The City Isn’t Meant To Be Empty

The pandemic is a game-changer for cultural venues in Europe. After a year of uncertainty and turmoil, a path to a new future emerges in which building communities will take centre stage.

Over a year ago, a day before Belgium went into its first lockdown, I spent my day in Brussels. I remember wondering if I had made the right call by not cancelling the meeting that I was about to have. Boulevard Anspach, usually teeming with people hurrying from one place to another, was eerily abandoned. I remember thinking Brussels looked like that horrific opening scene from 28 Days Later. I remember feeling that the city isn’t meant to be empty.

The crisis lasted longer than any of us could foresee on that day in March 2020. It is now clear that COVID-19 had a transformative effect on our lives and on the future of European cultural venues.

Cause for Optimism

The year of solitude taught us just how essential other people are for our well-being. That the social aspect of culture -all too often mistaken for secondary to High Arts and flogging tickets- is at the heart of it all. A fish isn’t aware of the water it swims in until the fishbowl is drained.

In the last couple of months however, we have seen that there is cause for optimism. It may take us longer than anticipated but we will beat this virus. Moreover, venues can rest assured that they were dearly missed. People crave what we have on offer, so we can expect to return in full force once this whole thing blows over.

People crave what we have on offer, so we can expect to return in full force once this whole thing blows over.

And so, from the uncertainty and turmoil emerges a clear new path for cultural organisations and venues. Now is the time to take steps on that new path.

Asking Important Questions

Let’s think big. Let’s start from the essential questions and ailments of today’s society and see how we can offer solutions. Let’s not waste our time on merely seeking recovery. The question “How can we help this ailing industry recover from the crisis?” seems like an important one, but it really isn’t. It is small thinking.

The questions that we should occupy ourselves with these days are

  • How can we bring people together through arts and culture after the pandemic?
  • And how do we get everyone to join in?

Suddenly, these questions also bring new insights in older topics such as inclusion and diversity, safety, populism and equity.

Practising democracy

In her excellent book The Lonely Century, Noreena Hertz offers loneliness as a lens through which we should look at today’s society. She is right to point out that meeting other people isn’t just good for our mental health but that it ultimately is a form of practising democracy. It is by meeting people who differ from us that we can find common ground. In a world that’s plagued by mind-numbing polarisation, that is quite the goal.

Can cultural venues fight loneliness? Can they help people discover what it is like to get together with others and build communities? Can they be hands-on experiments for democracy? And was there ever a time in recent history when this was more urgent?

And thus ‘thinking big’ becomes about what cultural venues can do to improve the lives of people, their mental health and their communities. It is about taking care of each other and not just about bums on seats.

And thus ‘thinking big’ becomes about what cultural venues can do to improve the lives of people, their mental health and their communities. It is about taking care of each other and not just about bums on seats. It is a new language for what we do and at the same time it is as ancient as humanity itself.

People need venues more than ever

The much-fabled Roaring Twenties will not be about binge-watching and livestream records – 2020 was the perfect year for that – but about meeting new people, deepening relationships and becoming better people doing so.

On the business side, European cultural venues will make money from it, precisely because it is a central human need. People need venues more than ever. Even if it is too early to see them right now, new business models will arise just as they always have.

So, let’s take a deep breath and appreciate this game-changer of a pandemic for what it is. An urgent call to choose building communities over individual consumerism. And a chance to put venues back in the centre of our way of life.


This article is an English language update of an article I wrote earlier in Dutch.

Feel free to contact me or to follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn

 

De stad is niet gemaakt om leeg te zijn.

Het is deze week exact een jaar geleden dat we de eerste lockdown ingingen. Ik bracht toen mijn zaterdag door in een zo goed als verlaten Brussel en het beeld van een bijna lege Anspachlaan riep onmiddellijke herinneringen op aan die gruwelijke openingsscène van 28 Days Later. De stad is niet gemaakt om leeg te zijn.

Er is nog een verjaardag. In maart 2020 begon ik aan deze website over strategische en zakelijke inzichten over popmuziek en de cultuursector. Dus het was onvermijdelijk dat de eerste reeks die ik schreef over de coronacrisis zou gaan.

Wat ik vooral leerde uit het afgelopen jaar, is dat we groter moeten durven denken.

Verstoring

Ik herinner me hoe verwarrend alles was een jaar geleden. En hoe klein we toen dachten. Als activiteiten boven de 1000 bezoekers niet meer mogen, mogen activiteiten met 999 bezoekers dan nog wel?

Ik geloof dat ik zelf relatief vroeg inschatte dat het virus ons leven voor heel lange tijd zou verstoren, maar net zoals iedereen onderschatte ik de duur van de pandemie achteraf bekeken enorm. De zomer van 2020, werd heel 2020. En de eerste maanden van 2021, zijn stilaan ‘heel 2021’ aan het worden. Wat ik op 18 maart vorig jaar schreef over de zomer van 2020, geldt gewoon ook voor die van 2021.

