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What do Beyonce, the Rolling Stones, U2, AC/DC and Lady Gaga have in common? They all use one London-based specialist logistics firm to move their equipment round the globe.
Last year, when Beyonce came to the UK with her Formation world tour it took seven Boeing 747 air freighters and a fleet of more than 70 trucks to get her stage set and other gear to the venues.
And that didn’t include the backstage staff, musicians, performers – or Beyonce herself.
“It was the biggest move we’ve ever done,” says Martin Corr, the managing director of rock and roll transport firm Sound Moves.
More firms are choosing to use air freight to get their goods to market, from diamonds to car parts, even though it is six times more expensive than sending them by sea – and rock superstars depend on it too.
While air freight makes up just 1% of UK imports and exports in terms of tonnage shipped, it accounts for 40% of imports and exports in terms of their value.
In the UK, Heathrow Airport is the dominant player in this trade with £101bn worth of goods passing through in a year. That’s more than the value of goods passing through the country’s biggest container ports, Felixstowe and Southampton, combined.
Despite air cargo’s expense, using planes instead of ships cuts down dramatically on the time it takes to get goods to market.
“We use Heathrow for most of our air freight. It is close to London, has great road connections, frequent flights and capacity,” says Martin Corr.
Sound Moves – based in west London close to Heathrow’s cargo terminal – is one of the biggest logistics firms in the music industry with an annual turnover of £17m.
Over the past 20 years they have worked with everyone from David Bowie and the Rolling Stones to Lady Gaga and now Beyonce.
“I left school with little or no qualifications, and was living with my parents lying on the sofa when my mum told me to go out and get a job,” says Martin.
“Living in west London, Heathrow airport was the obvious place.”
After working with a general freight company learning his trade, he then moved into the specialised business of moving rock groups and their equipment. In 1996 he started Sound Moves with two colleagues.
Martin himself is an AC/DC fan, and an Angus Young Gibson guitar signed by all the members of the band takes pride of place in his office.
“But no I don’t play it, I never wanted to be a musician,” he says. “I am a freight-forwarder through and through – it’s what I do.”
Inside his warehouse, he points out the pallets of sound equipment and music merchandise ready to be shipped anywhere in the world.
“You can be in London on a Monday and doing a show in Los Angeles on a Wednesday or Thursday.
“We used to have a very seasonal business that was busy up to Christmas, and then from Easter to September with the summer festivals, but now artists tour 12 months a year.”
Touring is what brings in the merchandise and ticket sales, he says, “and that gets the guys on the road and that’s where we come in, we support them on the road”.
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When Beyonce arrived last year, Sound Moves had to use Doncaster and Prestwick airports rather than Heathrow due to the London airport’s lack of flexibility.
“It was a rush to get the aircraft unloaded. There’s lots of draws on an artist’s time. They still want to be seen by the public but in the shortest possible time,” he says.
The fact that Sound Moves couldn’t use Heathrow for Beyonce’s tour is significant, says Nick Platts, head of cargo at Heathrow Airport.
“I remember having chats with Martin over several days working out how we could help him, but we couldn’t offer him the flexibility he needed.”
The airport is working at almost maximum capacity and he says there is little room for further growth in cargo traffic.
“We are pushing traffic away from us.
“We need to expand and build a third runway just to satisfy the pent-up demand that is out there, let alone cope with future growth,” he says.
Both Heathrow and Gatwick are seeing an increase in the amount of air freight they handle – but Gatwick’s growth rate is significantly higher.
“Our booming long-haul routes have driven a huge cargo increase,” says Gatwick Airport’s chief executive officer, Stewart Wingate.
Perhaps surprisingly only a fraction of air cargo is actually carried in specialised air freighters. Most of it – 95% at Heathrow – is carried in the bellies of passenger aircraft and that can boost an airline’s revenues between 5-20%.
“Take that away and the route may not be viable,” says Heathrow’s Nick Platts.
“The reason Heathrow is successful is not because we are moving people – it is because we are moving car parts, Scottish salmon, blood plasma products and other medicines, jewellery and precious stones. That is what air freight is good for,” he says.
Back at Sound Moves, Martin Corr is getting ready for U2’s Joshua Tree tour.
“It’s all planned and organised, they’ll be coming into the UK by air over one weekend in July – it’s a very tight schedule.”
He’s keen to dispel any idea that his industry is glamorous. “We don’t get to hang out at backstage parties or fly on private jets, that’s not what we do.
“For us there is no day off until the tour is over.”
Mind you, he does keep one bottle of champagne in his office fridge.
“Well it wouldn’t be rock and roll without champagne, would it?” he laughs.
Follow Tim Bowler on Twitter @timbowlerbbc
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