‘This Is Not A Business For Resting On Your Laurels’: Q’s With Nick Hobbs, Founder & Owner Charmenko

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Nick Hobbs, founder and owner of Charmenko.

Nick Hobbs is one of the best people to talk to, when trying to gage the state of play in the Balkans. For one, his company Charmenko operates across multiple territories in the region, and has been doing so successfully for many years now. Two, he’s outspoken, honest, and self-reflective, which are qualities increasingly hard to find in that combination.

He shares his views on business in the balkans, the war’s influence, the strain of these past years, as well as the current economic challenges on people’s health, and more.

Pollstar: What’s your state of mind at the half-way mark of 2023 from the perspective of a live entertainment professional? As well as from the perspective of a human being, if you care to share?
Nick Hobbs: We had an okay 2022 coming out of the pandemic, especially thanks to a sold out run with Arctic Monkeys. This year’s similar – we’ve had some painful losses but also some successes and, on balance, we’re okay. Though for one of our main clients, it’s been simply awful. And, of course, for our clients who are caught up in the effects of the Russian-Ukrainian war, the situation remains even worse.

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.

Has the war in Ukraine influenced business in the wider region for the negative?
Obviously, we immediately lost Ukraine, Belarus and Russia on Feb. 24, 2022. There were certainly serious consequences for the economies of all the countries we work in, but concert life carried on notwithstanding. There’s been a major influx of Ukrainian refugees in the Baltic States and Poland especially, and we’ve tried to help.

There’s also been a major influx of self-exiling Russian refuges in Serbia and Turkey – to the benefit of those two countries as many of the Russians who’ve chosen to leave are the most educated and entrepreneurial – though the Turkish government doesn’t get it. We recently hired an anti-war Russian promoter now living in Istanbul. I won’t work with pro-regime Russians but I’m happy to work with Russians who take a stand against the regime and war.

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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)

What’s the economy like in your main markets? Are people able, and happy, to spend money on entertainment? Maybe only on the blockbuster events?
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 mostly those acts are 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.

I enjoy the variation of working as a small multinational. I look forward to doing whatever we can to support culture in Ukraine once the damn war is over. Working again in Russia and Belarus looks, sadly, like a distant prospect at this point.

I don’t feel that we’re well-placed to talk about year to year trends – especially given that the pandemic was recent and catastrophic. I can talk about sold out shows we’ve promoted or negotiated, and they include Måneskin, Iron Maiden, Tom Jones, Wardruna, Einaudi, Hurts, Imagine Dragons, Eros Ramazzotti, Florence + The Machine, 50 Cent, and Herbie Hancock. Meaning that the right artist in the right city at the right time will be successful. But always so easy to say in hindsight. I could also talk about the flops, but that wouldn’t make me popular.

Can you observe a hesitancy to buy tickets for certain shows, maybe for smaller acts, or among a certain demographic? And have you already gotten down to the bottom of the reasons for this?
Clearly, there’s a generation of phone-lifters who consume music via TikTok and streaming platforms, and I don’t have a clue about what’s going on in their heads. I rely on the company’s youngsters to steer us through which of the zillion young acts we should risk our heard-earned capital on. We learn by observing the market, trial and error, and consulting the stats.

In, for example, Turkey, with its maybe 100% inflation and rapidly-declining currency, I don’t know why anyone would want to promote international artists at all; but anyway we’re doing it. It’s our home base, a huge market, and we feel we should. Generally, people of all ages are buying tickets, but we have to be smart about the marketing, scalings and about the acts we put on; and be very self-critical – this is not a business for resting on your laurels; we’re only as good as our last show.

What’s the state of the business like in terms of infrastructure, suppliers, and other professionals. Is the supply chain still affected, is it harder than it used to be to stage events?
Everyone says that production costs have gone up since the pandemic way more than inflation, and it’s true. Also some experienced people left the business to be replaced by less experienced people. Plus the war, plus insane weather, plus Brexit paperwork…I can’t say it’s harder because 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.

What success stories past and upcoming would you like to share, any trends you see?
We’ve developed very good relationships with several Italian artists. Sara Gigante who is our promoting head in the former Yugoslavia is Italian and I speak Italian – these things help. We also have very good relations with Sónar Barcelona. We cooperate closely with All Things Live and with Live Nation. We work happily with AEG and with Eventim. We also have good connections in France. Which is all to say that though most of our work is channeled via London and Los Angeles; these are not the only channels, and I’m keenly aware that there’s more openness to non Anglo-American acts than there ever has been. I’m dubious about where contemporary pop and rock is heading but at least that’s a positive trend.

What’s your general outlook for the near and far – as in five years down the line – future for this business?
The live format will be similar to what it is now, though I’d like to see a resurrection of intimate concerts where the artist relies on their performative ability and quality of their music to reach an audience rather than a visual and aural blunderbuss. I think there’s a great deal to be done – and urgently – to reimagine tours much more sustainably by working with local productions to avoid having fleets of trucks and buses driving up and down Europe’s motorways. Initiatives like Lowlands having its own solar power station are great, I think. And private flights have to dramatically shrink. The continent lurches from one climate disaster to another yet touring carries on as if there were no tomorrow. Madness!

Keeping the show on the road has cost a lot of effort and energy over the past year, and was achieved overcoming some of the most adverse circumstances this business has faced in recent times. How did you make sure your teams maintained high spirits, how do you make sure your team doesn’t overwork itself, and is there time now for a conscious approach to things like mental health, or is everybody just caught up in the race for the next big show again?
Like everyone, we winged the pandemic. I did my best to consult with international colleagues about how on earth to run a concert business with no concerts for no-one knew how long. 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.

Anything you’d like to add?
The concert is, in its essence, a coming together; a communion of the like-minded – the antithesis of AI blandness on a solitary screen. That essence tends to get lost in the so-called “show.” Not many get this right, Robbie Williams is one that does, I think. When I see three thousand people at a DJ gig standing, not dancing, but videoing the show on their phones to – presumably – tell their pals that they were there, I think there’s something deeply wrong.

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