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Bringing the gig back

I’ve watched a bunch of livestreamed concerts over the last three months and, generally, I’ve found them to be painful.

You can compare the experience to watching most otherwise-amusing comedians – take away the audience and the humour falls flat. In the case of artists, the thrill falls flat; even if the performance itself is live, it’s mediated by cameras and screens. A live Twitter feed doesn’t change that.

For this reason, I do not believe in the paid livestream as a serious medium, unless artists can turn it into a form in its own right – not as a pathetic version of a regular gig, but as something substantially different.

How this is done falls more on the artist than on the technology. You can use whatever technology you want, but fleeing our screens (would we could smash them!) remains one of the reasons we go to gigs. We don’t want screens or virtual reality or augmented reality, we have all of that in our workplaces and pockets. What we want is the real, unmediated, social, half-crazy thing.

I can imagine that an artistically cool livestream could act as an adjunct to gigs, by simply not pretending to be a gig; and I can say something similar about an exciting (although most are tedious clichés) music video on Youtube.

 I do not believe in the paid livestream as a serious medium, unless artists can turn it into a form in its own right

There’s another side to this I think.

The gig that we all so fulsomely laud has, over many years, become more akin to a video – strike me down for using the word – ‘experience’. I see many a gig – mostly with younger artists who have hardly set foot in a club, let alone worked their way up through any kind of circuit – where there are mannequin-like bodies in front of an immense video screen with a load of flashing lights and what-nots.

To my possibly addled and old-skool mind, that’s an expensive cover for a lack of performing craft.

So, if I were to ask one good thing to come out of this epidemic for those in the world of concerts, it would be to scale back productions, encourage young artists to learn how to perform without the crutches, and relish being different, rather than falling into a host of unimaginative variations on the same hi-tech theme.

By doing this, we could restrain ticket prices and entice our audiences back in droves at the same time. And we could futureproof a form where the more we blur ‘live’ with ’screened’, the more we risk our audiences realising that there are better thrills to be had.


Nick Hobbs is a promoter, talent buyer and artist agent spcialising in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. He is the owner of Charmenko, Charmworks and Charm Music Czechia, Poland, Serbia and Turkey.

Istanbul Jazz cancels as Turkish promoters wait for news

Istanbul Jazz Festival, one of the most popular summer events in Turkey, has called off its 27th edition, scheduled for 27 June–14 July 2020, due to the “extraordinary circumstances caused by the global coronavirus outbreak”.

In an announcement postponing the multi-venue event to an unspecified later date, promoter Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV) says new dates for the festival, described as “a pivotal event for the city’s prominence in the international concert map”, will be announced in the coming months.

It is the latest setback for Istanbul Jazz, founded in 1994, and one similarly out of promoters’ hands: the 2016 festival was severely affected by a period of political unrest which culminated in a failed coup in Turkey. The 2020 event would have been headlined by Foals, Gregory Porter and jazz supergroup Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride and Brian Blade.

Also postponed amid the Covid-19 pandemic is IKSV’s 48th Istanbul Music Festival, a classical music event, which will take place in September instead of 2–25 June.

Su Topçu of Istanbul-based booking agency/promoter Charmenko explains that the Turkish government, like many around the world, not yet given any indication as to when shows might be allowed again. “The curve is far from flattening here,” adds Nick Hobbs, Charmenko’s owner.

“The curve is far from flattening here”

Hobbs says Turkey – along with Russia and much of southern and eastern Europe – is one of a number of countries where there is “minimal government support for the entertainment industry”, and where furloughing schemes, like those in place in much of western Europe and North America, are “either non-existent or completely inadequate”.

“Why the government does nothing for music is partly a political question – to some degree they see music as one of their enemies – and partly one of wider economic policy,” Hobbs explains. “They will prop up the big holding companies while they let the small-business economy to its own devices.”

As for IKSV, which is backed by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, its managing director says he expects live music to return to Turkey some time in the autumn, following discussions between local industry professionals and authorities.

“All I know is that it won’t be the same, at least for a while,” Görgün Taner tells Cumhuriyet,


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Turkish promoters hit as coup unsettles artists

Turkish promoters are feeling the strain after Friday’s attempted coup d’état, with a number of high-profile acts cancelling shows as the fallout hits the country’s touring and festival markets.

