Q&A: Russia’s Pop Farm on starting over with a new business
Russian promoter Pop Farm has rebranded and relocated, as Putin’s ruthless invasion of Ukraine continues into a second year.
Formerly based in Moscow, Pop Farm promoted artists including Ed Sheeran, Imagine Dragons, Billie Eilish, Twenty One Pilots, Royal Blood, Kasabian, The Prodigy, Arctic Monkeys and Foals, and organised the international festival, Bol.
Founders Andrey Samorukov and Dmitry Zaretsky have now launched their new promoting business, Honeycomb, headquartered in the Serbian capital of Belgrade and already operating in more than 10 European countries.
In an exclusive interview with IQ, the pair discuss what it was like to see their 10-year business decimated, how they’re building a new life and business, and why they’re feeling strangely inspired…
IQ: Putin declared war on Ukraine on 24 February 2022. At what point did you realise what it meant for your business?
We knew the week before the war, it was the end of our business. We already had calls from agents saying that the artists wanted to cancel the shows. It was obvious from the start we weren’t going to be able to continue business in Russia. At the same time, we were shocked because a war was happening and it was terrible. We were on the phone with our friends from Ukraine, asking if everyone was safe or not.
What was the damage control like for your business?
When one artist cancels a show, it’s bad. When 20 artists cancel shows, it’s a mess. Our roster was 95% international acts and obviously, all the shows were cancelled. The other 5% of our roster is domestic artists who take an anti-war stance – they are officially banned from Russia, meaning they are so-called enemies of the states. The whole business collapsed for us. The only thing we’re doing in Russia right now is refunding tickets for cancelled shows. It’s a lot of money.
“When one artist cancels a show, it’s bad. When 20 artists cancel shows, it’s a mess”
How much money did you have to refund fans for cancelled shows and festivals?
In our case, 10 million euros. We had to deal with the customers very quickly. Hundreds of thousands of people came to us in one day asking for money. We had people saying ‘I sent you an email five minutes ago. Why didn’t you refund it yet?’.
How were you physically able to process 10 million euros’ worth of refunds?
Most of it has to be managed manually because people were writing from, let’s say, 10 different emails about the same ticket and some people were trying to get refunds for shows that happened during Covid but which they did attend, so we can’t just automatically process refunds. Almost 12 months later we’re still in the process of refunding customers. We’ve got a whole team working on it. However, quite a few of our ticket buyers, especially for the festivals, said “We are going to hold on to our tickets because we want to support you for all the good that you’ve done for us in the last 10 years, so keep the money.”
“Hundreds of thousands of people came to us in one day asking for money”
Did any of the money get stuck with ticketing companies?
The market wasn’t ready to face such difficulties. The money for all of our shows was with ticketing companies, some of which went bankrupt, and it’s still our responsibility. Some were in better positions than others. Something you have to keep in mind is, if you refund the ticket, the ticketing company keeps the commission separate. They’re still doing business; we are not. Also, there were technical difficulties. If people bought tickets with Apple Pay or Google Pay, it’s almost impossible to get the money back because the technology just doesn’t exist in Russia anymore.
Did you already have a financial hangover from the Covid pandemic?
Yes. The Russian live music association called for a moratorium on refunds during the pandemic but it didn’t happen. It was pretty hard to be expected to cover all the losses during the last two years. We expected that the business would be open by summer 2022 – and we had some amazing shows lined up – and then everything we did was lost. We were just spending the money. We moved shows and then we cancelled the shows. Covid was the first blow and the second blow [the war] was the final one.
“Covid was the first blow and the second blow [the war] was the final one”
Tell us about the setup of your new business, Honeycomb.
We just rented an office in Belgrade, where we’ve relocated the whole team. The countries we’re operating in are Serbia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Croatia, Hungary, Georgia, Armenia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. In all these countries, we’ve opened companies with our local partners. We found the promoters in those places – or people related to the music business – and offered to build a company together.
And we’re not middlemen who book the shows, we are actually promoters. All the bookings come from both of us. We have a share in all these companies and we are financially involved in every show. What we get from the partners is help with lawyers and accountants, as well as relationships with venues and an understanding of the local scene. We have a centre in Belgrade that sets up marketing, ticketing, logistics and production advancing. We have very skilled production managers and promo people in all offices too. We are building a system and a network – it takes a lot of time. On one hand, it’s difficult and on the other hand, it’s inspiring us – it’s refreshing. It’s pretty difficult to start your business life again but in a strange way, it’s not bad.
“It’s pretty difficult to start your business life again but in a strange way, it’s not bad”
How much do these markets differ from Russia?
