As Flash Entertainment celebrates its 10th anniversary, its Canadian founder John Lickrish can look back proudly on a remarkable decade that has seen the company put the Gulf state of Abu Dhabi firmly on the global live music stage. Christopher Barrett reports
Since 2008, Flash Entertainment has not only brought many of the biggest international acts in contemporary music to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), but also helped build the local infrastructure and assemble the technical talent necessary to host them.
Among acts to have performed shows with Flash are Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Madonna, Beyoncé, Kanye West, Coldplay, Britney Spears and Guns N Roses.
The government-owned organisation’s interests are spread well beyond live music and it has staged hugely significant sporting tournaments, including the FIFA Club World Cup.
One of the landmark productions that demonstrates Flash Entertainment’s broad capabilities is Yasalam, an entertainment extravaganza timed around Abu Dhabi’s hosting of Formula One each year, which includes concerts by world-renowned artistes.
Other annual Flash events include EDM festival Creamfields, which since its launch in 2010 has featured acts such as deadmau5, Tiesto, Hardwell and David Guetta.
The show takes please at originally Flash-owned 45,000-capacity du Arena on Yas Island.
With offices in Abu Dhabi’s twofour54 media zone, the firm employs 50 full-time staff and brings in many thousands of freelancers when required for major events.
Flash MD and founder John Lickrish acknowledges the company has come a long way since it launched with two staff in 2008.
“When I arrived here in 2007, I could never have imagined where we would be in 10 years,” he says.
Flash was launched in 2008, but the groundwork was laid the previous year when Toronto-born Lickrish, who had run Blue Recordings in his native Canada, was asked by Abu Dhabi-based investment firm Mubadala to come to the city and help organise a Justin Timberlake concert at the Emirates Palace.
The success of the sold-out 25,000-capacity event at the greenfield site led to Lickrish being asked to organise another show at the venue.
“We did one show to see how it would work and how the suppliers here would adapt and deliver,” says Lickrish. “It worked well, so we returned with Bon Jovi in May 2008.”
With nearly 19,000 tickets sold, the Bon Jovi concert was deemed a huge success, so the government’s Executive Affairs Authority asked Lickrish to help build an entertainment scene in Abu Dhabi, which is less than two hours drive from fellow UEA emirate Dubai.
“They wanted to give it a kick-start and felt that it was really important to the city,” he says. “They wanted venues to be built and for Abu Dhabi to be a global hub like New York, London or Los Angeles.
“I was asked to build the organisational structure and long-term business plan, and look at how we could develop the entertainment infrastructure in Abu Dhabi.
“So, from there, in 2008 we did Christine Aguilera, George Michael and Alicia Keys, Shakira and Rihanna,” he says.
The following year proved to be a landmark one for Lickrish and his company.
Not only would it see the launch of the Yasalam multi-event Formula One entertainment extravaganza, Creamfields debut in the Gulf and the opening of the du Arena, but back-to-back shows in March by Andrea Bocelli and Coldplay that saw Flash overcome huge challenges.
The aim was to stage shows on consecutive days at the Emirates Palace, with the infrastructure
set-up to accommodate both events. Lickrish says there were significant challenges from the outset.
“We had Andrea Bocelli but really struggled to confirm Coldplay,” he says. “We had set-up the infrastructure to deliver a classical music show for 12,000 people and a rock concert for 25,000 the next day. The aim was to have two artistes that would not cannibalise each other, diverse shows with one production set-up.”
With Coldplay finally confirmed, and the scene set for Bocelli to kick-off the proceedings, the next obstacle for Lickrish’s team was a wind storm three days prior to the start of the event that saw half the stage collapse.
Bocelli’s concert on the rebuilt stage proved a great success, but then the following night was hit by a lightning storm.
“Coldplay didn’t want to play, they felt there was a health and safety risk,” says Lickrish. “We had taken precautions and assured them we would never jeopardise anyone. It worked.
