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The art of the possible

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January 28, 2020

Starting his career with the launch of the biggest festival the world had seen at the time, Luiz Oscar Niemeyer took time out from promoting to work for a record company. But he felt the changing mood and returned to live events, working across South America with some of the biggest acts around. Johnny Black reports

“Luiz Oscar is the guy you need at your side if you have a crisis in South America,” states Andrew Zweck, founder and head of UK-based global touring agency, Sensible Events.

Zweck is far from alone in holding such a high opinion of Brazilian promoter Luiz Oscar Niemeyer who, since his vital participation in creating the first Rock in Rio (cap. 100,000) festival in 1985, has dedicated himself to helping to establish South America as a viable touring market.

The “quiet achiever” is what Zweck calls him, because whether he’s working with Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones or Rod Stewart, Niemeyer has a talent for making things happen, sometimes against all odds.

“On the Rolling Stones show at Rio’s Maracanã Stadium (78,878) in 2016, there was a huge storm in the middle of the night, which caused the roof to collapse,” recalls Zweck.

“Everyone converged on the stadium at three in the morning, with the rain still pouring down, and then Luiz Oscar showed up and took command, organised his team to fly in the spare parts needed to repair the roof and enable the show to continue.

“Everyone was very impressed. He was the only guy who, in the middle of the night, could see the solutions.”

Via a management agreement through his company Plan Music, Niemeyer is currently chief content officer at T4F, Latin America’s third largest live entertainment provider.

His four-decade-spanning career path has put him at the center of so many major moments in South America’s musical evolution that simply listing them would require an entire feature.

He was a founder not only of Rock in Rio, but also the Hollywood Rock Festivals (1988), the first promoter to bring a Beatle to South America (Paul McCartney in 1990), and the driving force behind the record-breaking Rolling Stones free concert on Copacabana Beach, which drew an estimated 1.5 billion people in 2006.

Throw in his involvements with Bob Dylan, Beyoncé, Elton John, U2, Coldplay, Guns N’ Roses and Taylor Swift, it begins to feel it would be quicker to list the artistes and events for which he hasn’t played a significant role.

Luiz Oscar Niemeyer was born in Rio de Janeiro on 24 June 1956. The son of a neurosurgeon and nephew of Oscar Niemeyer, the architect known as The Master of the Curve, famed as the designer of Brasilia, the federal capital city of Brazil.

He insists that his family was not musical, but remembers that he started buying singles in the mid-‘60s.

“Then I started my LP collection in the ‘70s, with The Beatles, Stones, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Genesis and so on.”

With very few exceptions, those first album purchases seem to have dictated Niemeyer’s future career path.

“I was also interested in Brazilian music, but there were no big concerts in Brazil at this point in time,” he recalls, “It was not until I saw the Woodstock film, that my passion for major concerts was ignited. What happened at Woodstock was unreachable for a young man in South America.”

It was not until 1975, when he was 19, that Niemeyer was able to attend a major rock event and, inevitably, it was not in Brazil.

“I went to San Francisco to get some further education, and that enabled me to attend a big concert called The Snack Sunday (23 March 1975), organised by the promoter Bill Graham in Golden Gate Park. I saw Bob Dylan, The Band and Neil Young playing together, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Starship, Joan Baez, and Sly and the Family Stone. I went with a group of friends and a lot of sandwiches, and it was an amazing experience.”

Energised by his American experience, Niemeyer returned to Brazil fired up with a determination to become involved in the music business, “but there were still very few opportunities to see concerts by the kinds of acts I enjoyed.”

Staring at zero

In 1979 he grabbed his first opportunity to secure a job in the music business job at  Artplan Publicidade in Rio.

“I started working there as an intern – no money, no office or anything. I started as a trainee, then assistant and so on. I worked during the day and attended University in the evening.”

Though these jobs were low level, Niemeyer had landed on his feet as he found himself working directly with Abraham Medina, who had been a pioneering figure in the development of radio in Brazil during the 1950’s. More significantly, however, Abraham was the father of Roberto Medina who would play a significant role in facilitating Niemeyer’s rise to the top.

In late 1980, Niemeyer earned a degree in communication from PUC-Rio (Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro) and took a leave of absence from Artplan a year later.

“I went to Annenberg School of Communications at USC in Los Angeles, where I graduated in Communication Management in late 1982.” Once again, he used his time in California to attend as many concerts as he could.

He was clearly flagged-up as a potential high flyer by his bosses at Artplan because when he flew south again, he became director of Artplan Promoções. It was in early 1984 that Roberto Medina called Niemeyer into his office. “He  showed me the idea for Rock in Rio and requested my collaboration.”

