VIÑA DEL MAR, Chile — As the spread of the coronavirus forces promoters around the world to cancel and postpone concerts, music executives in Chile are dealing with another kind of epidemic: protests and political rallies that add costs, complications and concerns about security to productions throughout the country.
Chile, traditionally one of the safest and most politically stable countries in Latin America, underwent a political shift last October during the estallido social (“social explosion”), a series of nationwide protests against the economic policies of right-wing president Sebastián Piñera. After years of malaise that have seen the erosion of education, health and retirement benefits, protesters are demanding constitutional reform. (The “social explosion” term refers to protests that are not centered on one issue, region or faction — hence the term “explosion.”) Now the protests and economic downturn are rattling the concert industry.
Some promoters have reduced their slate of shows by over one-third this summer (which runs from December to March in Chile), and the number of bookings has fallen. Insurance and security costs also have risen, sometimes by as much as 50%, according to some organizers. “You have protests, the coronavirus,” says Carlos Lara, CEO of concert promoter Swing Music, whose clients include Luis Fonsi. “It’s a lot of variables that were not in the equation before.”
The tumult came to a head during the six-day, sold-out Viña del Mar International Song Festival in February. Protesters outside the event demanded its cancellation, even though it has nothing to do with politics. But the festival’s international importance — it has a global TV audience of 250 million viewers, according to Kantar Ibope Media — made it a perfect place to find an audience for their grievances.
On opening night, cars were set afire in front of the famous Hotel O’Higgins, causing the evacuation and closure of the property. That evening, sources say protesters threw rocks at vans taking Ricky Martin’s staff to the event. Martin did not consider canceling his show, according to Daniel Merino, a promoter at Bizarro Entertainment who was also the general producer of Viña del Mar, and none of the artists canceled their sets. “But we did have artists calling to ask what was going on.” (The festival resumed the next day without incident.)
So far, the coronavirus largely has not affected Chile, and no major concerts or tours have been canceled for health concerns. However, many smaller shows and festivals, including the municipal summer events that are important for multiple artists and promoters, have been put on hold due to the civil unrest. Swing Music went from 35-40 shows last summer season to 10-12 this year. Bizarro is cutting back about one-third of its shows, going from an average of 75 per year to roughly 50 to accommodate the economic contraction.
The website for Movistar Arena in Santiago, one of Chile’s most important venues, shows a long list of canceled or postponed shows, the reasons ranging from “health” to “factors having to do with national contingency.”
Discontent in Chile reached a boiling point on Oct. 18, 2019, when thousands of students protested a spike in subway fares. That day, Merino was producing the second of four shows by André Rieu at Movistar Arena. “They called me literally in the middle of the concert,” he says. “I turned on the television backstage, and I saw the army in the streets. We had 12,000 people in their seats, and Rieu was playing waltzes.” The concert went on without interruption and attendees left safely, despite subway closures. But the final two shows were postponed, translating to $1 million in lost revenue. Merino says insurance covered the costs, and Rieu is scheduled to return in May.
Moving forward, increased insurance costs are but one additional element promoters in Chile have to consider. Another is security. Carlos Geniso, president of local promoter Digimedios, says he has increased security personnel by 30% to 40%.
“We never had security checkpoints in venues before,” says Merino. “We had to invest in that.” For Viña del Mar, Bizarro’s biggest production, the company hired a security drone and 220 guards, 80 more than in previous years.
Chile’s economy continues to struggle. The currency has fallen nearly 20% versus the dollar since October. “These costs appeared overnight, and you can’t transfer them to the consumer because the tickets have already been sold,” says Merino, echoing Lara. “But in a convulsed society, we don’t want to raise ticket prices.”
On April 26, Chileans will vote to decide if their country’s constitution will be amended to reduce the role of government in the economy, which is what the protests have been calling for all along. In the meantime, the shows will go on — at least for big names. Geniso already sold out a Billie Eilish concert in June, and tickets for Harry Styles and Michael Bublé are going on sale soon. Lollapalooza Chile is still slated to take place March 27-29 at O’Higgins Park, with performances by Guns ’N Roses, Travis Scott and Lana del Rey. Thus far, no one has canceled, according to Maximiliano del Río of Lotus Productions, which has produced the festival for a decade.
Del Río says that most tickets had been sold prior to the disturbances
in October. “We’ve reinforced security and some controls, always aimed at ensuring things take place peacefully,” he says.
As for Lara, he says he’s not adjusting plans for his concerts over the next 12 months, but he’s also not venturing into projects where he’s uncertain about ticket sales. “Even in a crisis, people want to have fun,” he says. “Things will normalize once the masses see a change in how the country is managed.”