“The show went on for two-and-a-half hours and was amazing. There were 22,000 people standing in the pouring rain in a lighting storm in the middle of the UAE, which never happens, and nobody was leaving. After the show, Coldplay said it was the best of the tour.”
With offices in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, Protec has worked with Flash since the outset.
Protec owner, Stephen Larkin, says Flash is the most professional operator in the region and of the many shows they have worked on together, the Coldplay concert is among the most memorable.
“We supplied the full production for the show,” he says. “It almost never rains here but on that day it rained incessantly. Despite the challenges, we worked well together and pulled it off. It was a great moment for everyone involved.”
Lickrish says the two concerts proved the commercial viability of large-scale events in the UAE capital and had a major impact on Flash Entertainment’s evolution.
“The adversity we went through, the perseverance of everyone to deliver the event and, of course, the commitment of the fans — that was a game-changer. We knew we had something special. That night was the defining moment of my entertainment career,” says Lickrish.
Steve Strange, Coldplay’s international agent and co-founder of UK-based booking agency X-ray Touring has worked on three successful shows by the band with Flash.
“John has always been an ultimate professional,” says Strange. “He is very thorough with his due diligence on every show that we have worked on together.”
For Mike Galt, vice-president of talent, international and emerging markets for Live Nation Music UK, Coldplay’s show at the du Arena on New Year’s Eve 2016 was one of many highlights of working with Flash.
“It was the fastest selling show in the history of the region, John and I were texting back and forth, calling each other in excitement as the tickets just blew out instantly,” he says. “It was a special moment and we knew we collectively made something special happen for the Middle East region.”
Part of Flash Entertainment’s remit was to develop Yas Island as an entertainment hub, including the building and running of its open air du Arena (45,000) and du Forum (4,500) indoor venue.
The first artiste to perform at the Arena was Beyoncé in October 2009. It was the first of four shows at the venue, in as many nights, that formed an integral part of the inaugural Yasalam post-race activity.
“We had 30,000 in the venue for Beyoncé and from there it was Jamiroquai, Kings of Leon and the last night was Aerosmith,” says Lickrish. “We opened the venue to the general public and, of course, at the time we were developing the entire Yas Island with the necessary infrastructure, so it was a big test for us.”
The Aerosmith show marked the first time the band’s international agent Rod MacSween, co-MD of ITB in the UK, experienced working with Flash Entertainment.
Since then they have worked together on a Yasalam show by The Who and stand-alone Flash-promoted shows by Black Sabbath and the Dave Matthews Band.
“Flash has had a tremendous impact on the UAE, which is a great stepping-stone for tours on the way to or back from Asia or Australia, and it’s also not so far from Europe,” he says.
“It is a strategic market with very enthusiastic audiences.”
In the years since that first series of Yasalam concerts, Prince, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Madonna and Justin Timberlake are some of the acts to have played the du Arena, which is also the home of Creamfields Abu Dhabi.
The fully air conditioned du Forum can be configured, with the aid of a curtain system, to accommodate audiences starting at 2,500, without any loss of atmosphere.
Like sister venue the du Forum, it was branded as part of a naming rights deal between Flash and telecoms company du.
The venues were initially owned and operated by Flash, but are now overseen by Spectra Venue Management (formerly Global Spectrum).
Lickrish says it made economic sense for the venue to be run by a specialist venue operator.
“We decided to bring in a facility management company that could be there on the ground 24/7 and give us cost control savings,” he says. “Previously, the venue would be closed for weeks between shows and then we would have to mobilise the necessary staff for an event.
“It made sense to have a company there who could run it more efficiently from a cost perspective.”
In 2015 Flash enhanced the du Arena with the opening of an 8,800-sqm area around the entrance to the main arena. Branded The Village, as well as housing facilities such as food and beverage outlets, it hosts pre and post-show entertainment.
“Every year we look at how we can improve the customer experience and we have put in corporate boxes, cutting-edge technology, enhanced food and beverage options, and upgraded the artiste compound,” says Lickrish.
