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The Mendes effect

Features
April 1, 2019

From internet sensation to global pop star in just five years, Shawn Mendes’ success is a combination of his natural talent and special relationship with his fans, finding good management, agent and promoter contacts early on, then following a strategy for organic growth and looking after the audiences. Mike Gartside reports   

Since, at the age of 15, posting his six-second cover versions on the now-defunct video app Vine, Shawn Mendes has packed more into the first five years of his live music career than many artistes do in a lifetime.

Attracting thousands of followers with his online vignettes, he also caught the eye of a young US band manager Andrew Gertler, who tracked the Canadian singer down to his home town, Toronto, and offered to become his manager, swiftly signing him to Island Records.

With first album Handwritten selling 150,000 in its first week and its single Stitches reaching No 1 in the US and UK, it was clear that, by 2015, Gertler’s AG Artists and the record company had a performer with global potential.

Both 2016’s LP Illuminate and 2018’s Shawn Mendes: The Album reached No 1 on the Billboard 200 in the US.

But before Mendes had even written his first song, Gertler was already thinking about a live strategy, according to agent Matt Galle of Paradigm Talent Agency in New York.

“I knew Andrew [Gertler] and he liked my work with other artistes,” says Galle. “He’d recently started managing Shawn and brought him on his first trip to New York, and Shawn and his mother came to my office.

“He didn’t have any original music, then, only covers, but he sat on my couch and played a few songs. I thought he was very talented and special and wanted to work with him immediately.”

As early as 2014, Mendes found himself opening for Taylor Swift’s 1989 tour, promoted by Louis Messina, whose The Messina Group, based in Texas, partners with multinational promoter AEG Live.

“I could see him, aged 16, nailing it night after night,” Messina recalls. “How can you not love it when an artiste makes that connection with the audience? Shawn is so special and mature. Back then he was a young artiste. Now he’s not just a pop star, but a respectable musician, selling out wherever he goes.

“Taylor picked him [for her tour] and I got to know Shawn’s parents. When Taylor was playing to 55,000 people night after night, Shawn had that twinkle in his eye and determination in his heart,” says Messina. “We talked about music and dreams and I said, ‘I want to be your tour promoter’. The family were as excited about it as I was. Shawn’s parents have kept him grounded and gave him a great foundation in life.”

Messina recalls how the situation rapidly took off.  “We went straight on tour with him to 3,000 to 5,000-seat venues. Andrew decided that we should be involved with him worldwide so in the fall [autumn] of 2014, we went abroad, playing clubs.

“We were playing a theatre show in his home town, Toronto. after three nights playing a stadium [with Swift]. I told Shawn’s father Mani, ‘Next time, he’s going to play at the arena.’ He said, ‘Are you serious?’ I said, ‘I’ve just seen him play to 150,000 over three nights and he killed it!’

Messina’s belief in the artiste and what was possible saw the final hometown show of this tour step up to a 26,000-capacity configuration at the city’s Rogers Stadium.

But, as events later proved, even this was an unnecessarily modest ambition.

Doing the groundwork

The decision to launch Mendes into the international live market meant that Nick Matthews at Paradigm’s UK partner, Coda Music Agency, was the natural port of call.

“When an artiste has an enormous number of followers online, it’s a new and untested challenge,” says Matthews. “The fact that Shawn was Canadian, I felt was a point of difference from US artistes.

“London and the UK were like the natural places for him to start, both culturally and from a data point of view. Virgin Records was our UK label partner and we promoted a show for fans at London’s Borderline [cap, 275]. It was a very small show but it created a stampede.

“We had an enormous queue with fans camping out the night before, which was when we knew that his potential would live up to the hype. The big challenge, then, was that radio, promoters, pluggers and the wider industry had no real idea who Shawn Mendes was. He had to keep taking everyone by surprise.”

In the years following the Borderline show in October 2014, Matthews booked Mendes into London venues such as the Garage (600) and later, the O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire (2,000) until he sold-out two nights at the Eventim Apollo (5,040), and similar sized venues on mainland Europe.

“Unlike some North American artistes, Shawn put in the groundwork in Europe. He wanted a proper career here, making at least five trips in the first three years. [Second single] Stitches made him a mainstream artiste with chart success. Any media reluctance to accept him was turned on its head.”

Stepping up

Not surprisingly, the UK office of AEG Presents was the natural British and European promoter to work with Mendes, thanks to Messina’s association with its US parent company, with AEG partnering with all the local promoters.

