BusinessPeople In BusinessMusic man: John Hale, FD of Mean Fiddler

Music man: John Hale, FD of Mean Fiddler

It may turn over a relatively modest £48m - but Mean Fiddler punches above its weight. After staging Glastonbury festival, last week saw its takeover by Clear Channel given the green light. FD John Hale explains how he marries music and finance

Rock‘n’roll is all about living life on the edge. The history of modern rock
music is littered with examples of those who have pushed it to the limit and
sometimes, sadly, stepped over it. Think Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, John
Bonham, Jim Morrison, Mark Bolan and you get the picture. It is a trend that
doesn’t seem to be going away, with many arguing that Babyshambles frontman Pete
Doherty is another of those currently ambling perilously close to the precipice.

The rewards and dangers of a glamorous rock lifestyle are obvious to all, but
there are other, perhaps less obvious, ways to get a buzz from the music

Jon Hale, finance director at the soon-to-be-acquired Mean Fiddler Group, has
tried the rock‘n’roll thing. It may be decades since he first performed a gig,
but his appointment five years ago marked a return to the music business, albeit
a little removed from the frontline.

Mean Fiddler started from humble beginnings when founder Vince Power opened
the Mean Fiddler club in Harlesden back in 1982. From there it has grown to
become a major music venue operator and festival organiser.

It is responsible for running the London Astoria, the Jazz Café in Camden and
the Garage in Highbury, among others – venues that have played host to some of
the biggest bands in the world over the years.

Today the company is probably much more famous for its festival activities.
It runs the Leeds and Reading rock festivals, the Homelands dance festival and
has a 39% stake in the biggest one of them all, Glastonbury.

But life in rock‘n’roll is never quiet, and even in finance you can soon end
up back on that edge. Last week, Mean Fiddler delisted from the London Stock
Exchange in advance of its takeover by a consortium led by US giant Clear
Channel Entertainment. The buyout should see Hale retain his position as head of
the finance function, but nothing is a given in the music business.

Hale, 37, already knows all about the ups and downs of a life in music,
having fronted a band before taking his CIMA qualification. As singer/songwriter
and manager of Thursday’s Child, he was gigging at the time when acts that later
formed keys parts of the Britpop explosion were just starting out.

‘It was back in 1989,’ he says. ‘In those days, we knew Suede, we knew Blur
and bands like that. They would be hanging out at the Camden Falcon and we would
turn up. They were good days.’

Hale actually played the Mean Fiddler with Thursday’s Child during this time,
gaining a lifelong affinity with the place, something that could well have
heavily influenced where he eventually landed up. But despite following a
lifestyle for two years that others often only dream about, Hale soon realised
that it wasn’t for him. ‘It was good fun, but it was a very murky world. It’s a
very depressive world if you’re not careful, a self-destructive world.

‘It really made my mind up that, actually, what I would prefer to do was to
get into small businesses, drive business strategy and grow the business. I’d
enjoy that much more than I actually enjoyed standing in front of a microphone
singing to an audience, even if it’s an audience clapping. It was a very
important decision that I made, because I’ve never looked back and I will never
look back.’

Hale’s journey back to music took in a variety of roles across retail,
manufacturing, banking, and working as FD of the Old Monk chain of pubs as it
moved on to the stock exchange.

Despite his previous musical leanings, he claims he has not orchestrated his
career deliberately to get back to the industry.

‘I never consciously thought “I’m going back into music”,’ he says. ‘Mean
Fiddler needed someone to come in and help it move from being a large limited
business to being a relatively small plc on the AIM market. So with my
experience with the Old Monk, where I did exactly the same thing, I could bring
quite a lot to the table.’

Hale’s job was to put in the systems and controls to make the company modern,
efficient and able to provide the data a plc board would demand. But there was a
massive cultural hurdle to overcome. Being an accountant, even one who had been
in a band, meant battling to be taken seriously by others in the business.

‘I think what’s happening in the music business, specifically in the
music-promoting business, is that all the accountants are actually improving and
getting more involved in decision making,’ says Hale. ‘Historically, an
accountant was the last person they would speak to. In fact, they pretty much
hated accountants. The FDs are now much more involved in decision making and
that’s what I’ve brought to Mean Fiddler.’

With everyone from artists to agents looking for a cut, it has become more
and more crucial that the numbers are studied thoroughly, raising the profile of
the accountants. Failure to do so could see a healthy company fall quickly into

‘It is so risky now, promoting is a very tough game and the profit tends to
go to the artist. To promote well, you have to be even more rigorous with cost
control than almost any other business. The risks are high and the levels of
profit are relatively low, even when you get it right. And when you get it wrong
it is horrendous.’

Hale also hints that another of his challenges was to get founder Vince Power
to loosen his grip on the reins. ‘It is very different having something that has
started from literally nothing moving into a plc environment, when they haven’t
been answerable to anyone for 25 to 30 years. To start saying: “Well, before you
make those types of decisions you actually have to speak to the board and the
board need to have various bits of paper to make those decisions.” It is obvious
stuff, but it has massive ramifications to entrepreneurs who have had to fight a
very tough game to get where they are today. You need to do it in a very
diplomatic way.’

But Hale managed the transition smoothly, turning an £8m loss to a £4.5m
profit before selling up to Clear Channel. Non-core and non-profit-making
subsidiaries of the group were sold off and Mean Fiddler focused strongly on
doing what it does best, putting on gigs.

The two major parts of the company – the venues and festivals – may seem
similar to those on the outside but, as Hale explains, they are very different
animals. ‘They’ve all got totally different cash profiles, a totally different
supply base and very different risks. If you take the venues, it is very similar
to running a pub group, where you’ve got a high-margin product with a high
volume going across the bar. It is a people business. The manager has to be
good, the promoter needs to get the bands through the door and you need to
control the stocks.

‘When you get into festivals it is very different. Generally, if it is the
big festivals like Reading, Leeds and Glastonbury, where you can sell all your
tickets, the risk profile is relatively low. Providing every single year you get
the headline, you get better acts than the previous year. You have to be better
every single year.’

Despite his protestations over how he ended up at Mean Fiddler, you can’t
help but think that Hale’s love of music was a driving force in the decision. He
says one of his dreams is to build his own music studio at home one day, and
admits he already has ‘a lot of the gear’.

The perks of the job can’t be ignored either. Hale has attended numerous gigs
put on by Mean Fiddler since becoming FD. One of his favourites was seeing
Morrisey at Reading last year. But the gig that really stood out for him was
being pride of place on the balcony at the London Astoria last year while the
Rolling Stones played to the crowd below.

‘Needless to say, all the directors of Mean Fiddler were there. To say we
were singing along would be an understatement.’

Hale insists that ‘it is not just “yeah, rock‘n’roll, man” any more’ when it
comes to finance, but tear down the thin accounting veneer and you will likely
find that the pride and passion that music can stir still burns fiercely within

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