‘Hopeful, But…’ Taking Stock Of Touring Europe

Running On Empty:
Jonas Walzberg/picture alliance via Getty Images
– Running On Empty:
Numerous seats at Barclays Arena in Hamburg are cordoned off for a livestreamed concert by numerous well-known and up-and-coming artists in December. Capacity limitations vary from country to country, making it nearly impossible to organize a tour across the continent.

There’s cautious optimism among Europe’s live professionals that spring 2022 will bring the gradual return of touring, topped off by a summer of festivals. Observant readers may recall that this kind of optimism was voiced at the start of both summer 2020 and summer 2021 as well, only to be shattered by COVID restrictions imposed by most European governments, which didn’t want to take any risks when allowing public gatherings. But according to industry execs Pollstar spoke with, there are reasons to be more optimistic this year.

One is the fact that the Omicron variant seems to have peaked in the UK, and is expected to do the same in mainland Europe soon, according to Herman Schueremans, founder of Rock Werchter in Belgium and head of Live Nation’s Belgian operations. 

“Omicron in England is over its peak, which is good news,” he said, echoing findings by British scientists. “That means that in parts of Europe, such as Belgium, Holland and a couple of other countries, it will be over its peak by end of January, early February, and in other countries by the end of February. 

“The bottom line is, and this is also what you hear from the virology specialists, Omicron will be over by mid-March. From then onwards it will be an illness like the flu. We’ll have to learn to live with it, but it will all be doable,” Schueremans continued. “Everybody, by now, accepts that there will be no [European] tours in the first quarter of 2022. But we all strongly believe that it will all start happening in April, if not April 1 then April 14, something like that. The one thing that’s for sure is that festivals in Europe will happen. That’s what you also hear when you speak with governments – they are all optimistic about it.” 

Schueremans told Pollstar that only 3,000 Friday tickets remained for Graspop Metal Meeting, scheduled to take place in the Belgian city of Dessel, June 16-19. For Rock Werchter, planned to take place in Werchter, Belgium, June 30-July 3, 18,000 of 146,000 multi-day and single-day tickets were still available at press time.

“I expect it to sell out by mid-February, and I’m hearing the same kinds of stories, especially in England, but also in the rest of Europe,” said Schueremans, who concluded, “we are finally at the end of the tunnel.”

International tours will need time to prepare. Justin Bieber, one of the few American megastars to commit to upcoming European touring, has scheduled all European “Justice World Tour” dates for the first half of 2023. At press time, capacity and quarantine restrictions varied greatly between countries, making it nearly impossible to plan pan-European treks. 

“Some countries like Germany have stricter restrictions than other countries, and

this makes it difficult to have a full perspective of Europe,” explained Christof Huber, chairman of the European festival association Yourope. “It is important for international touring artists that the full European market opens as soon as possible to gain confidence back. We are confident that from spring on, the situation will be different.” 

The confidence of Yourope’s members stems from the fact that “2020 and 2021 showed that spring to autumn is different from the wintertime,” Huber said. “Vaccination rates and treatments have come a long way in the past two years, therefore we are confident that we will have a strong European festival summer.”

One U.S. artist planning to tour Europe as early as March is this week’s cover star, Japanese Breakfast (see page 16). The band’s European/UK agent, ATC Live’s William Church, confirmed the situation in Europe “differs from country to country and is continually changing” as the pandemic evolves.

“Shows are currently possible in England with no restrictions, but there is a full lockdown in the Netherlands at the moment,” he said. “This will inevitably cause disruption, especially with ticket sales or no shows. However, my hope is that – if Omicron peaks more quickly than previous variants – from March onwards touring can take place throughout Europe, albeit with mandatory testing and increased touring protocols for artists, crew, venue staff and audiences.”

Throw Your Hands Up:
Nicolas Maeterlinck / Belga / AFP / Getty Images
– Throw Your Hands Up:
Europeans take to the streets in Brussels Dec. 26, 2021, when cinemas, concert halls and other entertainment venues were forced to close as the Belgian government reported that three in 10 COVID cases are now Omicron.

The UK, or rather England, is currently the least restricted market in Europe. According to Mother Artists’ Natasha Gregory, focusing on domestic tours was “absolutely” an option. 

“I think we were all hoping for a clearer first quarter of the year across countries, but that’s not the case,” she explained. “We don’t have many tours before March – but even March is up in the air. We are though, again, adaptable to plans, and will just have to work out options that work best for our artists.” 

Regardless of the uncertainty, “it’s always worth planning,” Gregory continued. “We are all in a rhythm after the past two years that plans can and may likely change, but that doesn’t stop the importance in planning and close communication with your teams.”

Her brother, Mark Bent, who runs the management business of Mother Artists, said that while it’s always been important to focus on records, for lots of artists, “the best campaigns are when everything works together: releases and live. There is nothing like live shows to connect with fans.” 

Bent remains hopeful that 2022 will bring that important aspect of artists’ careers back.

“Live music is important for everyone – not just the artists, teams and crews that this industry supports financially, but for people and communities,” he said. “We have to work out ways for shows to happen. And we are hopeful that after the first quarter there will be systems in place that allow for better live touring opportunities.”

When Jon Ollier, CEO of One Fiinix Live, launched his independent agency at the end of 2020, his team was well aware of the adverse circumstances.

“We priced in a lot of the ups and downs we are experiencing to our plans and so thus far what is happening isn’t really outside of what we were expecting,” he explained, which is why “at the moment we are in a great place. We are building in terms of clients and our team in all of the ways we set out to do.”

Focusing on domestic touring isn’t an option for Ollier, who noted, “For some time now, I have been saying I would expect there to be a wave in the winter months and even if it is just regular flu season causing us problems, we will see some restrictions. 

“This opinion was not very popular with a lot of people, but I really do see the shift being less geographical and more seasonal – I think we will have interruptions to the economy like this during the winter months, possibly even for a further couple of years, but that we should be able to do good business for the other nine months of the year,” he continued. “It remains to be seen if this will be limited to Europe and the Americas in the short term; it could be that places like Asia, Australia and New Zealand will take a little longer to arrive at something similar.”

Ollier remains “hopeful” that 2022 will see a gradual reopening of markets.

“But I think, rather than the whole thing going away and things returning to 2019, it will be a case of recognizing areas in which we can predict and accept a reasonable level of risk and then really making that work for us without delaying or hesitating,” he said. “If the government has to hibernate the economy for parts of the year, the push now should be to have them really be aggressive with what we are able to do with the rest of the year. If we have to curb travel and social contact December to February/March, then we should almost without condition accept the risks as what they are and be fully open, come what may, April to November.”

Ollier added, “If we must lose part of the winter, we need to make damn sure we are making hay while the sun shines.”