PARIS — The night of Nov. 13, 2015, started out like any other Friday for Arnaud Meersseman.
Around 7 p.m., the 34-year-old promoter for Nous Productions in Paris dropped by a small club, Le Trabendo, to chat briefly with MS MR’s singer, Lizzy Plapinger, and catch the first few songs of the pop duo’s sold-out concert. An hour later, he arrived at the Bataclan, the 151-year-old, Charles Duval-designed building that transformed into a nightclub in the ‘70s, drawing artists like Kanye West and members of The Velvet Underground.
Meersseman and his team had brought the Eagles of Death Metal back to Paris on the 13th, after the American rock band had played several successful local shows, most recently that June. Around 9 p.m., he went backstage at the 1,500-capacity club, greeted the band’s tour manager, label reps and execs from streaming service Deezer. Members of Deftones, in town for their own gig, were hanging around. “Just meeting up with everybody,” he says.
Finding a table in his usual spot on the club’s outdoor terrace, next to the concert space along Boulevard Voltaire, he was drinking and smoking with two colleagues when “everything just went to hell,” says Meersseman, now the general manager of AEG Presents France. “The glasses on our table started exploding. The big window behind us exploded.”
Three Islamic State gunmen, armed with Kalashnikovs and explosive vests, were storming the Bataclan. They fired at the crowd and took dozens of concertgoers hostage. Others tried desperately to hide or escape, clambering into offices and out of emergency exits into the streets.
The attacks were not isolated. Across Paris that night, another terrorist blew himself up outside the Stade de France during a soccer match, and drive-by shooters picked off victims at restaurants and cafes.
When the carnage was over, 130 people had been killed, 90 of whom were at the Bataclan. Among the dead was one of Meersseman’s companions on the terrace, Thomas Ayad, 32, a Mercury Records international product manager. Four hundred were injured, including Meersseman.
It was a shocking, gruesome night, one that spread fear throughout Paris’ placid café culture and demonstrated the vulnerability of concerts to terrorism. After the Bataclan, the touring industry could no longer ignore the attacks that had ravaged skyscrapers, airports, subways and schools. Some promoters expanded facial-recognition technology to identify potential threats, invested in bomb-sniffing dogs and drones and pledged to work more closely with local police and governments.
This year, on Sept. 8, the trial of 20 alleged terrorists who coordinated the multi-pronged assault — including Salah Abdeslam, whom prosecutors have identified as the only surviving attacker – finally began at a Paris courthouse.
In his first lengthy interview since the attacks, Meersseman, 40, spoke to Billboard for an hour in his fourth-floor AEG office, which overlooks cafes and shops on Boulevard des Italiens. His dog Saturnin roamed in the background.
Caught In The Crossfire
Days after that traumatic Friday the 13th in 2015, Meersseman would wonder if biker gangs had somehow gone to war, right there in the club, with him in the crossfire.
“My first instinct was to dive to the floor,” Meersseman says.
Meersseman may have been among the first people shot at the Bataclan. He doesn’t remember all the details, although he has worked with two psychologists to reconstruct his memories of that night. Because he was sitting on the club’s outdoor terrace, located next to the concert hall, he missed the carnage taking place inside. (A survivor testified in October during the trial: “The gunman then told us: ‘The first person who moves, or doesn’t do what I say, gets shot in the head. Is that clear or do you want an example?’ Those words will stay in my head forever.”)
In the fast-talking style of a concert promoter, but calm and thoughtful in his quiet office, Meersseman rushes through the events of six years ago. His companions on the Bataclan terrace were Ayad and Delphine Ferre — then a Deezer rep — who was uninjured.
After diving to the floor, Meersseman made the decision to get up and figure out what was going on — “too early, let’s put it that way,” he says.
Once on his feet, one of the gunmen spotted Meersseman instantly and fired.
In his office, he demonstrates the trajectory of the bullet, which went into his side, then out through his right lung. “At least it was a clean shot,” he says. “There weren’t any bullet fragments.”
In shock, Meersseman nevertheless pushed forward, and he was able to run from the outdoor terrace into the Bataclan cafe, where he collapsed. He lay there, in crushing pain, for about half an hour. “It burns, it stings, it’s pretty bad, it’s pretty horrible,” he recalls.
Ferre stayed with him. As Meersseman laid bleeding on the floor, he repeatedly cried out. “They shot me through the heart, I’m going to die!” Ferre responded, he says: “You idiot! You got shot on the right side, not on the left side!”
“We laughed about that nervously for two minutes through the pain,” Meersseman says.
(Ferre, now marketing director for Awal, a music digital-strategy and distribution company, declined to comment.)
That night, in another part of Paris, Meersseman’s partner of six months, Emma Archer, a university lecturer who works for a think tank, was frantically following the news as the attacks unfolded. She resisted the urge to call Meersseman, fearing his phone might alert the attackers to his location. “Obtaining any information through any sort of official [source] was impossible,” she says. “The whole night, I was in some sort of delirium, and certain objects around me were blurred.”
