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Playing Politics: Are governments offering enough support for live?

As many governments begin to unveil exit plans, IQ asks if state action is falling short of the live industry's needs and expectations

By Gordon Masson on 07 May 2020

Playing Politics: Are governments letting live down?

SummerDays was among festivals to cancel once the Swiss government announced its festival ban


image © Michael Dornbierer

Millions of people have taken to tuning in to daily governmental updates, where politicians and advisers perform the grim task of revealing the increase in the death toll, as well as the rates of new infection. That horrific routine is allowing journalists to compare Nation A to Nation B to Nation C etc, and for many, isolated at home, to engage in the morbid game of envying those in New Zealand, Germany, South Korea, or wherever the reported head count is statistically low.

However, to date, little has been said in the public domain about the response of the live entertainment industry, internationally, and its voluntarily shut down, which, in many places, had to come ahead of government guidance. Indeed, in speaking to numerous festival organisers, IQ has heard that many had been forced to play a waiting game with politicians to hear whether their events in, for instance, June or July, would be allowed to proceed.

“Without government intervention, force majeure clauses do not work,” says Christof Huber of European festivals association, Yourope, who cancelled his festivals OpenAir St.Gallen, SummerDays and Seaside after the Swiss government finally announced that events over 1,000 people would be outlawed until 31 August, following weeks of deliberation. Yourope has been “actively lobbying governments to make decisions about large-scale gatherings in a more timely manner”, says Huber.

In beginning to tentatively embark on reopening plans, governments in countries including the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Ireland, Germany, Denmark, France, Spain, Austria, Hungary, Norway and Finland have given some sort of insight into when events may be allowed to resume – or at least clarification as to how long bans can be expected to last.

Still, without cross-border co-operation, the situation remains precarious for those who depend on the live music sector for their livelihoods.

In the venues sector, Lucy Noble, who chairs the UK’s National Arenas Association, says, “We found the early stages of the crisis difficult, as government advice wasn’t clear enough. That delay was problematic because it created stress and confusion for artists, audiences and staff.”

“In Switzerland and Germany the trust in the government and politicians has had a really big revival”

The various loan schemes launched in each market have worked to varying effect (Switzerland’s five-year interest free loan of up to €400,000 paid in a matter of hours stands among the best), while employee furlough or protection schemes have further propped up companies, without which many would have collapsed.

Stuart Galbraith, of Kilimanjaro Live, recalls, “Although it was fairly chaotic to start with, the line of communication that we, as a sector, have had into government has been very good. UK Music [acting CEO] Tom Kiehl has done a great job and so have people like Julian Bird at [Society of London Theatre]. In that first week of chaos, we had four calls with either cabinet ministers or secretaries of state. They listened and have taken action. They’ve helped us with the loans, business rates relief, the furlough scheme.”

Vincenzo Spera, president of Assomusica, is lobbying Europe to adopt such concessions, having already secured them in Italy, where it’s estimated that, by the end of this month, 4,200 events will have been missed, depriving live music operators of €63million, while the deeper economic impact for Italy is estimated at €130m.

“We ask the European Commission, MPs and the Culture Committee to [introduce] vouchers to replace the tickets purchased,” says Spera. “[This] allows the spectator not to give up their concert, and companies not to go to default.”

Voucher schemes of some form are also in place in Germany, Belgium, Poland and Brazil, with promoters including Live Nation offering a voucher option to fans who have tickets for postponed shows.

State help?
While those working in the UK and other countries have been able to rely on their authorities for financial bailouts, notable live music strongholds like the United States have offered very little, resulting in previously unimaginable unemployment statistics.

Yourope’s Huber observes, “It’s difficult to compare, but in Switzerland and Germany the trust in the government and politicians has had a really big revival, because in the initial phases they communicated honestly about the situation. However, as time passes, left wing versus right wing politics seems to be creeping back.”

“We are making hard decisions and the more clarity we get from government, the more  informed we can be when looking at logistics”

Down under, Michael Chugg laments a horrendous start to 2020. “To cop corona on top of the bushfire season, I think everyone is coping well,” he tells IQ. “The federal government, which had already been offering tax breaks, freezes on loans payments, and no evictions by landlords, came up with their ‘jobkeeper payment’ scheme, which covers the equivalent of 50% of all Australian salaries for the next six months, taking an incredible amount of pressure off everyone.”

Live Nation’s Herman Schueremans – himself a former politician – reports, “The Belgian parliament agreed to provide €1 billion to tackle the consequences of coronavirus, and we will work with them to ensure this money  reaches those who need it most in our market.” He adds, “It’s never been more clear that we are in a global business. We all know we have to work together.”

Live Nation’s Phil Bowdery, who leads the UK’s Concert Promoters Association, reveals he is now asking for an exit plan from lockdown. The UK government, which is yet to announce how it plans to ease lockdown restrictions, is expected to release the first details of its plans in a press conference on Sunday (10 May).

“They must have modelling for a resumption to whatever our new normal will look like,” he notes. “The sooner they share this, the better. We are making hard decisions and the more clarity we get from government, the more  informed we can be when looking at logistics.”

The gap between the ending of employment protection schemes, loan availability and other protection measures, and the business being back up to speed with healthy cashflow, is arguably the largest challenge on the horizon. And close, strong relationships with government will be key to keeping that gap as narrow as possible.

Associations and lobbyists need to prove their worth, just as governments will need to continue to prop up live  entertainment for at least a few months yet.

 


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