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Bern Baby Bern: Swiss market report

As one of the world’s most affluent countries, Switzerland could be a poster boy market for post-pandemic corporate recovery

By IQ on 05 Jul 2022

Paléo Festival Nyon, Switzerland

Paleo Festival Nyon


As one of the world’s most affluent countries, with a population that adores the live music experience, Switzerland could be a poster boy market for post-pandemic corporate recovery. Adam Woods reports.

It has always been a fairly good rule of thumb that Covid hits the poorest and least fortunate hardest. On that basis, the Swiss live music business, one of the most vigorous in Europe, was always a good bet for pandemic survival and a sturdy rebound.

Look at the market as the summer approaches and you see a snap-shot of a country tripping over itself for a good time. In June alone at Zürich’s Hallenstadion, Zucchero, Marc Anthony, Shaan, Pearl Jam, 50 Cent, Iron Maiden, Queen + Adam Lambert, Céline Dion, and Basel-born house hero DJ Antoine are coming through the doors.

Of the great Swiss festivals, OpenAir St. Gallen and Paléo both promptly sold out, and reports across the sector are of a golden return to action. In the stadiums, you’ve got two nights of Rammstein in June and two more of Ed Sheeran in September at Zürich’s Letzigrund, while Elton John and Imagine Dragons hit Bern’s Wankdorf in June.

“There are 11 or 12 stadium shows this summer, and normally it’s, like, three or four,” says Stefan Wyss of Gadget abc Entertainment Group.

“St. Gallen, we sold out since the middle of March,” ventures his fellow partner and director Christof Huber. “And it’s the young punters that are buying the tickets. The clubs are doing well for the same reason: the younger generation wants to go out; they want to experience again.”

“What’s coming up is terrifying. I think we have never had more shows here than in the next few months”

But while the shows are numerous, the sales pretty healthy, and the relief palpable, this may not be a year promoters will look back on with relish. An unprecedented glut of variously long delayed and newly announced shows makes this a uniquely challenging summer. Old tickets need honouring, but the revenue-hungry business is also keen to get cooped-up talent back on the road for fresh shows, and nowhere is this bottleneck any more evident than in Switzerland.

“We did not expect all the shows scheduled this spring to take place due to the Covid restrictions at the beginning of the year, but the situation changed almost overnight mid-February, and we had to put ourselves back at work to make these shows happen,” says Julien Rouyer, CEO of Lausanne-based promoter Soldout Productions. “Summer and Autumn are getting quite busy as well, raising higher expectations for the end of the year.”

For some, the volume of shows on offer verges on the alarming.

“Oh yeah, Switzerland is always a busy market, especially in the summer,” says Johannes Vogel of Winterthur-based promoter All-Blues Konzert. “What’s coming up is terrifying. I think we have never had more shows here than in the next few months.”

“There’s a lot of transport issues. We are missing tour buses for the bands; we are missing stagehands; they don’t have enough workers to build the stages”

And the issue of scarce and costly infrastructure that besets the entire continent, if not the world, is a more grievous one still.

“It’s challenging,” says Paléo festival booker Dany Hassenstein. “I don’t think there’s enough equipment around for everybody to be able to set up a production. There’s a lot of transport issues. We are missing tour buses for the bands; we are missing stagehands; they don’t have enough workers to build the stages.

“At Paléo, I think we have everything important secured, though there is a 15-20% increase in equipment costs, and that’s obviously not cool, but then I’m sure it is just a result of the challenges companies are facing themselves.”

Saturation in the music capital of Zürich is already leading to anomalies, with proven acts some- times selling markedly better in traditionally quieter cities with less competition. In fact, while festival tickets may be flying out in one of the most festival-hungry markets in the world, shows in general are a harder sell, with no predictable patterns.

