Eastern Europe Focus: The Love Of Live, The Cost Of War & Everything In-Between

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EXIT had one of the most successful years in history in 2023 but is facing enormous cost increases on all fronts. (Photo courtesy EXIT)

When trying to sum up the state of business in Eastern Europe, Nick Hobbs said it best: “We’ve had some painful losses but also some successes and, on balance, we’re

According to the founder and owner of promoter and talent agency Charmenko, which operates across multiple territories in the Balkans, “the industry itself is just as engaging and challenging as it’s ever been. It still feels like a vocation, not a job. We have a very good team, a great deal of collective experience and my brain still works, but really I don’t get more than weekends where I can switch off; something I’m working on — the biggest challenge of them all.”

The past three years have been a lot, not just for the pros working in Eastern Europe but worldwide. What makes running a live business even more challenging in the East, though, are the incredibly high rates of inflation in some markets, and the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine. There’s good news, as well, and in this inaugural Eastern Europe Focus, we’ve tried to capture all of it.

It is hard to focus on business when a war is waging in your country. According to Vlad Yaremchuk, booker of Ukraine’s Atlas Weekend festival, “No one is thinking about making money at the moment. As long as you can find a way to sustain yourself somehow and make your ends meet while using your skills or talent to help the country, you are happy. Any ambition is set aside for now, it’s about being as useful as you can be.”

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Music Saves UA is a nonprofit fundraising initiative created by Ukrainian Association of Music Events. (Screenshot musicsavesua.com)

Most of Yaremchuk’s work these days is with Music Saves UA, a nonprofit fundraising
initiative created by Ukrainian Association of Music Events to provide immediate humanitarian help to those who need it. “We collaborate with festivals, music organizations, venues. Luckily, there are grant and funding opportunities available for such activity, so we have salaries which make it possible to use 100 percent of the money raised to save lives without worrying about having bread on the table the day after,” he explained.

Any plans for Atlas Festival are on hold for now. Yaremchuk said, “We have a big team,
so eventually it became impossible to pay people since we make no money, and all our projects since the full-scale invasion were charity ones.”

While there is no international touring happening, there remains a local scene. “Artists are trying to play shows, and every show serves as a fundraising effort for an important cause. It’s almost impossible to buy a ticket or anything in Ukraine without a portion of the money going to help us defend ourselves,” said Yaremchuk.

“Donations, percentages from ticket purchases, charity auctions, and raffles at concerts, you name it. There are a lot of events and concerts taking place all the time, some weekends come packed with a lot of options. We even have some of the first festivals taking place again, treading the ground for how it can be done when Russian rockets or drones can come at any minute.”

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Festivalgoers arriving on day three of Sziget Festival 2023 on the Island of Freedom in Budapest, Hungary, Aug. 13. (Photo by Joseph Okpako/WireImage)

One of the events collaborating with Music Saves UA is Hungary’s biggest festival, Sziget. “We invite Ukrainian artists, that’s how we as a festival can help, by giving them the opportunity to play, but also the space to raise their voice and keep this terrible aggression of Russia on the public’s mind. Sziget has always been taking a stand for various causes, one of them is definitely peace,” said festival boss Tamás Kádár.

A direct neighbor to the warring nation, Sziget used to welcome at least 5,000 guests
from Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, a number that has dropped to below 1,000. “But there is also a personal layer,” Kádár said, “I have a lot of friends in Ukraine. Seeing
this aggression coming from Russia was really hard to understand in the first couple of days. I’ve never experienced war so close to us involving friends in my lifetime. It’s really something to digest. The most frightening thing is that [people] somehow get used to this war.”

Since Russia’s failed invasion of Kyiv last year, the war has mostly been waged in the
eastern part of Ukraine. In the surrounding countries of Hungary, Romania, the Czech
Republic and Poland, life seemingly goes on as normal. Guns N’ Roses just performed at
stadiums in the Romanian and Hungarian capitals and both cities are also on the itinerary of Coldplay’s 2024 European dates.

But it’s not just stadiums. Måneskin all but sold out Budapest Arena in Hungary (14,008 tickets, $765,898 gross, according to Pollstar Boxoffice), and O2 Arena in Prague, Czech Republic (13,680 tickets, $981,471 gross) in May. Eros Ramazotti sold out Arena Sofia in Bulgaria in April (11,506, $623,531). Charmenko, who co-promotes both acts in the Balkans, also had success with Iron Maiden, Tom Jones, Sum 41, Wardruna, Ludovico Einaudi, Hurts, Imagine Dragons, Florence + The Machine, 50 Cent, and Herbie Hancock.

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Sum 41 performing Opatija, Coratia, in June. The top acts are generally doing fine in the Eastern European markets. (Picture by Simone di Luca)

The regions outside the country stricken by war are considered safe by most artists and agents, Kádár said. Sziget is a case in point, boasting another incredible lineup led by Billie Eilish, Lorde, Macklemore, Mumford & Sons, Florence + The Machine, Imagine Dragons and David Guetta. The festival, of course, has a 30-year history of established relationships and built-up trust, which helps. But one-off shows are selling well, too, according to Kádár, and not just in Hungary.

