Traditional press conferences can be ultra-boring time-wasters for everyone involved. But when musos front up, all bets are off.
When Robbie Williams arrived in New Zealand in 2018, he nearly burnt the house down. “It’s my birthday,” the British pop star said while sat at a table in the foyer of The Northern Club in Auckland. With a cake and candles flaming beside him, Williams laid out ground rules to the gaggle of eager media gathered in front of him: “So, we do questions, I answer them, and that’s it.”
If there was a plan, the next 20 minutes did not follow it. At one point, Williams blew out his candles, made a wish, then looked down his pants, joking: “It didn’t work.” At another, he shut down a DJ from The Rock called “Jim” who tried to hijack the conference with a halting, long-winded question. “Jim’s doing a bit for the sketch on the YouTube,” chided a jaded Williams. “Well done Jim, you did it – your big thing.”
All the big names were there. Jeremy Wells asked Williams: “What do you think of New Zealand?” Josh Thomson asked him: “Your Rock DJ tiger undies – did you have a whole lot of them, or did you just have one pair that you washed a lot?” Ryan Bridge asked him to reflect on the shock news that Bill English was stepping down as National party leader.
Things got serious when the birthday boy took an intern’s pre-party invitation from The Hits and discarded it too close to the still-glowing candle wicks. Yet he kept his cool. “Oh, it’s on fire?” he commented, barely glancing at the smoke. Williams arched those infamous eyebrows of his, shrugged his shoulders and declared: “That’s showbiz.”
In short, it was brilliant, a press conference full of spontaneity that had none of the formalities and cliches of a staid sports post-match presser, or the smug deflections of a predictable political panel. Acting up was part of the show, and Williams was the quintessential showman: courteous, consistently cheeky, yet serious and self-reflective when the moment called for it. “I have something in me that wants to fuck everything up and obliterate myself,” he admitted at one point.
Williams played the game with aplomb, nabbing airtime on nearly every TV, radio show and website in the country. It was perfectly executed. And it’s barely happened since.
“I miss them,” a veteran local publicist told me when I asked how long it had been since they’d set up a press event for a visiting superstar. They couldn’t remember: it had been at least 18 months, possibly longer. Thanks to Covid-19 lockdowns, press conferences featuring big-name artists just haven’t happened. The world’s biggest musicians aren’t touring, they haven’t visited us, and besides, there have been other things on everyone’s minds.
Which is a crying shame. We’ve missed out on moments like Iron Maiden front man Bruce Dickinson flying the band’s Boeing 747-400 jumbo jet, nicknamed “Ed Force One”, into Auckland in 2016 for The Book of Souls world tour. When the plane touched down at Auckland Airport, around 20 media wearing hi-vis and security passes were waiting to ask the metal gods questions like: “What’s louder – the plane or the band?”
We haven’t seen things like a surprisingly circumspect Kanye West wearing a blazer and white sunglasses in 2008 while fronting New Zealand media about his most fascinating record, 808s and Heartbreaks, or Kings of Leon guitarist Jared Followill admitting in 2009 he couldn’t remember anything about the band’s previous New Zealand visit. “It’s the drinking,” he lamented from behind dark sunglasses. You wouldn’t hear that from an All Black. Talk about rock and roll.
Why do this? Why would big-name artists front a press conference – especially when the risks for saying too much, being too outrageous, getting served a toe-curling question, or meeting Jim from The Rock, are all too high? After all, most artists have done press interviews over the phone ahead of time, and many have already sold out their shows.
Aren’t they too big for all this? “I look on press conferences, or more specifically media calls, as a kind of nice tradition,” the publicist, who asked not to be named, told me. “Back in the day, it was artists like The (Rolling) Stones, The Beatles and Bob Dylan that made them really something.” They told me that it’s not about ticket sales, more about “generating some genuine excitement and presence”.
There are other reasons too. Sometimes, it’s about a good use of time. “You want to give the media something a little bit different, so that lots of outlets have a piece of the action rather than just one or two,” they say. “If you’re going to take [the star] around to all these outlets, it can be quite stressful.” With a press conference, “the artist doesn’t have to do a whole day of interviews”.
Despite the best-laid plans, musicians are liable to go off-script. That unpredictability is often what makes pressers so fun. Yet, if it’s the media acting up, like The Rock DJ caught doing a bit, it’s the publicist who gets blamed. “It’s disappointing,” they say. “I’m in the firing line for stuff like that. What can you do about it?”
They can go off the rails in other ways too. When Russell Brand was here in 2015, he had a full day of press planned, but, after leaving his hotel for a run, he went “rogue”. He showed up unannounced at TVNZ’s central Auckland studios, presenting himself in the newsroom like this: “I’ve got 21 minutes. Who would like to interview me?” A presenter and camera operator proceeded to follow him around the building, until he made Breakfast traffic reporter Selena Hawkins eat a cupcake.
TVNZ’s headline that day was: “Rambling Russell Brand stuns TVNZ newsroom with bizarre unannounced visit.” It’s publicity you can’t buy. “Total genius,” the publicist told me.
Thinks went similarly awry when U2 were here for their widescreen stadium show at the end of 2019. During the band’s afternoon soundcheck, a press pack was led into the front rows of an empty Mt Smart stadium, where front man Bono began to point and gesticulate wildly while performing for a crowd of about a dozen. Afterwards, with grey roots showing through his otherwise jet black hair, Bono leaned against a security fence and held court, taking selfies and answering questions. When he saw a pregnant radio announcer’s belly, he attempted to persuade her to name her child Bono.
But impromptu celebrity shenanigans can have good results too. On Oprah Winfrey’s debut New Zealand visit in 2015, her first stop was Ōrākei Marae for a pōwhiri by Ngāti Whātua. She stunned a Māori TV reporter by walking into frame of a live cross and granting her an exclusive interview. “I felt so awed,” Winfrey said about her welcome. “I’m on their land, and I’m visiting their land, and to be welcomed here is such a great honour.”
After Covid-19 shrunk the country’s media, with newsroom entertainment teams whittled down to the bare minimum, would a dozen reporters even be available for a rock star press conference these days? The publicist I spoke to believes absolutely, without a doubt, they will return. They miss hosting them, and can’t wait to start putting them on again. It’s just one sign of a thriving entertainment industry.
It sounds like it might happen soon. Live Nation is predicting boom times over the next two years. “You only have to look at how competitive it is to get dates for Friday and Saturday nights at (Spark) Arena for 2022 and 2023 to know how much is coming,” Mark Kneebone, New Zealand’s managing director at Live Nation Australasia, recently told NZ Herald.
A return to international tours doesn’t necessarily mean a return to press conferences – especially from artists wary of foreign countries and public spaces after a worldwide pandemic. But the publicist I talked to would welcome their return. “If an artist is big enough, if there’s enough interest in them, there’s always a place for a press conference,” they said.
Besides: “They’ve come a long way – it’s nice to make them feel welcome!”