Several years ago concert promoter Peter Aiken was backstage at Madison Square Garden shooting the breeze with Bruce Springsteen. In walked an assistant to tell Aiken his time was up. Someone else — someone more important, it was implied — wanted to talk to the singer.
“Springsteen said, ‘Actually it’s OK…we’re not done here’,” remembers Aiken.
“I walked outside and who was sitting there but Steven Spielberg. He’d kept him waiting so that we could talk.”
Green-room chit chat with some of music’s greatest superstars is all in a day’s work for Aiken, head of one of the country’s largest concert-promoting companies.
In addition to Springsteen he has long-standing, mutually respectful relationships with Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Elton John, whom Aiken is bringing to Cork for the Live at the Marquee festival on June 20.
“They are remarkable people,” he says, meeting the Irish Examiner in the boardroom of his Dublin HQ (a bric-a-brac of concert posters and, bizarrely, several pallets of Tanora).
“Every night, they go on at the appointed time. Compared to ordinary people calling in sick at work, very few cancel. You see the fantastic condition of Bruce, Bono, Mick Jagger, McCartney — imagine the sacrifices they have made to able to keep doing what they do.”
Aiken also has a good rapport with an upcoming generation of artists and exclusively handles the Irish concerts of Justin Bieber (RDS Arena, June 21), Taylor Swift, and Ed Sheeran.
“Did people know Ed was going to be as massive as he became? They couldn’t,” he says.
“When we did him in Vicar Street [in 2011], the kids knew all the words. It was the same when [hip-hop superstar] Kendrick Lamar played there. Everyone was singing back. However, you can’t predict how big they are going to be. I did X Factor Live with One Direction… they weren’t slick at all. But that was their charm.”
Music is in Aiken’s blood. His father Jim was one of Ireland’s pioneering concert promoters, a teacher who built a part-time business in Belfast into a national organisation.
He had a hand in some of Ireland’s most legendary concerts, including Springsteen at Slane in 1985 and U2’s first gig at Croke Park that same year.
Aiken Sr was also a close friend of Cork blues icon Rory Gallagher.
“If Rory was alive now he could do 10 nights at the Point — that’s how big he was,” says Peter Aiken, who as a roadie toured the UK with Gallagher in the late 1970s.
“When he hit the stage, it was incredible. He was shy but with such charisma. He would always come to Belfast — even at the height of the Troubles. Things were so bad we had to do a concert at 11am. The city would shut down after dark.”
The promoter has from those humble origins grown into a hugely successful and respected business.
Irish music is awash with egos, back-biting and paranoia. Aiken is one of the few large organisations people have only good things to say about.
But that hasn’t made them immune to controversy.
Not a day goes by, Peter confesses, without someone asking him about the 2014 Garth Brooks debacle, which saw the artist sell out five nights at Croke Park only for the shows to be cancelled because of licensing issues.
“It was traumatic. It cost me a lot of money, it cost Garth a lot of money, it cost Croke Park a lot of money. When I look back in the cold light of day, nobody won.
"There was a human cost as well as a financial one. You can end up hurting yourself. I was so stressed I remember driving through a red light.”
There are rumours Brooks might return to play the revamped Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Cork, set to reopen on July 2 after an €80m facelift.
“It’s a good stadium, it’s going to be great,” says Aiken.
“Maybe over the next few years… [Aiken will put on something]. Again when an artist comes in… maybe they’ll only play one city. And that’s Dublin. When a big concert goes on sale and you sell 40,000 tickets, perhaps 60% of that comes from Dublin.
"It’s a tough game, promoting. You want to stack it to the best advantage. And the artists want to play Dublin. When they go to France they want to play Paris.”
Nonetheless, once musicians can be persuaded to come south they are invariably charmed.
“A lot of people are surprised when they come to Cork by the beauty of it. We did Megadeth at Live at the Marquee on a Monday. A Megadeth cover band was playing in Cork that night. Dave Mustaine [Megadeth singer] went on stage and sang with them.
"Kanye West has done Cork three times — he was great. Jay Z did it a couple of times. Snoop Dogg did it. He was good, though he had a huge entourage.”
Would a dedicated events centre in Cork draw artists consistently through the year?
“There seems to be a commitment there to do it and I think they will do it. It would great if there was one in Galway as well. They deserve it. An arena in Cork would do very well.
"If they built one in Cork, if they built one in Galway, one in Donegal… I think they would survive, as long as they are multi-purpose. They wouldn’t get all the acts. They would get some. Even with the indigenous artists — artists such as Walking On Cars, The Coronas, Picture This — they would do well.”
In contrast to Brooks and Croke Park, he has only happy memories of the 12 years of Live at the Marquee, which he initially launched to coincide with Cork’s tenure as European City of Culture.
There was the occasional uncertain moment early on when it was unclear whether international artists were interested in going to Cork. But as performers of the calibre of Dylan and Elton John made the journey south, others quickly followed.
“Roger Waters played in 2006. He had performed in Cork in 1973 with Pink Floyd. He remembered it and remarked on how high the stage at the City Hall was. He had quite a big production — when they arrived the fencing was down, the wind was blowing, there were puddles backstage.
Waters and his crew were dubious.
“They wanted to know who had played here already. I told them Dylan had. Their response was that, ‘Oh, that’s OK then.’ That’s how you build acts. We’ve had Roger Waters, Pink, Lady Gaga, Neil Young, Paul Simon, Sting.
"And in all those years I’ve never had anyone come to me and say that was a terrible crowd.”