Blighty Beat

Those working in the live sector have without question suffered the worst of the pandemic’s impact on the music industry. Touring and festivals have ground to a halt, leaving many companies, employees and artists without income. Below, you’ll hear from four U.K.-based agents who are nonetheless optimistic about the eventual return to live performance.

Paul McQueen is a booking agent at Primary Talent, where he looks after international artists in the electronic space, including Tchami, Malaa, Rezz, Nghtmare, Krewella, Valentino Khan, and The Jillionaire, having worked with the latter since the beginning of his career. McQueen’s entry into the live business began with promoting shows in Glasgow—he launched an agency from his bedroom in 2011. After a stint at Elastic Artists, he was hired by Primary, where he’s been for five years.

CAA agent Jen Hammel reps The ChainsmokersOliver HeldensJonas BlueRobin SchulzRegard and Nicky Romero, among others. She started down her professional path as an office assistant for DJ agency IMD, where she graduated to booking shows and supporting two other agents. Four years after landing there, Hammel joined Amy Thomson at ATM to help shepherd the live careers of Swedish House MafiaGroove Armada and Alex Metric. At CAA, she works closely with senior agent Maria May

A senior agent at Paradigm Agency, where he aids in advancing the live fortunes of Billie EilishFINNEAS,  Machine Gun KellyGirl in Red, Jess Glynne and Noah Cyrus, Mike Malak kicked off his career working with the Black Eyed Peas at age 17. He sold merchandise, contributed graphic and web design and other content, supported their tours and eventually booked their afterparties. While watching the group grow from 2,000-seaters to stadiums, he also worked at Warner Bros. Records and for Steve Aoki’s management company and label in London. He joinedCoda (now Paradigm) nine years ago.

Ella Street is an agent at WME who works with Lizzo, Bebe Rexha and The Beach Boys, as well as Empress Of,Gayle, Goldfrapp, Keane, Kaiser Chiefs, LP and Jessie Ware. Street joined WME in 2010 as an assistant, becoming an agent after two years. She initially handled private dates, which opened the door to her own clients and an eventual move into touring. Before that, she worked for a sports-management company.

What have you been doing with the time away from touring?
Paul McQueen: It’s been tough trying to figure out what to work on—it’s hard to make the right decisions when we’re not sure when touring can happen again. Because a lot of artists have pushed back releasing music, we don’t have the pressure to book a tour straight away. As far as festivals, we’ve spent a lot of time rescheduling this year’s events for next year. A lot of the promoters I work with in the club and electronic space are not working, so we’re just talking as friends and keeping each other updated. I’ve definitely found time to listen to more music and appreciate music in a different way and discover new artists.

Jen Hammel: It’s been extremely difficult. We’ve booked drive-in shows, mainly in Germany, for our clients Alle Farben and Robin Schulz, and we’ve had a couple of clients play socially distanced outdoor events, where everyone has to remain in designated areas. We also have clients who’ve been involved in free, charity or pay-for-view streams and even done a couple of pre-recorded streams to be played in clubs (in territories that haven’t been as affected) and some private streams in the brand world or private birthday parties. While everyone is eager to “get back to it,” we have a responsibility to ensure the safety of the fans. We’ve seen territories like South Korea rush back to open their nightlife and within a matter of weeks, they were closed again. 

Mike Malak: I’m remaining proactive for my clients, aiming to stay ahead of the curve. Nobody knows the start date for touring, but I’m doing all I can to move tours to what feel like appropriate windows next year, from summer onwards, and exploring more outdoor options as we anticipate indoor venues remaining a point of contention. I’m working with artists on content, livestreaming digital tours and exploring new ways to get their names out there and help them connect with their audiences. I’m encouraging certain artists to perform—you may not be able to do a regular show in a venue, but there are ways of creating a moment that can be captured and shared as content in nontraditional settings. As the one thing we have is time, the rest of the year will be focused on diving deep on creative ideas. There is an opportunity to break boundaries.

Ella Street: Like everyone else, we’re slotting our 2020 dates from March forward into 2021/22 as appropriate and continuing to book festivals in forward-looking dates. We’re cautiously optimistic.

