The Year In Europe: The World Outside The U.S. Is A Mixed Bag

While the UK has enjoyed sold-out arena shows,
– While the UK has enjoyed sold-out arena shows,
like Wizkid at the O2 in London, Dec. 1 (above), mainland Europe still lacks a reopening strategy. Distanced shows aren’t viable, and differing travel restrictions make touring a logistical nightmare. The Netherlands, for instance, just introduced another curfew, among the reasons why ESNS 2022 will take place online only.
The state of the live business in Europe couldn’t be more diverse. A couple countries had good summers, thanks to either high vaccination rates or forms of coronavirus vaccination passports that encouraged decision makers to allow high-capacity events. Others were forced to scrap a second year of business. The only country that came close to the U.S. in terms of business being back was the United Kingdom, which had lifted all coronavirus restrictions in summer, and was considered a big exception by most of the European professionals Pollstar has spoke to. Yet, even the UK has been stalled in its reassuring reopening run by the latest coronavirus variant.
But first things first. Positive examples from mainland Europe include Switzerland, which pulled off a few summer events for audiences able to produce one of three established health proofs: negative test, recovery or full vaccination. Seaside Festival in Spiez and Summerdays Festival in Arbon, for example, went ahead at their full capacities of 18,000 and 21,000, respectively, in September.
Poland made the most of existing restrictions when the country’s biggest promoter, Alter Art, put on a series of reduced-capacity concerts running under its famed festival brand Open’er. Open’er Park hosted 4,000 on several nights through July and August, which was the mandated maximum capacity. The country had completely lifted indoor and outdoor capacity restrictions for fully vaccinated crowds at press time. In Belgium, Rock Werchter promoters managed to pull off something similar: a series of 28 concerts with capacities of 2,500 each in July and August, selling a total of 63,000 tickets and turning a profit.
Finland was a patchwork rug, with parts of the country open and others restricted, some by mandate, some voluntarily. Then there was Serbia, which held one of the summer’s first major festivals, EXIT Festival, at its full capacity of 45,000 per day in early July. Guests had to provide one of three health proofs, and EXIT’s team commissioned a scientific study that detected zero infections at the event. EXIT may have placed some Serbians in an optimistic mood. A promoter wishing to remain anonymous said it was like the government’s coronavirus mandates didn’t exist. A restricted indoor capacity of 500 had led to an unusually high number of 499-capacity events in the country, which weren’t really being checked, according to the insider.
In neighboring Romania, the government approved outdoor capacities of up to 75,000 on Aug. 1, enabling, for instance, the successful September debut of SAGA Festival at Romaero airfield in the Romanian capital of Bucharest, which was attended by 45,000. The country’s case numbers were on the rise at press time.
In Greece, allowed capacities were tied to audience vaccination rates. If, for example, only vaccinated and recovered people were in the audience, venues could host 85% of their capacity. If negative tests were offered as a means of entry, the capacity had to be reduced.
All the above has become the subject of debate again with the appearance of the Omicron variant of coronavirus. At press time, Germany, usually the focal point of any tour coming through Europe, had some of the strictest rules placed on promoters and venue operators alike. As of Nov. 24, some of the country’s 16 states imposed 50% capacity restrictions and mask mandates for visitors, who also had to show proof of vaccination as well as a negative test result. While the latter two requirements could be accommodated, the reduced capacities made operating in an economically viable way impossible, as the European association of event venues EVVC pointed out in an open warning letter, which was really a cry for help. Germany’s event economy used to employ 1.1 million people and turn over €81 billion annually, and international and domestic tours fuel local economies wherever they go – but all major tours scheduled for the end of 2021 have been rescheduled to 2022. 
The Netherlands decided in June to lift capacity and distancing mandates for anybody providing proof of a coronavirus vaccination or a negative test result. The decision was encouraged by the results of a series of pilot events conducted by Fieldlab Events, an alliance of Dutch promoters and scientists. Overnight stays for multi-day events would return from the end of July, causing camping events like Down The Rabbit Hole to reschedule to August, in a last attempt to save the festival season. The government backtracked at the eleventh hour, categorically banning non-seated public events, and sealing the fate of many. In July, more than 40 of the country’s live organizations, led by event powerhouse ID&T, launched summary proceedings against the Dutch government. On Aug. 21 and Sept. 11, the country’s live professionals took to the streets, with local press counting 70,000 protesters at the first march. One of the promoters that sued the Dutch government told Pollstar that the court battle had been lost, but didn’t volunteer any more information. Just before the new variant appeared on the scene, limits on outdoor events were removed, while indoor events were capped at 75% of standing capacity. Then came Omicron, and everything was put on hold. ESNS, one of Europe’s most important events for new artists and established industry pros, announced it was going all-digital with its 36th edition in January for a second year running. 
It’s an utterly different picture when talking about the UK, although even there Omicron has led to the requirement of a vaccine passport or negative test in order to get into live venues. England has been open for unrestricted business since July 19, which was too late for most of the country’s annual summer events, but just in time to give some of them a chance to pull something out of their hats.
AEG’s Jim King and his team pulled off a scaled-down version of All Points East in London, and Festival Republic’s Melvin Benn delivered Reading and Leeds in August. 
Both men pointed to the supply chain, which lost many of its most talented professionals, who had to leave the business in search of new jobs and/or Brexit taking mainlanders who had settled in the UK out of the country again. It’s no coincidence that the annual Production Meeting at ILMC in March will tackle the live supply chain crisis, which isn’t limited to the UK.
One more challenge will be regaining the confidence of fans. Promoters and managers across the board are observing a slower-than-usual uptake of ticket purchases in older demographics. 
The young seem less bothered; many of them got vaccinated precisely to regain some of the time that’s been stolen from them. John Reid, President Live Nation EMEA, praised the loyalty of fans and didn’t sound too fazed by the cluttered state of Europe. 
“For sure there is a market-by-market approach to reopening, but we’re used to this new world now, as with many other parts of our lives we’ve adapted to the challenges. Dealing with the changing landscape has just become part of doing business,” Reid said.  
“I feel good about the new year. I’m particularly looking forward to the summer and getting out to as many festivals across Europe as possible. Despite trepidation around new developments, I feel positive that the new year is going to deliver.”
In all the coronavirus mess, it can be easy to forget that the UK and Europe have added an extra layer of bureaucratic touring hurdles in the form of Brexit and the new agreements it requires between individual countries. 
UK industry body LIVE spoke of “a logistical nightmare for Europe-wide tours,” which it is currently in the process of helping to solve one by one. Led by Marshall Arts’ Craig Stanley, LIVE and its collaborators already got the Spanish government to waive its visa requirement. Phil Bowdery, Live Nation’s Executive President Of Touring, International, praised their efforts: “As always the perseverance, resilience and imagination of our teams is the best way to mitigate any impacts going forwards.”