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A serious setback for the Bulgarian live industry happened at the end of 2022 when Austria voted to block the country from joining the EU’s passport-free Schengen area. (Romania was also blocked, but Croatia was allowed to join.)
In July 2023, however, the European Parliament suggested that both Bulgaria and Romania will be allowed to join by the end of the year.
Stefan Elenkov, founder and CEO at Fest Team Bulgaria, says the country’s admission to the Schengen area will dramatically boost Bulgaria’s position on international touring routes.
“What we are trying to plan for next year are tours which start from Budapest, go to Bucharest, then to Sofia; and eventually, we want to open a new market for our company in Thessaloniki in Greece instead of Athens,” he says. “We’re really crossing our fingers this time for everything to go the right way.”
“We’re really crossing our fingers this time for everything to go the right way.”
The Bulgarian market is, according to Elenkov, “quite underdeveloped,” but is brimming with promise. He cites stadium shows by acts like Imagine Dragons and Black Eyed Peas in summer 2023 and other major shows from acts like Pantera and Tom Jones as proof of that but adds that the club scene is also strong.
That said, there are both infrastructure and economic issues that are restraining Bulgaria’s potential. Tours are not currently as badly affected as festivals. The former are currently deemed more affordable while the latter have struggled with attendance numbers.
“It’s much cheaper for fans to go to a concert than a festival,” argues Elenkov. “There is still inflation, there is still some small economic crisis, which impacts on the family budget. People have to choose where to spend their money. Of the five big concerts we had in Bulgaria, all of them were sold out. For festivals, on the other hand, we have seen a drop in visitors of between 15% and 30%.” He puts the drop down to people having to travel to festivals outside of the major cities, with transport and accommodation pushing up the cost.
Nevertheless, there is a focus on developing the live festival infrastructure outside of the capital, Sofia. In Plovdiv, the country’s second city, there is the Hills of Rock festival. Burgas, on the Black Sea Coast, hosts SPICE Music Festival and Burgas Summer Live is a new addition to the festival calendar. Unfortunately, Fest Team’s family-centric ARTE Feastival in Velingrad (known as The Spa Capital of The Balkans) was postponed this year.
“That was because of the huge prices of the hotels there and inflation,” says Elenkov. “But we hope that we can repeat it in the coming years.”
Plans are afoot to build more venues, but Elenkov suggests the biggest stadium in Sofia is currently not up to scratch for international acts.
Plans are afoot to build more venues, but Elenkov suggests the biggest stadium in Sofia is currently not up to scratch for international acts. Renovation plans are happening, however, with the desired effect being to help attract big international acts.
The country leans more towards live music events, but the Hot Wheels Monster Trucks event in April – a co-promote between Live Nation and Fest Team – suggests a growing focus on family events. A lack of suitable venues that can be taken over for several weeks, however, means that touring exhibitions are currently impractical. Stand-up comedy, however, is showing significant growth.
There has been increasing collaboration between local promoters since Covid, with co-promotions becoming more commonplace. Fest Team is working with electronic music specialists Yalta Club to extend the genres it works with.
Elenkov says the ultimate goal is to turn Sofia into a hub for touring acts, creating facilities for full production rehearsals and use the city as the launching point for European tours.
Other dance specialists include Metropolis and HMSU (which focuses on drum & bass). Meanwhile, CMA (Cultural-Mass Activities) handles indie/alternative, notably through Burgas Summer Live.
Elenkov says the ultimate goal is to turn Sofia into a hub for touring acts, creating facilities for full production rehearsals (as Pantera did this summer) and use the city as the launching point for European tours.
“Starting from here, acts can go to Romania and Hungary and then move forward to Western Europe,” says Elenkov.