Touring

UK Primed to Resume Live Shows While Rest of Europe Struggles

Tim Peacock

Brits could be going to concerts as soon as this summer, but it’s still the worst of times for continental promoters facing pandemic restrictions.

LONDON — In February, when the United Kingdom suffered its third national lockdown, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the beleaguered live sector that concerts could resume after June 21 — without restrictions — if certain virus-related health conditions are met. Within days, two of the United Kingdom’s biggest festivals — the 185,000-capacity dual-site Reading and Leeds festivals headlined by Liam Gallagher, Stormzy and Post Malone, and the 70,000-capacity Creamfields — sold out their late-August dates. Since then, nearly two-thirds of British adults have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine shot, and U.K. shows scheduled for July and beyond are reporting strong ticket sales, fueling optimism that Europe’s largest touring market will at least partially reopen by mid-summer.

In the rest of Europe, however, where vaccination programs have faced delays and infection rates are on the rise, industry executives are less optimistic. France, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and Italy have either extended or introduced new restrictions as governments battle a third wave of infections. That has led to cancellations of Germany’s Rock am Ring and Hurricane festivals, France’s Hellfest and Spain’s Primavera Sound, among other events. “Large-scale touring or major festivals are going to be compromised this summer in the majority of European markets,” says Mike Greek, the co-head of Creative Artists Agency in London.

While the United Kingdom appears poised to resume full-capacity outdoor shows this summer, many other European markets will be forced to wait until at least the fall. Greek doesn’t expect indoor shows to resume in continental Europe before the end of the year, but he does expect them in the United Kingdom by September. And with most U.S. artists choosing not to tour Europe due to a paucity of tour dates and the possibility of new virus restrictions, local U.K. and European acts will take center stage as headliners.

Dieter Semmelman, CEO of Berlin-based Semmel Concerts, sees “no chance” of a return to live music events in Germany this summer and, instead, is focused on saving about 300 concerts scheduled for October through December. “It’s not a good feeling” that other markets are ahead of continental Europe, he says. “The only advantage we see in this situation is that all these full-capacity show tests will be made in the U.S., the U.K. and Israel, so our authorities will have some examples to study.”

Still, not everyone is giving up. A small number of marquee European festivals are pressing ahead with plans for July and August, including the Mad Cool Festival in Madrid, Exit in Serbia and Tomorrowland in Belgium. “We’re in full-force programming,” says Eric Van Eerdenburg, director of Lowlands Festival, which sold out its 60,000 tickets for the August event in the Dutch village of Biddinghuizen, about an hour from Amsterdam.

On Tuesday (April 20), Miloš Vučević, the Mayor of Novi Sad, Serbia, confirmed that EXIT’s 20th anniversary edition could go forward on July 8-11 — David Guetta, DJ Snake and Tyga are among the headliners — because of Serbia’s vaccination efforts. The country has fully vaccinated about 19% of its population. The festival “will be a symbol of Serbia’s victory over the pandemic,” Vučević said in a press release.

Van Eerdenburg says he was able to proceed with Lowlands due to the Dutch government’s 380 million euros ($457 million) insurance fund, which covers 80% of the costs of cultural events canceled as a result of the pandemic. “With that backing, I have the courage,” he says. “Without it, it would have been too big a risk.”

Even with the prospect of a summer free from virus restrictions in the United Kingdom, organizers there are reluctant to risk their businesses without insurance covering the cost of potential cancellations, says Paul Reed, chief executive of the Association of Independent Festivals.

U.K. touring executives fear that without insurance policies like those in the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Denmark, more promoters will be forced to cancel events in the months ahead after having already paid upfront costs to suppliers. “As it stands,” says Reed, “the majority of our members are not going to be able to go ahead in 2021 without government intervention.”

Already, some major U.K. events, including Glastonbury, Download and BST Hyde Park, have postponed to 2022, while other festivals that traditionally run between May and July, such as Isle of Wight, All Points East and Neighbourhood Weekender, have rescheduled to later in the summer.

German promoters have yet to see payments from a €2.5 billion event cancelation fund the government announced in December. While a German law allows ticket holders to seek refunds for cancelled 2020 and 2021 shows starting next January, promoters need clarity about insurance protection for cancelations by no later than June — or they might have to scrap shows in the fourth quarter as well, Semmelman says. “We need three to four months of preparation time for a restart, so we need this signal from the [government] in the next few weeks,” he says.

With a spike in new virus cases over the past month, “everything is still on hold and the insecurity has lately increased,” says Stephan Thanscheidt, CEO of Hamburg, Germany-based promoter FKP Scorpio. (On Friday a federal "emergency brake" order set in that prohibits Germans from leaving their homes after 10 p.m. in districts and cities that exceed 100 new infections per 100,000 inhabitants for three days in a row within seven days.)

With International Acts Staying Home, Domestic Artists Ready to Shine

Meanwhile, the majority of U.S. and international acts are choosing to stay home this summer rather than risk being quarantined abroad, European organizers say. “We got quite a few no’s from American acts saying, ‘We’re probably not going to make it’,” says Van Eerdenburg.

The concern over future restrictions on travel from the United States has allowed European artists to dominate this year’s Lowlands lineup, including British acts Stormzy and The Chemical Brothers, and Dutch rap group The Opposites, who are headlining the event for the first time.

In the United Kingdom, where unresolved travel issues resulting from Brexit have contributed to a higher reliance on homegrown talent, Red Light Management has lined up U.K. summer shows for British acts including Corinne Bailey Rae, The Cribs and Kaiser Chiefs, says James Sandom, the company’s U.K. managing director. While some of Red Light’s international acts will suffer, he says, “we also have British acts that do really good business in the U.K. and we will be looking to make the most of what’s possible.”

The shrinking European touring map has led some artists to charge more because they can only do a few shows. “For a number of acts we had lined up, it wasn’t viable to book them anymore unless we [tripled] the fee,” says Keith Miller, who books London’s Wide Awake festival in September and the new South Facing Festival.

To compensate for the scarcity of shows in neighboring markets, Lowlands is guaranteeing some acts extra travel and production expenses, which the performers have agreed to pay back if additional European shows get booked. Other acts have accepted a discounted fee in recognition of promoters’ financial challenges, says Van Eerdenburg. “There is a greater understanding between agents and promoters and artists that we're all in this sh-t together,” he says.

In the United Kingdom, progress on vaccinations — the country is on pace to administer at least one dose to all its adults by the end of July — has given some promoters the confidence to try launching new events, like South Facing Festival, which is scheduled for Aug. 5-29 in London’s Crystal Palace Park with a capacity of up to 8,500 people. The concert series will feature Dizzee Rascal, Supergrass and The Streets. “If everything stays on course,” says Miller, “we’ll be in good shape.”

While plans are in place for South Facing to run at a reduced capacity if required, Miller says, “Our aim is that we’ll be able to go ahead without any social distancing restrictions.”

Additional reporting by Alexei Barrionuevo