These are all examples from the top of the list, of course, and as Hobbs confirmed, “I
don’t like to generalize but the top end of the market — stadium tours — seems in rude
health. But we have very restricted access to those as those acts are mostly controlled by Live Nation, with whom we cooperate where we can. For everything else, it’s up and down with a lot of variation from country to country. Romania is having a particularly bad year, probably more because of market saturation than the economy.

“Our main successes this year have been in the Baltic States, Czechia, Slovakia, Greece, Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary and one exception that proves the rule in Romania. Poland, Serbia and Turkey have been middling for us.”

Maciek Laski of Atlas Arena in Lodz, Poland, said 2023 is “similar to pre-pandemic
years in terms of sales and new bookings. One difference that is clearly visible, is the fact that a growing number of artists are booking and selling out arenas.”

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Sabaton brought their “The Tour To End All Tours” to Poland’s Atlas Arena in May. (Picture by Artur Kraszewski)

This year, the building hosted Andre Rieu (10,351 tickets, $800,522 gross), Pantera,
Sabaton, Eros Ramazotti, Franz Ferdinand, Tom Odell and Avril Lavigne’s first concert in Poland in 14 years, among others. Lois Tomlinson, Il Divo, and 50 Cent are coming up this year, and Depeche Mode and Niall Horan are already scheduled for 2024.

The biggest challenge currently is growing operational costs “due to inflation that struck all the countries across Europe. Rising prices of energy carriers are another major factor that contributes to higher operational costs,” Laski said.

EXIT festival group founder Dušan Kovačević concurred rising costs is “the biggest
issue. Last year, we had around 1 million euros more costs than the year before,” he said. “This year, the increase was not as big as the difference between 2021 and 2022, but it was still substantial. While we managed to keep our income strong, our overall results depend on keeping costs down, which is extremely hard.”

Despite all of that, 2023 marked EXIT festival’s best year yet in terms of revenues, not profit, and its second-best year in ticket sales. The number of sponsorships reached a record high as well. In 2022, the Serbian-based EXIT group promoted 26 events in 11 countries.

“Some are big, some are smaller,” said Kovačević, “but it really makes EXIT one of the biggest independent festival groups in the world. For us, it’s very important to stay independent. We are not planning to sell out to an investment fund or anyone else. It is my personal belief that staying independent will be the key to maintaining the edge as a brand going forward. Once financial sheets are the ultimate guide of the festival, you can’t really control and nurture the spirit and the soul of the festival.”

It is a spirit Kovačević and his team plan to spread across the world in the future. First up was an expansion into South America, Argentina to be specific, as Kovacevic revealed exclusively to Pollstar.

An atmospheric moment at Open’er 2023, Poland’s major festival, organized by independent promoter Alter Art, led by Mikolaj Ziolkowski. (Picture by Piotr Tarasewicz)

Mikolaj Ziolkowski of Alter Art, promoter of three of Poland’s biggest events, took the same line, “while I do not expect that [being a festival promoter] will become any less challenging in the next years, I’m sure that one thing won’t change, which is that the best festivals with the best programming, the best artists, the best infrastructure, and the best service will be more or less fine. It will be challenging, and delivering the unique spirit of a festival will become even more challenging, if we don’t want to make too many commercial moves, if we want to represent the festival values, if we want diverse lineups. Only a truly independent spirit can guarantee that.”

He explained that festivals were disproportionately affected by the rising supply chain costs: “The nature of a festival is such that we’re very often building an entire city of culture inside a field, where there is usually nothing,” he said. A lot more structures had to be set up, and more equipment gathered, even compared to the biggest touring productions. Staff, one of the biggest cost factors, had to be hired for much longer periods than at one-off concerts, etc. “Of course venues are facing more expenses, too,” he emphasized, “but the festival setup exacerbates the problem.”

All professionals confirmed that there was limited scope to raise ticket prices in order to offset the rising costs. While EXIT slightly increased ticket prices, it was very hard to do in the local markets, said Kovačević, “because people can’t afford the price levels you see in western markets.”

The crowd enjoying a show at Sofia Live Fest in Bulgaria. (Picture by Eli Deli)

Ruth Koleva of Bulgaria’s Sofia Live Fest confirmed, “To offset these costs, we have had to make some adjustments to our pricing, but we are doing our utmost to keep ticket prices as affordable as possible. Economically, our region is below the general EU standard, we are deeply aware of the financial impact the pandemic has had on many of our patrons, and we want to keep live music accessible to everyone. That said, the rising costs for artist fees have become unbearable for many promoters.”

Laski said Atlas Arena in Poland is “proactively reducing fixed costs, exploring alternative energy sources and moving towards green solutions,” to counter the rising prices. Another expenditure vendors are trying to pass on to clients are payroll expenses.

“The people that are still in business are asking for much more money,” said Kovačević, recalling one case, where he saw no alternative but to cease a business relationship with a long-standing partner. “We had a situation with a hotel we’ve been working with for 20 years. This year, they charged us 100 percent more, double the price than last year, so we refused to work with them.”

