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No man is an island

Features
November 26, 2019

That’s what the 400-year-old poem by the UK’s John Donne suggests, but the location of his headquarters and Carsten Svoldgaard’s company name, CSB Island Entertainment, comes close to it in a literal sense, which is ironic considering CSB is a 25-year-old business that works on a global scale. Christopher Barrett reports

From Puma to Deep Purple, Denmark’s Carsten Svoldgaard has no regrets about jumping ship from the textile trade to live entertainment.

He joined promoter Søren Højberg Booking (SHB) in 1988 and quickly realised the music business was far more rewarding than exporting bags and clothing.

“Eight days after I was employed by SHB I was in Los Angeles, for the first time in my life,” says Svoldgaard. “I was tasked with visiting all the agents, because we were working on the Esbjerg Rock Festival [cap. 25,000] and wanted to book some big acts.”

Svoldgaard spent six years with SHB before deciding the only way to find the freedom to follow his vision was to strike out alone.

“We couldn’t agree how to progress,” he says. “I wanted to do more than just book acts for shows and get the 10 per cent – I was interested in organising European tours with international acts and partnering with promoters in other countries,” he says.

As a result, Svoldgaard went independent and launched CSB Island Entertainment in 1994. From the outset Svoldgaard’s new venture proved successful.

“I took a plane back to LA and then on to New York and London to visit all the agents and tell them I was looking to work on European tours with major acts,” says Svoldgaard. “On the first day I was asked to do a tour with Barry Manilow.”

Not long after that he found himself standing in the audience at a sold-out Wembley Arena (12,500) in London watching Manilow perform. “That’s a show I will never forget,” he says.

CSB’s next tour was Fleetwood Mac and subsequent years have seen the company work with acts including Elton John, Tom Jones, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Bryan Adams, James Blunt and Helene Fischer.

The company has also worked extensively with classical artistes such as Plácido Domingo, José Carreras, Jonas Kaufmann, Kathrine Jenkins and Paul Potts.

Alongside promotion concerts and being an agent for several local acts, for the past two decades CSB has become well established as a leading exponent of carefully crafted pop tribute shows, which now represent around 50 per cent of its business.

Among the company’s touring shows in Scandinavia include Michael Jackson tribute, Thriller Live (produced by the UK’s Flying Music), The Greatest Love of All – The Whitney Houston Show and Queen Machine’s Symphonic.

Their longest running is CSB’s own creation, The Show – A Tribute To ABBA, which the firm introduced in 2001 and has since visited more than 50 countries. It recently played in Argentina, Chile and Peru for the first time.

Key to the ABBA show’s success has been CSB’s attention to detail in creating a show that feels as authentic as possible.

The company spent more than a year developing it, and an important factor for ABBA fans is that the show features original ABBA touring musician/sax player Ulf Andersson – who co-wrote ABBA hit I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do with the band’s Benny Andersson.

At the heart of the show is Swedish band Waterloo, who were taken on by CSB after they won an ABBA look-alike contest that was broadcast on Swedish TV.

For many tribute show producers that would have been more than enough, but not for Svoldgaard, who also employed the National Symphony Orchestra of London to perform accompanying arrangements under the guidances of musical director Matthew Freeman.

Tribute to London

Among the many landmark moments for The Show – A Tribute To ABBA was a sold-out performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall (5,272) in September 2007.

“I had to squeeze my arm to make sure I wasn’t dreaming,” says Svoldgaard. “The Royal Albert Hall had never accepted a tribute show before. We invited people from the venue to see it and we won them over. It was a fantastic evening in a beautiful venue.

“This show has paved the way around the world for lots of subsequent new tribute shows we have toured, such as the Whitney Houston Show with Belinda Davids and Queen Machine.”

Danny Betesh, MD of UK-based promoter Kennedy Street Enterprises, first worked with Svoldgaard in the early 1980s, on a sold-out Scandinavia tour with Shakin’ Stevens and was later won over by CSB’s tribute shows.

“The Show – A Tribute To ABBA  is hugely successful,” says Betesh. “We’re doing a six-date tour of the UK in May next year, including a date at the London Palladium (2,286).”

CSB’s Band, Queen Machine has also proven hugely popular in and an enhanced version, Queen Machine Symphonic, will next year play at venues including London’s Eventim Apollo (5,039), the First Direct Arena (13,500) in Leeds and the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall (2,475).

The show sees Scandinavian Queen cover band Queen Machine joined by West End and Broadway theatre star Kerry Ellis, who has collaborated with Brian May and starred in Queen musical We Will Rock You. They are accompanied by the London Symphonic Rock Orchestra conducted by Matthew Freeman.

Svoldgaard says that one of the motivations for getting involved in the tribute act business was the fact that they attract an older demographic.

