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Lech the good times roll: Poland market report

With a new, more liberal government incoming, and a population whose demand for live entertainment is increasing year on year, Poland appears to be on the brink of a new era. However, some tricky obstacles during 2023 have made that path a bit more complex to navigate than many in the live music business would have wished. Adam Woods reports.

These are significant days in Poland – “the end of the evil times,” as prime minister-in-waiting Donald Tusk called them, after taking a close second place in the country’s parliamentary election in November, in a result that looks likely to oust the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party in favour of a centre-left coalition.

For now, liberal democracy seems to have given populism a bloody nose in the fifth-biggest nation in the EU, although certain obstacles – including an incumbent right-wing president – still remained at the time of writing.

And just as Poland’s political direction is both full of promise and yet somewhat undecided, so its live business is an intriguing work in progress. It has been buffeted lately by some familiar challenges, but it remains a maturing market with huge untapped potential, moving in the right direction. “And we know it,” says Mikołaj Ziółkowski, founder and CEO of Alter Art, promoter of Poland’s biggest festivals, including Open’er and Orange Warsaw. “We have not been using our resources to their full potential. We feel we have still got space to develop as an industry, and we are really optimistic about the upcoming year.”

Certainly, Poland has a great deal going for it. In terms of national wealth, its GDP per capita of $45,343 sits just ahead of European markets such as Portugal, Hungary, and Croatia, and not too far behind Czechia, Spain, Lithuania, and Estonia [source: IMF]. Likewise, its appetite for tickets is also formidable, and while Warsaw is clearly the focus of things, other big cities are in the mix, such as Kraków and Katowice in the south, Łódź in the centre, Poznań further west and Gdańsk on the Baltic coast.

“There’s certainly a lot of things happening,” says Good Taste Production creative director Sara Kordek. “You have lots of festivals, at all levels; you have different venues, at all levels; you have 38 million people that listen to music.”

“We now have to work twice as hard to build trust among our potential clients to make sure they have no reservations about buying tickets in advance”

It is true that the year nearly gone has been a complicated one, due to a list of factors any live professional can reel off with ease: cost of living; production and talent inflation; competition for headliners; and the effect on the market of several years’ worth of stadium shows all arriving at once.

Under these conditions, highly active Polish promoter Follow The Step came unglued in August. The heavily undersubscribed On Air and FEST Festival events were both cancelled as their parent company’s troubles mounted, and Follow The Step has since suspended operations and focused on attempting to settle its liabilities and find a buyer for certain assets.

The impact of the failure of such an ambitious promoter has been felt across the business, with sponsors losing some of their nerve and ticket-buyers questioning the safety of their investment.

“A situation like this affects everyone in the business ecosystem, including artists, industry professionals, customers, and venues,” says Konrad Kozioł, director of sales and marketing at Arena Gliwice. “We now have to work twice as hard to build trust among our potential clients to make sure they have no reservations about buying tickets in advance.”

Poland is accustomed to playing a difficult hand. With Germany to the west and Belarus and Ukraine – and, of course, Russia – to the east, it has regularly been caught in the push and pull between bigger powers, leaving a question mark against its name in the minds of many further west – booking agents among them.

“Poland stands out as a unique market in various respects”

“Poland stands out as a unique market in various respects,” says Filip Potocki at FKP Scorpio Poland. “On one hand, the enthusiasm for live events in the country is comparable to that of the largest European markets, with Warsaw closely trailing its Western counterparts. However, on the other hand, Poland’s geopolitical location poses challenges that can significantly impact the industry.”

But particularly in Poland’s big cities, which typically are strongly pro-Ukraine and pro-EU, the electoral swing towards Europe feels like a welcome platform for good things to come.

“All the economic predictions for next year are very good,” says Ziółkowski. “Our industry is very connected to what is happening with the country, and if the political situation and the economy are better, more stable, more progressive, it will give us the opportunity to develop the market as well.

“If you compare Poland to many other countries, I really hope we are coming back in the right way. I hope we will be a bright star of Europe.”

The Follow The Step debacle, which erupted in early August, has had major consequences across the Polish business. In addition to the two cancelled festivals, there have been debts unpaid, many tickets unrefunded, and outstanding concerts taken on, in some cases, by other promoters and venues.

