The European Comeback: Innovation, Fans Who Care & Battling Bureaucracy

– Drive-In

Some of the greatest song lyrics and some of the best ideas ever were inspired or borne by desperate situations spurred by a concrete need for change. Necessity, as is often said, is the mother of invention and it’s fair to say that this unprecedented lockdown of almost the entire world economy has placed an unknowable amount of people in the most desperate situation of their lives, including many working in this industry – which means a raft of new ideas and opportunities.

The events sector has been hit particularly hard, as it’s based on social gathering and its backbone is made up of entrepreneurs and independent businesses – from grassroots music venues to single-event promoters to lighting, transport and security – who are not just facing a temporary shutdown of business, but an entire year of income and trade wiped out. But, as Paul Reed, CEO of the UK’s Association of Independent Festivals put it, what makes the situation worse is that, so far, “zero percent of AIF members have been able to successfully access the U.K.’s Coronavirus Business Interruption Loans Scheme.”
Several U.S. states and European countries have come up with phased plans to gradually open up venues again, starting with the small ones, limiting capacities at first and enforcing distancing rules. The Event Safety Alliance, the U.S. non-profit organization devoted to promoting safety throughout the event sphere, released a thorough guide May 11 for those planning to reopen during the pandemic.
Pollstar reached out to Albert Salméron, president of the promoters association in Spain, one of the first countries to announce a phased reopening plan. Salméron said, “We have been in talks with the Spanish government for months in order to obtain specific measures to save live music and we have not been listened to. The government [seems to have] not heard about the music industry at all. Events with capacity reductions can’t be applied to live music industry reality, because the music events have been planned and paid for way before the state of emergency was declared. When the culture minister was asked what would happen to music festivals, he just said that it would be decided ‘when the time comes.’ It’s so unfair, because there are more than 300,000 professionals in the music industry and our activity impacts other industries. We were the first to stop our activity and will be the last to return.”
It chimes with sentiments other promoters have been voicing to Pollstar. Swiss security expert Andy Mestka recently said he felt that his government didn’t understand that this was an industry, “an economic sector that’s employing a lot of people. It felt like their attitude was ‘let’s just cancel a couple of parties, what’s the worst that could happen?’” Now, the government’s attitude in a lot of places seems to be ‘let’s just gradually allow people to party again, how difficult could it be to throw an event?’”
Michael Kill, the CEO of the UK’s Night Time Industries Association (NTIA), said it was important for government to engage with the sector at the right levels, to first of all understand the sector and therefore be able to give sector-specific recommendations – with a clear timeline and a “comprehensive re-engagement strategy, supported by an extended financial support provision, through sector specific furlough & grants.” NTIA also pointed out that government-enforced restrictions on business capacity and physical distancing would render certain business models unviable.
While the economics of running events at a third of capacity are questionable, the social aspects are as well. It’s not hard to imagine how awkward – and also difficult – it would be to maintain distance at a GA gig, or when ordering at the bar, especially a few orders in. People go out to forget the struggles of reality. Letting yourself go and keeping yourself in check are mutually exclusive. It’s likely that other concepts, like that hazmat suit for partygoers, won’t do the trick either.  
Pollstar spoke to Bernd Breiter, founder of BigCityBeats and the World Club Dome event series. Breiter has built clubs in stadiums, on top of a mountain, on trains, cruise ships, airplanes, in zero gravity and even on the ISS. But even a visionary like himself is still in the process of creating strategies: “I am creative, but I have to be realistic with regards to the emotions and to the experience. At some point you have to admit that you can only experience a certain kind of vibration if you’re really standing next to each other,” he said. Breiter is currently promoting a series of World Club Dome editions at a drive-in theater in Düsseldorf, Germany, sparing no expenses. “If we’re going to do a World Club Dome, we’ll do it properly, arriving with our special effects department, lasers and lights around the entire car park. Of course, that’s pricey and you don’t make any money with it, but we decided to go with a giant production, and we leave the stage with a proud feeling,” he said. 
Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino, who some consider visionary, recently took a 100% pay cut and created a $10 million relief fund for Live Nation employees and has other initiatives for crews and ticketing refunds, sent out a tweet of praise after the first World Club Dome Drive-in Edition on April 30. His company has since announced a drive-in theater concept that will tour through Denmark in the coming months, presenting mostly local acts. “You don’t have to do it this big, of course,” Breiter continued, “Others will be able to make it viable, with smaller artists and setups. The only question is, for how long. It seems to be the model everyone’s banking on now, which will result in fierce competition.” Breiter believes the drive-in theater concept has been maxed out. “Of course, you could go ahead, take off the wheels of all the cars in the car park and create permanent structures, oasis, hot tubs for two people, etc. It’s all possible, but I don’t think it will work.”
Last week we opened up the magazine with a Latin proverb that translated as, “Fortune favors the bold.” But what if the hands of the bold are tied by government restrictions that would land them a fine or worse if disobeyed? That’s when it becomes clear whose boldness will be in greatest demand in the coming months: The fans.
Roskilde Festival in Denmark, considered by some to be the Glastonbury of continental Europe, ended its refund period on May 8. The festival’s spokesperson Christina Bilde told Pollstar: “More than 85% of our participants have decided to hold on to their full festival tickets. We are overwhelmed and very grateful for the support we have been met with, from both our participants and the general public. The fact that so many of the full festival tickets are transferred secures the planning of the 50th edition of Roskilde Festival next year.” The remaining tickets went on sale on May 12 and have since sold out, 80,000 tickets in total. Bilde said, “We had not dared to hope that the tickets would move so fast.”
Roskilde’s experience is the same as several other promoters in Europe, most of whom didn’t want to go on the record. Owners of grassroots venues have been given hope as well. Nina Jackson from the Half Moon Putney in London, for instance, told Pollstar, “We’ve mainly had a really positive response with almost all ticket buyers holding on to their tickets for over 100 rescheduled shows. Some have been moved twice now and they are still happy to keep them. 
“We love our audience, many are regulars, and have also asked how else they can help, offering to buy vouchers, etc., plus so many artists have offered to play online fundraising gigs or re-opening gigs, it’s very humbling.” 
 “[With that in mind] our profit comes from beer and food sales, which obviously are non-existent at present,” Jackson added. 
Fans will also have to be bold once government lifts restrictions again, as it will take courage to go out and celebrate like before.Unclear governmental advice will only increase uncertainty. Ben Newby, operations director at promoter and venue operator MJR TEG said the only thing that would strengthen customer confidence would be government announcing “with confidence” that mass gatherings and social experiences can take place again. That might still be a long way off, though. 
Travis McCready planned to give the first concert at a seated venue, adhering to distancing regulations on May 15, at TempleLive in Fort Smith, Ark. (see cover story on page 20). However, the Arkansas Department of Health issued a cease and desist order to TempleLive May 13, putting the show in jeopardy. But as of press time, indefatigable promoter Mike Brown of TempleLive has applied to move the concert to May 18, which falls within the state’s reopening guidelines. Balancing the health risks due to a virus with the health risks due to lack of social contact and economic devastation may be one of the toughest questions to deal with. 
And while change is inevitable, a “new normal” might not work for this sector. The Event Safety Alliance likens the current resistance to face masks and social distancing to the resistance to bag checks and magnetometers after 9/11. Those measures, however, left the experience inside the venue, once the show started, untouched. Being forced to maintain social distance is a different animal, as Katja Mierke, psychologist teaching at Fresenius University of Applied Sciences in Cologne, Germany, explained: “Human beings are very flexible when it comes to adjusting to new environments, we sometimes get used to new circumstances alarmingly fast. However, the so-called ‘new normal’ is such a burdensome and exceptional state, it’s clear that it has to be temporary. For many, the uncertainty surrounding the duration of this situation, when restrictions will be lifted, and how life will continue once it’s over, is the worst. The capacity to suffer requires hope and perspective.” s