Do you feel youre making the best of a bad situation or adapting to a new normal?
JH: I don’t think we’ve worked out what the new normal is yet. It’s trial and error with everything we’re doing. It’s very difficult to plan when the climate is constantly changing and the rules evolving. The new normal means the few bookings are coming in fast, needing a quick turnaround—an answer within 48-72 hours—with the show being announced within a similar time period. The new normal in terms of the actual show ... we will see rapid testing on doors, temperature checks, track-and-trace as part of your ticket, fewer people, more staff and therefore higher costs. We’ll be seeing innovation from pre-tests to virtual festivals and more. 

MM: It’s been a process of firstly accepting the reality and then looking to find solutions—I believe there are always solutions if we think outside the box. I’ve been talking to literally every digital platform that’s selling live streams, coming to understand their models, their USPs, and seeing which could be of most benefit to my artists. I’ve also been diving deep and experimenting with a digital entertainment network called VAST. We co-curated ZoomFest, a series of Zoom calls that brought together artists such as ShaggyRobin Thicke and G-Eazy with brands and influencers. It was a successful experiment, with some of the newer artists getting interest from the brands and the stream being shared to the public later. There was an element of not knowing who would join, so the sense of potentially missing out was real. We’re exploring ways of growing it.

ES: I hope this isn’t our new normal but instead something the industry will survive that will spur its evolution. Artists who had planned to tour in 2020 have lost a year’s income, so we’re finding new ways to monetize for them. It’s a time for innovation—livestreaming is exploding and looks like it’s here to stay. Artists are getting very creative finding new ways to connect with audiences. Travis Scott appearing in Fortnite is a great example. Others are simply bringing their audiences into their homes for virtual performances as they endure lockdown alongside their fans.

What do you think the long-term impact will be?
PM: The effect of the pandemic has been devastating, so I think it’s going to have a really, really long-term impact. We just don’t know when things can restart, and then it’s a question of how the business will recover. It might not be until 2023 that we’re really back to what we were. But there is a hunger out there—people are excited for the day they can go to concerts again.

JH: We’re seeing people who’ve dedicated their lives to this industry being made redundant or going bankrupt. The independent promoters and managers need industry support—we need to support each other. We hope the independent venues can survive this. The U.K. was running short on venues as it was. The artists who were about to have “their year,” we hope they can ride it out and still have their year but in 2021 or 2022. So much work is involved in getting to that point, and it’s such a shame to see artists lose their momentum. I do think it’s been a great opportunity for us to stop, reflect and be more creative, take advantage of the time to think about what direction the artist needs to go in, what’s been working, what hasn’t. In some sense we’re speaking to people properly, with attention, for the first time in years. You can get caught in trying to do the deal and move onto the next one. In the last six months, though, I’ve reached out and spoken with all my peers and reconnected with my industry network.

MM: It’s definitely hard out there. However, once we can put shows on again, I see a huge demand—the industry will grow because even people who wouldn’t usually go to concerts will start to take it up. And I see positives in the revenue-stream models for artists on touring thanks to the implementation of technology; we will generate income from touring in the future as usual, but we will also have a public that is open to consuming digital content as part of that tour, meaning the tour can be streamed in other cities, virtual meet-and-greets and other experiences can be sold, and so on. Hopefully, these new models will allow artists and their teams and crews to generate enough income to factor in some kind of financial buffer so that if this were to happen again, the live industry would be able to take the hit a bit more easily.

ES: We have yet to see the long-term damage of the pandemic, but the depressed economy will undoubtedly affect people’s ability to buy tickets, and the practicalities of putting on a show will completely change. Safety concerns, insurance, etc., are going to lead to more expense for promoters, which in turn will impact artist deals, making touring that much more costly. It’s likely to mean the loss of smaller independent promoters and events as they are suffering a huge financial loss this year. I try to remind myself that with change comes opportunity, and there will surely be new players to emerge across all areas of the industry in the wake of the crisis.

When do you see the realistic return of live events?
JH: Everything in my artists’ diaries for this year has been moved to 2021. The only shows happening now are the last-minute socially distanced ones. But it changes week to week. Nobody would have predicted in January 2020 how different the world would look now, and much could change come January 2021. I’d like to say we’re seeing some normalization of shows happening from March 2021, when we are out of the winter months. But if promoters can guarantee safety through rapid testing, then who’s to say it couldn’t happen faster? I think what’s most important is we don’t rush back in at the risk of people’s health. We need to regain the confidence of the punters. 

