‘It’s A New Reality’: Talking Shop With Alter Art’s Mikolaj Ziolkowski

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Alter Art director Mikolaj Ziolkowski after addressing his crowd at Open’er 2023. (Picture by Marta Kacprzak)

Pollstar reached out to Mikolaj Ziolkowski, founder and director of Alter Art, promoter of Poland’s biggest festivals, including Open’er, Orange Warsaw, and Kraków Live, to talk about the state of the business. This year’s successful edition of Open’er marked the true end of the pandemic for Ziolkowski and his team: no artist cancellations due to illness, no travel issues due to lockdowns, just the, dare one say, normal obstacles a festival promoter has to always overcome.

He has no illusions about returning to business as it used to be up until 2019. “It’s a new reality,” he said, which came with “a few main challenges.” Some of them disproportionately affected the festival world, he said, particularly the massive price increases across the entire supply chain. “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 explained. 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.”

This year’s atmosphere at Open’er. Creating a cultural city in a field each year presents promoters with enormous costs. (Picture by Piotr Tarasewicz)

Some elements of the supply chain went up 50% to 60% and more year-on-year, even doubling in some cases, according to Ziolkowski. Dealing with these increased costs “is probably the biggest challenge for festivals over the next years,” he said, much more so than finding proper staff and suppliers. And while he acknowledged that most industries had to deal with price hikes, the events business by its very nature was hit particularly hard.

Another challenge comes from within the events sector itself, posed by the slew of headline artists choosing to extensively tour stadiums, often times setting up shop for multiple days in one building. While 2023 was somewhat of an anomaly because of the accumulation of shows – new and postponed ones – it was worth observing how these show affect the spending power of fans and availability of headliners. “15 stadium shows in a big European city across two months is something new,” said Ziolkowski, adding, “overall it’s good, because it makes the whole industry bigger. But it’s also changing the architecture of the entire business, and we are not yet sure, how it will affect the whole market.”

Ziolkowski explained, “if people have to decide on one ticket to spend their money on, the top acts will of course benefit and set new records. But what happens to the clubs, the small and mid-sized festivals? In 2023, the top end of the market is doing fine. But the middle section, a very important part of our industry, is experiencing trouble.”

Old challenges remain, as well, such as artist fees, “a never-ending story,” according to Ziolkowski, who acknowledged that artists fees and rising touring and production costs were closely linked, as most artists invest their income into their shows. “It’s much more costly for the artist than it was in 2019, and it’s affecting a lot of great artists,” he said. Festival in particular, many of which see it as their responsibility to put a diverse lineup of culturally – not just economically – relevant artists on display, could end up not being able to afford relevant artists” For the promoters,” Ziolkowski said, “it’s difficult to pay such fees for artists, who may be very important because of their musical contribution and how good they are, if the top acts are taking everything.”

Fans at Open’er 2023. (Picture by Ewa Plonka)

One of the ways to offset costs would be to raise ticket prices. And while Ziolkowski acknowledged that there are many in the business, who believe there was still lots of scope to charge fans more money, he believes “there is a red line, and I have to say that I can see it this year, especially with festivals. There may be some wiggle room with the headline shows, because of the loyal fanbases, but for festivals there is a red line. We’ve, of course, have a big fan base, as well, but it’s a different story. Plus, there’s a high number of festivals, strong competition, so we have to really care about what the ticket prices are.”

“Because the fourth element of 2023,” Ziolkowski continued, “is the generally quite unstable, economic situation. Depending on the country, you’re looking at economic crises. The cost of living is much higher than before pandemic, inflation is huge. People are less able to spend their money.” In 2022, many fans may have thrown caution to the wind, because they’ve had to wait for so long to go see a live show, but this year, people seem to be much more cautious about what they spend their hard-earned money on. Only when targeting a demographic than can still be considered rather affluent, Ziolkowski said, was there still some room to somewhat increase ticket prices, “but not if you’ve got a younger audience. And you don’t want to lose that audience, because it is the life blood of festivals.” They are also the concertgoers and VIP-ticket buyers of the future. Their love story with music may start on a festival field. If they cannot afford a ticket however, they will go for gaming or something else matching their budgets.

“Of course,” Ziolkowski continued, you have to find a way to cover the costs, but there need to be a balance. And sometimes it may be better to cut back on production, that to put off your young audience.” He pointed to the main sports leagues in Europe, particularly soccer, who are struggling to maintain a young audience. There’s so many things to do, so much entertainment to choose from, if your offer isn’t enticing, which includes an affordable price, you’ll lose them. Said Ziolkowski, “we should invest in a younger audience with the proper price, because they are our clients and partners for decades to come.”

Open’er’s main stage. (Picture by Ewa Plonka)

“It’s not an easy business, it never has been. There’s always something, if not the lack of headliners, then it’s fees. If it’s not the fees, it’s the weather. I still think that we’re at the beginning of wider changes to the industry, which is also connected to what Gen Z wants, which is, generally speaking, much more comfort and luxury. 20, 30 years ago, fans were happy to sleep in a tent in a muddy field, which is less and less the case. Now, the new generations are expecting much more comfort, which is okay, but also quite challenging if you’re setting up a festival in the field.” The same generation, of course, cannot really afford all the luxury they feel entitled to, so promoters need to come up with extra-creative ways of enhancing the experience on site.

“I do not expect the next years to become any easier,” Ziolkowski said, and he raised one final point of concern, which pertains to “the concentration of capital and power,” which was “even more pronounced after COVID than it used to be. I’m independent, which is quite rare these days. The next big question in the game of live is, how diverse the festival scene can remain, and how it will develop under conditions of extreme concentration of capital. This is probably the big topic to discuss.”

And he concluded, “So, 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. We are seeing it in 2023, if we go through the main events, they’ve all been doing fine, from very good, to good, but generally fine. But if the scale of your festival does not allow you to build on the aforementioned things because of the costs, if you’re a regular mid-sized event that hasn’t built a reputation independent of the lineup, it will become difficult to break even. My feeling is that 50% will continue to do well, while 50% won’t, even if they are considered great festivals. 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.”

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