties London included night shifts in a Walls ice-cream factory - which ended in disaster when he fell asleep on the job - and a demolition job, smashing roofs for £2 a go.

At the time, swathes of London were being cleared to make way for modern estates. Power was amazed at how much furniture people abandoned, and he arranged for it to be sold on. Soon, he opened a shop.

His luck improved further when he bought an oil painting for a tenner. It was in the window for less than a day when someone offered £200 for it. Power realised he might be on to something and took it to Sotheby's. It fetched £7,000 - a tidy sum back in the Sixties.

After establishing a chain of a dozen second-hand furniture shops, Power thought the time was right for indulging his passion, music. While he couldn't play, he knew people who could.

Power opened the Mean Fiddler in 1982. It was a gleaming purpose-built venue in an Irish part of town at time when spit, sawdust and warm beer were regarded as the norm by most live music lovers. He installed a house band, but found he could pack the place out only at weekends.

So Power widened the venue's music policy and tried out new-band nights.

What started as a hobby grew into a multimillion pound business. But keeping to the style of a maverick, Power has always eschewed paperwork. 'I keep a lot of things in my head. I don't go writing notes or taking minutes. Perhaps that's all gonna change when I'm the chairman of a plc.'

Power's plc will, he believes, see its share price double within a few years. Becoming the only promoter from outside the US to beat the unions and run American music festivals gives him some cause for confidence.

'The unions wanted to put 10 blokes on your budget when one bloke can do the same job,' he said. 'I had all that in the first year, but we got it all sorted out. A lot of the leaders of unions are Irish, so we could talk.'

Power won't open venues outside London. He says no famous American artist wants to play 'two nights in Birmingham'. Instead he wants to take his Jazz Cafe brand into Paris, Barcelona and one other major European city.

But it's in digital television that he believes the real dough is to be made. Analysts predict that quality digital TV content providers will become valuable.

The UK has the best digital television sales in Europe, and viewers will soon be able to store favourite shows on set-top boxes' hard disks, rather than videoing them. For companies such as Mean Fiddler that means viewers being able to watch its concerts whenever they choose.

'In the long term this will be a profitable game,' says Jay Marathe, head of consulting at Durlacher, the technology incubator and finance house. 'At the moment, digital TV providers are adding local storage capacity to their platforms to grow the market. Premium content businesses like Mean Fiddler will be in demand and in the long-term will enjoy high margins.'

Power agrees: 'That's the way we think the business is going. We've done the feasibility studies. We're in negotiations with some of the big stations. It will cost millions to set up, but we think we can be profitable within three years.'

Ask Power to name the promoters and venue owners he admires and there is a long silence. At a push he'll name Bill Graham, the influential San Franciscan promoter and entrepreneur who's now dead. Of the many alive only Bob Angus, managing director of Metropolis Music, gets a mention.

'This is a fiercely competitive business,' Power says. 'If you're in the business of cardboard boxes there's not so much ego, but this business is driven by ego, and ego can cost you millions. I think we're all driven by it.'

But Power's excellent relationship with bands (The Pogues used to swear by him) may be changing.

'The business of being able to access acts on the internet makes a band more powerful,' he says. 'They don't have to sign lifetime deals with a record company. The band can just licence an album. Record companies have grown fat on back catalogues. That'll all be different in the future.'

In an industry famous for sex and drugs, Power is relatively abstemious. OK, he's got eight children from three partners, but his current partner is of 10 years' standing, and he says he has never taken a drug in his life.

You get the feeling he doesn't need chemicals. Power's preferred stimulant, it seems, is - appropriately - power. On leaving, he says he's off to 'a boring accountants meeting'.

But you know whose tune his accountants will be dancing to.



Name: Vince Power

Born: 29 April 1947, Waterford, Eire

Education: Awarded scholarship to study artificial insemination of cows

First Job: Woolworth's shop assistant, Hemel Hempstead

First Venue: Mean Fiddler, north London in 1982

Home: Kilburn, north London

Hobbies: Business, family and horses

Vince Power's top gigs

1) Roy Orbison

2) Limp Bizkit

3) Manic Street Preachers

4) John Prine

5) Dr John


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