Some major promoters see an even more dire situation developing. In October, Berlin-based Semmel Concerts moved a 24-date European tour by film composer Hans Zimmer from early 2021 to early 2022. "If we lose April and May, then we could lose the whole summer season," says Semmel CEO Dieter Semmelmann, who thinks promoters need more time to regain the confidence of wary ticket buyers.
The concern comes as European countries are again shutting down their economies due to COVID-19 outbreaks. Since the end of October, Belgium, France and the United Kingdom announced new lockdowns until at least December. Spain announced a state of emergency that includes curfews, while Italy imposed sweeping new measures that include a curfew and a three-tier framework for virus restrictions. Germany shut down nonessential businesses to try to relieve strained hospitals, while the Netherlands limited gatherings to levels too low for promoters to mount profitable shows.
The latest restrictions come as government furlough programs were winding down in the United Kingdom and other countries, potentially contributing to a new wave of live-industry layoffs. In September, new virus-related restrictions in the Netherlands led dance promoter ID&T to lay off 40% of its staff. Some relief for U.K. businesses came on Thursday (Nov. 5), when the government bowed to pressure and extended its furlough scheme, which was ending on Oct. 31, until March.
So far, government aid for the live sector is having minimal impact. In Germany, Semmel expects to receive €800,000 ($937,000) from an €80 million ($93.7 million) government fund for concert promoters, but it hasn't received anything yet. (Semmel sells over 5 million tickets for nearly 2,000 shows annually.) In the United Kingdom, funds from a £1.57 billion ($2 billion) aid package for music and entertainment won't be paid out to the majority of promoters until December.
As the situation becomes more challenging, promoters have tried to adapt their business strategies. This fall, Semmel held seven "Back to Live" concerts at Berlin's Waldbühne amphitheater for up to 5,000 people (less than 25% capacity), ostensibly, says Semmelmann, to show government officials that shows can be staged safely. German promoters are also dealing with political squabbling over coronavirus "hotspot" rules, with local officials in Germany's 16 federal states sometimes acting more conservatively than national health measures require.
"If you want to tour a German act through Germany, we have to look at which rules are [active] at the moment," says Semmelmann. Virus scares have also forced quick cancellations: In late September, organizers of the Virgin Money Unity Arena festival in Newcastle had to cancel its final three shows — featuring Declan McKenna, Kaiser Chiefs and Jack Savoretti — when northeast England was put under enhanced lockdown measures.
European promoters say they need rapid virus tests to make shows safer. U.K. industry executives are clamoring for a government-backed insurance plan to cover the costs of future show cancellations. (Austria says it will underwrite €300 million [$351.3 million] for such a plan.) In the Netherlands, promoters want the government "to create clarity before the first of January 2021 so the whole event industry can work toward the summer," says Ritty van Straalen, CEO of ID&T.
The return of live shows will likely depend on the status of a COVID-19 vaccine, the availability of therapeutics, government policies, high-volume testing and contact tracing. Unlike in Asia, European countries have struggled to gain enough adoption of smartphone apps that could help authorities better track outbreaks, largely because of privacy concerns. As of Oct. 29, the official U.K. health service app had been downloaded 19 million times, equating to 40% of adults with smartphones — short of the 60% needed for an effective tracing program.
Some promoters are still moving forward with concerts, albeit with restrictions. London's O2 Arena, which has postponed until 2021 over 115 of the nearly 190 shows planned for 2020, is scheduled to host its first live-music event in over eight months on Dec. 5 when rock band Squeeze plays a socially distanced gig at about 30% capacity. The O2 has become a "fully contactless venue" with enhanced cleaning regimes and a new, hands-free bag-searching policy, says Steve Sayer, vp/GM of the O2 at AEG Europe. "We know this is not the long-term answer. It's not a sustainable business model," he says, "but it's really important that we are building back to full live."
O2 officials could be forced to scratch the Squeeze show if the virus situation in London gets bad enough. For Biffy Clyro, Craig has his fingers crossed. "I'm going to hope and pray," he says, "that they still go on."
A version of this article originally appeared in the Nov. 7, 2020, issue of Billboard.