Roberto Medina described his vision of Rock in Rio as “a mega-festival that offered a 500,000-meter structure, heliports, cafeterias, shopping malls, massive media coverage, three 80-meter revolving stages unseen before.”

Niemeyer reportedly travelled the world trying to attract artistes to play at Rock in Rio, but Brazil’s fragile economy meant that, of the first 70 meetings, he received 70 ‘no thanks’. Even so, Niemeyer remembers it as “an incredible experience for which my involvement included everything from planning the line-up, to negotiations with Globo TV, artiste booking, artiste production and so on.”

Niemeyer had to overcome the reluctance of agents and promoters to get involved in such a massively ambitious project in a country whose financial stability was famously weak.

But his understated persistence slowly started to win converts, with Queen becoming the first to sign up, after which Iron Maiden came aboard and the rock started to roll. Over 10 nights, 1.5 m people came.

“Rock in Rio was a turning point for rock in South America,” reckons Niemeyer. “Before then we did not have the know-how or the equipment to enable us to put on major rock concerts. So when we had to get Rock in Rio together, we had to learn very fast, and we had to import lots of equipment from abroad. That was the beginning of being able to put major rock events together in South America.”

Although the venture had gone spectacularly well, Niemeyer was far from ready to rest on his laurels. “Working on Rock in Rio was a fantastic experience and I learned a lot,” he reveals, “but then the Brazilian economy took a downturn, and the work became less interesting.”

Nevertheless, Rock in Rio provided Niemeyer with a springboard, not just in terms of experience, but in making contacts. During that period he first started collaborating with Mills, who were doing the stages and scaffolding for Rock in Rio. Mills was the biggest scaffolding company in Brazil, operating not only in events, but also in the construction business, and it would prove to be invaluable a couple of years later.

Rio to Hollywood 

A mere three months after Rock in Rio, Niemeyer decided to strike out on his own, first starting an artiste management company, ECHO Productions, but soon returning to the festivals arena with a new project entitled Hollywood Rock Festival.

The first iteration of Hollywood Rock, sponsored by BAT (British American Tobacco), took place in January 1988, with four nights of concerts at each of two venues, Morumbi Stadium (67,000) in São Paulo and the Apoteose Square (40,000) in Rio.

The 1988 line-up featured mostly British acts, including Supertramp, The Pretenders, Duran Duran, Simple Minds, UB40 and Simply Red. However, there were also Brazilian artistes including Ira!, Titas,  Ultraje a Rigor, Lulu Santos and Marina Lima.

But to create Hollywood Rock, Niemeyer realised he needed a partner well-versed in the nuts and bolts of concert production. “At that point, I thought Mills would be ideal due to the relationship we had developed since Rock in Rio, so in July 1987 we started Mills And Niemeyer Promoções Ltda.”

Hollywood Rock proved so popular that it was repeated again six times in the succeeding seven years, only ending in 1996 because of  a law was passed prohibiting tobacco and alcohol companies from sponsoring cultural and sporting events.

“Hollywood Rock was not only popular for the big crowds of fans,” notes Fernando Moya, promoter at T4F/Ozono Producciones in Argentina. “It was an event that opened doors enabling many artistes to go on tours around Latin America. Luiz has always been a very creative promoter, with interesting artistic proposals to develop different types of events, always looking for ideal content on his shows.”

Meanwhile, major artistes were being brought into South America under the banner of Mills and Niemeyer. “The biggest was Paul McCartney in Rio,” declares Niemeyer, “which set a record of 184,000 people attending the show at Maracanã stadium in 1990. It is still in the Guinness Book of Records for the biggest paying audience for a solo act.”

No problem too great

Carlos Geniso, founder and president of DG Medios in Chile, first worked with Niemeyer on those McCartney shows.

“Even then Luiz Oscar was one of the most important promoters in South America,” he observes. “We have since worked together on Eric Clapton, Roger Waters, Radiohead and others. Not only is he very good with branding and sponsorship, he knows how to match those aspects with the right artistes. He’s also a kind guy, a good person. I consider him a good friend.”

The McCartney show also brought Niemeyer together with the artiste’s UK-based global promoter Barrie Marshall of Marshall Arts, who recalls, “Paul also played all the new football stadiums prior to the World Cup. We opened so many stadiums with Paul that he has the record for the most stadium and concert attendances.

“No matter what problems arise, Luiz keeps calm and has an excellent rapport with stadium owners, police and government officials,” he says.  “Luiz has used his belief in artistes and their unique talent to open up many markets across Brazil.”

Marshall’s observation is confirmed by promoter Juan Manuel Lopez of 6 Pasos in Argentina, who says, “The Paul McCartney shows in Bogotá [Colombia] and Montevideo [Uruguay] were historic. Montevideo sold in an hour. Those shows opened-up these markets, since then those places have received great concerts.