“The shows you think will work do not do as much as you would like,” says Théo Quiblier of Lausanne-based 360° indie Two Gentlemen, “and then ones you were less sure about are doing really well. Among the big acts, we have seen some surprises though I can’t say names. But even if your arenas are selling out, it is just the tip of the iceberg. If you want to get a vibe of the health of the market, you need to look below – and in fact we are seeing mixed sales at every level.”

“The most frustrating point about 2020 and 2021 was to be very busy, working full-time every day, for shows that never happened”

One random element has been the unpredictable attendance of rescheduled shows. “We have always been pretty good at knowing roughly how many people you would have in a room,” says Quiblier. “But when shows have been rescheduled four or five times, we were regularly getting between 20% and 30% no-shows. It’s not that people were afraid to go back; I think it’s more that they have missed the announcement of the new date or forgotten what they had tickets for.”

Pre-pandemic Switzerland always did set itself a hard target to chase. In 2019, live music revenues totalled CHF437m (€425m), accord- ing to PwC/Omdia’s Switzerland Entertainment and Media Outlook 2021-25. That same report’s projections point to a bumpy road back, with revenues of CHF370m (€360m) this year, CHF359m (€349m) next, CHF305m (€296m) in 2024 and CHF394m (€383m) in 2025.

“The most frustrating point about 2020 and 2021, was to be very busy, working full-time every day, for shows that never happened,” says Sebastien Vuignier of French-Swiss promoter TAKK. “It was like playing a video game, being a virtual concert promoter. But luckily enough, we didn’t struggle financially as we had good and efficient support from the authorities.”

Swiss support for business was generous and arrived within a month or two, covering 80% of staff salaries for firms furloughing staff, as well as office costs.

“We didn’t make any money during the past two years, but we didn’t lose too much,” says Vuignier. “We are now in 2022, with a financial situation that is quite similar to what we had [at the] end of 2019. Some shows are selling a bit less than expected, but luckily enough, some others are doing very well. Khruangbin, Foals, Masego, Metronomy, Kings of Convenience, Sleaford Mods, Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker, Leif Vollebekk, amongst others, are all selling out.”

“I don’t see major changes in the market, which is a good sign of a healthy industry”

For all the frustrations of the re-start, there is broad confidence that Switzerland can handle the turbulence of 2022 – even if it might be a rough ride at times.

“I don’t see major changes in the market, which is a good sign of a healthy industry. The landscape is pretty much the same as what it was in 2019,” says Vuignier. “But this year might be challenging for all of us, and I hope we’ll all be in good shape on the other side.”

Soldout Productions chief Rouyer sums up the feeling: “Shaken but alive. Recovering. Reorganising. Rising. It looks like every piece of the puzzle somehow made their way out of the crisis and is now ready to rumble again to get their part of the cake.”

Promoters
Once a notably independent-driven market, Switzerland has seen many of its indies arming up for security in recent years, and most now have some form of corporate support after a busy couple of years of consolidation.

Mainland, originally formed from the union of Black Sheep, Cult Agency and Redda Music, has been a part of Live Nation since 2018. Gadget, Wepromote, and local veteran André Béchir’s abc Production were pulled together by CTS Eventim just a month or
two before the pandemic hit and now operate as Gadget abc Entertainment Group – 60%-owned by Eventim with the rest held by the Swiss partners.

“We have around 80 shows in the next three months. It’s a lot, but obviously it’s positive that people are buying tickets”

On the one hand, the timing might seem inauspicious, but the pause in the market feels like a benefit in at least one respect, says Stefan Wyss.

“For us, these two years were really challenging, but due to Covid, we did at least have time to structure this new company,” he says. “And now we are really ready. We have a company of 45 people and promote lots of arena and stadium shows these days.”

Sure enough, Gadget abc shows include the two Rammstein Letzigrund sell-outs, Elton, and Imagine Dragons at Wankdorf and a fistful of Hallenstadions, as well as too many small and medium shows to count – although, of course, the promoter itself has done so.

