Saturday 17 August 2019

The $12m Dollar Man: How Vince Power faced the music

In 2012, Vince Power lost everything and his businesses lay in ruins. He tells our reporter about how he got through it - how all he needs now is a good shower and clean sheets - how he doesn't bear grudges, and how the death of his twin sister at birth is never far from his mind

Vince Power outside one of his London venues.
Vince Power outside one of his London venues.
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Nietzsche wrote in Twilight Of The Idols: 'What does not kill me, makes me stronger.' Vince Power's life over the last seven years has been a severe test of that truth. In 2010, he lost £9m ($12.8m) when the Vince Power Music Group, his music promotions and pubs business, went under. In August, 2011, his company Vince Power Music Festivals was floated on London's Alternative Investment Market at 66.5p per share (valuing it at £10m). In September, 2012, those same shares were virtually worthless - trading at 2.1p, and valuing Vince's company at less than £300,000.

The Guardian had once described him, in the mid 2000s, as the largest music promoter in Europe. Those words must have suddenly seemed a lifetime ago for Vince. (Indeed, it must have seemed even longer than a lifetime ago when Vince sold his Mean Fiddler organisation to Clear Channel for €46m in 2005.)

His illustrious 30-year career in the music industry promoting some of the biggest bands in the UK - from Bob Dylan to Prince to Noel Gallagher (and Glastonbury) - was in smouldering ruins. The Waterford-born maverick who was honoured in 2009 by the Queen for his services to the music business had to face the music. He was to lose everything.

Vince Power doesn't do existential crisis. The night we meet for dinner in London, it is a sunny summer evening. So we went for a long walk around the sights, as he talked about his nigh-on Biblical fall, his high-profile reversal of fortune. "All I need is a good shower that works and clean sheets," he says. "That's all you need in life."

"To satisfy some of my personal guarantees, I've had to sell everything. I am not a materialistic person. I've had it all and I've lost it all. I had to sell everything to finance my personal guarantees. It has been a struggle. But I'm still here, still alive.

"Money was never everything for me," he adds. "It wasn't my motivation. It was the music. Money never made me feel happy or sad. I am not unhappy about losing money. As a business man, I was disappointed. As a man, I am not unhappy that I lost a lot of money. I don't mean to make light of losing money, but it is not a life-threatening condition. Health, family and friends are much more important to me."

Did he learn this from losing everything?

"I learned nothing," Vince says.

"One thing you find is that when things go bad for you in the music industry you suddenly have very few friends. They are no longer around, or they stop ringing you, because you are no longer useful to them.

"So losing everything was a good thing because I found out who my friends were, my real friends. That's the good thing about it all, I suppose. In life, you only have your family - who are not always your friends - and you have your friends. I think I can count maybe 12 or 13 friends. So I can count my real friends on two hands."

Vince holds up his two hands to illustrate his point of friendship in the music industry. We go to a pub in Marylebone where I put a glass of Chablis in his hand and over the noise of the England v Russia game on the telly overhead, we talk for the next two hours. . . One of those good friends, writer and media entrepreneur James Brown, who worked with Vince on the interviews for his forthcoming book, describes him thus: "Vince is a battler and an innovator. He just keeps going, never complacent, always trying different things. He modernised live music festivals through Reading, the Fleadh, the Phoenix and many others, bringing in ideas that improved ticketing, health and safety, speedy drinks service, security; all things that are taken for granted today.

"He's run so many different venues in London, keeping live music vibrant at all levels," adds James. "He's always open-minded about trying different things regardless of how they do, he'll always gamble on an event. Sometimes he wins, sometimes he loses. You'd always back him to do something innovative and ambitious. He's an excellent host and great company."

Vince is great company the night we meet in London alright. "I feel good," he says. "My spirits are high. I'm optimistic for the future. The last five years haven't been good, difficult…yeah. But I haven't given up. The problem was a problem of the process of drastic change in the music industry."

Maybe much - if not all - of Vince's reversal of fortune can be explained contextually: the global economy crashed, the music industry changed, he was too bold; he paid Prince an astronomical fee to play Hop Farm in July, 2011; the gig tanked; the share price of Vince's company fell out of the sky.