“They did a lot of wonderful shows. I went to FEST Festival several times, and it was a really great festival”

Initial reports of bankruptcy turned in September to talk of “restructuring”, with FEST Festival ticketholders contacted and invited to accept free future tickets in lieu of refunds. FEST president Marcin Szymanowski said in October that the festival will be sold to a new investor if the restructuring can be settled, though no further updates have yet been announced.

One sad aspect of the Follow The Step collapse – which Szymanowski attributed to extremely soft sales of On Air and FEST Festival tickets, combined with crippling production costs – is that the promoter in many respects represented an ambitious and energetic face of the Polish scene.

As well as the much-admired FEST and other festivals, it staged 100 international headline shows per year for artists including Alan Walker, Avril Lavigne, Melody Gardot, Hardwell, Robert Glasper, Boris Brejcha, Rise Against, and Denzel Curry – though clearly there were flaws in the model, and the market may bear the scars.

“It damages Poland because they over-offered for so many artists. If an artist usually gets around €10,000 in Czechia or Austria, for example, they would offer 15k or even 20k in some cases,” says Charm Music Poland promoter Weronika Tomkowska, who is also quick to give Follow The Step credit for a commendable booking policy.

“They did a lot of wonderful shows. I went to FEST Festival several times, and it was a really great festival. It’s a real pity that it’s happened. But I know several people that worked [at Follow The Step] – all wonderful people – and there was a kind of a [standing] joke that they were constantly losing money on a sold-out show. So, the agents are now used to the fees that Follow The Step offered, and other promoters don’t really have a fighting chance.”

“There were 11 stadium shows in two months, all sold out, and the rest of the industry still worked well”

The evidence of a busy summer suggests that damage to consumer confidence, at least, is unlikely to be permanent. The Live Nation stadium roadshow that did such good business across Europe this summer came to Poland in force, with two Beyoncé shows, plus Imagine Dragons, The Weeknd, Depeche Mode, P!nk, Harry Styles, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, all at Warsaw’s PGE Narodowy Stadium.

Live Nation has operated in Poland for many years, with Steven Todd, managing director, Central and Eastern Europe, at the helm since 2014. In spite of its heavy megastar calendar, Live Nation’s Polish business is broad; in 2019, it acquired Poznań-based promoter Go Ahead, the country’s leading promoter of club shows, and now stages numerous smaller shows for both international and domestic artists.

And while blockbuster shows clearly drew a great deal of money out of the gig-goer’s pocket in 2023, local promoters are satisfied at how well the broader ecosystem held up. “There were 11 stadium shows in two months, all sold out,” says Ziółkowski, “and the rest of the industry still worked well. Our attendance in 2023 at Open’er was the same as in 2019, with completely different ticket prices. We knew 2023 wouldn’t be easy, and we were happy to get the result we got.”

As well as its festival business, Alter Art promotes headline shows – including, most prominently, three Taylor Swifts at PGE Narodowy Stadium on the first three nights of August next year.

“We sold out three National Stadium shows, which is a record,” says Ziółkowski. “And our other headline arenas and clubs – because we go from small clubs to stadiums – is looking very good, as are our family entertainment shows. We are maintaining our numbers; we have got a lot of shows going on.”

“Our approach is characterised by thoughtful planning, a focus on the long term, and a commitment to avoiding hasty decisions”

FKP Scorpio Poland is a big player taking things carefully in Poland. Under Warsaw-born Potocki, who also heads FKP Austria, it will next year bring Ed Sheeran to the Polsat Plus Arena in Gdańsk for two nights, though typically its shows, while numerous, are generally more modest.

“We have deliberately pursued a strategy of gradual and consistent growth in the number of events we organise,” says Potocki. “Our approach is characterised by thoughtful planning, a focus on the long term, and a commitment to avoiding hasty decisions. Looking ahead, we anticipate a substantial boost in our market presence next year.”

Among FKP’s Polish shows this year were Irish rockers Inhaler and YouTube-powered Hungarian stars Peter Bence and Azahriah, with British comic Bill Bailey and Finnish stand-up ISMO coming in the new year.

