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As War Rages, Polish Promoters Vow Not to ‘Let Russia Change Our Lives’

Despite escalation of hostilities and focus on caring for refugees, Polish promoters hope Warsaw will remain a must-play market.

LONDON — Before the global pandemic, Poland’s live-music industry had experienced two consecutive record years, in 2018 and 2019, for both local and international acts. “It was absolutely booming,” says Mikolaj Ziółkowski, president of SOIAR, the Polish promoters association. Now the Russian invasion of neighboring Ukraine — including a March 13 Russian missile strike on a military training base 15 miles from the Polish border — has created new tensions in a country that has long embraced Western touring artists.

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In 1984, Iron Maiden became the first Western rock band to perform in Poland, launching its World Slavery tour with five dates there before going on to play other former Soviet Bloc countries. Ever since, Warsaw has been a must-play city for touring rock acts, as well as a crucial stop on the way to Moscow for artists like Metallica, Bon Jovi and Ed Sheeran. But Russian aggression against Ukraine means that Warsaw will be the easternmost stop on the line this summer.

The escalation in hostilities so close to Poland — a NATO member since 1999 — has stoked fears among many live-music executives about the war’s potential impact on touring in Eastern and Central Europe. “During the last few weeks, almost every tour manager is asking us if it is still safe to come here,” says Joanna Muszyńska, marketing manager at promoter FKP Scorpio Poland, which has a sold-out five-date national tour by British rock band Skunk Anansie beginning May 2 and two stadium shows by Sheeran in August. “My message is always the same,” she says. “Nothing has changed, and there is nothing to be afraid of.”

But for the European live-music industry, the war in Ukraine — Europe’s largest ground war since World War II — has both heightened concerns around security risks for touring acts and raised infrastructure and supply chain issues, which now threaten to disrupt the live business at the very moment it seems poised to return after two years of pandemic-forced closures.

“It’s a dramatic situation,” says Dieter Semmelmann, CEO of German promoter Semmel Concerts. “We almost survived the pandemic, and now we suddenly have a war situation in Europe — something that hasn’t been there for decades and that you couldn’t imagine.”

Poland, which borders Ukraine and Belarus and has a population of 38 million, is the biggest live-music market near Russia. It’s hard to obtain accurate figures about the value of the concert business in Poland, but executives there report a thriving sector where average ticket prices range from 130 to 750 zloty ($30 to $175). Billboard Boxscore showed an average ticket price of $84.26 for eight concerts.

Since mid-2017, Warsaw’s PGE Narodowy Stadium has hosted eight shows that collectively grossed $35.7 million and sold 423,806 tickets, averaging $4.5 million and 53,000 per show. The Rolling Stones had a top ticket price of $515 in 2018, but none of the other shows asked for more than $150 per ticket, with Beyoncé & Jay-Z and P!nk offering tickets between $20 and $30, according to Billboard Boxscore.

Executives in Poland are confident that Russian forces won’t target the country and throw its burgeoning live-music industry into turmoil. “We can’t let Russia change our lives,” says Ziółkowski, who is also CEO of independent promoter Alter Art, which runs Poland’s biggest summer music festival, Open’er Festival, which will take place June 29-July 2 in Gdynia with a lineup that includes Doja Cat, Dua Lipa, Imagine Dragons and twenty one pilots. “The strategy is to keep everything going on,” says Ziółkowski, “and do some fundraising to help.”

Temporary refugee centers have been set up at PGE Narodowy Stadium and the capital city’s 6,000-capacity COS Torwar Arena to help the 2 million-plus Ukrainian refugees who have entered Poland since Feb. 24. (A March 16 show by The Lumineers at COS Torwar was canceled as a result and will be rescheduled at a future date.)

Muszyńska says her four colleagues in FKP Scorpio Poland’s Warsaw office have all taken in refugees and are dividing time between work and helping those in need — and across Poland, people have responded to the growing refugee crisis in a similar way. “I am waiting ages for replies from catering companies, from transport companies, from graphic designers,” says Muszyńska, “because we are all involved in this war, and we are all trying to help as much as possible.”

Beyond the human suffering, the conflict is driving up inflation across Europe, in particular food and energy prices, leaving consumers with less discretionary income. Live executives are reporting slower ticket sales since the start of the war. “People attending four shows per month a few months ago now have less money and can buy tickets for only two [shows], so we have to be very careful with the money that we offer [artists],” says Muszyńska.

Increasing production costs and supply chain issues are also hitting promoters’ bottom lines, with costs rising by up to 300% for basic production supplies like staging, lighting and rigger equipment that had already been in short supply, say executives. As a result, promoters have been forced to lower artist-fee offers by around 20% compared with before the war.

With Ukraine and Russia — where artist fees rank among the highest in Central and Eastern Europe — closed for the foreseeable future, promoters in Poland say they are fielding calls about replacing dates in those countries with additional shows in Poland and other European countries.

Lessons learned during the pandemic, when rearranging shows and supply chain issues became regular occurrences, are helping promoters navigate the current uncertainty. “We’ve been in crisis management for two years already,” says Ziółkowski. “So we are used to it.”

Additional reporting by Dave Brooks.