Can Indie Promoters Survive the Coronavirus Crisis?

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Stadium: iStock

Promoters without Live Nation's leverage face serious challenges.

As the coronavirus forces a wave of concert cancellations, one group is especially vulnerable to the upheaval: independent concert promoters who lack the resources and scale of giants Live Nation and AEG.

“It has the potential to really hurt a lot of people in the industry and drive some out of business,” says independent Canadian promoter Jim Cressman who has been in the business for a number of years.. The consultants and staging companies that support the indie music business are already struggling, he adds.

The past decade has already been difficult for promoters who stayed independent while Live Nation went on an unprecedented growth spree fueled by over 100 acquisitions since 2010. During the same period, its smaller rival, AEG, bought significant stakes in indie powerhouses like The Bowery Presents and Australia’s Frontier Touring, leaving less space in the market for companies that remained indie to grow and thrive.

The coronavirus will only add to the existing pressure, according to veteran dance promoter “Disco Donnie” Estopinal, who says some indies have taken on so much debt that a sudden rash of cancellations could push them over the edge. “If a long-standing event like South by Southwest can face devastation from a cancellation, it’s not hard to see how other promoters wouldn’t find themselves in the same boat,” he says. Like the company behind SXSW, many indies depend disproportionately on one or a few events.

Indie promoters also worry that major talent agencies could further tighten their contracts in a way that could force their companies -- many of whom are already required to pay the artist’s entire fee before announcing a lineup -- to take on even more risk. “More agencies are adding contracts language that includes reimbursement for the artist’s costs,” including airfare, production elements and even canceled catering, says Estopinal.

One positive sign: Ticketmaster and smaller ticketing firms report that consumers are still buying. Boris Patronoff, CEO of See Tickets North America, one of the largest ticketing companies that works with indie promoters in the United States, notes that sales for events over 60 days away have even picked up.

“We have had a number of big on-sale events in the last week that did well because they’re later in the year,” he says. That’s good news, especially for the bulk of indie promoters with events that don’t start until mid- to late summer.

“Once we get through this, the pent-up demand to get out and see a show will lead to a spike in sales,” says Cressman. “Not every promoter will be able to make it through, but those that do stand a chance of coming out stronger."

This article originally appeared in the March 14, 2020 issue of Billboard.

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