Thoughts from Cuckoo HQ
25
Aug 17

Inside Cuckoo: Martin Cullen

For the final instalment of the series 'Inside Cuckoo', we sat down with Martin Cullen, Director here at Cuckoo Events, to hear all about his career to date.

What was your first full-time job?

My first full-time job started off from one of my part-time jobs, because I had (one, two, three…) I had four part-time jobs while I was in school. I was a trainee squash coach. I used to coach in various schools in Dublin. Through that I set up a couple of squash teams within certain schools, particularly one in my own school, a Christian Brothers School.  Let’s just say squash was looked upon as a sport from the another land, because obviously GAA and hurling were the big things, so that was great craic.

I didn't really get any support, but one teacher in particular did actually play squash and give me a dig-out. In the first year we won the league. In the second year we won the league and the cup and in the third year we won the league, the cup and the Nationals. So that was in the latter part of my secondary school days and then after that I left. Unfortunately it didn’t really last much longer after I left.

So that was my first one. My second job was at 16. I started working at a nightclub in the South side of Dublin as a light jock. So basically you work with the DJ, making all the different effects on the dance floor like strobe lights and smoke machines. Putting the sequences together for different tracks and that sort of thing. That was the second one.

My third one was for a floor covering company out on the South side in an industrial estate. It was a friend of my mother and they needed a store person so I used to do that for them and then my mother had one other family business which I used to work in as well.

This was while I was in school so .. somebody said to me “How in the name of God did you do all that?” and I said “I have no idea”. Basically it was like Thursday evenings, Saturday mornings, Saturday afternoons, Sunday evenings, Sunday mornings. So that was that.

The last one then, my fourth one, was Marathon Sports. I don't think they're around anymore actually. They used to be on Grafton St. Through the squash, they gave me a job in their trainer department. I went from that to specialising in racquets -  the tennis rackets and the squash rackets. Then they offered me a full-time job as their stock controller so I worked for them, Linda and Michael the mad man, for about six or seven years. That was my first full-time job.

So how did you get into event management?

How did I get into event management? One of my part time jobs lead to this. It began in Hollywood Nights a nightclub in the Stillorgan Park Hotel. It was quite an iconic nightclub. Anybody who was in Dublin, particularly the South side of Dublin or people that are slightly older, or people that are my age (which is only 42!), probably had a brother or sister who definitely went there.

So I started off there working as a light jock. I like to think that I have a bit of a creative side. I was always very interested in changing the colours in the gels and trying to put different sequences together for different songs and that, and trying to add to the flavour of the night, trying to make it more enjoyable experience for people going to it.

It’s something that a lot of people don’t think of but when it's taken away from the equation you're kinda going “oh, why are there no lights or what’s going on”. I started with that. I used to go there as a customer. I met the first love of my life there in that place actually, she broke my heart as girls do...

I was going there anyway and I used to do a bit of dancing or so I thought back in the day and the guy who used to do the lights that was there used to do a bit of dancing as well. He said to me, “Look, I’m going away on holidays next week,  would you cover for me when I’m away?” so I said, “Grand.” He brought me in and trained me in on the system.

Back then there were no computers, so it was all like flicking the switches and you're like an octopus going round the place. That was fine. Then he came back from his holidays and when he came back he said he wanted to be a DJ so he said, “Do you just wanna keep doing my night?”  So I said, “Okay cool, I'll keep doing that.” That was fine.

The nightclub was open five nights a week. I was doing one night a week and then there was another female light jock that was there who was doing the other four. Now, she was seeing a dude that was out there as well and what she started doing was she started splitting the nights between herself and himself and then what ended up happening was the boyfriend had a row with the General Manager. She took the boyfriend's side and basically the GM sacked both of them.

The manager came back to me and said, “Do you wanna do all the nights?” so I went, “Ehh right so,” So I was doing Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. This is where I got a lot of my experience. I got to meet a load of DJs, because obviously I was working with them doing their sets, so from a learning experience, it was great to listen to the guys that were playing at a particular point in time.

