Nick Hobbs on why livestreamed gigs are unlikely to reduce demand for the real thing and why more must be done to encourage young acts to hone their craft
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Following King Charles' coronation, revisit IQ's focus on the UK's live music business from the Global Promoters Report
By IQ on 08 May 2023
“It’s a really interesting time,” says Steve Homer, CEO of AEG Presents UK, an understatement that’s echoed by several major promoters in one of Europe’s largest music markets. “There are some great sales and tours but still some acts out there, that would in previous times be performing much better, are struggling to gain any momentum. It results in a bit of a head scratch for promoters.”
A head scratch indeed. The UK has found itself facing a unique set of challenges and opportunities in 2022, some thrust upon it and others very much of its own making. On the plus side, as the initial post-pandemic downturn in ticket sales eases, there has been much for the major players to celebrate. Festival Republic, the country’s premier festival promoters, in charge of Latitude, Wireless, and others, comfortably sold out its flagship Reading & Leeds weekend in August. Glastonbury 2022, the first edition of the legendary event since 2019, was a storming, largely rain-free success. All genres have bounced firmly back from the pandemic, too – Homer, who has seen tickets fly off the web for tours by Michael Bublé, Diana Ross, Pet Shop Boys, and Blondie this year, points to Rammstein’s sell-out tour as “a triumph for rock music in a market where people are saying rock is a dying genre. It is so encouraging to see a rock act at the top of their game play sell-out stadium shows.”
Promoters, from the international level of Live Nation and SJM Concerts to the independent likes of Crosstown Concerts, have seen an incredibly busy year, as the post-pandemic backlog of artists wanting to tour has played out. “We are still playing catch up from the pandemic,” says Homer. “The displacement of artists touring over the past two years has skewed the market, and it’s going to take a while to get back to something that can be predicted in the same way, or as close to, as it was before.” He advises a cautious approach. “Taking a no-risk strategy for the next 12 months is a good starting point.”
“The live industry has well and truly bounced back this year and continues to work towards pre-pandemic business, making up for lost time”
Others have thrown themselves headlong into the challenge. In Scotland, DF Concerts had a record-breaking summer, with 33 major outdoor, stadium, or festival events bringing £72.4m into the Scottish economy between June and August, on top of the 1,000 smaller gigs they put on this year. “The live industry has well and truly bounced back this year and continues to work towards pre-pandemic business, making up for lost time,” says DF’s CEO Geoff Ellis. “We were involved in bringing some huge tours to Scotland this summer, including Harry Styles’ Love on Tour; Coldplay’s Music of the Spheres world tour; The Hella Mega Tour with Green Day, Fall Out Boy, and Weezer; Billie Eilish; Haim; Liam Gallagher; and Calvin Harris all in Glasgow. And we are very proud to have promoted the biggest ever shows by a Scottish artist with two sold-out Hampden Stadium shows for Gerry Cinnamon this year.”
Ellis and DF take much personal satisfaction in the success of his two shows at Falkirk Stadium with The Killers, the first time the venue had been used for such large-scale gigs, and in the Coldplay tour, having worked with the band since they were playing 300-capacity venues including Glasgow’s legendary King Tut’s back in 1999. He also lauds their commitment to environmentally friendly touring. “With Coldplay and Billie Eilish, in particular, it’s great to see everything come to life that they are so passionate about when it comes to making touring sustainable,” he says. “It was a real eye-opener and something that I hope more tours take into consideration going forward.”
At another major UK promotion company, Kilimanjaro, CEO Stuart Galbraith looks back on the company’s busiest year ever, with 750 shows on sale at one point. “To then deliver all of those one by one,” he says, “whether it was Craig David, whether it was Simply Red, whether it was Hans Zimmer in arenas, Bring Me The Horizon, just getting through the workload and a similar workload at theatre-level [was amazing]. This summer we had a tremendous return with Belladrum festival, Scotland’s biggest camping festival. We weren’t able to run in 2020 or 2021, so coming back in ‘22 was both challenging but hugely rewarding. Challenging because after not doing it for three years there were many things that were automatic that had been forgotten, but the reception by the audience and the satisfaction to the team at running a sold-out festival was just brilliant.”
