Jon Vyner: A Quarter-Century Reign at Camden Underworld, Reflecting on Iconic Shows and the Changing Landscape of Live Music

Jon Vyner, veteran venue manager, and promoter reflects on 26 years at Camden Underworld, highlighting iconic shows and the evolving dynamics of live music....

Interview by: Mark Lacey

Live Photos: Mindhex Media

 

Jon Vyner is part of an exclusive club of long-serving venue managers and promoters who have almost single-handedly orchestrated the live music landscape over the last few decades. His career has spanned a lengthy tenure at the Camden Underworld, as well as expanding his footprint through promoting national tours for notable names within the rock and metal music scene. With live music at grassroots and club level are an upward trajectory, Jon shares his thoughts on a lifetime in music.

“I notice every so often that a band that we’ve had play here, are headlining Wembley Arena or the O2 Arena. I’m still amazed by that. It’s nice to have had one of their earlier shows. Sometimes we get them like that on the way up, and then other times they’ll return the favour and come and play for us in what we call ‘an underplay’; when a very popular band chooses to play a very small venue. Those are a real thrill when that happens”.

MGM: We’re sat here in the Camden Underworld. You’ve been here since 1998, an astonishing 26 years. That’s some tenure. You wear a number of hats. How would you describe what you do for this venue, and the wider music industry, and how did you get into it?

Jon: I worked for a record company, and also as a booking agent for a few years. For the Underworld, I hold the diary and deal with the in-house promotions, and with hiring the venue out to external promoters. A friend of mine heard about the vacancy and suggested that we approach the venue as a booking team, the two of us. But after a while he vacated the slot; it really only needed one person, so I just carried on.

MGM: How has the job changed during the last 26 years?

Jon: The basic mechanics of it haven’t changed much, but the methods of promoting the show have. There are still a lot of the old school ways of promoting; flyering, posters, and print ads. But technology has advanced so much in that time. Now it’s pretty much digitally dominated marketing and advertising. I still like to keep a certain amount of print advertising going, particularly in the metal press, because I feel that they need our support as much as we need them. So, I’ll always do a full page in Metal Hammer, Fistful of Metal, and occasionally other magazines.

MGM: What can you remember about those first shows you put on in 1998?

Jon: The first one I remember because I’m pretty sure it fell on my birthday at the end of August. I remember it was a double bill of ‘All out war’ and ‘Blood for blood’, and one of them didn’t turn up. I just had the one and a couple of supports, but that was the more hardcore metal end of things. It’s not so much my bag, personally, but it was as good a way to start as any.

MGM: Two other bands that played in here in 1998 were Incubus, and also Snow Patrol, a long time before they were on most people’s radar.

Jon: I think that was with Too Pure Records, the label that signed PJ Harvey. They were doing a lot of indie music; a lot of the bands in their infancy. We did a Polyphonic Spree show with them as well. That was fun, trying to fit 25 people on our stage. We’ve had some pretty varied, weird and wonderful stuff over the years.

MGM: The Underworld tends to catch people at the starting point in their career, so you must have had some bands come through that have gone on to much bigger things?

Jon: Absolutely. I notice every so often that a band that we’ve had play here, are headlining Wembley Arena or the O2 Arena or whatever. I’m still amazed by that. But I love it. It’s nice to have had one of their earlier shows. Sometimes we get them like that on the way up, and then other times they’ll return the favour and come and play for us in what we call ‘an underplay’, when a very popular band chooses to play a very small venue. Those are a real particular thrill when that happens.

MGM: That story is similar to that of Tony Moore from the Bedford in Balham. He also talks proudly about the success of bands who played for him at the Kashmir Club, and have since gone on to become international stars. Some of those have come back and played for him again. For bands that want to play in London, the Camden Underworld is now seen as one of the essential pitstops on the touring circuit. Why do you think that is the case?

Jon: I like to think that the venue is championing underground music in particular; bands that don’t get the opportunity to play other venues for various reasons. Either they’re considered too extreme or they just don’t fit the style, or programming of other places. All the outcast bands have a home here, and personally, I try not to let my own taste get in the way of booking the venue.

MGM: What is your personal musical taste?

Jon: I have quite an eclectic taste in music. I started as a young metaller and I particularly liked thrash at the time and even hair metal. Even to this day I still listen to all the bands that I used to love from the 60s, 70 and 80s. But I like rock, classic rock, prog rock, and a lot of the traditional metal bands. I like hip hop and alternative country and quirky American indie pop and singer-songwriters. My taste is pretty broad, and sometimes I get to put on an act I really love, which is nice. But I’m proud of the many shows that we put on here, even the ones that aren’t particularly to my taste.

MGM: You described those that have done an ‘underplay’. Some that spring to mind, who have played here, include the Foo Fighters, Motley Crue, Slash’s Snakepit … and many others. You must be pretty proud of that?

 

Jon: Slash’s Snakepit was one of my earlier shows, and because I was quite new to booking the venue, I didn’t really believe he was coming until he turned up. That was lucky because I had two sold out shows, so I really needed him to turn up. I went to those first Guns N Roses shows in ‘87 when they came over; all four of them in fact. It was a big thrill for me to have him here.

