After two years of forced downtime, large parts of society still struggle to return to life as we knew it. Sectors that had to shut down are hit hardest by this, like travel and hospitality. A lot of qualified staff have left the business; new people are hard to find and don’t have the experience. Also, the live biz is returning with a vengeance. Major players as well as smaller- to medium- sized businesses struggle to find the resources and staff to counter equipment and other shortages in time for their events across Europe.
Pollstar reached out to Hilde Spille, booking agent at Paperclip Agency, talent buyer for Conincx Pop Festival and veteran of the music industry. She’s been observing unusual mishaps as well as miscommunications that wouldn’t have occurred pre-pandemic, at least not with the same frequency as they do now. We asked Spille all about the current realities of her work.
“I see a shortage of staff at venues as well as festivals,” she said. “More shows than ever are going on sale. In April, Doornroosje, a local venue here in Nijmegen, had more than two and a half times the number of shows than in April 2019, before COVID. It’s getting a bit quieter now.”
Several festivals in the Netherlands were cancelled because of poor ticket sales, some with only a month’s notice, like Brass ‘n Woods, a new event launched by a local initiative. Shows, too, including some of Spille’s own bands, sell far less tickets than one would expect, “but if you see how many more shows are going on sale, it all makes sense: the audience can’t be at two places at the same time,” she said.
Many of Spille’s agent colleagues in the Netherlands have confirmed slower-than-usual sales, however, some venue operators told her, slow sales were the exception and most shows were still doing well at the box office.
COVID isn’t out of the world. The Rolling Stones cancelled their June 13 show at Amsterdam’s Johan Cruijff Arena just hours before stage time because Mick Jagger had tested positive for COVID on the day. They had to cancel later shows, too. Shortages of staff are caused by both COVID cases among crew, as well as people leaving the business over the past two years to find new jobs – and not returning.
Spille said some venues in the Netherlands introduced a booking stop months ago, knowing there wouldn’t be enough technicians available to handle anymore. “When I look at the vacancies in the music business, most are technicians. Security agencies are also facing a staff shortage, even at Amsterdam international airport Schiphol,” she said.
Everybody is working at capacity, the workload is causing a strain on people’s mental health, and therefore performance, as many have been warning about during lockdown. Spille experienced hotel mishaps with two of her touring acts, which would not happen in a normal year. “In one instance, the venue booked the hotels. While they did get an online confirmation, they never got an email confirmation, and never followed up. So, on the night after the show, the band wanted to check in, but there was no room available.
To remain in business, many promoters were forced to raise ticket prices. “I actually overheard youngsters on the train discussing not going to one of the major festivals because it had become too expensive,” Spille said, adding, “The festival we book, Conincx Pop, is a free festival, so there were no ticket prices to raise. But the stage got 35% more expensive than it was before COVID. It’s the festival’s 38th edition, so they’ve been around for a while and they have a longstanding relationship with that stage provider. Yet, they might need to shop for a new stage because it’s becoming too expensive. And it’s not just equipment. I see it everywhere, drinks are getting more expensive, and we haven’t even talked about energy. All the generators run on gasoline,” she said.
Spille is not one to give up easily. Like many of her colleagues Pollstar had the privilege of speaking with over these past two years, she emphasizes that this business is used to dealing with uncertainties. But she also acknowledges that there are more uncertainties than ever before, and, thanks to this industry’s resilience, no one yet knows where its breaking point is.
Ending on a positive note, she said, “We had and still have a very busy period, and that’s good. It’s so great to see people enjoying concerts again, and remember what you booked the shows for, which wasn’t to reschedule them over and over again, but to see the show happening. So that’s good.”