Solving the supply chain crisis
Experts from the production and touring industries have been getting together to find solutions to the current supply chain problems that threaten to dampen the excitement after two years of no concerts. James Drury finds out more.
“We’re going to see a return to the roaring ’20s” was the refrain from the live industry last year as the global lockdowns eased and audiences seemed to be straining at the leash to get back to the concerts they’d missed so dearly. Promoters, agents and artists, keen to make up for two years or more of lost touring business, were just as eager to get back on the road. Although it was online only, the fizzing optimism of ILMC 33 could be felt through the screen.
But just as confidence grew among audiences, the knock-on effects of Covid, Brexit – and many would argue longstanding problems of low pay and long hours – are hitting the industry. There’s simply not enough crew, security, drivers, trucks, equipment, staging and everything else needed to fulfil all these shows. So what’s going on, and what can be done to solve what’s being dubbed “the supply chain crisis”?
“The live events supply chain problem is a term that is being used frequently at the moment. It’s being suggested that it has been caused by the pandemic. But that’s not necessarily true”
Production experts worldwide have teamed up across three conferences to share information about supply chain problems. They got together at ILMC in London, Pollstar Live! In Los Angeles, and EPIC at Eurosonic Noorderslag in the Netherlands to find solutions to this ongoing issue and share them with the industry through this report.
In many ways, the problems we’re facing are nothing new, as industry veteran Carl AH Martin points out: “The live events supply chain problem is a term that is being (ab)used frequently at the moment. It’s being suggested that it has been caused by the pandemic. But that’s not necessarily true. At the Event Safety & Security Summit (E3S) in 2017, a panel discussed the lack of security personnel throughout Europe due to a lack of money to pay sensible rates. In 2018/19, at both the IPM and Event Production Forum East (EPFE) conferences, there was discussion about the lack of personnel and materials.”
What challenges are we facing, and what’s causing them?
That noted, discussions on this current situation heated up in January. At EPIC, Okan Tombulca, CEO of global touring logistics specialists eps, raised alarm bells about what he saw were promoters’ intentions to squeeze two years of shows into eight months. He told the panel that we’re in a rare situation where a lack of equipment was now the deciding factor whether a gig could happen or not: “no stage, no gig,” he pointed out.
Equipment is in short supply for a variety of reasons. Tower lights are hard to get hold of because they have gone out to the construction and road-building industries; marquee and tent companies have found different markets, such as, the new £19bn (€22bn) east-west London railway, Crossrail, and use in Covid testing centres. Temporary buildings are being used as vaccination centres and temporary medical units. LED lighting is reportedly 25% more expensive than pre-pandemic, and prices for most equipment have skyrocketed. However, at Pollstar Live!, Jeroen Hallaert of PRG rightly pointed out that equipment from 2020 is still perfectly good to use. He challenged designers to use existing inventory rather than create productions using the latest tech.
In addition to not having enough production equipment to go around, there’s a severe staffing shortage. At Eurosonic’s EPIC, Oliver Gardiner from Vespasian Security in the UK, said staff have been lost during the pandemic to Covid vaccination centres. And many have left the industry – choosing instead to take full-time work in sectors that enable them to be at home more with their families or to have a better work-life balance than is offered by the music industry.
Illustrating this crisis, Martina Pogacic, who runs production company Show Production Ltd in Croatia and the Balkans, told EPIC that over 300,000 people had left the region, mainly to Germany and Ireland, while others have left the industry or died. As a result, locally promoted events are suffering. The knock-on effect is that newcomers to the industry can’t get the experience and skills they need to get fully trained.
“Not only must the show go on, it will”
Maarten Arkenbout from trucking company Pieter Smit said the increase in fuel costs and the loss of drivers to other industries means, like many firms, they are no longer able to guarantee their prices until the client confirms the work.
However, Michael Strickland, co-chair and founder of Bandit Lites, told Pollstar Live! “not only must the show go on, it will.”
But at what price? There are very real concerns that overstretched and understaffed production teams could lead to a serious accident. Even if the staffing issues are solved, production costs are skyrocketing at a time when many countries around the world are feeling the pinch of inflationary pressures. Will audiences swallow significant ticket price hikes, or will they choose to go to fewer concerts? Promoters could well be about to take some serious financial hits.
