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Mid-level touring: Cruising or crisis?

While the A-list tours break box office and attendance records, there’s a fear that those high-end, high-priced tickets are causing a vacuum for the career touring mid-tier acts. James Hanley looks back on some of the concerns raised during ILMC 36.

In many an argument, the truth often lies in the middle. And that is exactly what the global touring biz is grappling with, as it faces up to a potential mid-tier crisis. Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right…

On the surface at least, business is red hot – the embodiment of the smartphone fire emoji, if you will. Records are being smashed left, right, and centre on a monthly (sometimes even weekly) basis. The worldwide top 100 tours earned $9.2bn in 2023 – up 46% on the previous year – according to Pollstar’s year-end charts. Attendance was up 18.4% in total tickets sold to 70.1m. Gross from the top 100 stadiums and arenas rose 35% and 29%, respectively.

It doesn’t end there: Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour became the first in history to surpass $1bn in revenue and is projected to gross another $1bn this year. Swift led a touring boom in 2023, with more tours than ever grossing above $300m (three), $200m (seven) and $100m (17).

But while the numbers don’t lie, they don’t tell the whole story either. Delve beyond the spectacular headline figures and a more complex picture emerges – a puzzle that was the talk of the town at ILMC 36 in London last month. It’s widely known that production costs have rocketed post Covid, and with margins on mid-level shows far tighter than arena and beyond, some promoters are saying that the economics of some tours now just don’t add up.

“At the top end of the business, it’s clearly in rude health,” says CAA’s Maria May, chair of Open Forum: The all-stars, the conference’s traditional state-of-the-nation opening address. “But there’s a flip side here, with grassroots festivals and venues reporting closures and challenges. “We’re also fully aware that in the middle and lower range, it is tough – really tough. And at the 1,000-3,000-cap level, there are reports of artists who are deciding not to tour at all. The budgets simply don’t add up, and artists are just not going on the road.”

“Unless the industry stimulates solutions to the mid-level of the market, we have a massive time bomb”

The UK’s Music Venue Trust declared that 2023 was the worst year for UK venue closures since its launch a decade ago, while UK trade body the Association of Independent Festivals reports that more than 21 UK festivals have now announced a postponement, cancellation, or complete closure in 2024.

So, as A-list tours reach new heights, is live music’s bread-and-butter business stuck in the starting blocks? For Eleven Management co-founder Niamh Byrne, the answer is a resounding “yes.”

“From a mid-level point of view, it’s really, really tough, and I feel like we have a big conundrum,” says Byrne, whose roster includes Bastille, Blur, and Catfish and the Bottlemen. “There is no live business without artists and audiences, and we shouldn’t be hammering fans to make that make sense. There needs to be something done in order to be able to invest and drive culture because, ultimately, that’s what it’s all about.”

As mid-level acts rely on touring for their income, one potential safeguard being touted is for collection societies to consider providing breaks for mid-sized shows. “We’re losing tours, events, and festivals because of the spiralling costs of everything, which in turn means the royalty societies will suffer exponentially. To protect themselves, as well as their members, they should consider some kind of discounted rate,” states one European festival executive.

“Everyone talks about grassroots touring being difficult, or the 1% at the top making too much, but the middle is where the crisis really is. And it’s the ancillary value of those bands not touring, or touring less, that’s the biggest problem. Unless the industry stimulates solutions to the mid-level of the market, we have a massive time bomb.”

“It’s becoming harder and harder for artists to reach a point where they actually make a profit on touring”

Given the widening gap between the superstars and the rest, One Fiinix Live founder Jon Ollier questions whether “boom and bust” would be a more apt description of the modern circuit.

“It feels to me like it’s becoming harder and harder for artists to reach a point where they actually make a profit on touring,” he offers. “It’s either massive and it makes money, or it’s small and it’s not.

“You’re not seeing those artists get up to 3,000-cap level, stay there, and churn that over as their career. You’re seeing them blow through that barrier into arenas and make money, or struggle underneath that.”

Finland-based Fullsteam founder Rauha Kyyrö agrees it is becoming increasingly difficult to make money on shows below arena level.

“If we have enough touring on a club- and medium-size-level, we can probably cover our overheads and make it work somehow, but we will need the stadium [concerts], or very successful festivals, to make money,” she says. “Touring, for me, is more [for] artist development actually.

“That [200-300-cap club] level has always been about developing, but now it feels like you’re also just investing at the 1,500 [capacity level], instead of at least getting your costs covered.”