They were guys that were on 2FM that were on national broadcasters and like were seriously top, top of their game. One of them in particular, Dave Parnell, he said to me, “Just out of curiosity would you not give the aul’ DJing a go? Like you're getting paid 50 quid to do that and you get 200 pounds to do this? And you can probably do this as well.” I went, “Nah nah nah”, because I was all about the passion and the love and all that. Then one day, I went “Here hang on a second, 50 vs. 200? Let me figure that out in my head...”

 

He started teaching me about mixing. I started doing the warm ups for one of the DJs. One of the DJs started telling another one of the DJs, I started doing it with two of the DJs, then I started doing all the warm ups. So I’d get my money from my light jocking job and then the lads would throw me a few quid. Then the same deal as basically what happened with previous stuff, one of the lads took the night off, the lads said to me “Do you want to do it?”. Over time one of the guys left. I got offered that night and that progressed from there and it progressed to another night club and the DJing career progressed from there.

Along the way then I would have met my ex -business partner, Al, who was DJing at that particular time as well. He was DJing for one of the pirate radio stations. He’s now working for one of the big players in the city. His show is on air I think 15, 16, 17 years. We always got on very well together, and he had started an event management company. It was doing nightclub promotions and themed events and all that sort of stuff. He just came to me one day and he said, “I’m getting busier and busier and I need a face for booking. I need a booking manager who’s going to deal with the DJs.” So it started from there, and then we developed from booking DJs to booking acts, to .. at the end of it, before I finished up with him, I was the Irish booker for X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent etc.

We brought over various world top ten world class DJs. We would have run various themed style nights in loads of different clubs. Then we moved on with a radio show. We put together a production for the particular radio station to tour clubs in Ireland. Off the back of touring clubs in Ireland, Al got a record deal with one of the record labels. He produced an album, we toured the album, we went all around Europe and we did many tours of Ibiza. Because that album went so well, he got asked to tour America, but at that particular point in time his missus got pregnant so he basically made the choice and didn't take them up on the offer.

The deal that they offered him was based around Paddy’s Day. It was a Telstar Euphoria album that was going be launched on Paddy’s Day for all the expats living in the States. It was going to tour the States, but that didn't happen.

So yeah, that's where the event management end of it came out of. Somebody was asking me one day, “Did you meet anyone famous?”  I said, “Well I don't know what you classify as famous, but there was loads of random ones. Mini-me (Verne Troyer), David Hasselhoff…” We did a few of the Baywatch ones actually, Pamela Anderson, the X-Factor, all that sort of stuff. So yeah that’s where the event management thing came from.  

Then that progressed to coming to Cuckoo, I met Mr. Mark Breen. He used to be a client of mine, and he used to work in one of the big colleges in the city centre. He used to be the Events and Marketing Manager, so I used to go in. He booked acts from me like the Vengaboys and loads of other random stuff. He used to always think I was the most genuine out of a bunch of shady characters, seemingly. I used to just randomly call into him now and again, you know, see what's going on. For 6 months I used to bring him a coffee every time I used to go and see him until I figured out after 6 months he didn't drink coffee.

So yeah, so we were there talking one day and our two minds just happened to be in the same place at the same time. Five years later we are here, we have this beautiful office and we have our great team.

What was the first event you helped organise?

One of our first events we were involved in was UL Freshers Week. A good friend of ours was the head of Ents in the college and he had a serious line up of A list performers and had 3 consecutive sold out shows. He knew he needed a strong management team for each sold out show. We assisted with him and his great team. I went down as Safety Officer along with Mark. The event itself was a cracker.

It threw up numerous crowd management situations we had to deal with on the night, from queuing systems on ingress, flow in the arena with access to bars toilets etc. and then the egress itself, as part of the entry ticket was an after-party event in Limerick city. We had to safely get some very excited students out of the arena onto coaches and safely into the city. This was the first of a long list of events we worked on with Keith and the college.

