Leadoff: Europe Is Protesting For The Future Of Live As We Know It

Live professionals
Wolfgang Schaper
– Live professionals
walk the streets of Berlin to make known that the events sector has been out of work and in need of financial support since March. The banner reads: “#redalert: Stop the wave of bankruptcies in the events sector!”
The willingness to protest is ever- present in Europe, albeit in some countries more than others. The people of Eastern Europe, for instance, only got rid of their communist dictators in 1989. Hence, you have festivals like Exit in Serbia, born out of a student protest against Slobodan Miloševic, or Revolution Festival in Timisoara, where the Romanian revolution of 1989 started, and which became the first city in the country to declare itself Communist-free. When Pollstar attended the East European Music Conference 2017 in Sibiu, Romania, we passed buildings still riddled with bullet holes. 
In the West, the country best known for its revolutionary spirit is France, where hundreds of thousands are taking the streets at the moment, sparked by the latest restrictions on public life and a new law that would fine members of the public for filming police officers and sharing the footage. The country’s blanket ban on protests following the COVID lockdown even caught the attention of Amnesty International. To the French, Liberté is more than just a word minted on coins, and the current images of Paris’s burning central bank will be printed in the history books of the future.
British anti-lockdown protestors are singing “You can stick your poisoned vaccines up your arse,” while most of the country’s live entertainment professionals are counting on a vaccine as one way of facilitating a return to business. Live pros are engaging in protests themselves under observance of distancing rules, to demonstrate what they’ve been saying since March: the people working in this sector are the most experienced when it comes to organizing large gatherings in a safe manner. Over 1,000 freelancers and supply companies, for example, attended a flight case march in Manchester this summer, aimed at getting the government to extend its furlough scheme and ease access to grants. In October, five British event professionals traversed 1,700 kilometers on their bicycles, passing more than 100 venues they’d usually visit during tours, but which are currently closed due to COVID. They raised $39,000 along the way. 
Even the usually very complacent Germans are taking to the streets in large numbers. Two public protests against the government’s handling of the COVID crisis saw north of 1 million people gather in the capital of Berlin, where the country’s event professional also staged two dedicated protests, Sept. 9 and Oct. 28, to draw attention to a sector that’s largely been out of work since March.
In Spain, which has been experiencing one of the toughest lockdowns in Europe, venues and concert halls took part in an initiative dubbed “El Último Concierto” (“The Last Concert”). More than 125 venues uploaded videos of their empty auditoriums, in some of them, local artists like Amaia, Suu, Dorian and La Casa Azul gave a completely silent “performance,” to demonstrate what the country, and the world at large, stands to lose if this sector isn’t allowed to work again soon, without crippling restrictions. In Valencia, even members of the police have joined the protesters.
One point of the protests is that bureaucratic absurdities are often making professionals’ lives harder than need be. In the UK for instance, many freelancers are paying themselves in dividends, which aren’t recognized as a form of income when applying for grants, so the government has no basis for calculating the individuals’ financial needs. Pollstar spoke to others who have been saving up the profits of the past years to reinvest in their businesses, which makes them look healthy on paper. They are now being asked to use up all of their savings before being able to access any kind of support. What is more, many costs aren’t covered by the government programs, in particular, they don’t recognize many self-employment scenarios and sole trader working relationships, which make up the backbone of this industry. These are all individuals who’ve been paying taxes dutifully for years.
It’s not just the government’s handling of funding applications that has many professionals scratch their heads in bewilderment, but also its reasoning behind some of the COVID restrictions. The UK recently banned the sale of alcohol at music venues, who derive the majority of their income from wet sales. It eased this particular restriction only after heavy lobbying from the country’s live associations. Now, guests at grassroots music venues can buy alcohol again, as long as they’re seated while enjoying the show, which doesn’t help nightclubs, and only as long as the venue is located in tiers one and two of the government’s risk assessment system for different territories. Venues in Tier 3 still aren’t allowed to even open.
Some restrictions, not just in the UK, seem arbitrary and not grounded in scientific facts about viruses. Event pros are largely forced to wait out a situation that cannot be waited out, while public transport and the aviation industry operate at capacity. No wonder the UK’s Night Time Industries Association (NTIA) recently accused the government of “intentionally wiping out the sector with new restrictions.” A recent NTIA survey conducted among 400 businesses within the hospitality and nighttime economy showed that 75.6% of them expect to be closed by Christmas.
Throughout all of this, a number of individuals and companies have been going out of their ways to continue and provide physical live experiences to an audience of willing ticket buyers. The Dec. 7 issue of Pollstar is meant to highlight a few of them, because maintaining the old normal in times like these can be seen as a form of protest in itself.