“Brexit caused the problems we all knew it would”
Galbraith sees holding onto his team through the pandemic as just as great an achievement as the company’s musical revival. “Not having to lay anybody off during the pandemic,” he says, “we’re very pleased to have been able to keep the team together.” The effects of lockdown did ripple through into 2022, however. “We’ve seen the lasting effects of the pandemic through this summer,” he says. “We’ve got two or three tours left that are rescheduled or re-rescheduled twice, three times rescheduled, and other than that we’re now into new product. The summer had some huge successes but also had some huge challenges. But I’m hoping that we will see next summer be a much more normal marketplace.”
Kilimanjaro saw some form of normality begin to return with the arrival of a copper-topped hero. “One of the first tours that we had to play this summer that was not affected by Covid was Ed Sheeran,” Galbraith says. “We were able to go on sale with Ed in late September last year when there was a period of time where everybody thought that Covid was gone and then to be able to play that tour starting in May and running through to July, and in his case running through September in Europe, it placed itself perfectly, so people didn’t have any Covid effect to deal with.” He, too, repeats the UK promoter mantra for 2022: “It’s been an interesting year.”
Interesting due to its perfect storm of post-pandemic challenges. “Brexit caused the problems we all knew it would,” says Homer, referring to the much-publicised barriers to international touring for UK acts arising from Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. The additional visa, cabotage, and carnet issues have reportedly seen British artists’ international festival bookings fall by 45% since 2019 and increased costs to the point of making European tours unfeasible for smaller acts – Best for Britain CEO Naomi Smith has claimed that Brexit is “strangling the next generation of UK talent in the cradle.” Likewise, international acts have been discouraged from playing the UK by the increased red tape.
“Exchange rates have created the real financial issues for artists”
At the same time, the UK has suffered the same increased production costs due to the Ukraine war-fuelled inflation and post-pandemic labour shortages in the industry that much of the rest of the world has. But they’ve been exacerbated by the government’s lack of support for – often freelance – music industry workers and musicians, and the local cost-of-living crisis being deepened by Liz Truss’s short-lived but disastrous tenure as PM. The collapse of the pound and the ensuing recession following Truss’s mini budget was swiftly followed by the cancellation of UK tours by the likes of Animal Collective, Santigold, and Sampa the Great, citing the economic impossibility of making them work.
“It’s hard to tell whether it’s Brexit, whether it’s a recession, or whether it’s war, but all of them have had a combined effect to make it harder for artists to be on the road,” says Galbraith. “We’re certainly seeing a difficulty at mid-level for international touring acts, especially American acts that we’re potentially paying in local currency but are incurring most of their costs in US dollars. With the exchange rate as it is, and then you add to it supply chain issues, increased costs, etc. You can see that it’s difficult for acts, and certainly we’ve lost some tours at that theatre-level where acts have just turned around to us and said, ‘we can’t afford to come.’ Equally, we’ve got other tours that we’ve been working on for a long time that were waiting to be confirmed that have just now disappeared, again because the global conditions don’t lend themselves to make financially viable touring possible. That’s not the case at stadium-level or to some extent arena-level where there’s obviously profits to be made, but certainly at survival touring-level, it’s very tough.”
“Exchange rates have created the real financial issues for artists,” says Homer. “The dollar rate is so poor currently [that] a lot of US artists are considering [not] touring in the UK and Europe – this could have a real impact on the mid-range to smaller artists.”