AEG’s Simon Jones estimates that the 2019 tour, playing venues in seated format, represents 35 per cent growth on the artistes’ first arena outing. “We have a 100 per cent sold-out tour across Europe and even more arena shows in the UK,” he says.

“Germany is extremely strong for Shawn, as are Denmark, Poland and Austria, but his strongest markets are Holland, where we played two immediate sell-outs at the ZiggoDome [12,000] in Amsterdam, and of course London, where he’s playing three shows at The O2 (15,000).”

“From when I first saw Shawn on the Vine app he has consistently engaged with his fans in a genuine way and backed it up with great songs, which is a great recipe for success. He consistently comes out with great songs, so the sky is the limit.”

Jones says the number of dates and venues has only been increased gradually over the years, to ensure the schedule does not impose unrealistic demands on the young artiste.

“Shawn can go anywhere at the moment, so it was all about making sure we played the markets that made sense for him in the period of time that we had,” he says. “Making sure that he keeps fresh and doesn’t get burnt-out is key.

“But he is being managed astutely and keeps enjoying it.”

Fan relationships

Jones chose local promoters throughout Europe who, he believes, know their markets best for an act such as Mendes. And they all tell a similar story, that Mendes tickets sell-out sometimes within hours of going on sale, not through marketing gimmicks, but through the strength of his songs and his relationship with the fans.   

“Shawn Mendes is the most successful male artiste this year in Germany,” says Inga Esseling of Germany’s FKP Scorpio, who is promoting shows at Berlin’s Mercedes Benz Arena (12,000), Cologne’s Lanxess Arena (14,500) and Munich’s Olympiahalle (10,000).

“The tickets sold out in under a day,” says Esseling. “His success started online but he’s played all over the radio now, you can’t miss him. His audience is young girls, but he is so young himself and has so much potential.

“He is very caring and friendly to his fans on stage and they will stick with him. Tickets ranged from €50 [$56] to €75 [$84], which is fair for that young audience. If his next record is as good as his latest one, he will probably go into stadiums next time.”

In Switzerland, where the tour plays Zurich’s Hallenstadion (10,100), promoter André Bechir of ABC Production is confident of a sell-out, having promoted his first show in the country two years ago and expanding from a cut-down format to a full arena.

“His success is amazing,” says Bechir. “He’s a very nice guy and has both feet on the ground, while his team are very professional.

“It’s hard to say if he will go outdoors next time round. Our philosophy is that multiple indoor shows make more sense because you can keep it looking good. But the next step will be in discussion with everyone involved, of course.”


Train takes the strain

While the Italian shows were held in northern venues, Bologna’s Unipol Arena (8,900) and Turin’s Pala Alpitour (10,100), promoter Di & Gi negotiated a partnership with Italian rail operator Trenitalia to organize cut price travel to the concerts, including promotion videos on passengers’ screens.

“People needed to come from all over Italy and we made sure tickets were well distributed around the country,” says Di & Gi’s Adolfo Galli. “Train tickets can be expensive, so we wanted to help the kids save some money.”

Tickets to the shows were €43-85 ($48-95). “If the price is too high you only attract fashion followers, but with the right price you get the real fan who’s in love with the artiste,” says Galli.

According to Pascal Van Der Velde of Greenhouse Talent, who promoted the shows at the Netherlands’ ZiggoDome, where the tour opened, and Belgium’s Antwerpen Sportspaleis (15,500),

“The first night of the tour here, like the production, had been on the road for weeks. It was impeccable and magic,” he says. “Shawn Mendes is not a pop star, he’s a complex all-round artiste both as a songwriter and as a performer.

“The fans will all come back and bring more people next time – he’s the next stadium act.”

Rapid growth

In Denmark, Xenia Grigat of Down The Drain Concerts (formerly Beatbox) says, “On his separate visits since 2016 we promoted three sold-out shows in Copenhagen, more than doubling the sale capacity each time. In April 2016 he performed at Falconer Salen[(3,000], in May 2017 the Forum [7,000] and in March 2019 the Royal Arena [13,500].

“He’s an example on how to treat your fans. The Shawn Mendes Experience [VIP] packages are very well organised and a huge value for money, leading into the actual show which is beautifully designed.”

