Nearly 1,000 of what are presumably the wisest heads in the international live music business gathered at London’s Royal Garden Hotel March 12-15 to ponder the future of the industry, but it’s doubtful if any of them left any the wiser.
“Something will turn up,” Kilimanjaro Live chief Stuart Galbraith replied when asked if there will be enough superstar acts to maintain even the top end of the market in 2010.
As an economic theory, Galbraith’s view is known as Dickensian or “the Micawber model,” and apparently the one that U.K. chancellor Alistair Darling must have been using when launching his first budget in March 2008.
Darling’s speech, the first major one he’d made as chancellor, contained several bullish forecasts for future economic growth. He was happy for the U.K. to borrow and spend on the back of that growth.
This year’s ILMC, like Darling, showed that the only certainty about predicting the future (or futurology) is that it will remain a tricky business.
“One of them might fall off a cliff. It could happen in a week,” said Entourage Talent agency’s Wayne Forte, explaining how the major corporations threatening to monopolize the business aren’t exactly immune to collapse.
Forte was talking on a Sunday afternoon panel headed “No Future, No Future For You,” one of many session titles derived from punk lyrics. He was surrounded by representatives from various major corporations including Live Nation, Ticketmaster and AEG.
Aussie promoter Michael Chugg made it clear there were times when he would have happily “pushed Ticketmaster off a fucking cliff,” which drew a smile from pretty well everyone except TM European sales director Tim Chambers.
AEG Enterprises managing director Jessica Koravos said a merger between Live Nation and Ticketmaster would “make AEG look like a boutique.”
The “Recession Session” Galbraith chaired on the Saturday lunchtime was among the best of the weekend because he kept it moving at a good pace and it contained some meaty statistics.
Figures based on the live-performance tariffs collected by U.K. collecting society PRS show that – for the first time ever – the live music business is producing more money than the recorded music business.
In 2008 it was worth £1.27 billion ($1.8 billion) and the recorded business brought in £1.24 billion ($1.7 billion).
But is there a catch? Maybe, with £149 million ($209 million) of the live music industry’s revenues coming from secondary ticketing, according to the PRS figures.
One of the major economic complaints about the secondary market is that it sucks money out of the business without putting any back, which suggests some would rather not include it in the live industry’s numbers.
If that £149 million is deducted, it brings the live industry total down to £1.13 billion ($1.6 billion), leaving the recorded music business still a nostril ahead.
The true story may be that live music industry income will very likely outstrip recorded music industry income by ILMC 2010.
Galbraith’s panel was about how this same industry will deal with recession. Having just launched the Sonisphere festivals in cahoots with K2 agency chief John Jackson, there was a suspicion that the ILMC’s decision to pick him as chairman may mean the session would look at “quantitative easing” as an economic solution – as in “print more festivals.”
It didn’t turn out that way, although the strategy did give a spike to the Finnish market, where AEG and Live Nation teamed to sell 50,000 tickets in less than an hour for a Metallica-headlined Sonisphere on the Pori Jazz Festival site.
The panel mood was upbeat without being so confident that people may begin to worry about the sound of fiddle music and the smell of burning, partly it seemed because Michael Jackson’s London O2 ticket sales were spiraling faster than the U.K.’s national debt.
The previous day, the U.K. media reported fans had bought 750,000 tickets to see the reclusive pop star, at a rate of about 11 per second, and the possibility of even more shows could see that figure hit 1 million.
U2’s impressive sales put a smile on the face of Solo agency boss John Giddings, which visibly broadened after his Isle Of Wight took the Arthur award for best festival.
Much of the talk around the naturally air-conditioned smoking room on the hotel entrance steps focused on whether Jackson is mentally or physically capable of performing 50 or more shows.
“I’m not concerned what promoters moonlighting as physicians are saying at ILMC,” was AEG Live chief Randy Phillips’ response to Pollstar inquiries on the subject.
The general view of what will happen to the market is that the 20 percent of acts – such as Jacko, U2 and Madonna – that sell 80 percent of tickets are unlikely to suffer from the crunch.
The prognosis isn’t so good for the 80 percent of artists that share the remaining 20 percent of ticket sales.
It seems these acts will do better to tour less, although the artists and their agents may not see it that way.
Live Nation European tour chief Phil Bowdery said the pound’s fall against the dollar meant he couldn’t get a return visit from a U.S. act that sold out last time because he couldn’t match what he paid previously.
The act would be entitled to feel it’s worth more money, while the economic reality of the U.S.-U.K. exchange rate dictated that Bowdery had far fewer dollars in the pot.
Bowdery seems to have shrugged off the situation with stoic acceptance and got a laugh by pointing out that “bankers have made promoters look legit.” The comment probably made the shortlist for the weekend’s pithiest sound bite, although other panels had their moments.
Chugg emphasized how the industry is being dominated by currency fluctuations: “Our [Australian] dollar has crashed. Acts that pulled crowds of 4,000-5,000 when it was worth 90 U.S. cents won’t do as well now that the Australian dollar brings in only 64 [U.S.] cents.”