“The audiences are here, ready and waiting, and there is a really strong artist pipeline over the next couple of years”
Galbraith also raises concerns over potential power cut measures that the UK government is suggesting to combat the current energy crisis – “as is the case in Germany, I’m sure that most countries will not be prioritising entertainment locations for priority power supplies. Those will go first to hospitals and to domestic residences” – and that insurance policies won’t cover shows cancelled due to Covid.
“I think most people now approach Covid like any other disease, and flu is a good comparator,” he says. “If you’re too ill to sing or you’re too ill to perform, then fine, we lose the show. But just because you’re now testing positive doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily not going to go on. What it does mean, though, is that with every insurance policy having Covid as an exclusion, if somebody can’t sing because they’ve got a cough or a cold or similar symptoms, you’ve got to get a doctor’s note to prove whether they have Covid or not because the irony is, if they’ve got flu, we can claim on insurance, if they’ve got Covid, we can’t.” He does, however, see a silver lining to the UK’s problems in terms of increased demand for local festivals next year. “The pound being so weak in the international markets now, package holidays will be more
expensive,” he says, “so it could be that summer ‘23 becomes a staycation year.”
Indeed, the major UK promoters are all largely optimistic about the coming year. “2023 is looking similar in terms of the scale of shows that we are going to have,” says Ellis. “Already we’ve announced stadium shows with Harry Styles, and Mötley Crüe & Def Leppard; greenfield shows with Arctic Monkeys and Muse; plus TRNSMT and Connect Festival, with more outdoor shows to come. The audiences are here, ready and waiting, and there is a really strong artist pipeline over the next couple of years – there are so many young artists coming up in Scotland at the moment, such as Katie Gregson-MacLeod, Bemz, Cara McBride, Dylan John Thomas, Ewan McVicar, Frazi.er, and so many more, and the genre of music is very varied – from acoustic singer-songwriters; rap and hip-hop; indie, pop, and everything in between. So, it’s looking like we’ll be back stronger than ever in terms of the offering of live music and the number of artists on tour.”
“We’re seeing strong attendances at club nights, showcase nights, and on the pub circuit”
“Demand has come back fine at most levels, with the exception of the older-audience level,” says Galbraith. “Certainly, theatre, musical theatre, and classical [are] slower to come back than contemporary rock and pop. If you speak to any orchestra manager or sinfonia or symphonic hall, they’ll tell you that their attendances are anything between 20 and 30% down still. […] I think the strong [acts] will get stronger, and the weak will get weaker. As people head into what widely seems to be accepted as a recession, instead of going out three or four times in a year or a month, people will go out two or three times or once or twice, and they’ll go out to see their favourites. So, I think you’ll see many stadium tours and arena tours that will do great business, but you will see potentially less of them.”
And the key to breaking through in such an unpredictable climate? Galbraith cites a dedicated approach to digital marketing and good old-fashioned talent. “The best method is to just have good-quality music,” he says. “Quality will out. There are more and more routes to market and methods to find a customer base. We’re seeing strong attendances at club nights, showcase nights, and on the pub circuit. But I think it’s just to continue to write great music and, if you’re able to and you can afford to, then gig and build it that way.” Interesting times, it seems, are best embraced.
Rob Hallett’s Robomagic company went independent again after three years under Live Nation. The longstanding promoter has decades of experience in the industry, as an agent and promoter with Barrie Marshall’s Marshall Arts, Mean Fiddler, and then establishing AEG Live in the UK in 2005, before establishing Robomagic ten years later.
“At the moment, if you choose well, and you get your marketing right, things work well,” says Hallett. “I think the market still seems buoyant.
“I’m old enough to remember the last big recession, and we still got through it as an industry and people will still want to go to shows. People want to be entertained. So, I’m hopeful that we’ll get through this.”
The Global Promoters Report is published in print, digitally, and all content is also available as a year-round resource on the IQ site. The Global Promoters Report includes key summaries of the major promoters working across 40+ markets, unique interviews and editorial on key trends and developments across the global live music business.To access all content from the current Global Promoters Report, click here.