With work having begun on the 18,000-capacity Yas Arena, Flash is expanding its venue interests yet further.
Part of UAE-based developer Miral Asset Management’s $3.2 billion Yas Bay development, the arena is due to open in November 2019 and Flash will manage events there.
“It’s a multi-use arena that we can scale down to 2,000 and, as well as concerts, will be able to accommodate myriad events from basketball and tennis to theatre shows and TV productions,” Lickrish explains.
Having been a promoter of fledgling acts himself back in Canada, Lickrish is keen to ensure that Abu Dhabi has spaces available for up-and-coming acts to perform.
In 2015 Flash launched the Emerging Talent Competition as part of Yasalam.
“In order to have a thriving music business you need to have a vibrant local music scene and healthy emerging market. We don’t have the network of smaller club venues here so it is more difficult for new acts,” he says. “We wanted to support local musicians by giving them an opportunity to perform in front of large audiences with support slots ahead of headline acts.”
Despite music being central to Lickrish’s background and integral to the launch of Flash Entertainment, he is proud the company has diversified.
As well as developing events such as the Mubadala World Tennis Championship, which features many of the world’s top players, Flash has planned and executed the FIFA Club World Cup final in 2010, 2017 and 2018.
Broadcast to a global audience, the football tournament has helped raise the profile of Abu Dhabi’s major event capabilities and the breadth of Flash’s expertise.
“It has showcased the company’s diversity, the fact we are adaptable and keen to do different things,” he says. “It was great to see our team adapt from producing concerts to an international football event.”
Flash not only stages events in its own venues. Investment firm Mubadala owns the Zayad Sport City area of Abu Dhabi, the home to the Zayad Sport City Stadium (44,200) and the 5,700-capacity Tennis Stadium. Among the events Flash staged there are the Mubadala World Tennis Championship.
“It’s been really exciting to watch the project grow and evolve each year, speaking as both a venue professional and a tennis fan,” says Zayed Sports City director of operations Colin Farmer.
Working on the 2010 FIFA Club World Cup led Flash to partner with Ticketmaster, which Lickrish says was a major step in its battle to keep tickets out of the hands of touts and counterfeiters.
“We needed a centralised inventory that we could monitor as well as access control, and the convenience that Ticketmaster’s suite of services provide,” he says. “Prior to that we would have to print the tickets for an event ourselves, and try to monitor distribution with the aim of minimising fraud and counterfeiting.
“With Ticketmaster we wanted to give people the convenience and security of knowing they were buying tickets from a global brand.”
David Grisham, chief operating officer at Ticketmaster parent company Live Nation Entertainment Middle East, says the company has worked with Flash from the outset.
“We’ve been working with Flash for 10 years, booking content, co-promoting shows and selling their tickets,” he says.
Grisham says the biggest ticketed event it has worked with Flash on is the Asian Football Cup, which commences in January next year.
The biggest music event in Flash’s calendar remains the city-wide Yasalam festival. The entertainment initiative was spearheaded by Lickrish and inspired by his experience of the Montreal Grand Prix.
“What makes the Montreal GP great is you have so many activities before, during and after the event that make the whole city come alive,” he says. “We wanted to do the same thing for Abu Dhabi, to bring the community together and celebrate what we felt was the biggest thing to hit the region.”
To date, Yasalam has involved more than 3,100 hours of live music and shows by more than 150 international artistes.
Ten years down the line, Lickrish is understandably pleased of what he, and his burgeoning team, has achieved.
“We are very proud of the company, the support that we get, and the effort of everyone involved,” he says. “It has not been easy, we have helped develop the infrastructure, health and safety and security in the region in order to stage major events.
“All of those things are taken for granted in mature markets, but we have played a key role in developing that.
“We have shown the world that Abu Dhabi is not an emerging market, people know that if they do a show here it is exactly the same, or better, than in New York or London.
“It has been a crazy 10 years and I can’t wait for the next.”