The Only Restriction Will Be The Availability Of Stadiums: Turning Optimism Into Certainty In Europe

Many Countries
Paul Bergen / Redferns
– Many Countries
are accepting that it is better to learn to live with coronavirus than to continue restric- tive policies. Most music fans seem to be ready for it.
The return of international touring seems within reach. Most of Europe’s major live markets have either lifted capacity-restrictions or announced plans to do so. Even Germany has finally committed to a concrete date, March 20, when all “wide-ranging” restrictions will be scrapped. It remained unclear at press time, what exactly “wide-ranging” means, but since neighboring Austria, Switzerland, and the Netherlands will scrap capacity-restrictions through March, as the Nordics already have, it stands to reason that Germany will do the same. According to Europe’s live professionals, there is cause to be optimistic, some would even use the word confident. Others are still cautious after a scarring two years that left a mark, some would call a deep wound. Only one thing is certain, more than ever Pollstar’s data tells a tale of resilience. This doesn’t change when focusing on Europe, as has become tradition in our annual Magna Charta issue (see charts here). 
England has been leading the way internationally, and since Feb. 24, a new plan has been in place. It is officially called “Living with COVID-19,” and lays out why prime minister Boris Johnson decided to lift all remaining legal restrictions, including the need to self-isolate after a positive test. And since negative tests aren’t a requirement to partake in public life anymore, England will shut down all free mass testing sites by April 1 (the government also said it could no longer afford to spend about $2.7 billion a month on them). In his Feb. 21 speech announcing the change in policy, Johnson said, “COVID will not suddenly disappear, so those who would wait for a total end to this war before lifting the remaining regulations would be restricting the liberties of the British people for a long time to come. This government does not believe that this is right or necessary. Restrictions pose a heavy toll on our economy, our society, our mental well-being and on the life chances of our children, and we do not need to pay that heavy cost any longer.”
It is for similar reasons that other nations are following suit. As far as the free movement across borders is concerned, EU countries have agreed on a coordinated approach to the restrictions still in place. It is work in progress, but the international festival lineups announced for 2022 suggest a great trust on behalf of promoters that everything will be worked out by summer. Metallica and Red Hot Chili Peppers at Rock Werchter in Belgium, Adele and Eagles at British Summer Time Hyde Park in England, Gorillaz and Michael Kiwanuka at Flow Festival in Finland, Dua Lipa and Tyler, the Creator at Roskilde in Denmark – just a tiny selection of stars set to take a European festival stage in 2022.
John Reid, Live Nation’s president EMEA, said he was “past optimism. We have a feeling of certainty around business, as certain as you can be in our business. As countries guarantee opening, we’re off to the races.
Future waves of any virus are always going to be a concern, but not in terms of our business. People are genuinely comfortable now living with this thing and getting on with our lives. That feels good.” Once capacity restrictions are lifted, it won’t take long for clubs and theaters to come back, as they don’t require as much lead time as the festivals and large-scale shows. But even arenas are selling fast depending on the territory, according to Reid, who said, “you can’t get arenas in some of the key markets for love nor money this year.” 
SJM Concerts MD Simon Moran confirms the positive trend: “From actual show attendances we are seeing a gradual return to normal business. There was clearly some nervousness in late 2021 but we are seeing a lot less of a drop off for concerts now. A recent Brixton Academy level tour was hitting 90-95% attendance every night, which is what we would expect pre-pandemic.”
There are exceptions, of course, as the long-awaited return of live brings with it an increased competition for ticket buyers. In addition to the sheer number of events on sale, many fans are still waiting to redeem tickets purchased in 2019. Prof. Jens Michow, of Germany’s promoters’ association BDKV, said, “pre-sales for concerts in the fall of this year or even spring of next year are going very slow. There are certainly several reasons for this. On the one hand, people want to wait and see whether they can rely on concert announcements at all. Some people are still afraid of becoming infected. Others may have changed their leisure behavior during the pandemic. The industry is therefore expecting to suffer from the economic effects of the pandemic probably until the end of 2023.”  