“We have 150-200 shows on sale,” says Wyss. “We have around 80 shows in the next three months. It’s a lot, but obviously it’s positive that people are buying tickets.”

Switzerland is small, but it is also fragmented, and it has some singular characteristics. Promoters largely keep to their own parts of the country – German speakers in cities such as Zürich, Bern, Basel and St. Gallen; French in Geneva, Lausanne and Montreux. For shows outside their patch, they work with partners. Many shows are co-promoted, and very few promoters operate in isolation.

Since the lifting of Good News’s exclusive deal with the Hallenstadion a few years ago, it has also not been remotely uncommon to see a wide range of Swiss promoters, including independents, taking a chance on much bigger shows.

“The big shows have really good ticket sales, but the battle is in the middle tier and the club gigs”

Winterthur-based AllBlues, who promoted Ed Sheeran’s first Swiss shows a decade ago, this year promotes Sheeran’s second pair of Swiss stadiums.

“We did the first 1,000-cap headline show in 2012 at Kaufleuten Zürich,” says managing director Johannes Vogel. “Then it went just upwards to 2,000, 3,000, 13,000, until Letzigrund Stadium for the first time in 2018, when we had two sold-out 45k shows. Now, again, we have two shows in September, which are pretty close to selling out.”

Nonetheless, Vogel is concerned that the Swiss market on the whole is overplaying its hand.

“Are promoters being careful?” he muses. “We at AllBlues were careful with focusing on the postponed shows and not announcing a lot of new shows. Others were not and put shows and shows on sale. But I think we should all have the responsibility not to overplay the market. Let’s see how we overcome 2022. Back to normal will be 2023 or even 2024.”

Switzerland’s other big-hitting promoters include the DEAG- owned Good News Productions and Vincent Sager’s Nyon-based Opus One, which is part of the Paléo organisation and focuses largely on Geneva and Lausanne.

“It is the most difficult time since the start of Covid”

At Good News, Stefan Matthey believe oversaturation will play a part in the market for the considerable future. “For sure there are too many events this year,” he says. “The big shows have really good ticket sales, but the battle is in the middle tier and the club gigs.”

Matthey reveals that among the bigger concerts Good News is organising are stadium shows for Die Ärzte and Die Toten Hosen,
as well as three-day festival Rock the Ring. “Indoors we have Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, KISS, Megadeth, Whitesnake and a bunch of others, as well as lots of club dates,” he adds.

Geneva’s Live Music Production, also part-owned by DEAG since 2019, mixes concerts, comedy, and other touring musical shows for the French-speaking part of Switzerland. And while there are stand- out successes, such as a 40,000-cap Stade de la Pontaise in Lausanne for French star Soprano, managing director Michael Drieberg says 2022 is not entirely to be savoured.

“I would say it is the most difficult time since the start of Covid,” says Drieberg. “We have old shows still on sale, and maybe two years ago they were the show to see but now it isn’t anymore, and we still have to do it. And because we can’t fill them, we make no money on them. The good part is the new shows are selling well, so you can feel the market is starting again.” Like many others, Drieberg has noticed little quirks in this new market. To his eye, today’s Covid-conscious punters prefer smaller-capacity, seated shows.

“We are seeing more and more shows that are about 2,000-capacity. And we have found that it’s really possible to bring bigger acts to smaller venues, with higher prices. People are ready for that: to pay two times, even three times the normal ticket price to be closer to the artist, in a smaller audience. We had Phil Collins for three nights and that worked very well. And the artist doesn’t make [substantially less] money because the production is much smaller.”

“The market is not as strong as before and I think it will take some time for confidence to fully return”

Act Entertainment, another Eventim company, notches up its 30th anniversary in December, and CEO Thomas Dürr is happy to be back in action.

“This year is going much better than last year,” says Dürr, who threw himself into painting during lockdown and is preparing for an exhibition at Art Basel next year. “Last year, we had more turnover from selling my pictures than from concerts.

