– EXIT hosted a panel on the return of live.
Speakers included Maria May (CAA), Suzi Green (The Back Lounge), Eric van Eerdenburg (Lowlands Festival), Dušan Kovacevic (EXIT), and moderator Gideon Gottfried (Pollstar).
EXIT festival hosted a panel on the return of live in Europe, Feb. 24. Most European countries had just lifted restrictions on social gatherings, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the same day stifled any optimism that had emerged.
Speakers included Maria May (Agent, CAA), Suzi Green (Tour Manager, founder, The Back Lounge), Eric van Eerdenburg (Director, Lowlands Festival), Dušan Kovacevic (Founder EXIT Festival), and moderator Gideon Gottfried (Pollstar). While not losing sight of business, the panelists reminded everyone that this was still a people’s business, and that maintaining the well-being of its artists, crews, and fans was as paramount as making sure governments understood how strong this industry really was.
Because new of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had just broke on the day of the panel, it had still been hard to make sense of the unfolding events. But Maria May summed up the feelings of all panelists by saying, “I do want to send a massive amount of solidarity to all our friends and partners in Ukraine, because I can’t imagine what it must be like today.”
The session the kicked off by taking apart the inconsistency of COVID restrictions, which have been making life particularly hard for the events sector. Eric van Eerdenburg was part of the Unmute Us protests that saw more than 70,000 people from the cultural sector demonstrate in cities across the Netherlands last September. He’s also been on the forefront of Fieldlabs, which conducted scientific studies to find out how events could take place safely in times of coronavirus.
EVERT ELZINGA/ANP/AFP via Getty Images – Party-goers present their health pass as they arrive at the club Bitterzoet in Amsterdam, Sept. 25, 2021.
The live music sector has been hit with stricter COVID requirements than other economic sectors, where crowds gather, even though there’s no evidence for the efficacy of this approach.
The results, just like others from Spain, Germany, and the U.K., showed that live music events pose no greater risk of transmission than other sectors of the economy that bring together large crowds. At press time, the Netherlands still required vaccinated people to get an additional test if they wanted to get into events with a standing capacity of more than 500, a requirement that’s supposed to drop March 15.
“A recent scientific report said [testing] doesn’t slow down contamination,” said van Eerdenburg, “these are renowned scientific researchers from a big university, who would normally you be taken very seriously. There’s millions of people going to schools and universities and kindergartens. Everybody’s in supermarkets without a mouth piece. The whole country is open, but in places with a capacity bigger than 500, where you can’t be seated, everybody still has to test. It’s useless.”
Receiving the green light based on scientific evidence would give this industry planning security. Governments would lose the ability to shut down and reopen the sector on short notice in case of another pandemic, which Kovacevic said was sure to happen again. He said he spent about 90% of his time in 2021 lobbying government, and only 10% working on his festival.
“What really struck me is how silent the music industry was overall,” he said, “there is a need to understand that the global music industry is probably larger than most governments in the world [combined]. Just imagine the influence. When you combine all the socials of every musician in the world, we are strong. We need to understand our power and find a way to unite that. And the next time somebody decides that sports can go on, but music cannot, there’ll be a force that will say, ‘no, can’t do!'”
EXIT photo team 2021 – “Gatherings of like minded people, rituals, have always been part of humankind,” said van Eerdenburg.
Fighting for EXIT was also a “fight for our right to gather,” said Kovacevic.
Maria May has been engaged in campaigns calling for more music industry support from the British government during the pandemic. She was quite surprised herself to learn that the music industry contributed more to the national GDP than the car industry. “For the last 20 years we’ve been really resilient. We’ve made lots of money, we’ve not relied on governments. It’s kind of uncool to engage with governments in a rock and roll world, isn’t it, but in some cases we need to. As Dušan said, this could happen again, and we need to have them on our side,” she explained.
“We should be building back up with the support of our governments, we should have investment in this amazing industry that we’re working in and have created. I’m pretty political, I love stirring the pot, and challenging everybody. But as an industry we’re very apathetic. We need to wise up, not worry about being political and realize that engaging with government is part of our process as a business,” May continued.