“This year marked a successful foray into organising not just musical events but also comedy shows,” says Potocki. “We are pleased to observe a growing interest in Poland for events tailored to individuals who are at ease with the English language.”

Good Taste Production mixes a connoisseur’s appreciation of jazz – having put on Bobby McFerrin, Pat Metheny, Jacob Collier and others in recent years – with international stars such as Jack Savoretti and Jamiroquai, plus a lot of Polish talent.

“We have 30 arena shows announced for domestic acts like Mrozu, Daria Zawiałow, Kwiat Jabłoni, and Ralph Kaminski”

“We do have lots of domestic acts,” says Kordek. “In fact, we have 30 arena shows announced for domestic acts like Mrozu, Daria Zawiałow, Kwiat Jabłoni, and Ralph Kaminski. Last year, we were doing club tours with these artists, and then we put them on our Summer Sounds project, our travelling festival, and now we have announced arena tours for spring, and they are selling pretty well – like, 80% sold out in some cases.”

While international artists may initially have been spooked by the nearby war, there are suggestions that efforts to reroute around the conflict may be benefiting the Polish market.

“Before, most tours went to Germany and Czechia, then Ukraine and Russia, and then to the Baltics,” says Kordek. “And now, suddenly, artists that didn’t intend to stop in Poland have to cross Poland, and when you have 800 kilometres to cross, it’s actually reasonable to give it a try.

And then you stop by, and it works.” To establish exactly what the Polish market is capable of, Kordek suggests it is important for promoters to try different things and establish new circuits.

“We have a very different strategy to other promoters,” she says. “We have more smaller projects, but we cover the whole of Poland. Most of the promoters do tours, but it’s Warsaw, Poznań, Kraków. We might offer 20 shows, because Poland is quite big, and we don’t have many mid-size venues – we have 1,000-cap clubs and then you have arenas. So, for artists that are more like 2,000-cap or 3,000-cap, it can be better to do a small tour. You can actually go to the fan base, and it just works better.”

“We did several shows on Progresja’s Summer Stage. It’s kind of the only outdoor space in Warsaw… that offers this kind of festival vibe”

Charm Music, an offshoot of Turkish promoter Charmenko, has run in Poland since 2009 and has recently promoted Eros Ramazzotti at the Atlas Arena in Łódź, as well as artists including Alt-J and Foals, with, as yet unspecified plans for a couple of stadium shows next year.

“We’ve got a bit more into outdoor shows as a promoting agency. We did several shows on Progresja’s Summer Stage,” says Tomkowska, referring to the 9,000-cap outdoor stage erected by the nearby Progresja club in Wola on the west side of Warsaw. “It’s kind of the only outdoor space in Warsaw in the capital city that offers this kind of festival vibe.”

Kraków’s DM Agency, meanwhile, scored a coup with its stadium tour for local artist Sanah in August and September, which stopped at the Silesian Stadium, Chorzów, the Polsat Plus Arena in Gdańsk and, finally, PGE Narodowy in Warsaw, where she became the first Polish female star to sell out the venue, with 70,000 in attendance. Also on DM’s books as the year wrapped up were a show for Bryan Adams at Arena Gliwice and one for veteran local metallers TSA at Spodek Katowice.

Among other promoters in Poland are Prestige MJM, which has a busy 2024 in sight, including the Pet Shop Boys, Dave Matthews Band, and Andrea Bocelli in Warsaw.

Knock Out Productions specialises in rock and metal and is one of the promoters of Gdańsk’s Mystic Festival and B90 Club. Knock Out also promotes indoor arena shows together with B90’s Arkadiusz Hronowski, who notes the rise and rise of domestic music within Poland’s own borders.

“The Polish music scene is doing well. But it is a closed camp, because apart from a few bands, most of them are unknown outside Poland”

“The Polish music scene is doing well,” says Hronowski. “But it is a closed camp, because apart from a few bands, most of them are unknown outside Poland. Most of the fans come in droves to concerts, both club and indoor and recently even stadiums. The biggest problem of the Polish scene is going outside of Poland. I think that many of them dream of a career outside, but they are not ready to go out of their safe bubble because they know that often the mission is impossible. [Gdańsk-born extreme metal band] Behemoth is an example that you can achieve success all over the world.”