Vince says he read an article in the Guardian last weekend about the current situation that made complete sense to him: 'UK festivals suffer in a costly and crowded field, study shows. Research claims more than 1 in 10 festivals will fold amid ever-increasing security and infrastructure costs and tough competition for ticket sales.'

Why doesn't Vince move back to Ireland and retire?

"That would be like a death sentence," Vince laughs.

"That is not to denigrate Ireland. I love Ireland. Moving anywhere to retire and stop working would be a death sentence. I'm not going to stop any time. I have my health and there hasn't been anything that has happened to me in the last five or six years that I can't deal with."

Maybe, the young lad who grew up in a small cottage in Kilmacthomas, County Waterford as one of 11 siblings, of whom four died in childhood, realised where he came from, and took some strength from his roots, in his heritage, because of his lowly start in life.

He describes his childhood as making "Angela's Ashes look like good bedtime reading".

Vince's twin sister died soon after she was born on April 29, 1947. She was never named because she was too young. Nor was she buried in a proper grave because she hadn't been baptised.

"That was one of the things about the Catholic Church," Vince says 69 years later, "she wasn't entitled to have a proper funeral. I found out where she was buried."

Vince also subsequently found out that his mother Brigid had twins who died when they were days old. They died from "simple things that wouldn't have happened today. My mother kept these things secret."

"You saw the priest coming in," he says. "You saw the doctor coming in. I remember seeing my father Jack and his friend, John Mullins, making a coffin out of orange fruit boxes for a baby who had died. I remember my father putting it on the back of his bike and cycling to the church with it, but I don't know what child it would have been. . ."

There are tears forming in his eyes as he processes that image.

"My mother and father," he adds, "would have the front room and three little box rooms. And then there was a little kitchen with a thing that you hang the pot on. You'd have a bath every week on a Saturday and I'd hate it. In the summer, the bath was outside in the yard."

And where was the toilet?

"The toilet was any field you liked!"

Vince, who opened the Mean Fiddler venue in Harlesden in 1982, was "sent" to his aunt Kitty Barry's boarding house in Hemel Hempstead in 1963. "The trains were full from Waterford to Rosslare and the boat, a terrible boat, was full," he remembers.

I ask him to take me back to that journey to England and to try to recall how he felt leaving Ireland all those years ago.

"I was sad going. I was sad on the boat. My mother was very upset. Kitty was very strict on me but she had to be because I was her responsibility. I lived in the same room as her 12-year-old son."

In 1966, young Vince was to get over his sadness when he met Theresa Fitzgerald, an 18-year-old girl from Cork, on the dance-floor of an Irish club in Harlesden. They were soon married and had their first child Maurice. Sharon and Gail soon followed.

Vince and Theresa divorced in 1978. The following year, Vince started a romance with London-Irish girl, Patsy Ryce, that lasted seven years and yielded two children, Brigid and Patrick. In 1986, he started a relationship with Alison Charles that lasted until 2003. They have three children, Nell, Niall and Evie. In 2006, Vince then began a five year relationship with Gemma Philips. "I speak and get on with all my exes," he says. "I was raised by my mother to love and respect women."

You owe your mother everything, I say.

"I've been living and working in England since my mother sent me over on the boat. I don't know where the last 50 years have gone. A lot of it was great fun, great people, great artists . . . like Van and Dylan . . . unforgettable times."

He isn't exaggerating. There were lots of unforgettable, good and mad times. He can recall putting on Dylan and Van, to say nothing of Ray Charles, The Pogues and Christy Moore at the Fleadh Mor festival in his home county of Waterford in 1993.

He laughs at the memory of standing at the side of the stage with Christy Moore watching Ray Charles perform, when Ray's tour manager curtly informed Moore that no one could stand there during the legend's set. Power intervened to say that Moore could remain where he was. The tour manager said if Moore didn't move he'd take Charles off the stage.

"Go ahead, take Ray Charles off the stage all you like - this man here," Vince said pointing to Moore, "is the reason why those fucking 40,000 people are in the crowd."

Suffice to say, Christy Moore remained by the side of the stage for the duration of Ray Charles's set in Tramore. "I lost a million on that festival," he says.