Artists also haven’t realised costs are rising and that this will reduce their income. They’re going to have to accept that for a while, they might not make as much money from touring. And while that’s less of an issue for the top flight of acts, what’s going to happen to smaller bands that make up the vast majority of the live touring industry? This is a problem that hasn’t been fully borne out yet. What effects will either massively reduced income or a lack of touring opportunities have on acts that don’t fill arenas?
“We’ve got tougher times ahead, but we can do it”
Having said all this, one thing the production industry excels at is finding solutions. “The show must go on” is a cliché for a reason, and there’s a feeling of determination to resolve this pinch point.
Paul Sergeant from international venues giant ASM Global said Covid had galvanised the industry like nothing before. “We’ve got tougher times ahead,” he told IPM, “but we can do it.”
The 7 Ps – the old British Army adage “Proper Planning & Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance” – has never been truer in these constrained times.
“It’s all about talking with clients. We say ‘plan to be late and over budget'”
In an effort to lock in prices and maintain some sort of stability in their budgets, some companies are seeking to contract suppliers on a longer-term basis. While this has the advantage of providing revenue security to suppliers, there’s also a downside. Bonnie May, CEO of catering and hospitality giant Global Infusion Group, said volatility in costs means it’s a struggle to ensure that margins remain sufficient over the lifetime of the contract. “How do we ensure year three is as cost-effective for us as year one?” she asked IPM.
Group COO at EFM Global, Lisa Ryan, said communication is vital. “It’s all about talking with clients. We say ‘plan to be late and over budget.’”
Consolidation of equipment
Faced with massive price increases and scarcity of equipment, more and more promoters are choosing to buy their own kit, such as staging.
Eps CEO Okan Tombulca said his company is frequently approached by promoters seeking to create joint ventures to buy equipment together – particularly in the US. He says Live Nation, for example, recently bought production for 28 stadiums and is touring eight bands through the venues, using the same set-up at all shows – much like at a festival. The bands are being told they have to use the set-ups in situ rather than bring their own production.
In Australia, the five major promoters got together, shared their lists of scheduled major shows over the next three years, and then invited vendors to make the equipment, leaving it in each of the major cities for all shows. The concept of “make it once and leave it there” is an effort to prevent huge convoys of trucks constantly crisscrossing the continent, plus the huge transport costs of getting gear there.
In the UK, Kilimanjaro-owned festival organiser UK Live already owns the kit it requires, deciding a few years back to acquire everything needed. They have toilets, staging, sound and more and are considering hiring them out to others, renting the greenfield set-ups to other promoters, or adding show days.
All this is old news for John Lickrish of Flash Events in Abu Dhabi. His company owns all its own production and has done since it formed. “When we started in 2007, we wanted to start the events industry in the region. So we trained people and invested in equipment.” He says this inspires strong loyalty in the staff, who tend to stay with the firm.
“We’ve been underpaying everyone for so long, and that’s going to come home to roost”
Pay & conditions
Long hours, being away from home for weeks or more at a time, below-average pay: life in music can be glamorous, but it’s not always attractive for everyone. A key reason for the staffing crisis is the pandemic not only saw people leave for full-time positions in other industries rather than zero-hours freelance roles. Equally, being forced to spend more time at home made them realise they preferred not being away from family and friends. So how can we attract people back?
An obvious solution is to pay people more. As Kilimanjaro CEO Stuart Galbraith pointed out at ILMC: “We’ve been underpaying everyone for so long, and that’s going to come home to roost.
You can’t blame a truck driver for working for Amazon if they can get more money and be at home at the weekends.” He predicted shows would likely be lost, sharing that a tour manager he knows has 16 shows but not enough staff to fill them all.
During that ILMC panel, an audience member reported that in Denmark, stagehands had seen a 10% increase in their hourly rates. Staging manager Mark Hornbuckle from ES Global said some stagehands were being offered increased fees from £220-$300 (€257) a day to £300 (€346). And crew boss rates are £280-£350 (€323-€498) a day.
