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Festival Forum: Booking & exclusivities

Festival Forum: Booking & exclusivities

Chair: Alex Bruford, ATC Live (UK)

Panellists: Jim King, AEG Presents (UK) | Roberta Medina, Better World/Rock in Rio (PT/BR) | Codruța Vulcu, ARTmania (RO) | Anders Wahrén, Roskilde Festival (DK)

Before the festival forum could deal with the thorny issue of exclusivity clauses, moderator Alex Bruford (ATC Live) raised the thorny issues of corona cancellations and gender-balanced line-ups. With the former there was an acknowledgement of the inability to insure against having to call off events or artists pulling out and that if contracts had not yet been signed, then appropriate clauses should be included. 

However, there was a general agreement that it was important to be prepared while also maintaining a measured perspective. In fact, some speakers even managed to sound a cautiously optimistic note, something which might also be attributed to their countries having relatively few confirmed cases of COVID-19 (at the time of the panel session). 

Roskilde’s Anders Wahrén conceded there had been some cancelations in Denmark due to international tours being abandoned, but that it had not had a negative impact on his festival. “We had the best week on-sale in 50 years, last week,” he mused. 

This was echoed by Roberta Medina (Better World/Rock In Rio). “In Portugal, nobody is talking about closing anything,” she said, while also pointing out that some key announcements had been postponed until late April. “We are looking at the time China took to control the virus when they were caught by surprise, so looking at it optimistically, from May on it will be fine.”

Codruta Vulcu, founder of Romania’s ARTMania festival, raised the issue of large events being cancelled by governments, without force majeure being declared. And she cited promoters being unable to claim on insurance during the unrest in Turkey several years ago, as a cause for concern. 

From the floor, a lawyer advised including a clause that stipulates cancellation outside the control of the parties, ie a government-ordered ban, rather than cancellation due to the fear of the virus. 

Nevertheless, Bruford brought home the problems faced by touring acts hoping to plan their itineraries. “As agents we are working on the basis that it’s on until it’s not on, but for artists there is a point where they have to commit to 25 flights from the US, to bussing and trucking and that’s a difficult decision,” he said. 

In the light of several major festivals continuing to book male-dominated line-ups, the issue of gender-balance was next on the agenda, with the discussion providing a broader perspective than what is covered in most media.  

While pointing out that there are far more women than men working on Rock In Rio, Medina took the most unequivocal stance, articulating a view that few male promoters would voice in public (even though everyone knows that is what they are thinking).

“We are a mainstream event, we don’t book by gender, we book by ticket sales. That’s what leads us,” she said. “I think festivals are being used as a communication platform for a cause, which is fine. But then pressing us to do a line-up that doesn’t have to do with sales when we have to pay the bill at the end? I don’t think it makes sense. I don’t think the question of gender should impact the festival business.”

Although Roskilde is a founding sponsor of the Keychange initiative, it is not a signatory of its pledge to have 50/50 bills by 2022. “For us [gender balance] is important but it doesn’t start with the festival line up,” explained Wahrén. “We could change it up to make it 50/50 but it wouldn’t solve any of the underlying problems that are stopping girls from playing music and stopping women from continuing a career in the music industry. So we have to attack other angles and not just fix the bill.”

This was also echoed by AEG’s Jim King. “[We have a] 70/30, female to male ratio,” he said, referring to his company. “I think showing a pathway to senior leadership roles is as important [as who is on the stage] as it sets the culture of what we are doing.”

Nevertheless, the company has also been working hard to address the imbalance on bills. 

“We can’t always achieve balance on the headliners, [but] it’s not for want of trying. We don’t get to decide when Beyoncé tours. If it’s not in our weekend or they want to do another venue, I can’t control that. Taylor Swift and Little Mix were keen on a female-only bill and we were able to accommodate that. We do seek to do it, but it’s not always easy.” 

Vulcu also pointed out that while her team is staffed by a majority of women and she aims to book female-fronted rock and metal acts, she is still working in a male-dominated genre.

“For the rock people in Romania, [gender balance] is not a subject,” she said. “We need to stick to artists who work in the market.”

There was also broad agreement that the media attention was not usually reflected in audience attitudes towards the gender balance of bills.

The issue of exclusivity clauses also saw a range of views and different scenarios, with a general agreement that emerging acts should not be subject to stringent restrictions, while explaining the reasons why they were necessary for headliners. 

Wahrén was keen for larger acts not to overexpose themselves in his market. “The biggest problem is acts who are returning year after year but doing another festival. So we have a discussion about how long a break we need, but that is to preserve interest in the artist,” he said. 

In Brazil, Medina adopts a pragmatic approach. “We have exclusivity until we are sold out and maybe then we can announce some other dates which other promoters do in partnership, or not, with us,” she said, adding that exposure from playing Rock In Rio will usually result in arena-size bookings.

Similarly, Vulcu pointed out that an act that has not played Romania before can expect to draw a larger audience in her country after performing at her festival. However, she also insists on exclusivity for headliners. “In Romania, an act only plays the one event, because although there is a population of 20million people, it’s the same 500,000 who go to all events. So if you book the headliner you definitely ask for exclusivity and for no other headline shows to be announced before the festival.”

King explains that with many large bookings, and corresponding fees, 12-15% of the audience will be from outside the metropolis, including people travelling from oversees. “We need those people, so [exclusivity] is very relevant at that point,” he says. However, he is scathing about exclusivity being imposed on emerging artists. “I don’t understand why agents allow it,” he said. “There is so much power across the major agencies to enforce massive contractual terms on a promoters, yet they can’t get their artist out of some crazy exclusivity? I don’t understand the imbalance in that. One minute it’s very enforceable, very aggressive, very heavy-handed, in terms of the contracting process. And then on the other hand it’s ‘we can’t really go there.’ It’s a $1,000 artist and you can’t get a radius exempted from that?”

And King also reflects the frustration of many promoters delaying announcements after an act is confirmed. “You’re sitting there, eight, nine, ten weeks later saying ‘we need to fucking announce the show’ and they’re still moaning about the support or the artwork,” he said. And you’ve lost three months. That has to change.”

Timing is also an issue in terms of booking artists, with Vulcu already in discussions about headliners for 2021. “We try to book headliners as early as possible,” she said.  “But for the smaller acts we will try to agree with the agents that they play at the festival first because through our marketing platform I can promote them in a way that after the festival they will play bigger venues than they would otherwise have done.”

Medina expressed frustration at the length of negotiations over securing acts. “Six months exchanging emails without booking, it’s a nightmare,” she said. “It would be fantastic to book much earlier, but these conversations don’t end. We are increasingly investing in experiences, because it’s much easier.”

While Bruford agreed that tying up headliners swiftly is beneficial, he suggested that leaving slots to add emerging artists closer to the festival is important. “For developing artists a lot can change between October and March, April, May or June,” he said.

Wahrén pointed out the dilemma facing promoters. “It’s contradictory that while artists are breaking quicker than ever, we are booking earlier than ever,” he said “It leaves no room to react to what happens in the next four months.” 

King predicted that increasing consolidation of the market will also impact on new events entering the marketplace. “Access to the right artist is still the critical piece to lessen the financial barrier to entry. Consolidation will continue to make it harder for independent festivals to access a regular supply of major talent.”