“They are the best audience you could have, they are aged over 40 and are keen to go out, they also have money,” he says. “I knew that if we could create a great show that appealed to that age group we could have better ticket prices.”

Naturally, when choosing an act to create a show around, Svoldgaard will only consider ideas with  good international potential, as the cost of establishing a production means it needs to tour extensively.

“Thriller Live was produced before Michael Jackson died and we were touring in Scandinavia, but couldn’t sell the tickets because people wanted to see the real Michael Jackson and not a tribute show. It was a fantastic show, but it was only after he died that the ticket sales really started to take off,” he says.

A family affair

Not satisfied with touring tribute shows and major international acts, Svoldgaard has established CSB as a Scandinavian go-to company for family entertainment shows such as Lord Of The Dance, Rhythm Of The Dance and Feld Entertainment’s Disney On Ice.

In 1999 CSB became one of the first international promoters to team-up with Ireland’s KCP on its  show Rhythm Of The Dance.

“We have done 14 tours since then with the show throughout Scandinavia,” says KCP MD Kieran Cavanagh. “The touring relationship between CSB and KCP spawned a wonderful friendship between myself and Carsten.”

In 2008, almost a decade after Disney On Ice had last toured Denmark, Svoldgaard contacted Feld Entertainment and convinced them that with CSB’s involvement, the frosty family entertainment show could make a highly successful return.

He was right, and CSB has been woking with Feld ever since.

“Disney is a huge brand here,” says Svoldgaard, “Denmark may only have a population of around fivce million, but we do three show per day in the biggest arenas – the Royal Arena [16,000] and Jyske Bank Boxen [15,000] – and have done annually for the past 12 years.

“There has been many successful editions of Disney On Ice in Denmark where we have sold more than 300,000 tickets,” says Feld Entertainment senior director of EMEA touring Tony Worgan, based in the company’s office in the Netherlands.

“One of the most memorable moments while working with CSB was my first visit to [their office in] Fanø to meet Carsten. Once there, I realised he really is the King of Fanø”

Island life

The diminutive island of Fanø, off the south-west coast of Denmark, is the home of CSB’s headquarters. With a population of around 3,000, the island is perhaps an unlikely location for a significant global operator.

“In our business it doesn’t matter if you are on a small island in Denmark or in London, you just need a phone and email access,” says Svoldgaard. “I am constantly travelling around the world visiting the agents and promoters I work with. I believe personal contact is best, people really appreciate it.”

Semmel Concerts Entertainment in Germany has worked with CSB since the late 1990s.

“Carsten organised, as a local partner, some of our German-speaking artistes´ concerts in Denmark and later we worked on his ABBA show very successfully in the German-speaking market and brought it to an arena level,” says Semmel MD Dieter Semmelmann. “

Aside from loyalty and reliability, Semmelmann says an important quality that has helped their relationship thrive is Svoldgaard’s sense of humour.

“That’s really important in this business and has always made our collaborations very enjoyable,” he says.

Svoldgaard lives on the island with his wife Heidi and four children, including his son Kenneth who is CSB’s chief operating officer.

“There are only five of us in the office on the island, but we have a lot of freelancers travelling around the world,” he says. “We have a Danish production
crew that follows the ABBA
tour worldwide.”

Supporting cast

Nordic Rentals has supplied sound and lighting equipment to CSB’s touring shows for the past two decades and the success of The Show – A Tribute To ABBA has taken its team far and wide.

“It has not only given our crew great experience of being in foreign countries such as Japan, China, Brazil, Russia and India, but matured them so that they know how to deal with whatever strange designs, low tech equipment and language difficulties arise,” says Nordic Rentals senior sales & project manager Jens Elsborg.

While some of the acts that CSB has worked with, such as the Dubliners, have enjoyed visiting Fanø so much that they have played shows there on numerous occasions. For Plácido Domingo, it was an event in nearby Esbjerg that led the opera star to build a long-term relationship with CSB.

“Carsten can to see me at a Plácido Domingo show in Stavanger [Norway] in August 2005,” remembers Domingo’s manager Petra Weiss. “The purpose of the visit was to invite Mr Domingo to perform during the town of Esbjerg’s anniversary festivities.

“Carsten was successful and we came to Esbjerg the following year,” she says. “We loved the wonderful island of Fanø, where we stayed for the duration of our visit. Over the years since, Carsten has brought us to shows in Aalborg, Odense and Copenhagen, and in January this year to the Musikhuset Aarhus [3,800].”

The gathering

Many of the company’s venue clients have also grown familiar with the 56 km² (35 m²) stretch of land on the Wadden Sea.

“Every year we invite all the key Scandianvian venue managers to the island for a presentation of all the shows that we will tour with during the year ahead,” says Svoldgaard. “We usually have around 70 people here.

