International

'No More Nightlife': With Italy on Lockdown, Europe's Music Industry Enters 'Uncharted Water'

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First day of quarantine for Italy, Milan, March 9, 2020. The first day after Giuseppe Conte's announcement to quarantine the whole country, with prohibitions to leave except for strictly necessary reasons.

COVID-19 forcing thousands of live event cancelations and mounting losses as governments crack down on movement and gatherings.

MILAN — With Italy declaring a country-wide lockdown to try to stem the spread of the coronavirus, the country's live events sector has been brought to a standstill.

On Monday, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte ordered Italians to stay home and seek permission for essential travel. "No more nightlife," the prime minister said in a TV address. "We can't allow this anymore since they are occasions for contagion."

Government decrees in Italy have forced organizers to cancel more than 7,400 events since the last week of February. A decree from Conte on March 4 said that live events "of every type" would be banned until April 3.

The losses are mounting. Assomusica, Italy's national association of live music organizers and producers, estimates canceled live events will result in a loss of €10.5 million ($11.9 million) for the last week of February alone. Italy's main collecting society, SIAE, says that lost revenue that week amounted to €23 million ($26 million), with concerts accounting for €4.1 million ($4.7 million) of the total. (The society also covers movies, exhibitions, theatre, discotheques and even ballroom dancing.)

Such is the value of live music to Italian society that Claudio Ferrante, who heads Artists First, a company that represents numerous Italian artists, reckons that by the time the COVID-19 crisis is over revenue losses to the Italian music industry could reach €100 million ($113 million).

A crisis that began in mainland China has swept onto Europe's shores with abandon. Four of the top 10 countries for total infections are now in Europe: Italy, France, Spain and Germany. The impact on Italy, with more than 9,100 infections and 631 deaths (second only to China), dwarfs its neighbors, but their governments are also making moves that are impacting the music industry.

In France, the government on Sunday, following an emergency meeting, decreed that any gathering involving more than 1,000 people in closed environments was forbidden. In Spain on Tuesday, Madrid's local government followed suit with its own ban on gatherings of over 1,000 people. That followed the Madrid government's decision to close all schools for the next two weeks to try to curb the virus spread, according to Spanish media reports.

Just a few days before, French's Ministry of Health had imposed a ban on gatherings of 5,000 people. The latest, more restrictive ban reflected concerns that the virus was spreading fast in France, which had more than 1,400 confirmed cases and 30 deaths as of early Tuesday. Even France's culture minister, Franck Riester, has tested positive for the virus, according to French news reports.

The bans have affected hundreds of venues in France and "thousands of cultural events," according to Prodiss, the French live music industry association. Canceled shows include Andrea Bocelli, Maluma, Queen + Adam Lambert, Avril Lavigne and Madonna, according to the French Convention and Visitors Bureau. The Accorhotels Arena in Paris also shelved the Juste Debout hip hop dance competition.

Roberto Ricciuti/Redferns
Andrea Bocelli performs on stage at The SSE Hydro on October 20, 2019 in Glasgow, Scotland.

Other countries, including the U.K., which has 373 virus cases and six deaths, have hesitated to cancel live entertainment thus far. But conditions on the ground could soon change that stance. Germany reported its first two deaths from the virus on Monday; it has seen a spike of more than 200 reported cases since Sunday, with total infections now at 1,281.

On Tuesday, Richard Marx announced he was postponing his sold-out European tour in April, which includes two dates in London and another in Edinburgh. Marx, via his management, told fans he made the decision "to ensure the health and safety of my fans coming to the shows." Also Tuesday, Tallinn Music Week rescheduled this year's festival from March to August 26-30 over coronavirus concerns, following recommendations from the Estonian Health Board.

In Italy, Enzo Mazza, head of FIMI, which represents the country's major record labels, says that "the decision by some artists not to tour in Italy is not, as has been reported, because of ‘fears of catching the coronavirus,' but because their concert dates have been cancelled by a government decree."