Coma and the Road Back
Meersseman turned out to be lucky — as lucky as someone can be in this situation. He was not, at that moment, watching Eagles of Death Metal as they performed inside the club. He was one of the few people on the terrace, outside. Police were able to rescue him after 30 minutes, and an ambulance took him to Percy Military Training Hospital, a facility that specializes in trauma surgery.
That’s all he remembers. Because his injured lung was exposed to the floor of the Bataclan cafe, it became infected. Doctors induced a coma, and he lay unconscious for three days.
His family was there when he woke up. His father had flown in from Martha’s Vineyard, his brothers from elsewhere in the U.S., his mom from the south of France and Archer from Paris. His partner met his family for the first time that night.
“They didn’t know if he was going to survive his wounds,” Archer says of the hospital doctors. “I tend to be very superstitious and not wanting to say he was OK unless I knew for sure he was going to be OK. So I stayed very silent.”
When doctors took him out of the coma three anxious days after the attack, Meersseman’s mother told Archer: “He’s awake and he’s better.” The risk of further infection was high at first, but it receded every day, and his condition improved.
After three weeks in the hospital, Meersseman returned to his Paris home to convalesce. Physically, he didn’t take long. He’d been active before the attacks, running 12 miles a week, swimming and playing sports. His wounds weren’t as gruesome as the circumstances that caused them.
“He lived on the fourth or fifth floor without a lift,” says Benoit Prunier, a college friend and marketing manager for London tech company what3words. “I remember being impressed he could get himself up there with half a lung, basically.”
Emotionally, Meersseman’s recovery was more difficult. He had nightmares. He struggled with fear and mortality. He had dark moments. “You keep telling yourself death could strike at any moment,” he recalls. “That took a while, getting that confidence back, saying every time I was leaving my house I wasn’t going to die.”
Meersseman saw two psychologists and did rapid-eye-movement therapy to help him reconstruct the memories of what happened. “Heavy psychological work,” he calls it. He threw himself into work — probably too early, he acknowledges — and gained prestige as a promoter.
He says his experience with music festivals and efforts to bring more international acts to France – along with his connections with U.S. agents and promoters such as Gary Gersh and Marc Geiger — helped him land at AEG. “The French music scene was in the middle of evolving,” Geiger says. “Arnaud is a trusted figure and that means a lot.”
In 2018, Meersseman opened the global promoter’s Paris office. The French division has rapidly expanded, promoting 50 shows that first year, then 300 in 2019. The pandemic forced a pause, but AEG has scheduled nearly 450 shows in France next year.
New Security Measures and Yearly Escapes
Six years later, Meersseman, and others in the business, aren’t sure how well the new security measures implemented by promoters and venues are working. “If three men run up, armed with Kalashnikovs and explosives, there is little to nothing a regular-show security can counter with,” he says.
Seven months after the Bataclan tragedy, a gunman swearing allegiance to the Islamic State killed 49 people at a nightclub in Orlando. A year after that, a Nevada man — firing more than 1,000 bullets from 24 firearms — murdered 60 people attending the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas.
In 2017, a suicide bomber exploded a device at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, killing 22 people. City councilors there are supporting “Martyn’s Law,” named for a victim of the attacks, requiring venue security staff to wear body cameras and train in counter-terrorism awareness.
Despite the security setbacks, the AEG manager says the Bataclan experience has driven him to succeed, in a “don’t let the terrorists win” kind of way. In his office, he declares much of his psychological work is over. He spends 20 minutes on the intricacies of how French promoters have dealt with COVID-19 and whether concerts will return to normal in 2022.
The Bataclan has had an especially deep emotional impact on the French music-business community. Among the victims were Manu Perez, a Universal Music employee; Guillaume B. Decherf, a music journalist; and Ayad. “Everybody knew someone who was there — at least, you knew someone who knew someone,” says Jeremie Varengo, a former Universal employee who works at music-tech company SonoSuite. “There was the shock of the event, and a period when things slowed down. People were really sad, and nobody wanted to go back to work.”
Every year on Nov. 13, Meersseman feels “a bit of grief and a pang of anguish.” Immediately after the trauma, the promoter felt he needed to escape the city and decamp with Archer to the south of France. There, they deepened their relationship. (They entered a civil union a few months ago.) Booking a hotel in Montpellier, or another French city quieter than Paris — and shutting off their phones completely — has become a yearly tradition.
“I still see a [psychiatrist] from time to time, but most of the hard work is done,” Meersseman says. “You can’t put a limit date on the traumatism like that. It’ll always be present and it’s part of my story.”
Then he smiles, doing his best to make light of an impossible experience. “I stopped smoking after getting shot through the lungs,” he says. “Maybe ISIS saved me from cancer.”