UK Guitar Shows has flown in the face of the recession to provide a top day out for players and industry folk alike. Michael Heatley gets the lowdown from head honcho Jason Hunt
Popular music is full of double acts – and, with the success of the Great British Guitar Show, another is to be added to the roll of honour. Jason Hunt and Jason Castle have flown in the face of the recession and, in the space of two short years, established their flagship event as the biggest in the land.
The third Great British Guitar Show takes place on 23-24 February 2013 at its traditional home, the New Bingley Hall in Birmingham, and is already a date any self-respecting six (or four) stringer has inked into their newly-acquired diary. Yet as Jason Hunt, the talkative one of the dynamic duo explains, this was hardly a venture into the unknown.
‘I worked at the NEC running an event called Music Live which I’d done for eight or nine years. I was made redundant through the economic climate, so I phoned up Jason, one of my mates, and told him my situation. He asked me to lunch – well, he bought me lunch – and we talked and he said “We can do this together.” I said “No, no, we can’t”, because when you’re made redundant you’re battered by the whole experience.
‘He kept on at me for a few months and I reconsidered. What did I have to lose? We wanted to start small. His idea was that, when he was 18 about 20 years ago, he went to the Music Maker guitar shows. With the economy being where it was, he thought, why can’t the show get back to where it was 20 years ago?’
The pair suited actions to words and started small with the Bristol Guitar Show, their first joint venture, in September 2010. Bristol was chosen for its combination of a vibrant music scene plus the availability of relatively inexpensive venue hire compared with London. When that reasonably small event worked well, it was inevitable that Jason Hunt’s Birmingham roots would exert a pull. ‘I did Music Live there, at the NEC, and that used to pull 20,000 people. So we knew there was an audience around that was interested in going to music shows.’
Hunt had been instrumental (pun intended) in putting Music Live together, but hadn’t immediately been given the responsibility for running it. ‘I was at the NEC doing the classic car show or a photography exhibition, about 15 years ago. I went to Mad About Guitars at the NIA with the other guitarist of the band I was in and I said, “It’s a shame the rest of the guys aren’t here. Where’s the drummer, where’s the singer, where’s the keyboard player?” I went back to work, put the show guide down on the table and said “I think we should do a proper music show, one that’s for everybody.” They thought that was a good idea.’
Entrepreneur Clive Morton was running Mad About Guitars, and the NEC chose him as their partner. ‘They felt it was a better deal,’ Jason explains, ‘to let someone who was already running a show come into the fold rather than let me, who’d only been there six months, do it.’
The NEC originally owned 50 per cent of Music Live but eventually took over ownership and put Jason in sole charge of the event. That experience has proved vital in his current venture. It also netted him an A-list ‘headline act’ when he staged the first show of his own in February 2011.
‘We had Duff McKagan the first year, which was pretty cool. He’d done Music Live for me and when I bumped into him at NAMM he was, “Hey, how you doing, man?” Typical rockstar style! I said “I’ve started my own company and we’re doing a show in Birmingham,” and he said “Do you want me to come?” We paid for his flights and he came over and signed autographs for two days!
‘It was really nice for me to know I’d treated him well enough the last time that he would come and do it. Obviously there’s always a benefit to them, and I appreciate that, but I was really quite touched that he volunteered to come over for me.’
The Birmingham show was well received by the public and the trade – so much so that overnight it acquired a new title. ‘We rebadged it as the Great British Guitar Show. The theory is that, in times of recession, there are a lot of “Great British” things, like the Great British Bakeoff. It just makes sense. We ran with it, and the attendance and number of exhibitors increased.’
The original total of 57-58 exhibitors increased to 70 for the 2012 event, with Marshall, Laney, Orange, Ibanez and PRS among the big brands. But with the British title in mind, it was equally important to the Jasons to make sure the smaller luthiers could afford to attend. ‘We priced it so people can afford to do it whether you’re big or small, like Rob Williams and Jaden Rose.’
Vanquish, Flame, Eternal and Inky Hollow were other compact concerns who exhibited last year and will undoubtedly return. The reason is simple: Jason Hunt learned from Music Live that putting a limit on stand size made for a more level playing field. ‘If Roland were taking 150 square metres of space the little guys didn’t want to be next to them because they’d be lost, people wouldn’t see them. We limited them to 32 square metres, so even if you’ve only got eight square metres you’re not that small by comparison.
‘It’s a matter of providing people with what they can afford,’ he continues,. ‘I know companies who used to spend £10, 20, 30,000 with me at the NEC, and that money’s not around any more. With our show in Birmingham you can build a stand, pay for hotel and food and it’ll cost £4000 maximum – still affordable for bigger companies.’
There will be few changes to the winning formula in 2013, the Jasons aiming to ‘keep building on what we’ve got.’ Seeing that sometimes a headline act can draw the attention away from the actual exhibition, they chose at the 2012 show to have ‘smaller’ names, but more of them. ‘Because it’s the Great British Guitar Show we wanted them to be British. So we had Bernie Marsden, Simon McBride… and the attendance went up anyway.’ They were both representing PRS; Gordon Giltrap was working with JHS and Paul Hindmarsh with Line 6.
‘Mind, it was important to get Duff initially to show we were serious and to get a foothold on the market,’ Hunt concedes. This also led to an amusing tale of a dinner with the Guns N’Roses/Velvet Revolver star and their respective spouses when families, not rock’n’roll, were the sole topic of the evening’s conversation! Guitars may be the obsession, but the Jasons are family men at heart.
And it’s clearly important to price the Great British Guitar Show as a day out for dad and the kids, should he (or, indeed, mum) be fortunate enough to have budding guitarists among their brood. But moving venues seems inevitable if the success story continues at its current pace. Jason thinks the Bingley Hall will suffice for a couple of years, but after that it may be time to go back to the NEC.
‘It’s a fine balance at the moment. The venue in Birmingham sells coffee for 50p and lunch for £3, and there’s free parking. If we go back to the NEC it’s £3.50 for a coffee, a tenner for lunch and a tenner to park your car. All of a sudden people are paying £15 to get in, instead of the tenner we currently charge and they’ve spent £30 before they’ve started. You can do our show for £15 if you want!’
The 2013 show on 23-24 February is shaping up to be 10 per cent bigger than its predecessor. Attendance increased by about 500 to about 2,800 over the two days last year, and there are a significant number of new exhibitors coming this time round. Focusing on the future is an all-year-round job. ‘You work in cycles with exhibitions. Once February 2012 was gone we were already talking about this one.’
With three events to run – the Bristol Guitar Show in October, the Great British Guitar Show and the Music Production Show at the Emirates Stadium in November – the two Jasons are constantly at work. Jason Hunt explains that his namesake Castle, the quiet one of the double act, ‘works interesting hours talking to people in the States, so he’s happy for me to be the face of the company.’
Hunt thinks the future is bright. ‘Are we going to carry on? Absolutely! Coming out of a corporate environment, you realise how much fun these things can be. A couple of my friends still work [at the NEC] and they don’t understand how I can do three shows a year. It’s ’cos I don’t write any 15,000-word board reports! ‘ After two years, the report on Great British Guitar Show is ‘effort and inspiration brings its own reward. Top of the class.’