Live music

‘A godsend for labels’? What the return of live music could mean for the rest of the industry

Let’s go! With those two words on their social media accounts, Reading & Leeds Festivals lit the blue touch paper on the UK’s long-awaited return to live music.

Three days later, Live Nation had sold 170,000 tickets to Reading & Leeds and Creamfields, proving that the Great British public’s appetite for festivals remains undimmed by a year of coronavirus lockdowns, cancelled gigs and hastily arranged livestreams.

Of course, we’ve been here before and many in the biz have urged caution since the government announced full-capacity shows could potentially return as early as June 21. Despite that decree, many major tours and events continue to be rescheduled for 2022 and beyond. And yet it’s hard to deny the live industry its moment of optimism and joy after a year that has pushed many in the sector to the very brink.

Especially as live is such an important part of the wider music ecosystem. Recorded music might have done better than many initially expected during the pandemic – according to new research from the Entertainment Retailers Association, music’s retail value grew 6.8 per cent in 2020 to £1.552 billion, despite record shops being closed for much of the year. But touring has long been a key campaign element for artists to promote and sell their albums and labels and managers will be pleased they no longer have to manage without it.

“In terms of marketing and promotion, it’s bringing that confidence and the ability to budget and put your plans together accordingly,” Alistair Norbury, president, repertoire and marketing for BMG UK, tells Audio Media International. “With our roster and the demographics and the genres we’re in predominately, we’re going to benefit significantly from seeing the return to live music.”

Norbury says that several artists have already reversed earlier decisions to push albums back to 2022, while touring’s return allows the label to plan extended campaigns for already-hugely-successful 2020 BMG releases such as Kylie Minogue’s Disco and Steps’ What The Future Holds. And for a label like Dirty Hit, which releases gig and festival-friendly acts such as Pale Waves and Wolf Alice (whose new album is due in June), the re-opening of venues could be a godsend.

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“It has definitely been a challenge, as a lot of artist campaigns are traditionally based around touring,” says Dirty Hit founder Jamie Oborne, who also runs management company All On Red. “It has meant being more creative about ways to engage fanbases and find new audiences. For some, this will be a timely return and means they will be able to factor live shows into their marketing campaigns to support the release of a record. 

“For others who have recently released albums, it will be a chance to extend the album campaign into 2022, with the prospect of further touring and hopefully a full global festival run next summer.”

It could be particularly crucial for new artists. There were few significant breakthroughs in 2020 – although BMG’s KSI scored the UK’s top-selling debut album with Dissimulation – with many hotly-tipped acts shelving plans until they could play live again.

“New acts are hurting the most in terms of career development, for many of them live is a vital rite of passage, where you build your fanbase and cut your teeth,” says Sammy Andrews, founder/CEO of creative digital agency Deviate Digital, which helped rockers You Me At Six score their recent No.1 album, Suckapunch, despite not being able to tour.

“More established artists with a pre-existing fanbase have had a much easier time shifting promotion to digital and making conversions online,” adds Andrews. “But the pandemic has flooded the market digitally and the competition for attention online is fierce. Being allowed to tour and focus that attention into a show that converts into a fanbase will be so important for new acts.”

live music
Sammy Andrews (photo by Paul Harries)

Some wonder whether there will also be a more permanent shift in the recorded/live music relationship. Alistair Norbury says the last 12 months have resembled the 1980s music industry, when touring was often held back until an album had been thoroughly promoted.

“Since then, we’ve lost setting the agenda to the live industry, so artists would come to BMG with a tour already booked in and we would fit a record in around that,” he says, noting that Kylie has sold more copies of Disco than she did of 2018 album Golden, despite being unable to undertake any international trips. 

“But last year, Gemma [Reilly-Hammond, BMG VP of marketing] and the team were able to have a clear year to work with artists. It’s testament to the fact that you can market records in this new way. But I think we’ll return to a nice mix. Recordings had to go on the front foot all year and we will continue that and work in partnership with our promoter and agent friends.”

So could such partnerships become even closer? After all, BMG’s German company recently launched its own live music division. Norbury declined to comment on rumours that BMG is looking to get into the agency business in the UK, but you wouldn’t be surprised to see the perfectly-positioned BMG or, indeed, other labels looking for a presence in a sector that has been disrupted like never before by the pandemic.

Given such circumstances, live companies have adapted incredibly well. Andrews expects livestreams – which have kept many artists and live companies going during the months of real world inactivity – to remain a key part of the mix, although she warns ownership of that sector is still to be established.

There are plenty of other hurdles to overcome. With the UK’s vaccine rollout outpacing most other nations, international touring – further complicated by Brexit – will have to wait. There was a disappointing lack of a government-backed insurance scheme in yesterday’s Budget, which will make it much harder for many festivals to go ahead (although the five per cent VAT rate on ticket sales was extended until September). And the pressure on the UK’s live infrastructure – from rehearsal rooms and venues to production crew to the endless rescheduling – means demand might outstrip supply for some time.

“Twelve months’ worth of international touring has been moved two or three times now,” notes Norbury, who suggests newer acts should team up for package tours for maximum impact. “So a lot of those [touring] slots are gone. But I have no doubt that within a period of time – and I wouldn’t necessarily put a date on it – it will return because, no matter what genre or artist you like to go and see, there’s going to be huge, pent-up demand to reengage with live culture.”

And then there’s the unwelcome – but still eminently possible – prospect of a further spike in cases, or a new variant that can evade the vaccine. Either could prove catastrophic for an industry that’s been hanging on by its fingernails for months now. And that’s why – even with the prospect of a decade-long party to rival the post-First World War years on the horizon, many in the biz remain wary.

“I think the whole industry is hoping for live music and festivals to return as soon as possible, as long as events can open up in a way that is safe for everyone,” says Oborne. “The demand and appetite are definitely there from ticket buyers.”

“We have to hope it will be possible, but be prepared for potential delays if the data is against us,” warns Sammy Andrews. “I have some reservations over the way a few of the big festivals are being positioned in the press with no caution or context. We must all play our part to get us out of this situation. I am, though, utterly overjoyed that the market is clearly there waiting and people are excited to get back to live music. Bring on the roaring ‘20s… When it is safe to do so.”    

The going may yet get tough but, finally, the UK live revival is ready to get going.

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