Russia is just one country but if you promote across Europe, you have to spend much more time on everything. If you’re working on a one-week tour, it takes three months. We felt there was a lot of potential in these markets. The idea was not to promote in just one market but to find their neighbouring markets and build a chain. We want to provide a service to artists and agents and managers and make their lives easier. Of course, there are financial and economic problems in these countries but we’ve been digging into these markets and there’s huge potential. But also, it’s not just about business and money but about how inspired we are. We have the chance to start from scratch and build something new, that doesn’t exist.
Have you managed to keep any of your Pop Farm clients?
We are talking to everyone and everyone wants to continue to work with us and that inspires us a lot. We had a show with Louis Tomlinson in Russia, for example, which didn’t happen due to Covid and but we have a new show with him in Greece. Last November, we promoted shows with Oliver Tree in Istanbul and Belgrade, which sold out. Those were Honeycomb’s first shows with an international act and we worked very hard on the marketing and everything. It was absolutely fantastic and very emotional. At the moment we are offering tours for international acts – club, arena and stadium levels.
“We will build cultural bridges between our countries and help very talented artists to showcase their talent”
Bol festival was a staple of your portfolio. Do you have any plans to launch a new festival in your new markets?
Yes, but we don’t just want to create a major festival with some cool and huge artists – that’s not something we’re interested in. We want to send a message about music and culture. We want to deliver a unique product that’s more than a festival with some beer and bands. Bol festival was a cultural phenomenon in Russia, it was built around community. In Russia in the mid-2010s – a time of cultural isolation and traditional values – Bol (pain) appeared; a homemade festival of independent music with an anti-commercial name. Over the next seven years, despite all the laws of the market, “Pain” has become the main festival in Russia, which unites a new generation of musicians and listeners around it — and shows how to achieve inner freedom in unfree circumstances.
Bol festival contrasted the illusions of comfort and security, which the Moscow government diligently created, with the feeling of living life in all its uncomfortable complexity. Bol abandoned the model of the festival as a celebration of consumption, focusing on energy, sound and meanings. Instead of careful programming of the user experience, Bol offered a head-on collision of genres and contexts, from which something new, unusual, and important could be born – and was born. Thus, breaking all conceivable industrial rules, Bol has become a unicorn among Moscow music festivals: a space of freedom and self-expression for people who were born in Russia at the turn of two millennia. We made a festival which wasn’t InIt’s something to be discussed with our partners in each market who have a holistic understanding of what exactly their local audience needs right now.
Have you been supported by the international live music industry during the last year?
The business is about people first, not about politics. The centre of business for us is London because all of the major agents are here and we’ve felt great support from them. And now we realise that what we’ve been doing for the last 10 years, wasn’t just about the business, it was forging good relationships and friendships which is very important for us. We will build cultural bridges between our countries and help very talented artists to showcase their talent throughout the world with our help, with our shows and with our professional skills. That’s the most important thing.
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Merit: the real equality in live music
For some years now, there has been much discussion on the subject of gender equality in the live music industry, either on stage or off. In a perfect world – and in my personal imperfect one – equality applies to promotion and profit based on merit and merit alone, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation or whatever else.
Understandably, those discriminated against in the past want to catch up and prove that they are equal to the rest, developing careers based solely on professional and artistic qualities, for which I’d offer a standing ovation (no irony whatsoever). But sometimes, things go a bit too far.
Having heard criticism at various international festivals, especially Southside, that line-ups are short of female artists, my first thought was, what if there are just not enough female artists that:
- Fit the mood of the festival?
- Are available on specific dates?
- Are just not good enough, and are far from my personal taste?
Undeniably, a festival promoter should book whoever they want, based on the quality of the music and the performance, with no regards to gender, race, sexual orientation or whatever else: ie on merit and merit alone. No act making bad music should be booked just to address balance – they should be chosen based on their music and performance.
Merit and merit alone – isn’t that what equality is about?
Similarly, everyone working on the business side of the music industry should be in positions based on their abilities. The overwhelming majority of people working for me, both full-time and freelance, are women, and this is because I see them as better qualified and more organised for the specific jobs they do. Merit and merit alone – nothing more.
The 21st century is discarding most stereotypes and the discrimination of the last 1,000 years, and the witchhunt for balanced gender, race, sexual orientation and anything else just for the sake of it has to go, too. Companies should not be ashamed of, or apologise for, having too few female employees – they should not hire people that are not good enough to do the position they are trying to fill.
Festivals should not be ashamed of, or apologise for, not having enough female acts, but they should apologise for putting together a line-up of artists who make bad music and don’t perform well.
Merit and merit alone – in the end, isn’t that what equality is all about?
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