The botched coup – in which a group of army officers attempted to overthrow the government of autocratic president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – was followed by a ruthless purge of over 50,000 people from Turkish schools, press, police and the judiciary, and the cancellation or disruption of festivals, concerts and live events across Turkey.

“Lots of international acts have cancelled, and all the major promoters are hurting,” says Nick Hobbs, the owner of Istanbul-based promoter and booking agency Charmenko, which has in the past few days lost major concerts by Muse and Skunk Anansie.

Other casualties of the coup include Istanbul Jazz Festival, which has lost Laura Mvula, Vintage Trouble and Austrian act Treeoo, and Pozitif’s One Love festival, which was called off altogether.

Hobbs explains that while an insurance company may pay out for OneLove, as the airports were closed and performers physically unable to get to the event, promoters are unable to claim force majeure for any cancellations this week or next – Muse included – although he notes that artists “cancelling a show out of anxiety while normal life carries on in Istanbul”  are “liable to cover promoter costs, as well, of course, as returning the fee”.

The attempted coup is one of the most visible acts of violence to have rocked Turkey in recent years, but Hobbs says it comes after a “particularly difficult” start to the year for the industry and the country as a whole. “We’ve had four terrorist attacks – one by [Kurdish nationalist group] PKK and three by IS [Islamic State] – in Istanbul this year alone,” he explains. “An awful lot to happen in the space of seven months.”

“You’d have to be a very brave promoter to book an international act in Istanbul at the moment”

He adds that “you’d have to be a very brave promoter to book an international act in Istanbul” at the moment because it’s likely “you’d lose a lot of money”.

Riza Okcu, general director of another Istanbul-based promoter/agency, StageArt, describes 2016 as “the most difficult year in my career so far” and says he’s been forced to postpone two shows by French singers Zaz and Imany, due to take place in Antalya next week, as a consequence of the recent unrest.

Okcu says, however, that StageArt will, “in spite of all this, continue to do what we do. Don’t lose the faith in music.”

Unlike Charmenko and StageArt, Selen Tamer Lakay, vice-president of Istanbul Entertainment Group (IEG), says IEG’s business is so far unaffected, and that its next round of concerts in September (which haven’t yet been announced) will go ahead as planned.

But while Hobbs says he’s relatively unfazed by violence on the streets (“you develop a streetwiseness,” he explains, “although I did feel a bit afraid when the rebels smashed the windows in my house”), Tamer Lakay says she’s staying indoors where possible. “My home is close to the US embassy,” she explains, “and yesterday protesters went over there with guns. People are just crazy over here.”

Although PPK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party) has been waging an armed campaign against the Turkish state since 1978, Okcu says the rise of the Islamic State (IS or ISIS) has forced promoters to step up security, noting that despite the current conflict “security precautions have tripled compared to the good old days”. He explains: “We generate security documents for each event and get in contact and go over security measures with the consulates or embassies of celebrated artists.”

Hobbs adds that for Muse, Charmenko jumped through “a lot of hoops to make security as good as it could be” after the Istanbul airport attack in January. “They sent over security experts from the [United] States, who spent three days in Istanbul before giving us the green light,” he says.

One Love promoter Pozitif Live’s CEO and president, Cem Yegül, provided IQ with a statement detailing its “point of view regarding the greater entertainment, arts and culture sector in Turkey in light of recent developments”.

“We believe in this country’s resilient, adaptive DNA, and we think and see that many people regard us as an important element of resistance against instability in troubled times”

Since its founding in 1989, says Yegül, Pozitif has “witnessed and survived many political and economic crises and events in Turkey and the region. Obviously, maintaining and growing a culture business in such a market has not been easy, but [is] certainly achievable, as with many other businesses operating and growing in this context.

“We believe in this country’s resilient, adaptive DNA and in our citizens, and we think and see that many people regard us – not only Pozitif, but all of the culture, art and entertainment organisations – as an important element of resistance against instability in troubled times. People do not want the music and the art and, most importantly, the sense of community they provide to come to a stop.

“Of course, in the face of immediate unrest and chaos we have cancelled or postponed several events within the last couple of years, but always with the intention of welcoming our community at the next soonest opportunity and running clubs and venues that we feel are secure, as we do now. We are hoping to act on this positive intention as soon as possible, but need some time for clarity.”