And what was the toughest event you’ve ever organised?

The toughest, ahh, I don’t think there ever really has been one. There have been challenging ones but I don’t think there’s ever been a tough one. Rob Hickey, he does work with us, as he will tell you, one of my favourite places to be is operational on events. I love to be in the madness, trying to sort shit out. For some bizarre reason, and Mags will say it to you sometimes as well with Rob, I seem to get calmer, at events, when things get worse. I’m like ‘’No it’s grand, it’s okay it’s no problem, we’ll get that done, you do this, go there, fix that, move these people this way”.  So I don’t really think there’s been a toughest one, I couldn’t put my finger on one toughest one. There have been challenging gigs but in my experience, the more challenging the gig, the better, because it means that you’re learning more from it.

The one definite thing is that no matter how long you’re in this business, the event management business, every single day you’ll learn something new. You learn something new about the business, you also learn something new about the people you have around you, the likes of yourselves and the people that have been here before you and maybe the people who will come after you.

I think from an ideological perspective, the day you stop thinking you’re going to learn something, that’s the day you’ve got an issue. It doesn't matter how good you are or how experienced you are, there’s always something new to learn or sets of circumstances.

Humans are just a weird bunch altogether because you don’t know what they’re going to do. No matter how much planning, or no matter how much things that you put in play for an event, there’s always a human factor, where you don’t know what they’re going to do, so you’ll kind of go “ah, I never thought of that” because that particular person just wanted to do that.

Do you think that there are areas within the industry that need more attention from policy-makers?

How many hours have you got?

Right. Competency, I suppose, is a big thing for me. Yeah. I think that would bring me to how this company was started. When Mark and I sat down first and had our first discussions, back in the very very beginning, we also had two very good friends of ours who are still part of the business today, Keith Quinlan and Marian Kelleher.  What we had were lots of chats with them, at the very start of the process, about competency.

The people who have been our predecessors in this game, we wouldn't be here without them. I suppose from Mark’s perspective and my perspective, when we started the business we saw a gap in the market or a niche there. It seemed to be that in Ireland you either came from maybe a fire safety background or you came from an architectural background and so you could draw maps, you could figure out calculations and you knew what the width of something would need to be, or you knew how quick it would be to get people in or to get people out from a flow perspective.

 

What we decided to do was get that element of it, get the experiential element of it, so your experience over the years of all of the different fields you worked in and then get the psychology of crowd movement, flow and dynamics and marrying all of it together.

I suppose in this business, the worst case scenario probably for everyone who works in it, the people who work at our level and in our field is that there’s going to be a time that something is going to go wrong. We need to know that, God forbid, if we need to go to court, a coroner’s court or whatever it may be, that you can stand up in front of the judge and say “Well Your Honour, this is why I did this, this is why I came to this conclusion and this is what we did to mitigate against the risk etc.’  I’d like to think we’re kind of pushing the boundaries for that.

We ran a course there in February in the Aviva called ‘Introduction to Crowd Safety & Risk Analysis’ and it was inspiring to see people who our peers in this industry who were kind of going “Well, I haven't done this before. i don't have this accreditation but I want to better myself”.

Yeah, so as we were saying, it’s a case of getting people’s experience in the business, the knowledge they have and then this academic knowledge specifically orientated towards what we do, so it’s giving us complete competency.

Some of the statutory agencies have difficulty with this because these guys have been doing this for years but really when we go to these gigs, we need to be talking with people and saying “Listen there’s a reason why we’re doing this, we can explain this, this our risk assessment based on what we’ve looked at so you now need to let us go and do our job, this is what our job is. We know you’ve been doing this for years but this is what we have our competency in.” That, I think, is a game changer, particularly with some of the statutory agencies. They need to be happy with us as well and know us. That comes with doing more events, particularly with the likes of the councils and the guards or the fire brigade or whoever it is.

What’s the best advice you could give someone who is trying to get into the industry?

We get a plethora of emails everyday from people looking for work.