Festivals seem to be a different story. “I’ve never seen festival sales like it,” Reid said, pointing towards Lowlands in the Netherlands, which takes place Aug. 19-21, and sold out within minutes. Reid was specifically referring to new sales. “That’s all I look at because a lot of stuff rolled over. But net-net new ticket sales have been exceptional,” he said. 
To avoid congesting the market even further, a few big artists have moved their European dates to 2023 and beyond. Justin Bieber’s “Justice World Tour,” for instance, which just kicked off in the U.S., only lands on European shores in January 2023, launching with two nights at Amsterdam’s Ziggo Dome. 
Reid said, “the outlook for stadium traffic and outdoor artists is spectacular. Looking at 2023 and into 2024, the only restriction will be the availability of stadiums, there’s so many shows out there.”
Bieber will make one stop in Europe this year, though, at Sziget Festival in Hungary, which just announced the singer as a headliner on its Aug. 10-15 bill that also features Calvin Harris, Arctic Monkeys, Dua Lipa, Tame Impala, Sam Fender, Steve Aoki, Nina Kraviz, Kings of Leon, and many more. Sziget usually counts more than half-a-million visitors entering the festival site across one week. Early-bird presales for this year’s edition sold out and the phase-one general sale just opened. Another major festival in Europe that has already sold all available 146,000 multi-day and single-day tickets is the aforementioned Rock Werchter in Belgium, June 30-July 3.
There are also success stories of smaller festivals, like the 5,500-capacity Southport Weekender in England. Kicking off the UK festival season, the long-running celebration of house, disco and R&B will celebrate its 53rd edition March 18-20. Festival founder Alex Lowes said, “What we have seen is our sales going back up again at a crazy level, so us selling out the Southport Weekender almost two months before we open our doors is fantastic.” Its sister festival, SunceBeat in Croatia, is selling well, too, according to Lowes, who said, “Consumer confidence is back, and the biggest difference is that it feels sustained too, like this time nothing will happen to knock this off course – people are buying tickets again and already the buzz is back. For two years the festival industry has been at a breaking point – the entire ecosystems that support events like ours and hundreds of others – and finally it feels like we have got a good year ahead of us.”
More than half (53%) of all festivals in the UK above a 5,000 capacity did not take place in 2021, according to data from the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF). At this year’s Independent Festival Congress in Bristol, AIF CEO Paul Reed said in his opening speech: “We may be emerging from the shadow of the pandemic, but this year will not be a case of ‘back to business as usual’ without critical support for festival organizers.” He said the UK industry was “facing a perfect storm in many ways,” having to deal with a diminished supply chain, loss of skilled workforce, 20-30% increase in costs across the board and “a government-backed insurance scheme that simply isn’t fit for purpose despite our best efforts.” 
Moran acknowledged that supply chain issues mean “costs are increasing, and it is presenting some challenges in the summer,” but added that this was “as much a knock-on effect of Brexit as of the impact of COVID.”
Bodies and associations representing the live sector are busy lobbying government, highlighting the incredible value live music adds to the lives of people as well as the economies of countries. UK trade body LIVE is asking for tax reliefs for the foreseeable future. In Germany, a federation of the country’s six major promoters and events associations is asking that all aid packages are extended until the end of the year. And since insurance companies won’t be selling policies against pandemic risks anymore, promoters need a different kind of reassurance that’ll allow them to plan events with long lead times.
Most importantly, according to Michow, events need to be able to open without restrictions soon. If all of that can be provided, the future indeed looks bright, and, according to Reid, “The longer-term view is even better. It feels like this business has stellar years ahead from the end of this year. I’d be hanging around.”
Please note this magazine went to press the day Russia invaded Ukraine, which will impact Eastern European markets and which Pollstar will report on in next week’s issue.