Concert promoter Claudio Trotta, speaking to Billboard last week, says he is less alarmed. He runs Barley Arts, whose clients over the years have included Bruce Springsteen, Queen and Frank Zappa. "We are trying to keep calm and not panic," he says. "Whenever it's possible to reschedule a show at a later date, we are doing so but, when this can't be done, we are cancelling."

With fans unable to go to concerts, Italians are naturally finding ways to enjoy music at home. But Paolo Franchini, president of the Federation of Music Publishers (FEM), says that any increase in revenue from streaming over the coming weeks is "highly unlikely" to compensate for the hit that the industry is taking on the live front.

In the U.K., Paul Craig, a manager who looks after Biffy Clyro and is chair of the Music Managers Forum (MMF), says "the fear of the unknown is what's incredibly unsettling." He worries about the ripple effects of cancelations. "If festivals and major tours start being cancelled that will have a significant impact on the whole ecosystem: marketing, promotion, visibility, crew who are relying on wages," he says. "This is completely uncharted water."

Insurance has become a near-impossibility in the current environment. Craig, who is currently prepping a fall Biffy tour, says he has altered some booking policies, "to not lock in as many fixed costs as we would normally do up front."

Spain Wrestles With New Rules

In downtown Madrid on Monday afternoon, pop band Morat performed an impromptu show on a makeshift stage before a sea of fans standing body-to-body at one of the city's busiest intersections. At the same time, Madrid residents were digesting an edict by health officials that every school and university in the area would be closed for the next two weeks as a precautionary measure against the coronavirus and everyone was encouraged to telecommute to work.

By Tuesday afternoon, officials had ruled that in a city known for its street life events with audiences of more than 1,000 people would be prohibited. Concerts at Madrid venues of less than 1,000-person capacity would have to cut their audiences by one third to prevent groups of people from coming together indoors, officials said.

Soon after, the social media channels of WiZink Center, Madrid's major concert arena, announced the cancellations of a charity mega-concert organized by Cadena 100 radio that would have featured some of Spain's top artists, and a concert by the rock group Tequila. The anti-virus regulations could also result in the cancellation or postponement of concerts by Amaral, one of Spain's most popular groups, and Latin superstar Maluma at the end of March. The ban on events with massive audiences will last at least two weeks.

In addition to Madrid, health officials also restricted large gatherings in three other coronavirus "high transmission zones": La Rioja, and Vitoria and Labastida in the Basque Country.

While the restrictions are now localized, the threat to Spain's music industry, which has bounced back from near oblivion in recent years, is magnified by the role of live music in that recovery. Live music registered its greatest revenue and gains ever in 2019, taking in nearly 335 million euros (about $379 million), almost 15% more than the previous year, according to a report compiled by Neolabels released last month.

Almost 900 festivals now take place annually in Spain, led in attendance by the Medusa Sunbeach Festival, an electronic music gathering in the province of Valencia, which attracted 315,000 people in 2019.

Patricia Gabeiras, president of Spain's Music Festivals Association, tells Billboard that with the festival season beginning in May, organizers have not had to make decisions yet about cancellations or postponements.

"There is no reason for alarm right now as far as festivals are concerned," she says. "We have not been given any instructions yet [by health officials] pertaining to music festivals. We just have to wait and see how things evolve."

There's reason to believe that the music-loving public in Spain might not be as prudent. On Tuesday, tickets went on sale for the O Son do Camiño festival in Santiago de Compostela, set to take place in June. Fans of The National, Bad Bunny, Liam Gallagher and other artists in the diverse line-up sold out the festival in less than two hours, buying 30,000 passes.

In Portugal, where about 40 people are infected with COVID-19, the Portuguese Music Festival Association postponed the Talkfest International Music Festivals Forum and the Iberian Festival Awards in Lisbon at the urging of health officials there.

"The management of Aporfest decided it would be wiser to postpone the event in order to protect not only the public from its events, but also all partners, sponsors and also our own work teams," the organization said in a statement.

Additional reporting by Richard Smirke.

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