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"I've already lost thousands": How coronavirus is affecting music

We spoke to DJs, promoters, festivals and venues about the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak

  • Jack Needham
  • 12 March 2020

Across the world, a number of high-profile events and festivals have been cancelled due to the growing concern, and subsequent prevention methods against COVID-19, or the coronavirus.

In China, Singapore and Vietnam, Sónar Hong Kong and Unknwn Fiesta have postponed their upcoming events, while many local promoters, venues and booking agents have been forced to cancel events with artists like DEBONAIR, John Talabot and more.

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American organisers have followed suit. Miami’s Ultra Music Festival and Austin’s SXSW music conference having both been cancelled, while Coachella has been postponed until October. In Europe, Tallinn Music Week has been postponed until August, Tomorrowland’s Winter 2020 edition, set to host Kölsch, Charlotte de Witte and more on March 14 to 21, has been cancelled, while UK promoters Beat Hotel have postponed their Marrakech festival following a decision from the Moroccan Government to ban events over 1000 people. France and Switzerland have also made similar rulings, while in Italy, a country-wide lockdown has come into force.

“I’ve had to cancel 12 shows so far,” says Andrea Angelini, owner of the Rome-based agency 3D agency - 3D represent Italian acts worldwide and are a sub-agency in Italy for artists such as Caribou and HAAi.

Currently, Andrea has been able to reschedule some shows until later in the year. “We all have to see how this will evolve,” Angelini explains. And, in what is a rare display of harmony amongst promoters, venues and booking agents, Angelini believes that in order to wade through this uncharted terrain, collaboration is key. “We all have to see how this will evolve,” says Angelini. “We’re all in the same boat.”

But, with information changing so rapidly, the situation is a near-impossible one to react to. "A couple of weeks ago we were expecting it to get bad, but it's hit us very hard and very fast," says Keith Leaf, an artist booking agent. “Now, we have to assume that most shows are going to be cancelled from this weekend onwards.”

From mammoth EDM festivals to Berlin’s techno haven Berghain, who have postponed events until April 20, big clubbing establishments are suffering. But this “domino effect” as Leaf describes is reaching smaller venues, those who may not recover. "It's gone beyond the 1000-capacity spaces, it's hitting the smaller and underground clubs," says Leaf. "For these [smaller] promoters, a few cancelled shows is going to cripple them as much as the artists. Everyone's in a really volatile situation."

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In 24 hours, Leaf has personally cancelled seven shows, all taking place in the next ten days. “I've gone beyond the point of despair now,” says Leaf. “We're just trying to survive and not spend any money for a while, because we're not sure when it's going to come back in."

For musicians, this has far-reaching implications. The health risks involved in flying to three destinations in a weekend is obvious, but many are in the dark about what countries they can and can’t travel to or, if they were able to reach their destination, whether they could be quarantined there. Any DJs from Europe’s 26-member Schengen zone planning to tour the US in the next month have had the decision taken out of their hands, with Donald Trump imposing a 30 day travel ban on the region. It does not apply to US citizens, permanent residents and their families, so any American and US-based DJs currently on tour in Europe and facing cancelled gigs should be able to return home while the ban is in place.

Then, there’s the financial loss. One DJ, who wishes to remain anonymous, told us they have already lost thousands of Euros in earnings after a string of cancelled or postponed bookings. “If you’re someone who has made music their life, this has been very hard,” they say.

Despite the financial woes, they remain optimistic. “Bookings are frozen for a while, but promoters are telling me that the door is still open whenever this thing goes away,” they say. “It seems cliché, but I think this will make us stronger.”

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For some UK dancers it seems little has changed. “The vibe was amazing as usual,” says a Bristol-based DJ and promoter who, on March 7, hosted a 250-capacity, sold out event - they wish to remain anonymous. “It was one of our best parties to date, and I didn't notice any changes or hear anyone talking about coronavirus.”

Ioan Roberts, owner of Liverpool venue 24 Kitchen Street, agrees. "We were rammed over the weekend,” he says, but admits attitudes are changing. "I think people are pausing in regard to buying tickets,” he goes on to say. "There's a huge uncertainty because we don't even know if we'll be open on Tuesday. The government could turn around and say 'no events'.”

Ioan says that if 24 Kitchen Street should have to close for a period of time, staff, owners and directors will not be paid - naturally, if this was rolled out across other venues, lower-income workers would be hit the hardest. “We had to tell everyone that if we're closed beyond three months we're going to have to stop paying people. We literally don't have the money for it,” says Ioan. “That’s the worst case scenario, though.”

