Shut up & stay on the sideline: A concert night with MCT

“Everything can go wrong. Absolutely everything,” he says. This is the risk that remains. It is 4pm. Wednesday. A balmy summer day in Berlin. At MCT’s headquarters, an industrial loft in the western part of the city, Scumeck Sabottka is waiting for the response from a manager  whose band he’d like bring to Germany. And then, things get going. In four hours, Arcade Fire will take the stage. That is, of course, if nothing goes wrong.
The scanners aren’t working. A musician gets sick. The internet drops out. The fire marshal’s permit is missing. A storm blows in and floods the venue. Until it’s completely over, one has to be prepared for any kind of problem.
“It’s a bloody nerve-wracking job. But with 30 years of work experience behind me, I’m calm and relaxed,” he says. Since seven in the morning, his people have been at the venue, Wuhlheide, in the southeast of the city, smoothing out the last bureaucratic and organisational drawbacks, together with the rest of the staff from their headquarters. Checking that all permissions are sorted. That the tour buses are parked in the right spots. That guitar frequencies are verified by the Federal Network Agency, so that they don’t interfere with air traffic.
“My phone almost never rings,” Scumeck Sabottka reports proudly. “And if there is a problem, I don’t want anyone pointing fingers. I want solutions.“
For the past eight years, MCT has been the organiser of Arcade Fire’s concerts in Germany. He liked the music from the start, Sabottka says. The first tours were attended by a few hundred people. Then the venues got bigger. Today, Arcade Fire play in front of 15,000 people at Wuhlheide Open Air. But there are also smaller concerts that Sabottka and his staff gladly take care of.
A couple of months ago, MCT also organised Arcade Fire’s secret gigs, when the band played a series of gigs as “The Reflectors.” “I think it’s great when bands do something unexpected. When there are symbioses between the audience and the musicians,” says Sabottka. The most important thing in this business is to correctly estimate the demand. There is nothing worse than half-empty locations. Lines, sold out venues, added shows, on the other hand, are good. The affection of fans rises and collapses just as unpredictably as stock prices.
Famous musicians suddenly flop, leaving a trail of blood throughout the European event landscape. In contrast, other artists attract thousands of people, even though they were an insider’s tip up until a couple of weeks ago. The event organiser can try and obtain all kinds of information, but at the end of the day, it is his experience and intuition that are crucial. The pre-sales for the gig at Wuhlheide started six months ago. At this point, 97% of the 15,000 tickets have already been sold. MCT printed posters, placed ads, promoted the event on Twitter, Facebook and on their own website. “We jump on every train we can,” Sabottka says.
The MCT office is decorated with numerous works of art, which one of the staff members archives. In the lobby, a movie projects onto a wall. A pedestrian climbs over the railing and jumps off a bridge into the cold water of the Rhine. It is the artist Sebastian Stumpf, whose performance Sabottka really likes because it reminds him of what he and his staff do every day.
Shortly before 6pm, his car leaves the garage. An ultra-modern spaceship. Electrical drive, super quiet. BMW i3. On the rear is a Chernobyl commemoration sticker, which has somewhat become the hallmark of MCT.
“Now we’ll bring in the harvest,” Sabottka says, turning onto the expressway and heading eastward. Some years, MCT organises up to 200 concerts; in other years it is only 60 or 100. “It is not about doing as many shows as possible, but preferably bringing the best shows onstage.” The car passes through the neighbourhood of Treptow-Köpenick, garden plots, housing blocks.
In a decaying factory building with the dimensions of a castle, birch trees grow out of windows. One has to be creative in a non-creative business. Nurture the artistic myth of a band and support them in their creative development. The question comes down to, What’s appealing to the audience? Previously, he intentionally had Die Antwoord play Berghain on two back-to-back nights, instead of booking them in a bigger venue for just one night.
At 6:40pm, the car arrives at Wuhlheide in Berlin. MCT chose this venue because, unlike the second big open-air stage in Berlin, it is not bound to a monopolistic ticket system.
“I hope I may,” Sabottka shouts out in a thick Berlin accent to one of the security guards. “You’ve got everything,” the guard responds.
At the entrance, he is greeted by his assistant Asita Sadeghian, who for the past 15 years has been the go-to person at MCT’s gigs. She takes care of the box office, solves issues at the door and directs press photographers during Arcade Fire’s performance.
The evening sun soaks the arena in golden light. Planes paint vapour trails into the pale blue sky. Visitors swarm into Wuhlheide, stocking up on beer and sausages. The MCT crew stays in the background. This is something like their business philosophy. “Shut up. Keep things low-key,” Scumeck Sabottka says. Toni Palermo, the Hessian Italian with an enourmous chest, is in charge of security.
206 on-site security guards are keeping an eye on the audience. According to Toni, no major problems are expected. The concertgoers are keen to debate, but friendly. “Today’s audience isn’t a rowdy crowd,” he says. And the band should be predictable. They provided a precise run-of-show including when they want to interact with the audience.
Toni stands in the pit, between stage and audience, and will intervene in the case of unexpected events. Gerd Hanke, the bookkeeper, stands backstage with long grey hair, explaining how he solves mathematical mysteries and how earnings are split up fairly at the end of the night.
Meanwhile, the supporting act has started to play. Owen Pallett, dramatic violin music. “I find it interesting, I like it,” Scumeck Sabottka mumbles. He goes upstairs and takes a look at the arena which is filling up. Fans dressed up as living discoballs pass by. Couples are making out. Beer drinkers. In this sunlight, anybody is somehow looking beautiful.
“Today it’s going well,” he says. Scumeck Sabottka remembers the legendary Radiohead concert on 9/11 at this exact venue. An absolutely depressed atmosphere. Thom Yorke, who didn’t know what to say, finally asked: “Who hasn’t heard of this yet? Everybody has heard of it, no? Two, no, four planes have crashed.“
Owen Pallett is done and then there is a whistle. “Hey, guys!” someone calls. A posse of frowning stagehands all dressed in black start to plod towards the stage, to dismount and set up gear. Scumeck Sabottka rarely hangs around until the end of a gig. “The most important part of a show is the beginning, the first three seconds and minutes. I feel pins and needles every single time,” Sabottka says.
For him, it is not just about making an appearance, but also about collecting information: What’s the atmosphere like? How’s the connection between the audience and the band? He also shows up in pouring rain, and at both Southside and Hurricane Festival, for which MCT is co-organiser. He runs around in a full-blown oilskin uniform and tries to suss out if everything is going according to his plan.
At 8.15pm sharp, Arcade Fire take the stage. A guy dressed in a glitter costume announces the band. They play the first chords of “Reflektor.” The tension dissolves, the cheering gets louder. “Priceless,” Sabottka says. Once again, everything goes like clockwork.
An hour later he is standing at the side of the arena, calm and focused, watching the show. Then he returns backstage and exchanges a couple of words with the tour manager, Hartmut Ender, who is arguing about parking violations with the police. He bumps into Scott Rodger, Arcade Fire’s manager. “Great gig today,” Scott Rodger says to him.
The band wanted to let him know that they loved the gig in Dresden yesterday, too. Usually, getting feedback from the band is pretty rare, Sabottka says. “The business is very corporate. We’re only the promoter, but I’m not complaining. I like to be the organiser, because I can’t live without music.”
He gets into his electric car. The sound of the band and the cheers from the crowd fade out in the background. Almost without a sound, he drives home into the sunset.

Documentary film
The Concert Dealer