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Troubled Times East

Nick Hobbs delivers an expert report on the disastrous realities of the continuing unsettled situation in many of the Eastern territories and the continuing consequences for live touring.

16 Nov 2015

Years ago, unplanned, I found myself specialising in Eastern Europe. That led to marrying a Russian pop singer and much else besides. Until 2010 it was a bumpy, but mostly upward, journey for the region (and me), fostered by a common culture – we all like pretty much the same music.

The former Iron Curtain countries had some peculiar holes in their knowledge of rock and pop pre 1989 – eg: Led Zeppelin or The Who; some acts percolated through the Curtain and some didn’t – but broadly everyone was on the same cultural page. Then the European economy soured and stagnated and the political scene shifted with nationalists (who’d seemed a dying breed) on the rise and no easy solutions on the horizon.

Most of the Eastern countries (and here I add Greece, Turkey, and, on the periphery, The Middle East) muddled along, but in some places nasty crises exploded with little warning – Greece’s near meltdown, Russia’s undeclared war in Ukraine, Turkey’s descent into authoritarianism, and obviously the Arab Spring turned Winter, and its shameful humanitarian consequences. Less dramatically, there’s also been Hungary and Macedonia’s shifts to authoritarian models.

It seems petty to moan about the business consequences when millions of refugees are looking to rebuild – and save – their lives, and innocent people are being killed by the cynicism of ‘leaders’. But business consequences there are.

From the south, countries like Egypt and Jordan, never even secondary markets – squeezed between Syria and Israel and with a higher burden of refugees pro capita than even Turkey, there’s Lebanon which international artists still play but less so than a few years ago. In Israel concert life continues, though affected by the fragile security situation and boycotts.

My adoptive home, Turkey, has a much reduced international concert scene compared with a few years back. This year there were hardly any arena shows and no big festivals. And it’s fair to say that no promoter’s making money. Sponsors have cut back because of the messy political situation and fragile economy, the weakening Lira means punters are not as ready to buy tickets as they once were. 2016 doesn’t look like it will be an improvement.

Greece, all things considered, is quite robust, but with promoters unable to wire money out of the country, running an international business is almost impossible. This year probably no promoter made money: next year should be somewhat better, but only somewhat.

Ukraine is a big mess. Life outside the war zone is normal enough except the country’s economy is so bad that most people are struggling to survive, rather than spending on inessentials. One international stadium show is confirmed for summer ‘16 and I know of a couple of other stadium offers – but very little below that.

International acts fees are priced in euros or dollars while the Russian rouble has devalued by half compared to a year ago; and promoters have only been able to make modest increases in ticket prices as punters are feeling the pinch big time. So, 2015 was a bad year for promoters – I don’t think there’s anyone who didn’t lose money. For next year, promoters are aware of the new economic reality but it means fewer, generally lower offers than before. Events are in trouble as municipal and regional sponsorship has dried up while commercial sponsorship is down.

And to conclude this tale of woe, even in the non-crisis countries of the region, as far as I know, all the established festivals (Sziget excepted) sold less than last year. I’m not sure anyone understands why, but saturated markets coupled with little future optimism may be the main reasons. The generational shift of listening to streams rather than buying albums may have something to do with it.

From this independent promoter and booker’s point of view, it’s good that Live Nation have pulled out of the former Yugoslavia and Russia (I think). And maybe it’s a good time for making careful investments in building new events. Maybe. But for me, and most of my peers, it’s a time for caution and low-risk projects – all far from easy to come by.

I hope agents understand that these circumstances are the context in which promoters in the region have to work, and can be softer on guarantees rather than pushing promoters into repeated losses which may be impossible to recover. Loyalty to historical promoters counts for more when times are hard.

 

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