The 20th anniversary of Poland’s biggest festival, Open’er, took place between 28 June and 1 July 2023, at its usual home of Gdynia-Kosakowo Airport on Poland’s Baltic coast, with more than 110,000 attendees and a lineup Ziółkowski remains enthusiastic about, including Arctic Monkeys, Lizzo, Lil Nas X, SZA, and Kendrick Lamar, plus Labrinth, Caroline Polachek, Rina Sawayama, Queens of the Stone Age and others.

Part way through the 2024 booking process, and with Foo Fighters and Dua Lipa already announced, Ziółkowski is pleased again. “After a few months of work and dealing with the headliners and the artists, it’s looking positive,” he says.

In a nation of independent festivals, alternative beacon OFF Festival in Katowice is more independent than most. Founded by musician Artur Rojek and wife Anka in 2006, OFF has been described as “one of the best-curated festival experiences in Europe” and Artur can reflect on a successful 2023 against a turbulent backdrop.

“This was the first post-pandemic edition without rolled-up sales like we had in 2022, when we had an audience with tickets bought before the pandemic and with tickets bought after,” he says. “Additionally, this year, the festival industry was hit by a crisis. Most festivals in Poland had a decline of around 30-40%. Fortunately, it didn’t hurt us that much. We had almost a full audience, and great shows by Pusha T, King Krule, Confidence Man, and Tamino. Due to the fact that the lineup included artists such as Homixide Gang and Lancey Foux, there were also more young people.”

“No other promoter is doing festivals on this scale in such a way, so we don’t really have any competitors in this field”

And even if festivals have had a bumpy year or two, plenty of promoters have further festival ambitions,
Charm Music Poland among them. “Definitely. I mean, the place that FEST Festival used was amazing,” says Tomkowska. “It was this huge, beautiful park in Silesia [Silesian Park in Chorzów, near Katowice], and I think it has a huge potential. And if someone doesn’t just jump in and take over, it’s going to be a waste.”

Good Taste Production has a different take on festivals to most, with a stable of ten smaller events. “All of them except one are up to 5,000 capacity,” says Kordek. “And I think that makes a difference because they’re calculated in a different way when you think about the production. You don’t need international superstars to make them work. And the sponsors are more eager to invest because they know that they have a more dedicated audience.”

Among Good Taste’s productions is the venerable Jarocin rock festival near Poznań, the boutique, experience-focused Salt Wave on Hel Peninsula (which separates the Bay of Puck from the Baltic Sea), and the travelling Letnie Brzmienia [Summer Sounds] festival.

“It has Polish arena-level headliners – eight slots per day – and we’ve played in nine cities,” says Kordek. “No other promoter is doing festivals on this scale in such a way, so we don’t really have any competitors in this field.”

In Łódź, musician and producer Maciej Werk organises the long-running Soundedit, the International Festival of Music Producers and Sound Designers, which this November drew 700 people to the city for workshops and shows by the Sisters of Mercy and Hania Rani at the city’s Wytwórnia Club.

“We have now got to the point where it’s so saturated that it’s become quite hard to sell out an event, which was previously an achievable goal”

“Łódź is a musical city,” says Werk. “At the beginning of the 1990s, end of the 80s, there were a couple of scenes that started to develop in Poland, and Łódź was really good: electronic, post-industrial, gothic – these types of genres. The local artists are very strong.”

While some note the Warsaw-centric nature of the Polish live business, the odd fact is that, of all the active larger arenas in Poland – from the largest (the 22,000-capacity Tauron Arena in Kraków) to the newest (the state-of-the-art Arena Gliwice in Upper Silesia, which opened in 2018) – none of them are in the capital.

Mikołaj Ziółkowski, for one, hopes that the likely new ruling coalition has a few ideas on that score. “We need a new big arena in Poland,” he says. “In Warsaw, there is no proper 20k arena. As you can imagine, that would give us a lot of opportunities, so I hope that is something the new government will look at pretty quickly.”

Arena Gliwice, located near Katowice in southern Poland’s industrial heartland, has been visited by 350,000 people in 2023, between shows and sporting events and corporate functions. The 13,752-seat main arena, which can scale up to 17,178 spectators, has become a frequent stop on international tours, though Kozioł notes the challenges of the market.