It was all swings and roundabouts financially for Mr Power. In 2008, he sold his Paddington penthouse - which was so big that his youngest children Evie and Nell used to play football on its rooftop - for £3.6m to a businessman in his Pigalle supper club in Piccadilly. Vince had agreed £3.3m when the buyer suggested that they flip a coin. Heads, he buys the home for £3m - £300,000 below the agreed price; or tails, he buys it for £3.6m - £300,000 above the asking price. Vince said tails.

It landed on tails and to celebrate Vince ordered a bottle of the most expensive champagne Pigalle had in its swanky fridges.

In 2012, Vince must have felt that he had lost a giant bet and everything was landing on heads. "Things were tough, but I got through it. I was always honest."

In the summer of 2009, I spent a weekend with Vince and his kids at their North London home. On Saturday afternoon, Vince drove me, Nell, Evie and Niall through London in his 1950s American cadillac with the top down in the sunshine, when another daughter, Brigid, rang from the Zoo.

"I'm here with some deers, dad," she said.

"Some old dears?" joked Vince.

"And some old goats," Brigid laughed: "I thought you'd like to hear that, dad, because you are one. Old."

Dad doesn't see it like that.

"I don't like that small big word - 70," says 69-year-old Vince now.

What have you learned from age?

"Nothing. Age is irrelevant. I don't feel older than I was years ago. So I don't feel. . . nearly fucking 70!"

Vince's 24-year-old daughter Nell, who plays in the band Trix, describes him thus: "My dad's ability to bend the rules and get in anywhere is amazing! Once we were going with him to an important meeting at Claridges only to be turned away because my little brother Niall, 10 at the time, was not wearing a collared shirt. There was no way we were getting in. My dad then had a bright idea to get one of his own shirts that he'd just picked up from the dry cleaners from the car and put it on my very small brother. It looked like a bed sheet on him.

"It looked ridiculous, but they let us in!" says Nell, who once wrote for the late Peaches Geldof's magazine, Disappear Here, where Nell listed the 20 things she loves, like Frog Wellies ("Fed up with wet feet? Think wellies make you look like a tool? Solution: Frog Wellies").

Vince's eldest son, 48-year-old Maurice, describes him with similar loving affection. "I have spent most of my working life alongside my father, helping where I could, to build a thriving business together. I can conclude that my father is both the most formidable and gentle person I know. A man that has struggled and fought all his life, to build something tangible and worthwhile for himself and his family.

"Decent, honest and loyal, his handshake is as good as any written contract and his word has always been his bond, qualities that are, sadly, so rare these days and that have, on some occasions, been an Achilles Heel to be exploited by those of lesser moral standing. I feel privileged to be his son, grateful that he has passed those values on to me and proud to call such a unique individual - my dad."

Vince's 28-year-old son Patrick says that "he's a quiet and clever man who never misses a trick. It always baffles me when I hear of his 'scary' business reputation as we never get a glimpse of it, he's always been such a soft and loving father to us."

Of this ferocious image of him in the music industry, Vince laughs but is honest enough to admit: "I used to be like a raging bull against people who I thought were disloyal.

"In the music business in London, you could meet people like that 18 times every day. I am nice to everybody now, because I want to be. I speak to everybody now, because I want to. There is no point in holding grudges. I don't have any enemies. I have made up with everybody.

"It is a waste of time, a waste of energy, and, most importantly, a waste of your life. You have to forgive and forget.

"There is no point in forgiving if you don't forget. You have to forgive yourself too. You have to move on. You have to lose the bitterness, lose the anger."

He is now working as an independent consultant for various companies and venues.

He adds that he is over and back to America a lot with a view to putting on some festivals like The Fleadh in 2017.

"I've got lots of great ideas. Losing everything makes me more determined to get back again, to do what I did so well for 30 years."

Vince is selling his house in North London.

He lives in a flat in West Hampstead. Prior to that he was living on a boat on the Grand Union Canal in London.

"I was constantly on the move, constantly cruising. For two weeks I'd be in Maida Vale, then I'd move the boat up to Harrow. It was a nice lifestyle. I loved it."

I ask him what is it about the water that he loves.

"I hate water. I can't swim. I am terrified of drowning."

To alleviate this fear, perhaps, Vince's time on the canal was spent with a singer who he dated for two years. He doesn't want to name her.

"We were mad about each other. Then she went to New York. I am single now," he laughs, "and looking for an Irish spinster with loads of fucking money."

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