“This year, we had two sold-out shows at Hallenstadion with Hans Zimmer, which was a really big success, and a lot of smaller shows. Comedians also are doing really well. With everything, the sale starts really late, but eventually most of the results are good.”

Like Drieberg, Dürr, too, notes a new appetite for seated shows. In fact, in some respects, Covid seems to have challenged every preconception about the behaviour of live music-goers.

“Here’s something funny,” says Théo Quiblier. “For ages, the adult audience, the ones that are paying the higher ticket prices for the big shows, they always booked six months in advance, and the young audience would decide on the Friday night if they wanted to go to a show. Now we are seeing that in reverse: the young audience is booking so far in advance that you think, ‘Really?!’, and the old audience is sitting back and going, ‘Well, we will see…’”

Matthey agrees, stating, “The market is not as strong as before and I think it will take some time for confidence to fully return, because lots of people still have tickets that they bought more than two years ago on their fridge door.”

“Some artists that were just getting started got some really interesting opportunities”

Swiss talent
Another unintended consequence of the pandemic, given the Swiss market’s summer reopening last year, was the opportunity it afforded for local acts to get their names on a bill, with the usual international scene-stealers grounded in their own backyards.

“For a long time, there were no bands coming in, and Swiss bands were offered way more slots at festivals and venues,” says Kilian Mutter of Orange Peel Agency, the Swiss-focused, Lucerne-based booking agency, management company and label. “I think promoters dug a lot deeper into the Swiss music scene to fill their programmes, and some artists that were just getting started got some really interesting opportunities.”

Meanwhile, among the emerging Swiss names achieving international prominence are well-travelled indie-folk collective Black Sea Dahu, ‘80s-influenced singer Crimer, Warner-signed Tamil-Swiss artist Priya Ragu, the London-based Kings Elliot, and the Swiss standard-bearer Sophie Hunger, who has chalked up five Swiss number-one albums while making inroads into Austria and Germany.

The process has been one of increasing musical self-assurance, says Mutter. “Back in the day, many Swiss bands were copying whatever was happening in the market in the UK or the US, but just five years too late all the time. Now it feels like there’s been a lot of really interesting projects coming up.”

“There is a lot of talent now breaking through internationally”

Stefan Schurter, of booking and management agency deepdive, who handles Swiss artists Veronica Fusaro and beatboxer/sampler Arthur Henry, believes outside attitudes to Swiss music are being forcibly reset.

“People still talk about DJ BoBo and Krokus and Yello when it comes to Switzerland, but there is a lot of talent now breaking through internationally,” he says.

Festivals
While Switzerland had its share of lockdowns, it also was allowed to welcome crowds for significant summer periods. So while titans such as Paléo, OpenAir St. Gallen, Openair Frauenfeld, Greenfield Festival, and Rock the Ring cancelled their summer 2021 editions, a return to full-capacity concerts in July allowed others to salvage something.

Montreux Jazz Festival, for instance, produced a ‘small is beautiful’ edition for its 55th event from July 2-17, with tickets only on sale the month before and Arlo Parks, Woodkid, Ibrahim Maalouf and Rag ‘n’ Bone Man on the bill. Open Air Gampel and Heitere Open Air Zofingen snuck in scaled-back versions, while Gadget abc staged SummerDays in Arbon, Seaside in Spiez, and Unique Moments in Zürich, all in their regular forms.

“Last summer, Switzerland had a small late festival season, but we had regular festivals without any restrictions other than the [vaccination] certificate,” says Huber. “And I think the confidence is here now because the figures of incidents then were really, really low.”

Needless to say, the big names are roaring back this summer. Live Nation’s Frauenfeld offers A$AP Rocky, Megan Thee Stallion, J. Cole, and Tyler, The Creator. OpenAir St. Gallen has Muse and Mando Diao. Act Entertainment’s Greenfield, Switzerland’s biggest rock festival, presents Volbeat, Korn, and Billy Talent. Gurten collects Black Eyed Peas, Erykah Badu, Chemical Brothers and Megan Thee Stallion, again.

