From the importance of showcase festivals to the impact of the pandemic on the industry, the Westway Lab conversations on the live music sector were insightful and provided valuable information for those attending.
Westway Lab Showcase Festival and Conference was held between the 12th and 15th of this month, featuring multiple panels, networking opportunities and performances by upcoming artists. In this article, we will be sharing some insightful conversations that focused on the live music sector.
One significant part of the live music sector is the large number of showcase festivals held worldwide throughout the year. This type of event is a combination of music festivals with industry meetings, often in the form of networking sessions and conferences where industry hot topics are discussed. During the panel discussion “What lies ahead for European Showcase Festivals”, Carina Sava, Founder and Chair of Woman in Music Romania and Conference Program Manager at Mastering the Music Business, Boyan Pinter, Founder and Director at SPIKE Showcase, and Manfred Tari, Conference Manager at Reeperbahn Festival, discussed the current panorama of music showcase festivals and future improvements to be made to such events.
The conversation began by discussing perhaps the most famous showcase festival: SXSW. The event comprises Film & TV, Tech, Music and Comedy festivals, with its core events attracting more than 278.000 registrants. Boyan noted that “it wasn’t always like this”, but with time, the festival grew to become a big machine dealing with “a lot of money”.
The three agreed that smaller and more intimate events are much better for mingling and for forging meaningful connections. “A boutique festival can serve better,” Boyan said, adding that many times massive festivals leave everyone overwhelmed. Carina mentioned that at the Mastering the Music Business Festival, the event matches artists and mentors (usually speakers at the conference) on a mentorship program in order to build stronger relationships. Creating opportunities for local and foreign artists is one of the festival’s main goals.
At the SPIKE Showcase, Boyan tries to match artists, many of them international, with local venues as well as occasions for artists of different nationalities to learn from each other. He highlights that there are specific mistakes conferences should avoid, such as artists travelling to different festivals just to perform and not attending the networking sessions, or when artists choose the wrong repertoire, not making any adaptations to different venues/festivals/events.
However, as Boyan points out “at the end of the day, there’s only so much we can do”. While showcase festival managers and organisers must prioritise internationalisation and opportunities for all music stakeholders attending, artists must also feel eager to take these opportunities. Artists often need to realise that this type of festival is not just a great occasion to play live, but also build relationships.
When asked about the lack of big name attendees at smaller showcase festivals, Carina answers that she is also not that eager to programme them. She realises this is one of the pitfalls of wanting to maintain a small and intimate festival, but it allows her to create a strong network of connections with indies that might not otherwise be possible.
To conclude the conversation, Boyan offered some practical advice for artists and music stakeholders who are just starting to attend these events: first, go to small showcase festivals before jumping right onto big ones like Eurosonic or SXSW.
Later that day, Steve Zapp, Live Booking Agent at International Talent Booking spoke at “In Conversation: Agent Steve Zapp Discusses the Future of Live Music” alongside Mariana Oliveira from Vibes & Beats, the company responsible for the North Music Festival organisation and booking. The conversation focused on a difficult topic for the live music industry – the pandemic – and the changes that followed.
One of the biggest dynamic changes was the relationship between bookers and agents. Throughout the pandemic this relationship seemed to have strengthened, with Steve and Mariana sharing that they would sometimes phone colleagues with whom they previously had very superficial communications just to catch up and make sure everyone was fine.
Ultimately, this new trust between bookers and agents came in hand when the financial consequences of the pandemic hit bookers and festival organisers. Mariana shared that many agents pardoned payment fees for concerts that ultimately never happened due to last-minute nationwide health safety legislation. North Festival experienced this firsthand when the Portuguese health safety organisation didn’t allow for the event to take place just two weeks before its start. After finding themselves with thousands of euros in debt, Mariana realised the true importance of nurturing the live music ecosystem and building a strong music community.
On the bright side, new habits developed during the pandemic, such as holding Zoom calls instead of travelling to attend industry meetings or meet venue owners, have made cost budgeting possible. Steve notes that remote work has also helped industry professionals save on unnecessary transportation costs, promote sustainable practices, and transform the sector to be more tech-savvy.
It’s clear that the pandemic was just the beginning of the challenges faced by the live music industry. Currently, the sector is struggling with inflation, complex travelling policies due to Brexit, and increased gas prices since the Ukrainian war, which has made it difficult for many artists to afford touring. With a 20-30% increase in most costs involved in putting together a live event, many industry stakeholders have had to change their strategies.
Vibes & Beats has stopped investing in medium-sized events as ticket price margins are impossible to bear. With the pressure to increase ticket prices against the decreased family disposable income, “live music is no longer for everyone”, Mariana concludes. The company now invests in premium live performances with big music names, in order to leverage the performers’ popularity with increased ticket prices. Other alternatives to cut costs include booking a bulk of artists from a single management agency instead of booking an individual artists or band. Despite the difficulties, both Mariana and Steve agree that this period, though hard, presents different opportunities.
For some festivals, competitive advantages built in the pre-pandemic years have helped stabilise losses during these uncertain times. Sziget is a case in point, according to Virag Csiszar, Booking Manager at what is now one of the biggest festivals in Europe, during the talk “Diversity & Festivals: Sziget Case Study”. Taking place every August in Budapest, Hungary, Sziget has been focusing on diversity, inclusion and internationalisation for the last 30 years.
Virag explains that almost from its inception, the festival was aware that Hungary was a small market, and to grow and attract an international audience, foreign artists needed to be included in the line up. This meant that relationships with foreign promoters needed to be forged. Additionally, diversity should be represented not only in the line-up but also in the activities held by the festival. For many years theatre, circus and contemporary dance shows have been hosted alongside music performances. Multiple artistic groups are encouraged to create artistic installations for the festival, highlighting the value of individual freedom.
Sustainable practices have also been promoted by the festival organisation, such as planting trees and grass once the festival finishes to restore the natural environment of the site, decreasing waste by providing reusable cups and plates, and banning plastic straws. Performing artists are also encouraged to travel to Budapest in more sustainable ways to reduce air pollution.
As we move forward, it’s clear that the industry will continue to face challenges, but it’s also evident that there are opportunities for growth and innovation.