It’s not just pay. Keeping staff and freelancers happy while they’re at work is just as important
But it’s not just pay. Keeping staff and freelancers happy while they’re at work is just as important. Flexible hours and opportunities to train and progress are vital. José Faísca from Portugal’s Arena Altice says his company helps train security staff, even though they don’t own the company. “They’ve worked with me for more than 15 years. They see our company as their own.” He says training staff, giving them opportunities to grow, a fair salary, and rights, is fundamental to ensuring motivated staff. And motivated staff will not only stay with you but ensure the customer has a great time, too.
The opportunity to work from home is also key to ensuring staff have a good work-life balance. But it’s important for people to come to the office to get the collaborative working skills and pick up and learn from others. An upside of having a flexible work-from-home set-up is you can tap into people who live far from your offices, enabling you to have even greater diversity of workforce. Global Infusion’s May said her company offers people as much unpaid leave as they want during the quieter months of January and February.
Some venues are discussing with the rigging crew about having static equipment in venues, leaving it there but providing a “guarantee of work” for riggers, so they know they’ll get paid.
There’s certainly an appetite to help recruit more young blood and train up the staff of the future
Many in the industry are calling for more production courses at universities. Plenty of people said that when they left school they had no idea about the career they’ve pursued and feel if more school-leavers knew this is a viable career, they would choose to
take it up. There’s certainly an appetite to help recruit more young blood and train up the staff of the future.
Bryan Grant from production company Britannia Row said his firm started its own training scheme as a way of making a difference and ensuring people are taught everything they need to know to start in the business. He added that they get great feedback about their trained crew, whether or not they stay with his company or go on to other things.
ASM Global’s Sergeant says Australia has a Venue Management School for venue staff that offers diplomas following successful completion of courses. “This is a career option just as much as being a doctor or truck driver or lawyer,” he says, adding the Venue Management Association-run school is very active in recruiting people from other industries, as well as people who have retired and want to try something different, such as being a steward.
“The current supply chain model is not the one we should be having for the next ten years”
While production costs increase but consumers face inflationary pressure, there’s going to be little room for passing on the cost increases to ticket holders. One solution could be to take smaller productions out. That’s not just good from a bottom-line perspective but also will be vital in the future from a sustainability point of view.
“Ultimately, all of us have to say to the artist ‘the current supply chain model is not the one we should be having for the next ten years. We can’t be driving 30 trucks around Europe and saying this is how it’s going to be on the stage every time,” said Galbraith.
Flash Entertainment’s Lickrish said the Middle East doesn’t usually get the full production – and he doesn’t miss it at all. “It’s all about the crowd experience. Them having a good time is the most important thing,” he said.
“Cutting back on these productions will benefit the artist, too – because they spend less. The audience won’t notice. While bells and whistles are great, it’s about having a wonderful time.”
Not only this but audiences will increasingly be looking to artists to think about sustainability when touring. It won’t be socially acceptable for touring to have a huge impact on the environment.
“The solution to supply chain issues is cooperation and sharing of information because together we’re more efficient
Collaboration is key
One of the best things to come out of Covid was the level of cooperation happening in the industry. Competitors talked to each other, and the whole industry came together to support each other, find solutions, and work as one.
Says Galbraith: “If there’s one conclusion, the solution to supply chain issues is cooperation and sharing of information because together we’re more efficient. We’re going to see this level of cooperation for the next decade for sustainability reasons and more.”
It might sound ambitious, but we’re facing unprecedented times. The immediate health impacts of Covid may be lessening for now, but the knock-on effects are just as challenging and will require an equally collaborative approach to resolve them.
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IPM 15: Production heads on perfect storm of Covid and Brexit
The IPM programme concluded with what organisers referred to as the mega panel – a session that revolved around the current industry conditions, summed up by the strapline Covid & Brexit: The Perfect Storm.
Split into two parts, the mega panel involved multiple guest speakers from around the world, with Bonnie May from Global Infusion Group chairing part one and applauding those businesses who managed to get through the survival period by adapting their operations to negotiate two years of severely impacted activities.
Indeed, with the war in Ukraine adding to that ‘perfect storm’ analogy, hiking costs even higher and exacerbating the supply chain crisis, May turned to a plethora of experts to tell their stories over the past two years, as well as citing their early experiences of the industry recovery.
Singapore-based Paul Sergeant (ASM Global) underlined the fact that a lot of debt had been incurred during the Covid pandemic and that would continue to impact the live entertainment sector over the coming months and years. He advocated the pandemic’s effect on improving communications from top to bottom in his company as a massive tool in motivating employees.