MGM: Some people will also remember that you had Steven Adler perform here as Adler’s Appetite, and Duff McKagan joined him onstage unannounced, before playing a handful of songs together. Who else stands out for you amongst your show highlights?

Jon:  I have to say, the Motley Crue one was an incredible experience for me. I often joked about why I’ve lingered at the venue for so long, and it was for an occasion like that. Motley Crue are a band that I listened to from my early days; I became metal rock gig active at the tail end of 1984. Motley Crue had opened the Monsters of Rock festival that year with Van Halen, AC/DC and Ozzy on the bill as well. They came back on November 19th 1984 to headline the Dominion Theatre on the Shout at the Devil tour. My school friend who was getting me into all this heavier type stuff was saying come along, and I was looking at pictures of them, and listening to their music and it all sounded very heavy and aggressive then, and their look was quite aggressive. I just couldn’t pluck up the courage to go to that show. I’ve regretted it ever since. That was exactly 40 years ago now. I didn’t see them until 1986 when they came with Theatre of Pain, and they did two nights at Hammersmith Odeon, as it was called then, with Cheap Trick supporting. It was over Valentine’s Day and the day after, and I went to both of those shows. I’ve just loved the band for so long and it was so nice when Live Nation called me and said they wanted to play our venue.

MGM: The economics of shows will have changed a fair amount during your tenure. In the past, bands used to release an album, make their money from the album sales and go off to do a tour. Now bands are increasingly reliant on the tour to make most of the money. That has knock-on effects for fans who are paying more for tickets, but it must also have knock-on effects for you as a promoter?

Jon: It’s all pretty relative. Yes, the fees are higher, and of course, we understand and accept that, and therefore the ticket prices become a bit higher. But I don’t think the ticket prices I charge for my shows are wildly high compared to the big arena acts, and the high end of what we would charge is probably £30-35. I just feel that’s still within the realms of reasonable. Compared to the prices I was paying in the 80s, the multiplier isn’t as big as you might expect with the passing of 40 years.

MGM: Are the risks different for you as a promoter now, with the cost-of-living crisis and ticket sales? Some shows still sell out really quickly, but others seem to require extensive promotion.

Jon: Since lockdown, it has been a little bit volatile and unpredictable. It’s not always the case that shows that have done well previously, do well subsequently, In fact, also vice versa, funnily enough. Currently we don’t seem to have the volume of shows that we once had, but the attendances, if anything, have been stronger. January and February were quiet, but come March, it just goes into absolute overdrive. I’ve probably got 20 shows at the Underworld, and probably another 20 shows outside of here.

MGM: Those shows outside of the Underworld are largely being promoted through your BA Concerts endeavours. You’re putting on national tours, with dates all over the country.

Jon: I have dabbled over the years with promoting nationally. I still don’t do it as much as I probably could, but I do it a lot more than I want, because it’s all very time consuming. I have so many shows in London alone that I find it hard to find time to promote so many shows at any given time.

MGM: During a recent MGM interview with The Pineapple Thief, Bruce Soord spoke of his early career, and the idea that to be in a successful signed band, you had to come to Camden, and play in front of A&R. Camden and London has historically been seen as the epicentre of the music industry, but that seems to have diversified, with strong regional musical hubs in the likes of the Midlands, Manchester and South Wales. Has that changed things for you?

Jon: I still think the majority of the activity takes place in London. Sometimes I can get attendances on a par with London, in Manchester. That’s a very strong market, at least for the type of music that I promote. Birmingham much less so, which is strange, being the birthplace of heavy metal. But it’s good. I know there’s been quite a few venue closures in London over the years, but I still think we’ve got a good pool of venues that we can choose from. Sometimes I’m a little spoilt for choice. Live music is coming back into a patch of rude health again. So long may it continue.

MGM: Why do you think that live music is seeing a resurgence right now?

Jon: It was all a bit up in the air after the lockdowns eased, and it took quite a while to come back, but I feel it’s almost at full strength again. March is going to be my busiest, most successful month ever. I don’t know what that says. It could just be a blip, but I hope not. Some days in March, I’ve got four or five shows in one night.

MGM: Your tenure as a venue manager, and promoter must make you one of the longest serving in the industry, alongside the likes of Christian Kimmett at Bannerman’s in Edinburgh. There will be others for whom promoting in this industry is a lifelong passion. What is the key to your longevity?

Jon: You’ve also got Bill from the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. It’s been good to me all this time. I haven’t bankrupted myself from it yet. So that’s good. I’ve managed to make a decent living out of it for a long period of time. I’ll stop short of saying I must be fairly good at it, but I’ve developed an intuition. I don’t get it right all the time. Of course, I have stinkers like everyone has from time to time. But on balance, I have more successful shows than unsuccessful shows. The venue, I guess, feels the same way, and they keep me on board. And my own shows have been successful for the most part. I am still a fan of the music. I still buy vinyl. But don’t tell my wife. So, all good!

For more information about shows coming up at the Camden Underworld, or through BA Concerts:

 

www.theunderworldcamden.co.uk

www.ba-concerts.com

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