She said the sports sector showed how it was done, to which van Eerdenburg responded, “a lot of people in government think sport is healthy, and rock and roll is just drugs, sex and booze.” But May pointed out that “anyone that’s buying alcohol at these gigs is paying tax to the government. We need to reframe this. There’s a lot of good stuff that everybody in our community is doing in the areas of mental health, drug rehabilitation, diversity, green issues. We’re ambassadors for best practice, we need to talk about our skill sets, and what we’re bringing to our economies.
FERDY DAMMAN/AFP via Getty Images – Eric van Eerdenburg (right) shows Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte the site of “A Campingflight to Lowlands Paradise”, in Biddinghuizen, The Netherlands, Aug. 18, 2019.
The panel talked about the importance of making politics understand the cultural and economic importance of social gatherings.
“People thinking about dance and rock and roll music with an old mindset, they’re not seeing what’s really happening out there with a lot of clean living, and very aware young people, who care about the planet and about each other. Our audiences are our power. We need to get this across to not only protects our business, but to protect our culture.”
There are aspects to the music business that cannot be measured in numbers. Fighting for EXIT meant more to Kovacevic than fighting for a festival business. “It was also the fight for our right to gather. With all the social networks, with all the metaverses, music will be one of the few live gatherings that will prevail. Contact between people is a crucial aspect of health, there is a need to investigate it, and to get experts on board that advocate this.”
Which is just what van Eerdenburg is working on: “Gatherings of like minded people, rituals, have always been part of humankind. I’m trying to find people that measure the vibe.” He’s planning to include sociologists, psychologists, but also some “mad scientists” that won’t find a request to measure the aura of a crowd weird. “I found some scientists, who are experimenting with stuff, and I’m trying to invite them to Lowlands this year.” Kovacevic approved: “People have a frequency,” he said, “lockdowns decrease the frequency, events increase the frequency, it’s our best measure for liveliness.”
– Concert Halls have been mostly empty for a long time.
As things begin to open back up, it’s the perfect time to think about how the restart can take place in a sustainable way.
What about the people working behind the scenes? They had an opportunity to share their feelings during Suzi Green’s Back Lounge meetings for touring crew and artists (with the wider industry welcome to join). Green recalled, “We’ve had a couple of sessions that ended up being about why we work in this industry. The money isn’t that great, travel’s all right, you don’t get to see a lot of the places, though. What is it about the people that have stuck it out and are still here and waiting to go back to work and haven’t given up?
“And it’s that tribal thing, that feeling of being a part of something, those moments of clarity, when the show is going on and the crowd’s going wild. It looks amazing, and you’ve had some little part in that. I found it quite emotional hearing these people behind the scenes, not even people on the stage, talking about why this industry is so important and what live music provides.”
EXIT photo team 2021 – David Guetta headlined EXIT 2021.
Had the mayor of Novi Sad declined the festival’s licence, people would have organized their own festival in the city’s streets.
The Back Lounge brought the full range of emotions people experienced over the past two years to light: the existential threat of losing your source of income, the identity-crisis one may experience after such a long time of not being able to follow one’s calling, doubts about your own skill set after two years of not having stood behind a mixing desk, not loading in or out, not performing. As the coronavirus crisis dragged on, many people’s spirits sank lower and lower.
But something interesting happened, as well: “Most people who work in this industry are away a large part of the year and often don’t see their families. They have created some kind of existence, where their home life is fairly non-existent. Suddenly, they’re at home and starting to realize why home isn’t quite so bad and scary after all. Facing up to those responsibilities is something else,” Green explained.
And she continued, “We ran a call around April last year, jokingly calling it Stockholm Syndrome, you know, the phenomenon when you fall in love with your captor. Because as lockdowns started to come to an end, and we were starting to head out again, it was really making people anxious. They got used to their bubble at home.”
So, for many, Freedom Day in the UK became very much about leaving their homes and families again, and not everyone chose the job. “I wish I knew how many crew have left the industry, we think it might be about a third in the UK, which is unbelievable. And we don’t know how many will come back when it looks like work has become more stable. It’s been a real mental health journey for a lot of people.”
Green is a big advocate of remembering one’s own mental health, particularly now that live is opening back up. A lot of players in the game have made it clear that they intend to return with a vengeance in an attempt to make up for business lost. Green is sure that a lot of people will head into burnout.