Sergeant also talked up the Venue Management school in Australia that has been running for about 30 years and awards people diplomas when they graduate. He said that numerous sectors across the live entertainment business in Australia had bought into that programme and market its benefits to their various audiences.
“I’m still now educating people who have only started getting back out in the road”
José Faisca from Altice Arena in Portugal highlighted the importance of everyone in the live entertainment ecosphere that make the industry work – and the fact that those at the bottom of the food chain need more help and support than those who are at the top, if they are going to remain part of the business, rather than taking their skills elsewhere.
“We are better together,” he stated, adding that treating the freelancers and suppliers as part of his company’s extended family – eating together, inviting everyone to team meetings, and investing in training – encourages an atmosphere where everybody is happy to work for the health of the company. “We sometimes invite the families of our suppliers, the riggers, etc, to events so that they can see what their loved ones do and the results they help produce,” he revealed.
Asthie Wendra, a show director and stage manager from Indonesia said her team was almost back to full strength post-pandemic, despite the fact that many found work elsewhere, suggesting that lot of people want to return to the live entertainment environment in her country. Wendra also highlighted the importance of education and training in the workforce. “They need to get something other than money, but education and helping them return to the industry and see that they can have a career there helps us to do that,” she said.
Lisa Ryan (EFM Global) said Covid was a blessing for the Brexit factor, as the industry probably would not have coped had there been the normal level of events through the red tape nightmare, carnets and other new regulations thrown up by the aftermath of the UK leaving the European Union. “I’m still now educating people who have only started getting back out in the road,” she said, hinting at the carnage that could await the business when the busy summer season kicks in. She adds, “I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I’ve never seen anything like this [situation].”
Ryan and May agreed that improving the conditions for employees was a crucial part of keeping people motivated and retaining their skills in the industry, with both citing pay rises, better holiday terms, facilitating people to work from home on flexible hours, and even allowing staff to relocate abroad to fulfil life ambitions. However, they acknowledged the difficulty of recruiting new people to the industry, as well as attracting people back who may have found work elsewhere that offer them a more settled life-work balance.
“I don’t think the artists have realised yet that the costs have gone up and the profits will be less”
Part two of the mega panel was chaired by eps holding chief Okan Tombulca who explained that he has been on a number of conference sessions during the past year to specifically address the supply chain issues that are beginning to hit the international industry, both in terms of personnel and equipment. He voiced his personal opinion that the business is continually in a perfect storm, in terms of spiralling costs and pressure.
Andrew Zweck (Sensible Events) suggested it’s too early to know if artists have changed their views because of the various limitations that are hitting the business post-Covid. “I don’t think the artists have realised yet that the costs have gone up and the profits will be less. It’s unfolding now as we speak and that problem is not fully understood by the artists.” He added that the fact there are no double drivers this year is having an impact on tour plans, including at least one stadium show he had to cancel because they could not get a stage for that date.
“Artists are going to have less and I’m not sure they know that yet,” Zweck added, noting that he did not know who was going to tell them.
Production manager Phay Mac Mahon reported that the production side of the industry has lost about 30% of its workforce. “It’s the vendors’ time – they don’t need to reply to you because they are so busy trying to fulfil the contracts that they have,” said Mac Mahon. “With larger artists it’s planned further ahead, but for the younger artists it’s tough because their production manager might not be able to get the answers and therefore they may not be able to get the suppliers.”
Julia Frank from Wizard Promotions in Germany revealed that she started calling around a year ago for a certain tour for summer 2022. “I’m now just six weeks from that tour starting and I’m still ten riggers short,” she said.
“I’m now just six weeks from that tour starting and I’m still ten riggers short”
Anna Golden of UK promoters Kilimanjaro Live revealed that the company’s focus was on UK touring artists and outdoor shows. “We’ve been in constant communications with our suppliers so that at least they know these shows will definitely happen,” she said. “One of the festivals that Kili owns has actually bought its own stage because we have a five-year plan and that was financially more viable.”
Tombulca pondered whether that might be a new concept for promoters to own the infrastructure. Mac Mahon countered that the artist ego and ambitions for bigger and bigger shows might work against that. “Artist ego is the vendor’s best friend,” said Mac Mahon.
