One size fits all, fits nobody An interview with John Kieffer

First published on November 2011.

How do you see the education and skills sector in relation to the creative industries as a whole but also your business?

One of the problems with the music business is that we’re seen as a ‘sexy’ business and we’ve never been short of people wanting to work with us. As someone who recruits, sometimes you are frustrated that given the thousands of applications you got, you didn’t know how to choose between them because qualifications have become meaningless in a way, as so few of them have direct relevance to jobs in our business. So you either set a threshold that becomes false; i.e. ‘I must take somebody on who has a degree’ and it doesn’t matter if it’s in nose flute playing or horticulture.

There’s a premise that they have done three years of study and therefore they must have a modicum of sense, which latterly I have started to find slightly egregious. I realised that I didn’t do a degree, I didn’t do my A levels and now I’m running the largest live entertainment company in the world. I now wouldn’t get an interview with me!

In terms of skills and qualifications, we within the creative and cultural industries are blessed that sometimes we can ignore technical competences for the ‘halo effect’. People always want to work with us, so as long as we have a good enough ‘filter’ we will always find people we can use and abuse.

With Live Nation I want to have an HR approach that takes account of the way that people are as individuals. Although we are of course commercially minded at Live Nation, I want to employ people and give them a chance because I’ve seen the gaps in the education system and the gaps in our thinking on recruitment. We were cutting ourselves off from the latent potential of those who have talent but for whatever reason haven’t got the relevant paper qualifications.

So you could say the system is actually working against what you need?

It is, totally. The link from schools to training to employment is fundamentally broken. In the 60s, 70s and 80s there were a huge amount of manufacturing jobs. Only the very brightest kids went on to academia. Now those roles don’t exist and education has taken the place of employment for some young people.

Most employers in our business don’t think about what they want because of the surfeit of volunteers. Internships are cheap labour. A lot of middle class parents will support their cherubs in pursuing their desires because there are not real jobs out there. That doesn’t develop your current workforce. Cheap labour does not fit into my mantra in any shape or form. You should be seeking to better all your employees including the aspiring ones.

What about apprenticeships?

All of my venues have apprenticeships. When I came into Live Nation we were only taking degree calibre students into our management programmes and I wanted to run a twin track recruitment scenario with apprentices starting at 16-18 in supernumerary positions learning on the job alongside their college work. They build up their educational portfolio and hopefully they will stay with us. We will still employ some people at degree level but in a couple of years I will want to compare them with those coming through the apprenticeships when they are 21.

Part of my vision for Creative & Cultural Skills is that if somebody has a natural talent or a learning desire to work backstage and be the best rigger or the best lighting designer that they use CCSkills as the conduit. I want people to know that CCSkills exist and there are careers that are not at the behest of Simon Cowell or his next demonic incarnation.

I want the National Skills Academy for Creative & Cultural to show that it is not like running off to the circus and giving up on a real career. This is one of the few areas of the economy where there is real expansion. Partly because there are fewer jobs – leisure time is increasing. How is it funded? That’s the conundrum.

Apprenticeships are a three-line-whip from my point of view but they are prospering. Yes I force the managers to take them but then they actually see the benefit and even ‘been there, done that’ managers get enthused. Everyone is paid the going rate. There’s no cheap labour. They get a sense of worth and it is reciprocated. It’s not just altruistic. There is a resonance from this enthusiasm. They see us giving a real opportunity to people previously excluded by their education or their lack of wealth and that makes people feel better about their work environment.

The creative and cultural sector will never cure unemployment. We can however show that there is a better way and lead by example by bringing in some joined up thinking and making sure 13- or 14-year olds are told that it’s a big bad world out there and yes you need to do your core subjects. But is there anything above and beyond that saying that you are showing signs of being naturally talented in painting, singing, or for that matter accountancy? At the moment it’s one size fits all and it fits nobody. There’s no guidance and we in the creative sector must do that. People need to have the truth.

And finally

I don’t think we should feel bad about ourselves but we can’t put ourselves out on a limb. I think we should take our proper place in the pecking order. Any society that has culture at its core will be a better society but you can’t be happy and sing and dance if you’re hungry and you can’t read.

Creative Commons LicenceCreativity Money Love: Learning for the 21st Century by Creative & Cultural Skills is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Illustrations by Paul Davis -