MM: With the timing of a vaccine uncertain, we can only speculate. My personal thought is that summer in Europe will happen next year. What that actually looks like, however, is anyone’s guess; I believe festivals will go ahead, but will they be allowed to work to full capacity? What regulations will be in place? We will have to wait and see. My main concern at the moment is what’s going on in the U.S. and how American artists coming over will impact Europe, in terms of feeling comfortable flying and being able to cross borders smoothly. Again, though, I’m hopeful progress will be made by the top of next year and summer 2021 in Europe will be a reality!

ES: The vaccine will certainly play a major role in restoring artist and ticket-buyer confidence in live music. Outside of the U.K., each market has its own ecosystem and it’s possible that many territories are unlikely to open up to international artists for some time.

Whats the most exciting development you see happening right now?
PM: Virtual festivals. I don’t see them being a replacement for the real thing—festivals are about the audience and the energy—but I see there is a place for them, especially if you wanted to debut some sort of show, for example. They put together Tomorrowland’s virtual festival in what I think was three months. Usually, it takes a year or two to plan. And although not every live stream is interesting—if you’ve watched someone DJing in their living room, it’s not exciting—but I’ve seen artists integrating cool visuals and playing live in interesting places. So I think that’s quite exciting. 

JH: The possibility of the virtual. What Tomorrowland did was really mind-blowing. While the virtual world will never replace the excitement you feel at a live concert, it’s reaching a wider audience who may be too young or feel too old to go to the club or simply would prefer to enjoy watching the concert in the comfort of their own living room. The latest iteration of this idea has been floating around for some time, but it’s not had the opportunity to develop into something real until now. We will continue to see a rise in these platforms until people feel safe heading back to a sweaty club and perhaps thereafter. 

MM: I am a big fan of innovation and excited to see artists and my peers dive deep into tech and open the doors to their wildest creative ideas. With tech where it is now, even a new artist can create an imaginative experience for their audience. On top of that, I’m super-excited about the paradigm shift toward paying for digital content, which is so necessary to protect our artists, their teams and their hard-working crews. Could this moment for the live industry be something like what the dawn of iTunes and streaming was for the recorded industry?

ES: In January Lizzo was announced as the first female headliner for Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in the U.S. and we saw Primavera Barcelona achieve a 50/50 gender-balanced lineup. This is a great step forward for women in music, and the demand for females on the lineup in turn supports the growth of female artists from the grassroots. That is exciting.

What are your ambitions heading into 2021 and beyond?
PM: Needless to say, I’d love to get back to booking tours and going to shows and resuming the life we had. I had album touring planned this year for artists like ApasheDigitalismJoyryde, Krewella and Tokimonsta, so I hope next year we can resume those plans. I also hope I can reschedule all the amazing festival shows I had planned. Many of my acts have been using their time off the road to work on new albums and develop live shows, so once events can begin again, they will be ready. I’d also like to get a haircut!

JH: I’ve heard some of the music our artists have been working on and it’s game-changing—they’ve have the opportunity to be solely in the studio. We’re now planning things for 2022, which means we have the time to be more creative. We signed ALOK at the beginning of the year, so finally being able to get our teeth stuck into that … and for Meduza to get their moment at all the festivals … Bristol-based Cousn has got a string of releases coming … I think in the short term we will be looking at more domestic touring, and hopefully that will strengthen the domestic club scene.

MM: I’m lucky to work with some incredible talent and can’t wait to see them all take further steps forward. I’ll be encouraging them to break the rules creatively as we enter a new state of live music. On a personal level, I just want to be the best sounding board for my artists and teams, give them as much information and context as possible and push them to innovate and challenge themselves. You can definitely expect me to keep experimenting with content and new models, some of which will be revealed soon.

ES: In 2019 the live business was stronger than ever and I’m excited to get back to that place. There’s no doubt we will see Lizzo return to headline festival stages in Europe, and I’m excited for breaking artist Gayle—she’s incredible live and we’re expecting big things.

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