While, as in France, Belgium and elsewhere, touring will eventually return to normal levels (although, as Hobbs notes, “Turkey and normality exist in uneasy relationship!”), the Charmenko chief says it’s difficult currently to feel upbeat about the future. “In a direct sense [the coup] doesn’t mean much for concerts, but in an indirect sense it affects the economy, sponsors don’t like the instability and that affects artist decisions.”

However, he advises artists that “it is just as safe to play now as before – arguably even more so, as I don’t think anyone will try anything for some time to come” and notes that “for regular folk and foreigners, being caught up in terrorism in Istanbul remains rather less likely than dying in a plane crash.”

“Of course there is a degree of risk,” he concludes, “but a degree of risk which is probably no more than playing in say France or Belgium. I don’t think that the risk is such that it should deter artists from coming.”


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Troubled Times East

Years ago, unplanned, I found myself specialising in Eastern Europe. That led to marrying a Russian pop singer and much else besides. Until 2010 it was a bumpy, but mostly upward, journey for the region (and me), fostered by a common culture – we all like pretty much the same music.

The former Iron Curtain countries had some peculiar holes in their knowledge of rock and pop pre 1989 – eg: Led Zeppelin or The Who; some acts percolated through the Curtain and some didn’t – but broadly everyone was on the same cultural page. Then the European economy soured and stagnated and the political scene shifted with nationalists (who’d seemed a dying breed) on the rise and no easy solutions on the horizon.

Most of the Eastern countries (and here I add Greece, Turkey, and, on the periphery, The Middle East) muddled along, but in some places nasty crises exploded with little warning – Greece’s near meltdown, Russia’s undeclared war in Ukraine, Turkey’s descent into authoritarianism, and obviously the Arab Spring turned Winter, and its shameful humanitarian consequences. Less dramatically, there’s also been Hungary and Macedonia’s shifts to authoritarian models.

It seems petty to moan about the business consequences when millions of refugees are looking to rebuild – and save – their lives, and innocent people are being killed by the cynicism of ‘leaders’. But business consequences there are.

From the south, countries like Egypt and Jordan, never even secondary markets – squeezed between Syria and Israel and with a higher burden of refugees pro capita than even Turkey, there’s Lebanon which international artists still play but less so than a few years ago. In Israel concert life continues, though affected by the fragile security situation and boycotts.

My adoptive home, Turkey, has a much reduced international concert scene compared with a few years back. This year there were hardly any arena shows and no big festivals. And it’s fair to say that no promoter’s making money. Sponsors have cut back because of the messy political situation and fragile economy, the weakening Lira means punters are not as ready to buy tickets as they once were. 2016 doesn’t look like it will be an improvement.

Greece, all things considered, is quite robust, but with promoters unable to wire money out of the country, running an international business is almost impossible. This year probably no promoter made money: next year should be somewhat better, but only somewhat.

Ukraine is a big mess. Life outside the war zone is normal enough except the country’s economy is so bad that most people are struggling to survive, rather than spending on inessentials. One international stadium show is confirmed for summer ‘16 and I know of a couple of other stadium offers – but very little below that.

International acts fees are priced in euros or dollars while the Russian rouble has devalued by half compared to a year ago; and promoters have only been able to make modest increases in ticket prices as punters are feeling the pinch big time. So, 2015 was a bad year for promoters – I don’t think there’s anyone who didn’t lose money. For next year, promoters are aware of the new economic reality but it means fewer, generally lower offers than before. Events are in trouble as municipal and regional sponsorship has dried up while commercial sponsorship is down.

And to conclude this tale of woe, even in the non-crisis countries of the region, as far as I know, all the established festivals (Sziget excepted) sold less than last year. I’m not sure anyone understands why, but saturated markets coupled with little future optimism may be the main reasons. The generational shift of listening to streams rather than buying albums may have something to do with it.

From this independent promoter and booker’s point of view, it’s good that Live Nation have pulled out of the former Yugoslavia and Russia (I think). And maybe it’s a good time for making careful investments in building new events. Maybe. But for me, and most of my peers, it’s a time for caution and low-risk projects – all far from easy to come by.

I hope agents understand that these circumstances are the context in which promoters in the region have to work, and can be softer on guarantees rather than pushing promoters into repeated losses which may be impossible to recover. Loyalty to historical promoters counts for more when times are hard.