“He is great to work with because when Luiz Oscar says ‘white’, it is white and always will be. And even when he has to say  ‘No’, there is no way to get mad at him.”

Rock to records

When Paul Simon toured South America in 1991, it gave global promoter John Meglen of Concerts West in Los Angeles, his first opportunity to work with Niemeyer.   

“Luiz Oscar grew up in that marketplace,” points out Meglen, “so he knows it better than anyone I know. He’s a low-key guy, calm, straightforward and always gets the work done. We never do anything in South America without checking with Luiz Oscar first.”

Another event which Niemeyer is inordinately proud of is the eight shows played by Eric Clapton in 1990. But then in 1993 he was lured away from promoting to become president of record company BMG-Ariola. “It was a dramatic change for me,” he accepts, “very different work and responsibilities from being a promoter. But I was still young and I considered it a great challenge and a learning experience.”

He remained at BMG-Ariola for 12 years. “The record market in Brazil was 75 per cent local and 25 per cent international, so during that time I was focusing mainly on local repertoire. I worked with the most important acts in the Brazilian music scene, including the singer and composer Chico Buarque, singers like Gal Costa, Maria Bethânia, Fábio Jr, Fagner and the country duo Leandro & Leonardo.

“I also launched and developed several acts that became huge in our market, including Samba group Só Pra Contrariar and singer Ana Carolina.”

By the start of the new millennium, he realised, “Sales were declining in the industry, due to piracy and the advent of the internet. At this point I started planning my return to the concert promotion business, because it was clear to me that live entertainment was gaining muscle.

“Not only was it a business I knew very, very well, but there really were no new players, so my space was still there.”

Thus, in 2005, he quit BMG-Ariola and started Planmusic Entertainment. “Just one year after establishing the company we promoted the Rolling Stones at Copacabana Beach, a free concert paid for mainly by private companies’ sponsorship. It is not every day that you can present the Rolling Stones free to the public on the beach – 1.5m people attended that show, making it the biggest rock concert ever.”

That epochal show took place on Saturday 18 February 2006, immediately after which, “on the Monday and Tuesday we promoted U2 in São Paulo. Two shows at the Morumbi stadium, with 65,000 people each, and this was just our first year.

“A lot of people told me they they thought I was mad to present two such huge events within days of each other and, I have to admit, when I was actually standing on Copacabana Beach looking out at that huge audience, even I began to wonder if maybe I was mad,” admits Niemeyer. “But it all went off really well.”

Since those heady days, he has barely paused for breath. “We have continued to promote shows with Paul McCartney, Roger Waters, Elton John and James Taylor in Brazil and Argentina. On top of that, we are the local partners of [US festival franchise] Lollapalooza which we promote every April. This coming April we have lined-up Guns N’ Roses, Travis Scott and The Strokes.

“In July we are promoting two stadium shows with Taylor Swift, who will be playing South America for the first time.”

Team spirits

In 2016 Niemeyer negotiated his aforementioned merger agreement between Planmusic and T4F.

“I first met Luiz Oscar 35 years ago,” says T4F president and CEO Fernando Alterio. “Back then I was setting-up my first music hall, The Palace in São Paulo, and Luiz Oscar used to book local acts at the venue, so we first met negotiating Brazilian music artistes.”

Alterio describes Niemeyer as, “a delightful person to be alongside, always optimistic, smiling, and with a contagious sense of humour. We have become even closer friends since our companies merged, so we have many projects planned for the future.”

When asked to name his proudest achievement, Niemeyer has no hesitation in choosing “My family.” Although now divorced, “I have a good relationship with my ex-wife. We have two children, daughter Luiza is 32 and lives in Santiago [Chile], where she is an economist working with a mining company. My Son, Luiz Guilherme, is 25 and lives in Rio. His company, LGL Promotions, owns Teatro XP and promotes music events throughout Brazil.”

On those rare occasions when he’s not working, he says, “I have a house on the beach in Angra dos Reis, and a boat. Also a house in the mountains where I can ride my horses.”

Last year Niemeyer was honoured by the Brazilian Government which awarded him the Ordem do Mérito Cultural, regarded as the highest official recognition for achievements in Brazilian culture.

However, staging concerts in South America is full of challenges, with never a dull moment.

“South America is a very unstable environment. We live through periods of euphoria and then depression. It is not easy to work and take risks in dollars when you never know what will happen the next day.

“Right now Brazil seems to be picking-up again after our worst economic crisis, ever! Argentina is in a major depression, and Chile is currently politically unstable.

“But I believe the hostile business environment gives us extra muscle to deal with the challenges.”

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