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Unique Events founder to go out with a bang at New Year

THERE will be an added poignancy for Barry Wright when the final firework fizzles out in the cold Edinburgh air this New Year.

celebration: Barry Wright's career began back in 1968, and since then he has promoted acts such as Pink Floyd, REM, Van Morrison, Blondie and Talking Heads. Picture: Steve Cox
celebration: Barry Wright's career began back in 1968, and since then he has promoted acts such as Pink Floyd, REM, Van Morrison, Blondie and Talking Heads. Picture: Steve Cox

It will be the moment when he gives up his stake in Unique Events, the company he founded with Peter Irvine in 1993 to run Edinburgh's Hogmanay. In doing so he will be scaling back one of the most remarkable careers the events promotions industry has seen in Scotland.

Live music fans of a certain vintage will almost certainly have attended a concert or event Mr Wright has been involved in promoting in the last 35 years.

Since putting Pink Floyd on stage at the New Cavendish in Edinburgh on November 11, 1968, around the time he was involved in setting up one of the first branches of Shelter north of the Border, he has promoted just about every big name musical act who has ever tread the boards in Scotland.

But, as Mr Wright recalled recently, making money was not straightforward in the early days.

He said: "In 1979 we put on the first outdoor rock festival in Scotland that I am aware of at Ingliston, with Van Morrison, Talking Heads, The Undertones, Steel Pulse and goodness knows who else, and we lost £120,000, which was an awful lot of money for me at the time. I was paying myself about £25 a week from what I can remember. We had a decision to make - either go bust or pay it off. So we woke up three years later, paid it off and suddenly we were doing 150 shows a year for most of the '80s.

"What had been a hobby had become a business, and it was a great time to happen because it was all based around getting excited about something coming up from the streets.

"It was driven by the music, not by the money."

Through the lens of Regular Music, the promotions firm he set up with Mr Irvine in 1978, the story of live music over the past three and a half decades can be traced. Mr Wright had started out two years earlier when he formed Cheap Thrills, putting on gigs by the likes of Frankie Miller, only for Irvine to reject the name when he came on board. They witnessed Blondie and the Ramones channel the new wave energy at Glasgow's ramshackle Apollo in the late 1970s, Simple Minds raise the Irish tricolour at Ibrox Stadium in 1986, and Oasis rock the banks of Loch Lomond a decade later.

They were even responsible for bringing seminal Glasgow venue the Barrowlands back to life in 1983 after it had lain empty since the Bible John murders in the late 1960s.

By that stage they had welcomed Mark Mackie, now the managing director of Regular Music, into the fold.

Asked the inevitable question about his favourite gig, Mr Wright said that, after so long in the business, it was impossible to single one out.

He said: "How do you compare the Dalai Lama in Dunfermline with Prince at Parkhead? How do you confirm Simple Minds when he opened Barrowlands to do the Waterfront video when people said nobody would go there because of Bible John?

"One week we had Simple Minds opening Barrowlands, the next we had Echo and the ­Bunnymen playing a beach in Benbecula."

Regular's business grew in tandem with the popularity of the artists they were promoting, leading it from promoting gigs in clubs to filling stadiums with the likes of Prince, U2 and REM.

They were content, though, to limit operations to Scotland, as Mr Wright explained: "We put up a Hadrian's Wall policy.

"I reckoned there were two ways to survive. One way was to go global, the other was to go local. We decided to know our own territory rather than become one of the future oligopolies of this world."

Although Regular elected to stay local, it found avenues to expand within its home market.

Its involvement in promoting concerts during Glasgow's year as European City of Culture in 1990, which involved a concert at Glasgow Green (The Big Day) and the opening and closing ceremonies on George Square, would be crucial in the formation of Unique Events in the 1990s.

Mr Wright said: "That was still under Regular but it was the first civic gig that was the beginning of us thinking about creating Unique Events and the events company that has become."

Mr Irvine left Regular shortly after 1990 to pursue his writing ambitions and authored Scotland the Best, a travel guide which has been published every year since.

But in 1993 Mr Irvine and Mr Wright were back together again.

Mr Wright had written a report for City of Edinburgh Council outlining his vision for Edinburgh's Hogmanay celebrations - a document that ultimately brought Unique Events to life.

He said: "We thought: Scotland invented Hogmanay, we should own Hogmanay, we should own New Year, and why not ­Edinburgh? I never thought I'd be allowed to close Princes Street for a party, but we've been doing that for the past 21 years. In fact, I haven't had a New Year off since 1989."

The initial brief was to work towards a climax with the millennium celebrations, when Unique staged outdoor concerts in Inverness, Aberdeen, Stirling, Glasgow and Edinburgh.

But each year since, the ­Edinburgh event has got steadily bigger and bigger, quickly growing from an audience of 50,000 in 1993 to 350,000 just two years later.

Its sudden growth prompted a safety review, which led to a decision to enclose the event with a perimeter fence. Mr Wright recalls it as being a seminal moment in his understanding of putting safety at the forefront of major outdoor events.

Unique Events would go on to take on a life of its own outside Hogmanay. Aside from the New Year party, it found itself involved in staging everything from the celebrations marking the opening of the Scottish Parliament to the Live8 concert at Murrayfield, held in 2008 to coincide with the G8 summit in Gleneagles and to support the Make Poverty History campaign.

As Unique grew, Mr Wright remained involved with Regular Music until 2003, at which time Mark Mackie assumed full control.

He said the events industry had changed beyond all recognition from his first involvement - and not all for the good.

While there are still around 40 promotion agencies in the UK, he laments the stranglehold that the biggest two players - Live Nation and AEG - have come to exert on the market, and is scathing about the "debt-fuelled" manner in which they come to achieve their dominance.

He said: "We have seen the business go from first generation entrepreneurs who were risk-takers and worked on a handshake and trust, to an era when you have 100-page contracts, you don't read your health and safety manuals, you weight them because they are like telephone directories.

"The whole spirit of how things are done has changed. [But] there is still that generation - those people who were the entrepreneurs back then are still there.

"There are still three guys called Barry in London - Barry Marshall, Barry Dickinson and Barry Clayman - who are among the biggest players in the industry.

"They are still around, but the world has changed dramatically."

As Hogmanay approaches, Mr Wright is preparing himself for a dramatic change of his won.

Having agreed to sell his stake in Unique to Mr Irvine, this New Year will be his last as silver commander for Edinburgh's Hogmanay, which has seen him control the event alongside the emergency services for the past 21 years.

He goes with the event in ruder health than ever. Starting with a torchlight procession on December 30, it will feature carnival rides on St Andrew's Square, a Candlelit Concert in St Giles' Cathedral on December 31 and, of course, the Street Party on New Year's Eve.

Although he is 67, Mr Wright is not about to retire, and will retain an interest in Castle Concerts, which he owns with Mr Mackie.

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