Zweck noted that the likes of the Royal Albert Hall has its own in-house lights and PA that it encourages bands to use, which also helps with sustainability. And he told IPM that in Australia, agreements are in place that equipment will stay in specific cities this year for artists to share, rather than shipping that kit on long journies for days at a time between venues. And on a similar theme, Tombulca says Live Nation has set up 28 stadia across America with exactly the same stages and kit for the summer.
Delegate Bryan Grant from Britannia Row noted that there is not enough equipment in the world to supply all the tours that are going out this year, revealing he had tried to fly in kit from South Africa for some of his events, only to be told it had already gone on rent in Germany.
Tombulca also touched on the impact of the war in Ukraine. Frank said the cost of fuel was the obvious impact, but she had not seen any difference in ticket sales in Germany. However, Zweck said it was another doubt to plant in the mind of the ticket seller for festivals and tours in the latter part of this year, going into 2023.
We’re in for a tough year, but humans are resilient and we will find a way”
Lisa Ryan from EFM Global noted that many of the Antinov aircraft that might be used for bigger tours are grounded in Russia and the Ukraine, while the biggest of all was recently destroyed in the conflict.
And speaking from the point of view in the Baltics, Renatas Nacajus from ISEG in Lithuania reported that ticket sales dropped immediately when the Ukraine war started, as confidence disappeared from the market.
Golden concluded that this summer is just about surviving and getting through 2022 as best as possible. Frank agreed. “It’s like going back to the 90s – it’s not going to be pretty, but it will do,” she stated.
Zweck commented, “We’re in for a tough year, but humans are resilient and we will find a way. Market forces will have a correction in terms of giving more money to the people at the lower end. But overall I’m pessimistic and I think when we look back in two years, we’ll struggle to see what we learned from Covid and we’ll be back to the greed of the big promoters and that will become rampant again.”
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IPM Says! returns with second virtual panel
The second virtual IPM Says! panel took place this morning (2 June), welcoming five international event professionals to discuss the current state of the production sector and a positive way forward from the shutdown.
Joining host Carl AH Martin for “It ain’t all Doom & Gloom!”: The sequel – which followed June’s inaugural IPM Says! session – were Lisa Ryan of EFM Global Logistics, Dutch Music Export’s Marcel Albers, Nick Love of the UK’s Assess All Areas, Sanjin Corovic of Serbia’s Production Pool and Sophie Ridley from Safents Consulting (Ireland).
After referencing today’s #LetTheMusicPlay campaign in the UK, which is calling for government support for the beleaguered live industry, Martin asked to share their own experiences of the past four months, as well as how their local markets have adapted to the coronavirus crisis.
Ryan said the global production sector’s recovery relies on lifting on restrictions on both mass gatherings and border crossings. “The fact that there’s no consistency and no real certainty around who can travel, and whether they have to quarantine when they get there” is preventing the industry getting restarted, she suggested.
Albers praised the Dutch government response in the early days of the crisis, when authorities stepped in to stop production companies from collapsing. However, he said he shares Martin’s concern that many smaller firms may still go under, saying that future aid must be distributed fairly in order to ensure the survival of businesses of all sizes.
“Some events are happening … It’s not much, but it’s something”
In response to a question from Miller’s Martin Goebbels, which asked whether production staff would be willing to work uninsured while Covid-19 is still a threat, Love said crew must decide for themselves. “There will be some who will take the risk, and there’ll be others who want to be cautious about their health and won’t go back to work,” he explained. Love suggested it would be very unlikely for events to be face any legal action as a result of any infection, explaining: “There’s no way to prove the outbreak originated at any one point in time.”
Ridley suggested disclaimers could be the answer to liability concerns, noting she is involved in a television production on which everyone has to sign one. “Whether it holds up, whether it can actually be enforced” is debatable, she said, “but we are having to sign a disclaimer.”
Describing the situation in Serbia, Corovic said events look likely to return later this year. “I’m not thinking as far as next spring; I’m thinking about autumn or winter,” he said. “Some events are happening and I think they’ll generate some kind of income. It’s not much, but it’s something.”
Watch the full discussion back on YouTube above.
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