“The market in Poland is continuously growing,” says Kozioł. “We have now got to the point where it’s so saturated that it’s become quite hard to sell out an event, which was previously an achievable goal.

“The post-Covid market in Poland is a bit different now. People are buying tickets last moment, sometimes even the same day”

“Predicting the total cost of events in advance is still a challenge given the changing prices of energy and labour costs. We’ve also seen a shift when it comes to marketing events. Strategies that were effective last year aren’t producing the same results this year, which means that we have to look for new ways of reaching our audiences.”

The largest arena in Poland is the 22,000-capacity Tauron Arena Kraków, which opened in 2014 and hosts a wide range of sport, as well as taking the pick of the touring international shows, with recent visitors including Harry Styles, Alicia Keys, The Cure, Backstreet Boys, Alan Walker, and Pearl Jam, as well as Louis Tomlinson, whose concert was originally intended to be a Follow The Step event.

“The agency went bankrupt, and we were wondering what would happen with Louis Tomlinson’s concert at our venue,” says Tauron Arena’s Łukasz Pytko. “Fortunately, another agency took over the organisation, and finally, the artist played here in September.”

For its tenth birthday next year, the venue will promote a large concert of its own for the first time in its Main Arena. And while events are still numerous – around 380 last year, and a similar number this year – Pytko notes that the mechanics of the market have shifted.

“The post-Covid market in Poland is a bit different now,” he says. “People are buying tickets last moment, sometimes even the same day.”

“We will be hosting some of the most legendary names in the music industry, like Depeche Mode, Niall Horan, Rod Stewart, Sting…”

The 13,805-capacity Atlas Arena in the central city of Łódź – Poland’s third-largest city – is the second-biggest indoor arena in the country and has seen Avril Lavigne, Scorpions, 50 Cent, and Il Divo this year.

“Our undoubted advantage is our location in central Poland, an hour’s drive from Warsaw by highway,” says vice president Maciej Łaski. “Łódź is experiencing significant development in infrastructure and urban renewal, and new investments in public transport, including the modernisation of tram lines and road networks, are enhancing connectivity.”

Next year, Atlas Arena will celebrate its 15th anniversary. “We will be hosting some of the most legendary names in the music industry, like Depeche Mode, Niall Horan, Rod Stewart, Sting, Within Temptation, Architects, Alessandro Safina, and André Rieu, and we expect more big announcements in the coming months,” says Łaski. “The family entertainment segment is also doing very well in Atlas Arena, and we have announced some great Polish stars with very ambitious music productions.”

In Katowice, the Spodek Arena, built in 1971, was the largest indoor venue in Poland until the arrival of the Tauron, but it remains well frequented, with international volleyball, the prog-focused Summer Fog Festival and a visit from Megadeth all taking place this year.


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Alter Art: ‘The festival sector is facing a new reality’

Alter Art CEO Mikołaj Ziółkowski has spoken to IQ about the raft of new challenges facing the festival sector in 2023.

The Warsaw-based promoter is behind some of Poland’s biggest and best-known festivals, such as Open’er, Orange Warsaw and Kraków Live – which was recently cancelled.

“2023 is full of challenges for the live music industry in general, but I think the biggest ones concern the festival sector,” says Ziółkowski. “Super high costs of festival setup in all aspects, artists’ rising fees, unstable economical situations and the post-pandemic reality – those are the main factors that create a quite new industry reality. On top of this, we must mention a record number of stadium tours in 2023 in Europe, which became a new factor for the festival market.”

“This year, the live music industry is characterised by high volatility. There is a whole lot of revaluation and new challenges that appear in this space. In general, this is not the best year for the festival industry and we also see this year through the prism of so many spectacular headlining shows – especially global stadium tours. My general feelings are that our industry is changing very quickly and new architecture is on. Looking at all these challenges, all the more we appreciate how great this year’s Open’er edition was.”

The 20th anniversary of Open’er took place between 28 June and 1 July 2023, at its usual home of Gdynia-Kosakowo Airport on Poland’s Baltic coast, with 225,000 tickets sold.