“People are desperate to work, desperate to earn money back, trying to say yes to everything, because they’re not sure what’s going to fall away. It’s so competitive out there, there’s so many tours looking to head out. There’s only so many festival slots, there’s only so many venues, there’s only so many crew, there’s less suppliers, less kit. I think it’s going to be a real jostling for position. I worry for the amount of work people will take on in an effort to try and replace what they’ve lost,” Green explained.
EXIT photo team 2021 – The crowd at EXIT Festival 2021.
Human contact is a health factor.
May, who is also dealing with the logistical challenges of Brexit, can already see it unfolding. She said, “I had this altruistic view that we’d come back, and everybody would be working together symbiotically, and we’d be booking diverse lineups, and thinking about green issues, and there would be no agent bullshit going on. Oh, how wrong I was.
“People are absolutely desperate to make money, and to not think about the consequences, not only to themselves, but to others. Some of the stuff I see going on is a bit mad. I’m already feeling the burnout, having spent two years getting my life back. The pace is challenging, and I’m older, and I can see a lot of people around me that are just working flat out to book as many shows as possible, get the summer running, despite all of the stuff that we have to go through to even make a show happen.
“So, I would agree with Suzi: I am concerned not only about the amount of people that we’ve lost, but the amount of people that we might actually need to get in because people might just be like, ‘this is too much, too stressful at the moment.’
“We’re about six months away from drawing back the people we need to be able to run at full capacity, in my opinion. We’re still in that transitional phase of bringing the business back and having everything running as it did – with perfection in some respects. We were streamlined. People need to get used to that again, that’s why we’re seeing lots of silly mistakes being made, lots of double bookings, everyone’s in a rush. Maybe everyone needs to just take a little breath for a second, and see that it’s all going to happen. It’s all going to be okay.”
– “What exactly are we going to push ourselves through in the next 12 months?”
Amongst other things, Suzi Green’s seminars aim at making sure no one pushes themselves too hard.
Slowing down to take a breath is a personal choice, and one not many seem to be willing to make. “I think, behind banking, we are in the most competitive business in the world,” said van Eerdenburg, “I already had a cancellation of a confirmed show, because somebody else offered more for the same day.
“The high pressure cooker of ultra capitalism will bring back the competitiveness really soon. It’s the way our business is structured, and I don’t know, who’s the one to break the chain. I guess it’s the promoter saying, ‘fuck you, I won’t book it for that price.’ But there’s always a fool offering more, right? People are tempted. Well, I’m gonna break some chains this year.”
Kovacevic remained hopeful that the solidarity shown by all parts of this business during the pandemic would continue. “Most of the people realized how interdependent we all are, that there are no artists if there are no festivals, and therefore no agents and managers. If the return is to succeed, everybody involved needs to be mindful. Of course there’ll be issues, but let’s make it happen! Maintaining some of that solidarity that we shared during the pandemic will be important not just to bringing back the industry, but also making it stronger than it was,” he explained.
Green, too, liked the sound of the word solidarity. “I want to say the same but in a slightly different way,” she said, “I think we have to pace ourselves, I think we have to look out for each other, I think we’ve got to be kind to ourselves and kind to each other, and maybe just a little bit more forgiving. This industry could certainly use being a little bit softer, in some ways. And that’s about community, creating relationships, and working with each other.”
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images – Fans enjoy a non-distanced music event at Sefton Park in Liverpool, England, May 2, 2021.
The outdoor gig for 5,000 people, organized by Festival Republic, was part of the UK’s Events Research Programme, which so far shows no substantial risk of virus transmissions at large-scale live events.
Once or twice a panelist apologized for saying something too “hippie” or “spiritual,” but that’s just because talks in this industry are usually very materialistic and ignorant of the human element in all of it. May said, for non-materialistic values to reach all parts of the touring value chain, it needed to start at the top.
“It’s about the people at the top extolling these values and teaching the people beneath them about the right way of doing business, and unfortunately, that’s lacking. We lack strong leadership with all of these endeavours across our whole industry, and it needs to change,” she said.
And May concluded, “attention to detail is everything. Slow down, make sure that everything you’re doing is the best quality you’re capable of. Don’t be under pressure to rush things. This business will come back, we will be working at full pelt again. It will be interesting to see what we manage to actually pull off this summer with all the problems that we face. But by 2023 we should be running at full speed.
“Support diversity across your organizations, on your lineups, look out for the people in your team that are struggling, ask if they’re okay. It’s nice to be important, but it’s important to be nice, as well.”