“The biggest [touring acts] make more money than ever – but I don’t see the ones that are still in the investing phase making a living out of it”

She adds: “I also own a management company, and not many of the artists make a lot of money on basic touring. Some do – the biggest ones make more money than ever – but I don’t see the ones that are still in the investing phase making a living out of it. That’s where you need to find someone to pay for it, I guess.”

Be that as it may, legendary agent and Independent Artist Group vice-chair Marsha Vlasic maintains the predicament does not represent uncharted waters for the sector.

“Way before the pandemic, even way before any economic problems, bands came and did 20- to 30-city tours in a van and put the time and effort into it,” she recalls. “They stopped at every radio station and record store and promoted their music. They didn’t make money then.”

Indeed, those principles still form the backbone of the promoting trade, nods Mercury Wheels/Live Nation Spain’s Barnaby Harrod.

“[With] bands coming through, it’s always been about investing in them,” he says. “People [being] prepared to break even or to make small amounts of money to invest in the band so that they will come back and do the 2,000/3,000 [capacity shows] and then into the arenas and stadiums if we’re lucky.”

“As long as we have a market outside the market – where certain organisations can ask for twice the price that is on the ticket – then tickets are not expensive enough”

Germany-based DEAG founder and CEO Peter Schwenkow supports Live Nation chief Michael Rapino’s recent assertion that ticket prices “are still not high enough,” referencing the secondary ticketing market.

“As long as we have a market outside the market – where certain organisations can ask for twice the price that is on the ticket – then tickets are not expensive enough,” he argues.

Nevertheless, even in the face of rising costs, Kyyrö floats the idea of reducing ticket prices and treating club shows as loss leaders in a bid to entice more people through the doors and elevate acts at a faster rate.

“In order for any of that to make any financial sense, the ticket prices will have to be at a level where it’s actually not an introduction to the market anymore,” she says. “You actually need to have fans. So is it then better that we just make the ticket price €10 and take that hit? Because we’re gonna take the hit anyway, and then at least it helps us grow the artists to the next level faster. I think it’s an interesting conversation.”

However, lowering prices is simply not a realistic option, contends Jan Digneffe of FKP Scorpio Belgium.

“We have to keep [bringing these bands over and putting] them in front of an audience at a cost. Because if we [don’t] keep doing that as promoters, then we’re ambushing our own industry”

“I think that’s difficult,” he says. “Ticket prices are not high enough, but I think we can all agree that they shouldn’t be any higher – they should be as low as possible for everybody – so we’re kind of stuck in that situation. […] We have to keep [bringing these bands over and putting] them in front of an audience at a cost. Because if we [don’t] keep doing that as promoters, then we’re ambushing our own industry, and we will get in trouble.”

Digneffe points to ingrained issues, disclosing that the promoter’s fee for a sold-out show at a prominent Belgian club remains the same as it did more than 20 years ago.

“Everything is getting more expensive,” he says. “Somebody is getting the extra money – ticket prices are actually going up. But on that level, where it is important to help build artists, it’s clearly not going in that direction, and I think that is a problem.”

And the challenges are not limited to certain markets, adds Digneffe – similar hurdles are popping up across the board.

“We are all seeing the same things,” he notes. “If it’s a very big show, you can earn money. From the moment you take it down a level, it’s getting a lot harder. There is still a little bit of money to be made, but we all know with the smaller clubs, it’s the last 50 or 100 tickets that will make the difference between making some money or losing some money. And you need a whole lot of them to get somewhere to be able to cover your costs. So, indeed, if your bigger arena tours are not there or your stadiums are not there, I see an alarm light flashing.”

“There’s a whole generation that doesn’t leave their rooms, and they know an act by one song. They don’t even have the desire to go for the live experience”

Kyyrö, who was recently promoted to president of touring & artist development at FKP Scorpio, suggests the sector is also battling competition from other forms of media, such as the burgeoning video game market.

“I think we’re losing out on a lot of young people going to the shows to get that experience because, first of all, the ticket prices are high, and also the market has changed in other ways, too,” says Kyyrö.

“It actually might be a better 90-minute experience to play Fortnite than to go and see a little show,” she muses. “If you look at what’s happened with gaming, just as an example, it’s developed so much faster than our live experience has. But the price of the live experience is going up all the time.”

US-based Vlasic, who collected the prestigious Bottle Award during ILMC 36’s Arthur Awards, acknowledges that the shift in habits among younger people was a contributing factor to the status quo.

“There’s a whole generation that doesn’t leave their rooms, and they know an act by one song,” she says. “They don’t even have the desire to go for the live experience. They’re very content with their group chats and TikTok and just discovering new songs, not artists. That’s the worrisome generation, because they don’t even think about going to a live show.”