“This year, the live music industry is characterised by high volatility”

This year’s all-star line-up was headlined by Arctic Monkeys, Lizzo, Lil Nas X, SZA and Kendrick Lamar, with support from acts including Labrinth, Caroline Polachek, Rina Sawayama and Queens Of The Stone Age.

“We are very pleased with how this line-up was built: it was up-to-date, diverse and progressive,” says Ziółkowski. “This is a programming challenge and satisfactory results are not always achieved, but we are thrilled with the final line-up. It’s not a coincidence, but a conscious decision and dedicated work. Our goal was to create a lineup that reflects the values ​​of the festival and characterises the event and what it wants to be –open to other cultures, possibilities, horizons and perspectives.”

Another key achievement for Open’er this year was optimising the production and enhancing the visitor experience, according to the Alter Art CEO.

“This year is the first year of regular production processes since the pandemic, so we focused on making all elements at the level they worked before the pandemic or even better,” says Ziółkowski. “Now that the festival has ended, we can say with confidence that the production, organisation, transport and all the bits and pieces turned out very well – our audience appreciated it. We focused on production, site, festival experience improvement and we are very proud that we’ve managed it as a team.”

With successful editions of Open’er and Orange Warsaw behind them, Alter Art’s attention turns to Kraków Live – which will move from its longtime home in 2024 – and Taylor Swift’s 2024 Warsaw dates, which the company will promoter in cooperation with AEG.


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Festival heads debate red line for ticket prices

European festival promoters engaged in a heated debate about increasing ticket prices during a panel discussion at the recent ILMC.

Festival Forum: Mud Baths & Outdoor Pursuits saw Holger Jan Schmidt (Go Group/Yourope) moderate a discussion between Melvin Benn (Festival Republic, UK), Mikolaj Ziółkowski (Alter Art, PL), Nika Brunet Milunovic (MetalDays, SI) and Maiju Talvisto (Flow Festival, FI).

With all agreeing that the supply of artists, customers and infrastructure is stable for the 2023 festival season, the panel’s sticking point was how to keep tickets reasonably priced.

“There is almost always a moment in every economy when you feel you are being ripped off”

Apart from one Festival Republic event, the organisers on the panel said that they had increased prices for all of their festivals.

“We are reaching a red line,” warned Ziółkowski, who promotes Open’er, Orange Warsaw, Kraków Live in Poland. “There is almost always a moment in every economy when you feel you are being ripped off.”

“Generally, prices are higher and people are not earning more money. So probably in summer 2023, people won’t be able to buy two or three festival tickets, they’ll only be able to go to one. We have to be so clever to be more interesting and more flavorful than other cultural offerings,” he concluded.

Benn, who promotes Reading, Leeds, Latitude, Wireless and Download among other festivals, argued: “We don’t know where that red line is. We want to keep the ticket prices down but we have to compete and pay artists what they want. At a point, the public either says we’ll buy the ticket or we won’t buy it. That’s the risk; that’s the business we’re in.”

“The dilemma is: what is too expensive?… it’s relative”

Both Ziółkowski and Schmidt aired concerns high ticket prices may render festivals financially inaccessible for a large chunk of the audience.

“It’s important that we are trying to keep prices for festivals and headline shows reasonable because music should not be for rich people. Music should be for all people,” said Ziółkowski.

Schmidt echoed his point: “I would also argue that if we raise the ticket price [too much], we will exclude people who can’t afford the ticket so they will not be able to come to the festival.”

MetalDays’ Milunovic added: “The dilemma is: what is too expensive? It depends on what you get for the money that you pay for the ticket. It’s relative.”

“There’s no such thing as cuddly capitalism. Entertainment costs”

Benn commented that maintaining a top tier line up for festivals such as Reading and Leeds was crucial to their ongoing success, adding that prices would inevitably rise given the ongoing hikes in costs that all organisers are facing.  “We have to do what the market demands,” he said. “If ticket prices go up and people don’t come, we’ve lost out – so we have to try and balance it.”

Flow Festival’s Talvisto agreed that it’s a balancing act to keep costs down but pointed out that “there aren’t that many pieces in the puzzle where we can increase the revenue”.


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