One of the reasons the remaining professionals, crew and staff can charge a lot more is the brain drain that occurred during COVID lockdowns. Some of the best in the business have left and aren’t returning. Carl Martin, an industry veteran from the UK, and founder of the Event Production Forum East (EPFE) in Budapest, Hungary, relayed some of the conversations he’s been having with colleagues in the lead-up to EPFE in November. They told him that cancellations and unavailability of crew were the main reason events didn’t go ahead as planned these days.

“Quantity is an issue for crew, cleaning and catering. But quality is an even bigger problem. Due to the lack of proper staff quality, the speed of service is decreasing,” he said, adding that education and finding the next generation of live professionals will be one of the key topics at this year’s EPFE.

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The demand for heritage rock continues to be strong in Bulgaria. “People prefer to go in for nostalgia rather than taking a chance on a new act,” Boyan Pinter, founder of Spike, told Pollstar. (Picture by Elena Nenkova)

Finding and developing local music professionals is also one of the key motifs of Spike, a Bulgarian music showcase and conference launched in 2021. According to co-founder Boyan Pinter its mission is “to educate and inform artists, as well as developing and established music professionals, which is leading to better strategic choices in partners, services, and sources of information.”

He expects the demand for local talent to grow considerably in the next several years.
As an American citizen who’s lived in Bulgaria for 10 years, he’s seen the biggest improvements in the area of suppliers and rental services. “Companies are investing in high-quality PA systems and lighting rigs to match even the most demanding of tech riders,” he said, which was one way of making sure international tours would feel comfortable coming to Bulgaria.

However, buildings also need to accommodate the tech, an area where the country was still lacking, according to Pinter. “We seem to have even less venues than before [the pandemic], and the existing ones are in bad need of a face-lift. Hopefully, as audiences become more demanding of venue facilities, the companies who own them will be called to action. It remains one of our biggest challenges to date — properly matching an artist with a venue and scaling the ticket prices to match audience interest.”

Pinter added, “Bulgaria is still the poorest economy in the EU, and people have much less disposable income to spend on entertainment. There have been very few earnestly sold-out events over the past decade that I have been working here. Due to our geographical location, it is expensive to get to us versus playing a round of shows in Western and Central Europe. Our ticket prices will always be lower than those regions, and our financial offers will always follow suit. I think it would be a good exercise for agents to consider these economic facts and align their expectations accordingly if they would like to build an act on a global level. Bulgarian audiences are very loyal, not just as ticket buyers, but also on social media. Once you’ve won them over, they are yours for life.”

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Fans enjoying Open’er in Poland. (Picture by Krzysztof Szlezak).

It’s a lot to take in: rising production costs, a loss of experienced people to other markets and industries, and a war that’s waging in the neighborhood – all while still recovering from two years of lockdowns. Still, Charmenko’s Nick Hobbs won’t say “it’s harder. We’re log-rollers — continually adapting to shifting realities — and that’s the same for everyone. I can say that it ain’t getting any easier. I’d say I’m resilient but there were times when it was all a bit much – and those are the times when it’s especially lonely at the top. We laid off a bit more than a third of the team and that wasn’t pleasant; for the others, we reduced wages and hours, and that wasn’t pleasant either. As a company, we have a family ethos with the minimum of internal competition and that helped a lot, I think; everyone understood the predicament and there was a lot of mutual support. My philosophy is that everyone should be responsible for deciding their own mix of therapies and antidotes to the stresses and strains of our work – and life in general – as they go along. For some, that meant visits to a therapist; for others, it meant more time with the family; in my case, I made an album.”

The taboo around talking about mental health seems to have lifted considerably. As Lina Ugrinovska, booking agent in the Balkans, founder of the Banana & Salt Agency, and a consultant on mental health, put it, “I feel deeply grateful to witness how many individuals and companies are actively seeking a customized well-being program that addresses their specific needs and concerns. It warms my heart to see that the importance of well-being is gaining more recognition and attention in various professional settings. It reflects a collective desire to foster a healthier work environment and a greater emphasis on personal growth and development. Seeing this shift in mindset gives me hope for a future where wellbeing is at the forefront of every workplace and project.”

At the halfway mark of 2023, her “viewpoint and feeling is a mix of determination and concern. While there have been positive developments in the live entertainment industry and ticket sales, I cannot ignore the noticeable lack of people and recovery concepts in the region of Eastern Europe. The current landscape calls for a more complex and multifaceted approach to strengthen the entertainment atmosphere. I firmly believe that a comprehensive strategy is essential, one that combines creative programming, innovative recovery concepts, and collaborative efforts among industry stakeholders. This multifaceted approach is necessary to attract audiences, support emerging talent, and ensure the sustainability and growth of the live entertainment sector in Eastern Europe. The growing disparity between headlining artists and newcomers is becoming more apparent, and may not prove to be a sustainable long-term strategy in cultivating a competitive market.”

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