“It’s all about the streaming, and if I hear more streaming numbers, I’ll go crazy. It’s just maddening – and streaming numbers don’t sell tickets”

Furthermore, Vlasic laments the obsession with streaming numbers, which she blames for distorting an artist’s worth on the live scene. “You still go out, and you’re still looking, you still hope, but you don’t get the calls from the record companies,” she sighs. “It’s all about the streaming, and if I hear more streaming numbers, I’ll go crazy. It’s just maddening – and streaming numbers don’t sell tickets. I’ve always prided myself in working with career artists. How do we develop groups? It’s a really frightening thought.”

Veteran promoter and Live Nation Spain chair Pino Sagliocco bemoans the lack of support for up-and-coming talent, which he believes cuts to the heart of the matter.

“I think the problem is that we don’t do enough to build a bridge to help younger talents who are asked to try and make a living every day,” he says. “That’s why I’m so proud to help develop burgeoning Spanish musicians while convincing local politicians that we need a sponsorship break. We have the funds to support these artists through the banks, and I feel that is really important.”

Moreover, Digneffe suggests the time and attention given to huge global tours by established top-tier acts is to the detriment of those both in the mid-tier and at the start of their careers.

“What is frustrating everybody about these world tours is this cherry picking that’s going on all the time,” he continues. “I don’t want to be like a preacher in a church or anything, but cherry picking also comes with a responsibility to look after the next generation. No one is doing that at the moment, and I think that’s a real problem. The promoters that find solutions for that will help keep our business healthy.”

“As bigger acts are getting off the festivals and going into stadiums, the only way to do it is to piggyback and share the cost of the production”

Indeed, there appears to be an audience malaise for some of the bread-and-butter acts – those artists and musicians that rely principally on live for the majority of their income and therefore regularly tour every 12-24 months are, anecdotally, not seeing the same ticket sales anymore. Fans that know those artists will come around again soon, seem less willing to buy a ticket, whereas the high value stadium shows that do not come around every year are more unique and doing better than ever.

With increasing frequency, co-headline and packaged tours are coming to the fore as a means of sharing the load. Proponents include Mötley Crüe & Def Leppard, Suede & Manic Street Preachers, The Charlatans & Johnny Marr, Stone Temple Pilots & +LIVE+, Pixies & Modest Mouse, I Prevail & Halestorm, and Green Day, Fall Out Boy & Weezer.

While such combinations have proved particularly popular among the rock fraternity, Vlasic suggests the acts do not necessarily have to be a perfect fit.

“As bigger acts are getting off the festivals and going into stadiums, the only way to do it is to piggyback and share the cost of the production,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be completely compatible; it’s just entertainment. When you think of packaging an act… it’s [about], how does this package look in terms of bringing in additional people and different audiences?

“[But] so many of them want to headline on their own, and the market is saturated. I don’t know how the summer’s going to do this year – and everybody’s gone on sale so much sooner.”

“Some people need to step down from their throne in order to be able to play better venues, and that will make the costs go down”

Though Digneffe applauds the idea, he advises that persuading all parties of its merits can be easier said than done.

“I think it’s an interesting idea, but you have trouble getting everybody on board,” he says. “If you look at the metal and the hard rock scene, there is a lot more going on, and there is a lot more understanding between bands as well.

“We all know it’s an ego business. But I think that some people need to step down from their throne in order to be able to play better venues, and that will make the costs go down. It’s a more fun night for the punter anyway, so I see nothing but advantages. But to get it done, you need everybody on board. You need the agents to be on board. You need the management to be on board.”

Vlasic also implores artists to embrace VIP ticketing, admitting that the reluctance of some acts to do so – notably those outside the United States – is a growing source of frustration.

“VIP is huge,” she says. “We had a package two summers ago that broke every record. But I have artists that just won’t do it. And it’s so frustrating because, again, they don’t understand the value of it. It’s actually mostly non-American artists that don’t allow it. But it’s such a big source of additional income.”

“Sometimes, going through hardships and recessions can be a really good thing”

Putting a more positive slant on the current state of play, Eleven’s Byrne shares her conviction that difficult periods can spur innovation.

“Sometimes, going through hardships and recessions can be a really good thing,” she says. “It’ll force us to become more innovative with our ideas, and I’m looking forward to exploring new ways of doing things, as well as opening up lots of international markets.”

Wrapping up, DEAG’s Schwenkow attempts to finish on a similarly optimistic note.