In Norway, Mark Vaughan of promoter Atomic Soul says, “We would have loved two dates with Shawn – we sold out the Oslo Spectrum [6,600] a month in advance. You have some acts who come out of the blocks with lots of momentum then fall away. But Shawn has carried through and will get bigger.”

Across in Poland Alter Art’s Mikolaj Ziolkowski, who promoted a 13,300-capacity show at the Tauron Arena in Krakow. Says, “The show was sold-out in four minutes. Shawn is great artiste and his career is very well managed.

“If you connect a hard-working, talented and dynamic artiste to great management and strategy, the results are amazing. He’s already a stadium level artiste and his career lies in front of him for many years.”

According to Ewald Tatar of Barracuda in Austria, who promoted Mendes at the Vienna’s Statdhalle (10,600), “It’s unusual to sell out weeks in advance. He is on heavy radio play rotation on Hitradio 3, the most important station, and on Kronehit Radio.

“He started on social media, which is very important, and then started receiving radio play soon after. He is a very interesting young pop artiste.” Ticket prices were €50-€70 ($56-$78).

Alvaro Covoes of Everything is New in Portugal points out, “The seated format is appropriate for teenagers, so a 14-year-old girl can see the stage. But his audience is now teen-plus, as he has fans from 2016 who have grown-up – everyone likes Shawn Mendes.”

Ticket prices range from €34-122 ($38-137) with an average of €50 ($56).

Down in the southern hemisphere, Michael Gudinski of Frontier Touring in Australia says, “It’s difficult to find a career artiste who’s so focused.

“We’ve sold out three Rod Laver Arenas [11,000] in Melbourne, two Qdos Bank Arenas [11,500] in Sydney, plus Brisbane Entertainment Centre [9,000] and regional shows. I don’t usually like announcing our shows with the worldwide announcement, but we put this on sale a year-and-a-half before the tour and it sold-out.

“Shawn has grown up so quickly, he’s so professional and fan-friendly that it’s big business and he’s is going to be around a long time.”

Ticket prices ranged from A$79.90-149.90 ($56-106) with VIP packages up to A$430 ($305).

“The fans will all come back and bring more people next time – he’s the next stadium act.”

Sales explosion

Regional Latin America promoter Phil Rodriquez of Move Concerts is bringing Mendes to the continent for the first time, and describes the audience response as “mental”.

His dates comprise three in Brazil – one at Rio de Janeiro’s Jeneusse Arena (10,500), and two at Sao Paulo’s Allianz Stadium (32,600) – two in Argentina, both at Buenos Aires Arena (9,800), two in Chile at Santiago’s Movistar Arena (11,230), and one in Peru at Lima’s The Jockey Club (16,230).

“Although this is an arena tour we planned a half capacity stadium in Sao Paulo,” says Rodriguez. “But when sales exploded, we had to open to full capacity then roll into a second date. It was amazing.

“It reminds me of our first tour with Ed Sheeran – sales were beyond what we had expected and we had to add dates or expand capacities in every city. Shawn has a strong fan base, strong social media, accessible ticket pricing and strong talent and songs. An unbeatable combination.”

Rogriguez’s co-promoter in Chile, Carlos Geniso of DG Medios, adds, “The nature of Shawn Mendes’s music is fresh and he’s in touch with his fans.

“In Chile they have listened to him for a long time and now they’re excited to have an experience with him.” Ticket prices ranged from 35,000- 50,000 pesos ($51-$73).

“When Shawn was due to play in Mexico in 2017 there was an earthquake, so the show was cancelled,” says Memo Para, head of music at OCESA Presents, which is promoting three shows in the country.

“It was a setback, but Shawn and the management had a lot of respect for the pain of the Mexican fans. Their communications were excellent and they worked out every detail with us and the audience.”

With three dates at the Palacio de los Deportes (16,000) in Mexico City and one at Auditorio Citibanamex (8,000) in Monterey, people who missed out first time had the first option to buy the new tickets.

“Shawn grew organically on digital media in Mexico and he is big on Spotify,” says Para. “The 15-year-olds who missed him in 2017 will be 17 or 18 now. He is getting older and his audiences are getting older as well.”

So, although manager Andrew Gertler and early promoter Louis Messina originally planned this tour as a string of arenas with a big stadium sign-off, the expansion from a half-stadium show in South America to two full arenas proves that the Shawn Mendes phenomenon is already ready to move up another level.

It has come a long way since those six-second video clips.

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