The eyebrow-raiser in Galbraith’s panel came when Australian Big Day Out promoter Vivian Lees said his bankers (“pack of fucking arseholes”) wouldn’t even let him have his own money.
It turned out the money he was referring to was actually the proceeds of ticket sales for future shows.
Although it was pointed out that the money doesn’t actually belong to Lees’ company until the dates have happened, ticket companies and banks have been known to release such funds to trusted clients to help improve their cash flow.
The fact that situation may be changing will be a problem for promoters, and one that will be exacerbated if more agents – like Agency Group chief Neil Warnock – start to ask for deposits of 100 percent of the guaranteed fees.
Warnock said he’d certainly request that for the first two or three times he works with a promoter. It’s an understandably cautious approach.
Secondary ticketing duly got several mentions throughout the weekend, with Carl Leighton-Pope coming up with the popular idea that acts could sell tickets on the secondary sites for premium prices and then pass the extra money on to Nordoff-Robbins Music or other charities.
Nordoff-Robbins is believed to need to raise £3 million in 2009. Leighton-Pope’s idea seemed to get a warmer reception every time he repeated it.
Elsewhere there was an extraordinary Booking Ring discussion that was a bit like watching plastic ducks in a bath, in the sense that ideas floated around a bit without much promise of ever going very far.
The panel was billed as being about The Great Rock ’N’ Roll Swindle, which was more of a nod to the conference’s punk theme than a description of the session’s content. It never really emerged who was doing the swindling and who was being swindled.
This Sunday morning slot – chaired by Marc Lambelet from Switzerland’s Black Lamb agency – had so many references to “loyalty” and “trust” that it fell partway between a treatise on morality and an effort to legislate for human nature.
The main issue was how bands and their [London-based] agents treat European agents and promoters regarding the development of artists, and how the profit – when the artist has reached that stage – gets shared.
To give one example – and this session had plenty of them – what happens when an act that’s toured a certain territory with a particular agent or promoter gets a direct offer for a decent festival slot in that country?
Does the original contact get rowed out of the festival deal because he or she hasn’t brought the offer to the band? Or does he or she get cut into the deal – thereby increasing the act’s commission bill for the event – as reward for doing the oftentimes money-losing runs that have raised the act’s profile to the extent a festival feels it’s worth offering it a decent slot?
Panelists and delegates had a seemingly endless list of circumstances that may affect the situation one way or the other. Lambelet, who acts as a tour-booking agent but is also in a position to make direct offers on behalf of his country’s Gampel Festival, tried to drive the debate forward.
“We could go over this again and again,” sighed Lucy Dickins from International Talent Booking, making it clear that she works for the act, which ultimately will make the call.
Lambelet, who ran the panel skillfully enough to get such a nebulous discussion to even this point, spoke of what he called the “pyramid of fear.” Maybe the point was that an agent might go along with a band decision that could be considered to be morally wrong because challenging it could mean losing the act.
Natasha Bent from The Agency Group said she was once fired by an act because she referred a French festival offer to her act’s usual partner in that territory. At least that’s what the act told her.
Her position on what some might consider to be the moral high ground was short-lived, as she said she also had a suspicion that the real reason she was fired was because – in her pre-Agency days – she moved to a small agency that the band didn’t particularly rate.
Sebastien Vuignier, a fellow countryman of Lambelet’s who recently left Paleo-Nyon Festival to set up his own promoting business, said he’d rather talk about a “pyramid of trust” than a “pyramid of fear.”
Hours later, on the panel that featured Forte and was chaired by Tim Dowdall from Live Nation, Chugg said trust and loyalty disappeared from the business nearly a decade ago.
That session touched on whether people including Bruce Springsteen are right to say the LN-Ticketmaster merger won’t benefit fans.
The logic of the counter-argument is that competition for acts drives fees and therefore ticket prices higher, and less competition on that front might mean ticket prices coming down.
Nick Hobbs of Istanbul-based Charmenko agency, who works many of the same central and eastern European markets as Dowdall, said he was once a communist but has grown out of and now struggles to believe competition is bad for the consumer.
He said the viewpoint that lack of competition benefits the fans needs a much closer look, but there wasn’t time as the session was all but over.
As with any conference, some panels were livelier than others. But once again there seems to be a growing consensus that panels don’t need to last as long as soccer matches, let alone go into added time.
The panels were cut to an hour but there’s been a steady drift back to longer sessions and they are once again scheduled to last 90 minutes.
The conference itself doesn’t appear to have suffered from the recession, as this year’s attendance was 50 up on last year at close to 1,000.
It was a good way for the event to celebrate its 21st birthday, although there must be some concern that next year’s Globetrotter’s Guide – the ILMC booklet that lists delegates and maps out the schedule – may be missing several names that were in it this year.
During those 21 years, the ILMC backroom staff has worked “tirelessly” to improve the conference’s production, said conference organizer Martin Hopewell.
However, there was one moment – on the Sunday afternoon when Koravos was speaking – when feedback through the PA created a piercing scream.
Mercifully, it wasn’t followed by the dull thud a body would likely make if it plunged several stories from the top of the Royal Garden Hotel (or a cliff) and plummeted to the ground.