“We’re really looking forward to getting back to normality”

Montreux, meanwhile, makes up for lost time with a line-up encompassing Diana Ross, Van Morrison, A-Ha, Björk and Nick Cave, as well as new favourites including Phoebe Bridgers, Stormzy, Arlo Parks and Self Esteem. Baloise Session in Basel will also return from 28 October to 17 November, but does not announce its programme until late August.

Nonetheless, Baloise Session promoter Beatrice Stirnimann is enthusiastic about getting back to in-person gigs after two years of livestreaming festival performances. “But the livestreaming was good and we’re examining how we can keep that going in future years,” she says. This year, it’s all about live shows again, thankfully.”

Having endured the tough times, Baloise recently signed a multi-year deal with the city of Basel as part of a marketing partnership to promote the Basel-Stadt canton. In the meantime, the excitement levels in the Baloise Session organisation are rising, ahead of the line-up announcement in August.

“We will have ten nights; two shows per night,” adds Stirnimann. “We only had two acts confirmed from 2020 who could carry over until this year, so it’s been a lot of work to confirm everything, but we’re really looking forward to getting back to normality.”

Elsewhere, Paléo leads with KISS, Sting, Angèle and others, and Hassenstein declares himself satisfied, while ruing what might have been in 2020, when Céline Dion was the jewel in the crown.

“In 2020, we had a very good line-up indeed,” he says. “It is still a very good line-up, though it has changed a bit. But we sold all the tickets in a few minutes, so obviously it is a dream line-up. Kiss is going to be very unique. Their production is massive – I think they are coming with 11 trucks. And then we have all the acts who couldn’t play the last two years and the ones who broke through during that time.”

Like other promoters with a stake in both, Michael Drieberg makes a distinction between the concerts and festival markets this year. His Sion Sous Les Étoiles festival, not far from the French border, has Deep Purple, Uriah Heep and Julien Doré and is selling strongly. “I even think we will break a record,” says Drieberg. “We should do our best year ever.”

“Nowadays, you can’t put all your eggs in one basket”

Venues
Between the Hallenstadion, Kongresshaus and Komplex 457 in Zürich, the 9,500-cap Geneva Arena, and Lausanne’s Les Docks, Switzerland has plenty of well-known venues.

It also added a number of new ones in the years before the pandemic, including the 5,000-cap Samsung Hall and 3,500-capacity Halle 622 in Zürich. Lausanne’s Vaudoise Aréna is a more recent newcomer – an 11,500-cap arena for ice hockey and concerts man- aged by AEG Facilities. This year, it has welcomed Texas, with Kendrick Lamar due in October.

The 47-year-old St. Jakobshalle in Basel reopened in 2018 after a renovation, and director Thomas Kastl acknowledges the difficulties of the last couple of years.

“It has not been an easy time,” he says. “Our industry has suffered greatly, with countless events that could not take place. But the multifunctionality of our location was to our advantage. Since we operate another ten halls in the building in addition to the main arena, a lot of events took place there. Luckily, it was possible to host small events or to carry out sports, while complying with the safety and distance regulations. So, except for a few months when our building was spookily empty, there was always something going on.”

In the coming year at St. Jakobshalle Basel, you’ll see The Cure, Dropkick Murphys, and Bring Me The Horizon. “Hosting concerts in our arena is always a special thrill,” says Kastl. “The energy and the atmosphere with more than 10,000 guests in the arena are truly special and make our hearts beat a little faster.”

At the same time, he says, a pandemic gives you new perspectives. “We have grown with the situation but also had to critically question some things. Our USP is our multifunctionality. We are not just one hall or arena, and the focus can be shifted. We want to continue to offer a diverse portfolio. As before, we will to keep our main focus on events and sports and even strengthen and expand it but also break new ground with new business areas. Nowadays you can’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

 


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