“I think this is my fourth real recession,” he concludes. “And I love recessions because people don’t buy new houses, apartments, cars, washing machines; they’re spending their money on live entertainment. We had a terrific ’22, we had a very, very good ’23, and ’24 looks great as well.”

 


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ILMC 36: The Open Forum: The All Stars

The International Live Music Conference’s (ILMC) annual state-of-the-nation opening session lived up to its billing, as senior industry leaders tackled hot topics including the venue boom, ticket prices and breaking talent.

Chaired by CAA’s Maria May, today’s Open Forum: The All-Stars featured panellists Chris Bray of ASM Global, Niamh Byrne of Eleven Management, DEAG boss Peter Schwenkow and Live Nation Spain chair Pino Sagliocco at London’s Royal Lancaster Hotel.

May began by citing Pollstar figures that showed the worldwide top 100 tours generated $9.17 billion in 2023 – up 46% on the previous year. Gross from the top 100 stadiums and arenas also increased 35% and 29% respectively.

“At the top end of the business, it’s clearly in rude health,” said May. “But there’s a flip side here, with grassroots festivals and venues reporting closures and challenges.”

Schwenkow, who is celebrating 50 years in the business, said: “I think this is my fourth real recession. And I love recessions because people don’t buy new houses, apartments, cars, washing machines; they’re spending their money on live entertainment. We had a terrific ’22, we had a very very good ’23 and ’24 looks great as well.”

“As long as we have a market outside the market – where certain organisations can ask for twice the ticket price – then tickets are not expensive enough”

The Germany-based DEAG founder and CEO said he agreed with Live Nation chief Michael Rapino’s assertion that ticket prices “are still not high enough”, referencing the secondary ticketing market.

“As long as we have a market outside the market – where certain organisations can ask for twice the price that is on the ticket – then tickets are not expensive enough,” he argued.

Bray discussed the recent renovation work at ASM’s AO Arena in Manchester and the impending opening of Oak View Group’s Co-op Live venue in the city.

“I think competition is driving standards high,” he said. “There’s a fight to get the best talent in the venues, and that’s not just here in the UK, it’s across the world as well. We’ve got 400 venues across the world so we’ve always got to be at the top of our game.”

The ASM Global Europe president also touched upon the venue management firm’s proposed acquisition by premium experiences company Legends.

“There’s also a lot of venues that will be opening up within the next 12 to 18 months, which will only open up lots of markets for us”

“It’s not a done deal yet, we’re still waiting on a few things to come through,” he said. “That probably will be the back end of the year, but that brings with great opportunities for this space and more investment – and more investment is only good for the fans that are coming through and the artists that are playing in the spaces.

“It’s an exciting time for the venue market,” he continued. “We’ve got lots of activity going on, particularly the Legends acquisition which is an exciting opportunity for us over the next few months. There’s also a lot of venues that will be opening up within the next 12 to 18 months, which will only open up lots of markets for us.”

Sagliocco, meanwhile, recalled attending U2’s residency at the groundbreaking Las Vegas Sphere.

“It’s one of the most incredible venues I’ve ever seen in my lifetime,” he said. “We always have to look to bring something more because I think the public demand is also there. They don’t want to be seeing the same thing over and over again. They’re looking for a new experience and I think that the Sphere is a tremendous [vehicle] to do that.

“Now, to make it work, they really have to work hard to find the right concept to make sure people want to go to see it.”

“One thing that we are all good at is being innovators,” added May. “The more innovation there is, the more success that we’re seeing across the world.”

Byrne, however, agreed with May’s suggestion that although the top end of touring was thriving, there were issues for mid and lower range acts, amid reports of some artists at the 1,000-3,000-cap level opting not to go on the road due to it not being financially viable.

“From a mid-level point of view, it’s really, really tough and I feel like we have a big conundrum”

“From an artist point of view, we are so appreciative of innovation and the opportunity to play in different venues and different types of spaces, and long may that continue,” said Byrne. “But from a mid-level point of view, it’s really, really tough and I feel like we have a big conundrum.

“There is no live business without artists and audiences, and we shouldn’t be hammering fans to make that make sense. There needs to be something done in order to be able to invest and drive culture because, ultimately, that’s what it’s all about.”

On the subject of discuss artist development, Sagliocco bemoaned the lack of support for up-and-coming talent.

“I think the problem is that we don’t do enough to build a bridge to help younger talents who are asked to try and make a living every day,” he said. “That’s why I’m so proud to help develop burgeoning Spanish musicians while convincing local politicians that we need a sponsorship break. We have the funds to support these artists through the banks, and I feel that is really important.”