First of all, now I didn’t have to do this because I was working all of the time, but I would suggest with the way the industry is going is, volunteer for as many things as you can in as many different types of fields of the events industry. This is so you can see what’s going on and you can try different things and you know whether it’s maybe being a runner for a stage or doing artist liaison or doing accreditation or whatever it is.

What will happen is as you’re going along you’ll find something that you feel like “ooh this kind of does it for me” or it could be being a lighting producer or it could be whatever, there’s a multitude of jobs. Try as many things, volunteer for as many events as possible and different types of events. That’s also important because you could be maybe a more arts-driven person or you could be a more festival-orientated type of person or you could be a more an experiential type person, depending on what it is you want to do.

I would definitely suggest doing that and listen, the bottom line is you have to have a passion for this. You also have to devote yourself to not having any social life. Your weekends are gone and yeah, it’s long hours, but it’s very rewarding if it’s something that you like doing.

I know that since the day we started this, I wake up and I just love coming to work, because I love what I do and I think that’s it. Having the passion and volunteering as much as you can. Also, you need to be open minded, just soak it all in, get it all in there.

 

One last question then, what would be your essentials for an event?

Well if you go into my jeep out there there’s two bags in there that have all of my essentials in it, so I suppose the first and foremost thing is production socks. A friend of ours, Fitzy, I’m sure some of your other interviewees might have gone on about this, but putting on a new pair in the middle of the day is like having brand new feet. I thought he was winding me up until the first time I did it and I went “Holy Moly!”. It’s something that’s very simple that’s very very effective.

My missus has a thing for shoes and handbags. I have a thing for torches, Lenser torches to be specific. I think I have one from every range. Any time myself and Mark Breen go down Grafton Street and I have to be dragged away from the shop. Again a very essential part of the job and the field that we work in, fields, no pun intended. A Leatherman is also something which is very very important. It’s like a multi-tool, or Rob Hickey, God love him has a Swiss Army knife from when he was 12 in the Scouts so that’s what works for him. You don’t need to get a Leatherman but something of similar ilk will definitely be of help to you.

Good rain gear. Very very important. Particularly something that is a breathable material, so you don’t sweat like a hoo-hah in your gear. And other things as well that I suppose you learn are layers, lots of thin layers and so you keep yourself warm. Let’s see, a good nice woolly hat to keep your head warm, considering that most of the heat goes out through your head.

 

Gloves for your hands, gloves is another thing I have a bit of a weird thing for, I’ve about 5 or 6 different pairs out there, depending on what you’re using them for. People say “Well, what do you mean?” and so for example, if you're not in a production or operational role, where you’re not maybe man-handling or lifting stuff, where you’re just observing, a nice pair of woolly gloves will do the job. If you are moving barriers or you're having to get stuck in with the guys and giving them a dig out with something then you’ll usually want something with a good bit of grip.

Also there's different types of ones depending on if it’s dry weather or wet weather. There’s nothing worse than wearing a wet pair of gloves. If you’re doing more production-orientated stage type things there are ones that you can get that will have the some of the finger tops will be cut out of them. That's bridging the gap for cables and all of that kind of stuff where you need the diversity of your fingers to get in and lift something whereas gloves sometimes might get stuck. So gloves.

What else is there? Boots. Boots are essential. Like if you think about it, your feet are the two things that are going to hold you up. They’re holding you up 24/7 except when you’re on your back, in bed, asleep, of course. Mark Breen, last year before he went to Glastonbury, went to the Great Outdoors and bought a pair of boots, swears by them, so I went off and purchased a pair myself and I have to say they’re probably the best investment I’ve ever made. Not cheap but if you look at it from the overall picture and the length of use you’ll get out of them. What other weird and magical things do I have in that bag of mine..

Oh a head torch as well, very very important. Again from the practicality of not having to have something in your hand, a head torch is perfect.

What would you bring to a desert island? One thing.

One thing? A football with a face on it.

 
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