This is not a situation unique to 24 Kitchen Street. “Following the advice from Public Health England and an on-site Coronavirus risk assessment, a number of precautionary measures have been put in place around the venue,” a spokesperson for London venue Printworks told us.

These measures include the promotion of cleanliness via onstage signage, additional sanitary and hand wash provisions and a medical plan in the event of someone feeling unwell and presenting with flu-like symptoms.

For the UK’s festival season, a major contributor to the UK’s £1.1 billion live music economy, it remains too early to know if, or how, the season may be affected. This brings both good and bad news. The UK festival season starts later in the year than our American counterparts, with Glastonbury Festival kicking off the festivities at the end of June.

In a statement, confirmed by Mixmag as up-to-date as of 9th March, Adrian Coombs, Glastonbury Festival’s Head of Event Operations, said “Glastonbury Festival thoroughly plans each year's event, and puts in place all necessary measures to protect the public and maximise safety [...]. With this in mind and with our 2020 Festival still 16 weeks away, we continue to plan and prepare for the event, whilst at the same time closely monitoring developments with the coronavirus situation.”

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While time is our friend for now, the notoriously unpredictable UK weather means that promoters don’t have the luxury of postponing outdoor events until the colder, wetter months. But are UK promoters insured if their events are cancelled? The simple advice is to check your insurance cover, but it’s complicated.

Some event insurers offer what’s called ‘communicable disease cover’, which protects against outbreaks of disease. However, "the majority of organisers do not buy this cover because they don't deem it to be a risk," says Steven Howell, Head of Music at Media & Music Insurance Brokers, who provide event insurance for around 150 UK festivals ranging in capacity.

In the UK, if communicable disease cover was purchased through insurers before January 31, event cancellations relating to the coronavirus would be insured, as the virus was largely contained to specific areas and had not significantly affected the UK.

However, after the World Health Organisation deemed the coronavirus a global emergency on January 30, insurance companies no longer offer communicable disease cover against coronavirus-related cancellations as it has become a ‘known circumstance’ - or, as Howell explains, “you can’t insure a burning building.”

For those who don’t qualify for this insurance Howell has some advice: renegotiate. "Typically, an event organiser will have paid a deposit to a venue or artist," he says. "But people are adding an indemnity to their contract which says that if an event is cancelled by the authorities then we will either reschedule the event or, if we can't do that, we will all return any deposits, which [organisers] would have normally been contractually obligated to pay. It's about being fair and sensible. Everyone's in the same boat, and nobody wants to see anyone suffer."

In the UK, at the time of writing, Public Health England have advised that there are currently no restrictions on mass gatherings or community events, which means that many weekend events will go ahead as planned.

The same is true in Croatia, where The Garden Resort, Tisno, are gearing up for another season on the Adriatic coast. “We are still 17 weeks away from our first event, Hospitality On The Beach on July 9, and preparations are all pretty much done and in place,” says Nick Colgan, owner and founder at The Garden and Barbarella’s.

Croatia has reported 15 cases to date, but Colgan reassures guests that “at present we have had no customers contact us with concerns,” and that “the coronavirus is something we’re obviously talking about, but at this point it is all systems go with no panic.”

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In Ibiza, Europe’s biggest dance music destination, similar advice is being followed. “Our attitude at the moment is that ‘the show must go on’, so we are continuing to plan for and produce as usual our flagship Ibiza event,” says Ben Turner, co-founder at International Music Summit, a three-day electronic music conference held from May 20 to 22.

Ibiza has reported one case to date. Currently, IMS are working closely with the local authorities and the Spanish Ministry of Health for information, but what could an event ban mean for Ibiza? An island which, as the BBC report, relies on tourism to make up almost half of their economy?

“We have no immediate plans to cancel IMS Ibiza,” stresses Turner. “However, should the Spanish authorities mandate that large gatherings of people are no longer permitted, we would have to follow this ruling. The economic ramifications of such a ruling on an island that runs on tourism and large events would be severe, and as such we sincerely hope this will be a last resort.”

There are some positive signs. USA Today say that China has reported the fewest number of cases since it started tracking the disease in January, while in South Korea, the number of new daily infections have declined in recent days, say CNN. In Europe, for now, government bans are relatively short-term. “Even if they did ban public gatherings [in the UK], by the summer it won't be an issue,” says Howell. “That's what we're hoping.”

Jack Needham is a freelance journalist, follow him on Twitter

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