The panel then segued into discussing the rapid rise of the Middle Eastern market – particularly Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states’ heavy investment in hosting and providing live entertainment. While concerns were raised about some artists’ views on performing in the MENA region, Bray considered the opportunity a “major development”.

“ASM is about to have one of the biggest entertainment centres in the world in Hong Kong,” he said, advising the audience and his fellow panelists to not disregard Europe.

“We opened a new office in Milan last year, and we’re going to open new venues in Lisbon and Finland as well,” he continued. “It isn’t just the Gulf states where a noticeable growth in the market has occurred.”

“With the number of new markets opening up in recent years, it seems like the live music and entertainment industry is heading towards a truly global era”

May, who mentioned the new arena being built in Lagos, Nigeria as well as the success of last year’s inaugural edition of Lollapalooza in India, said she was “barraged with constant approaches for new markets”.

“With the number of new markets opening up in recent years, it seems like the live music and entertainment industry is heading towards a truly global era,” she said

The panel also voiced their thoughts on the willingness of audiences to pay more for premium tickets.

“I think people will pay to have a little bit of luxury,” said Bray. “They don’t want to have to queue, they want to be able to get in seamlessly. It’s a real trend in the venue space, where customers have realised that they get more out of paying extra for those perks. In return, we’ll invest in making luxury spaces nicer and making that premium experience more accessible.”

Schwenkow agreed with Bray, adding: “Before, it used to be the case that the cheaper tickets would sell more than the premium ones, but it’s now the other way around.”

“Sometimes, going through hardships and recessions can be a really good thing”

Wrapping up, May asked her guests about the challenges they anticipated in 2024 and beyond.

“Sometimes, going through hardships and recessions can be a really good thing,” said Byrne. “It’ll force us to become more innovative with our ideas, and I’m looking forward to exploring new ways of doing things, as well as opening up lots of international markets.”

Sagliocco, meanwhile, hailed the explosion of the Latin music market.

“Compared to others, the Spanish market is growing bigger than any other market and this is being reflected around the world with acts like Bad Bunny and Karol G being global stars,” Sagliocco said. “Because Spain is the bridge to the Latin American market and vice versa, I think Spain is in a very good position.”

“I’d love to do more European touring,” concluded Schwenkow. “Can we invent more products? Can we keep the prices stable? Can we be creative? Do we always respect value for money? At the end of the day, we are all in the ‘promise’ business, and our general challenges in this industry haven’t changed much in the 50 years since I began at DEAG.”

 


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MMF calls for review of music managers’ role

A report published today (Friday 1 November) by the UK’s Music Managers Forum (MMF) calls for a review of how managers are remunerated, in line with their changing roles.

The report, ‘Managing Expectations’, was previewed on Thursday evening at the BBC Music Introducing Live event at Tobacco Dock in London.

The findings are drawn from surveys with over 180 music managers and interviews conducted with ie:music’s Tim Clark (Robbie Williams), Dirty Hit’s Jamie Oborne (the 1975), Eleven Management’s Niamh Byrne (Gorillaz) and Step Management’s Ellie Giles (Bill Ryder-Jones).

The report examines how managers support talent development; their relationships with record labels; the increasing diversity of managers; the expanding skill sets required; and challenges around mental health.

In particular, the document analyses the commercial sustainability of music managers, with 26% of survey respondents working another full- or part-time job in a different section of the music business and 56% earning less than £10,000 a year from music management.

“Against a fast-moving background of complexity and diversification, the way in which most managers get paid has remained stubbornly rigid,” writes MMF CEO Annabella Coldrick, “with the vast majority reliant on commission-based earnings – and typically of 20%.

“Against a fast-moving background of complexity and diversification, the way in which most managers get paid has remained stubbornly rigid”

“This is increasingly unsustainable, and with so many upcoming managers not making any money at all, we run the risk of losing many of these talented professionals altogether.”

The report outlines access to financing, support for mental health provision, diversification of skills, transparency of income streams and new commercial models as the five main barriers that “may prevent music managers and their clients from reaching their potential.”

“The goal of this report is to better explain what a modern day music manager actually does and enhance understanding of how this has changed in the digital age,” comments Coldrick.

“We will use the findings to better advocate for our members’ interests and expand our activity on the critical areas identified and to initiate discussions with our clients and partners on new business models in management.”

As a step to alleviating the challenges highlighted in the report, the MMF this year launched the Accelerator Programme for Music Managers, which has so far supported 24 managers. The beneficiaries of the 2020 programme will be announced soon.

The full report can be read here.

 


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