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Illuminations from the throne

A nightmare presentation.

Presenting in an auditorium.
Photo Credit: Alexandre Pellaes

Throughout my career I’ve always been, and still am, strictly a background guy. My role is to support and during the working day I rarely venture from behind my computer. I don’t go on business trips, I don’t meet clients and I never, ever present.

Well, that’s not quite true. Aside from the typical student assignments, I have on a single occasion stood up in front of a room full of people and delivered a presentation. Predictably it was a disaster but what happened afterwards more than made up for it.

I had a plum job at Universal Music and shamelessly took full advantage of all the perks that came with it. Free CDs just fell out of the sky and I'd work my way onto guest lists at gigs whenever possible. Hanging out backstage was a lot of fun but it was only ever with other sycophants. I rarely met any artists. I did find myself sharing the lift with Lulu one morning. She sang on the way up.

Do you remember, aeons ago, when you bought a CD there was sometimes a little card in the case for you to send off your details and supposedly receive the latest news from similar bands you might be interested in? I think there was a warehouse somewhere in Leamington Spa full of those things. It was a marketing department’s goldmine if someone could figure out what to do with them.

And we did. A big part of my job was to create a database in which to store all this data, along with a tool to utilise it. Nowadays, polls and surveys are ubiquitous on the internet. Sophisticated software packages can deploy them with minimum effort but back then the idea was in its infancy and I was building the whole platform from scratch.

As the project neared completion and I gave my weekly progress reports, people in the upper echelons began to realise how useful it could be. In fact, the man at the top, Lucian Grainge CBE, chairman of the Universal Music Group, had been keen on the idea from the start and he wanted to make sure that everyone was aware of what they’d soon have at their disposal.

Universal held an annual employees' open day shortly before the lucrative fourth quarter. The upcoming Christmas release schedule was unveiled, record labels would reveal any exciting developments in their roster and we’d be treated to performances from some of the group’s artists. I’d sit leisurely in the audience, quaffing my free drinks and enjoying an exclusive set from The Sugababes or Snow Patrol, utterly unaware that a time would soon come when I’d be up on stage as one of the presenters.

Lucian Grainge had asked my department to give a detailed presentation of what we'd been working on. Normally my manager, who was well practised in the art, would have done this but, as it had been almost entirely my work, she generously offered me the spotlight. An appreciative “thanks but no thanks” should have been my instinctive response but before those words left my mouth, my brain must have paused for a microsecond.

Could I do this? It was a prestigious project, backed at the top level and if I could force myself out of my comfort zone and be seen as the face of it by the whole company, it would be very beneficial for my career. My guest list privileges might see me mixing with the artists backstage. Lars Ulrich might personally acknowledge the work I’d done on his behalf. Paul Weller might thank me in his BRIT awards acceptance speech.

I tentatively said I'd do it. I can still remember that sensation of cold dread you get when you realise what you’ve just done, crawling its way through my body.

At the time Universal Music owned three major record labels: Polydor, boasting pop stalwarts Girls Aloud, S Club 7 and Boyzone; the illustrious Island Records, home to Amy Winehouse and U2; and Mercury Records. To be honest, I can’t recall any of the acts on Mercury during this period. Texas was a big one I think, but they mainly housed hip-hop and r’n’b stuff. Not really my thing.

But Mercury did have one, in my eyes at least, extremely cool asset. Steve Lillywhite was the managing director. The Steve Lillywhite, acclaimed producer of a trove of classic albums by rock royalty: U2, Talking Heads, The Rolling Stones, Simple Minds, Travis, Peter Gabriel, Siouxsie And The Banshees… the list goes on.

Most people probably think Bono can’t count when he sings Unos, dos, tres, catorce at the beginning of Vertigo. He’s referring to the U2 albums produced by Steve Lillywhite: Boy, their debut, October and War, second and third (I had an original cassette version of War which I kept at work in the hope of an opportunity to ask him to sign it) and How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, U2’s 14th studio album.

In the following line, Turn it up loud, captain, the captain is Steve Lillywhite. Although it hadn’t occurred to me as I crapped my pants in the days leading up to the event, the captain would be in the audience.

If memory serves, the venue this particular year was Hampton Court. Very spectacular, no expense spared. The presenters arrived early to run through the stage arrangements and technical necessities. For my rehearsal, a radio mic was clipped to my shirt, I was hooked up to the PA system, everyone at the back could hear me, all good.

The show began. After a couple of flawless demonstrations on how to own a stage and enthral an audience, it was my turn. At this point my terror had long since burst capacity and soared to a level I wasn’t capable of registering anymore. I was just thinking something like: Screw it, I’m here now. Whatever happens, happens.

What happened was my radio mic didn’t work. There was a backup plan for this and after a few failed attempts to get me connected, I was handed a regular microphone. A bad start and things did not improve. I stumbled my way through the presentation and struggled with questions I should easily have been able to answer. At one point, an ally in the audience temporarily took over when I started to flounder.

And that wasn’t the worst of it. For the whole time I was talking, I neglected to hold my microphone properly. During the rehearsal, the radio mic had been clipped halfway down my shirt and that’s where my brain, still partially frozen in fear, told me the regular one should also go. Who doesn’t know you’re supposed to raise a microphone up to your mouth? I must have looked like a complete moron.

Eventually the ordeal was over and I received a fully undeserved round of applause. Oh well, I’d given it a go. Valuable experience gained. It would never be repeated.

A little while later, as we were packing up, I noticed Steve Lillywhite approaching the stage. It looked like he was headed in my direction. Indeed, he came over to me.

“I thought you did well”, he said. “Obviously you don’t usually do this and you were very nervous so good on you. Just one tip though. Next time, hold the microphone up.” He lifted my hand up to my face. “Right up here.”

I couldn’t quite believe it. After that I didn’t care at all that I’d embarrassed myself in front of the whole company. World renowned music producer Steve Lillywhite had given me advice on how to hold a microphone.

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