“We bring in original artistes and performers from our shows to play here and following the presentation there is a big gala dinner and lots of drinks. There are always activities the following day, but often people are so worn out from the previous evening they stay in bed.”

Musikhuset Aarhus (4,385) booker Hans Busch, who has worked with CSB for more than a decade booking classical artistes and buying in shows such as The Show – A Tribute To ABBA, Thriller Live and The Simon and Garfunkel Story, believes that it is Svoldgaard’s hands-on approach that has won him widespread loyalty.

“He is very good at keeping a good working relationship with the artistes and customers, most stay with him for many years,” says Busch. “Carsten makes you feel that your interests are his interests and you are in it together. It’s the good old way of doing business based on trust and respect.”

Among the other venue operators to have long-standing relationships with CSB is MCH, which among other venues, owns the Jyske Bank Boxen in Herning.

“The relationship between MCH Messecenter Herning and CSB goes back more than 20 years, since Carsten had his first show in Herning with the Rhythm Of The Dance in our 1,000-seat Congress Centre, in 1999,” says MCH head of culture Nicki Quist. “Since then the partnership has resulted in 53 CSB shows and concerts in Herning.”

The first time CSB worked with Sweden’s Malmö Arena (15,000) was in 2010 when its ABBA show played the venue and drew an audience of 8,000.

“There have been many highlights of working with Carsten since, not least our rounds of golf,” says the venue’s CEO Karin Mårtensson, “They include André Rieu, Thriller Live and Lord Of The Dance, and next year he will bring Night of Freestyle to our arena.”

CSB will tour Night of Freestyle – which involves stars from disciplines including motocross, mountain biking, BMX and quad biking, performing gravity defying stunts – in Sweden and Denmark next year for the first time. It has already toured throughout Germany.

“Another project we are working on is a series of live talk shows across Scandinavia, called An Audience With Liverpool Legends. It will see Liverpool Football Club players, such as Kevin Keegan, in conversation on stage while a big screen shows highlights from their careers. It also features Jamie Webster singing Liverpool songs,” says Svoldgaard.

Illustrating just how diverse CSB’s business has become, the veteran promoters says he is also working on putting together a Michael Angelo touring exhibition, featuring priceless items from the Vatican’s collection.

It is all a long way from that pivotal Barry Manilow show at the UK’s Wembley Arena, but Svoldgaard still remains focused on concert promotion and among CSB’s forthcoming events are concerts with James Blunt and Paul Potts.

He has no doubt that without a good grounding in concert promotion, he would not have been able to create such successful stage shows and take them around the world.

“Like so many people in the concert business, I’m in it for life,” he says.

What others say

Petra Weiss, manager of Plácido Domingo, Germany

“It is the individual care and reliability that distinguishs Carsten and his employees. We hope that CSB, Carsten and Kenneth will be successful for a long time to come.”

Keith Bradley, tour director, Rocket Entertainment Group, UK

“Like most things in our industry it’s about the detail and Carsten’s attention to detail is great. You have to love the business to invest the time required to pull together concerts – it’s an art-form. Carsten invests the time because he loves it.”

Karsten Jahnke, Karsten Jahnke Konzertdirektion, Germany 

“Congratulations on the 25th anniversary of your company. We both have completely different tastes in music, but we like each other, we have done some great shows together and I hope there will be way more to come during the next 25 years.”

Derek Nicol, joint MD, Flying Music, UK

“Carsten is a really nice guy and very easy to deal with, while also being a tough negotiator. Both Carsten and [son] Kenneth are real gentlemen and always deliver.”

Nicki Quist, head of culture, MCH, Denmark

“Carsten is extremely experienced, honest and likeable. We have no doubt that his warm personal approach has laid the foundations to his and CSB’s success. A quality that his son Kenneth and the rest of the CSB team has carried with them.”

Kieran Cavanagh MD KCP, Ireland

“Carsten is a gentleman and his word is his contract. I have played tours for Carsten where we did not have a signed contract and I knew business would be taken care of.”

Karin Mårtensson CEO Malmö Arena, Sweden

“Carsten is a targeted businessman, who fulfils his commitment and always answers the phone. He is down-to-earth, humble and is great fun.”

Jens Elsborg, Senior Sales & Project Manager Nordic Rentals, Denmark

“When Carsten calls, we jump. He is a gentleman, a man of his word and a good businessman who focuses on creating the best outcome artistically and financially.”

Danny Betesh MD Kennedy Street Enterprises, UK

“Carsten and Kenneth are good people and easy to work with.”

Hans Busch, Musikhuset Aarhus, Denmark

“You can count on him, with Carsten there is no bull***t. He is to the point and from the heart. Carsten has succeeded in maintaining this spirit in the company, not least with his son Kenneth.”

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