En toch wordt deze tweede corona-zomer heel anders. In de eerste maanden van dit jaar zijn we met z’n allen beginnen terugvechten. We leerden heel veel over het virus en we ontwikkelden vaccins die het veel beter doen dan we oorspronkelijk gedacht hadden. Het is altijd weer adembenemend om te zien wat onze apensoort allemaal kan, als we het eens geraken over een Groot Doel.

We weten meer dan een jaar geleden

In het jaar waarin we mekaar zo weinig mogelijk zagen en vastpakten, leerden we meer dan ooit wat belangrijk is. Posttraumatische groei heet dat, de nieuwe inzichten en vaardigheden die een mens ontwikkelt tijdens een crisis.

In juli 2020 schreef ik een stuk over crisismanagement. In ‘Worst Case Scenario voor de livesector‘ probeerde ik de coronacrisis te begrijpen vanuit de twee fundamentele vragen van crisismanagement.

  1. Is het een korte of een lange crisis?
  2. Keren we na de crisis terug naar hoe het was? Of komen we hier veranderd uit?

De eerste vraag konden we vorige zomer beantwoorden. Het was ons immers niet gelukt om het virus in te dijken in het voorjaar van 2020 wat betekende dat we voor een erg lange periode in de problemen zaten. Vorige zomer was het echter nog te vroeg om ons uit te spreken over die tweede basisvraag. Er bleven dus twee opties over. Incasseren of transformeren.

“Organisaties die geloven in de terugkeer naar business as usual moeten kunnen incasseren en zich schrap zetten voor een langere overlevingsstrategie. Organisaties die geloven dat het coronavirus ons metier voor altijd zal veranderen, beginnen vandaag best aan een ingrijpende transformatie-oefening.”

(Coronavoorspellingen #10: worst case scenario voor de livesector, 20 juli 2020)

De cultuursector, de event-industrie, festivals, podia en publiek: vandaag kunnen we met zekerheid zeggen dat we allemaal veranderd uit deze crisis komen. En dat we dus moeten inzetten op een transformatie van onze sector, niet op incasseren.

Groter denken

Vandaag is een tussenfase. Niet meer het ene, maar nog niet het andere. De nadelen van zo’n tussenfase kennen we ondertussen wel: grote onzekerheid en een gebrek aan veiligheid dat stilaan begint te wegen. Maar de tussenfase nodigt ook uit om groter te denken en de juiste vragen te stellen. Vergeet herstel, denk transformatie.

Ons verhaal vertrekt vanuit de essentiële nood van mensen om elkaar te ontmoeten. Laat ons daarom niet meer bezig zijn met varianten op “Hoe depanneren we straks onze noodlijdende sector?”. Dat lijkt misschien een belangrijke vraag, maar het is het niet. Omdat het niet over transformatie gaat, maar over de illusie van een return to normal.

De transformationele vragen die we ons vandaag moeten stellen zijn

  • Hoe helpen we straks mensen elkaar ontmoeten?
  • Hoe verwerken we als samenleving het loodzware isolement dat we achter de rug hebben?
  • Hoe zorgen we ervoor dat we daarbij niemand achterlaten?

Ineens is duidelijk waar onze bondgenootschappen vandaag liggen. En dat is niet zozeer bij televisie, radio of Netflix. Alle eenrichtingsaanbod, waarbij iemand toont en iemand anders thuis kijkt of luistert, is in grote lijnen behouden gebleven tijdens de lockdowns. Natuurlijk kan dat altijd beter, maar het is niet waar de komende jaren de grote innovatie te vinden is.

De stad is niet gemaakt om leeg te zijn. De grootste stappen zetten we de volgende jaren samen met andere spelers die mensen helpen bijeenbrengen. Met de horeca. Met de scholen. Met verenigingen en sportclubs. Met al die andere makers van de samenleving die straks achter hetzelfde Grote Doel aanmoeten: een maatschappij bouwen waarin we elkaar terug op een veilige en kwalitatieve manier kunnen ontmoeten.


Vond je dit artikel boeiend? Kan je met jouw organisatie hulp gebruiken bij het plannen van je toekomststrategie? Ik denk als ervaren strategisch en zakelijk adviseur voor culturele organisaties graag mee! Stuur me een berichtje of schrijf je hieronder in op mijn tweewekelijkse nieuwsbrief.

Inschrijven op de nieuwsbrief

 

Four ways of building a better live music industry instead of returning to our pre-pandemic ways.

Now that the end of the pandemic appears to be within reach and live music venues are ready to get on the road to recovery, we should not strive for a simple return to normal. Instead, we should take this opportunity to fix our industry.

Imagine back in 2019 you were asked to advise on a remake of the infamous mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap. You would find that most of the scenes would have to be rewritten. The stories of pitiful touring conditions and poorly construed stage props would just seem quaint.

Just before the pandemic struck, not just the amps but the entire industry had been “turned to eleven”. Everything seemed to become larger and larger every year and all of the players in the business had no choice but to follow that upward path.

This had a detrimental effect on the diversity of our stages. In the last twenty years the live music scene evolved from a broad network of music lovers -who often had more passion than professionalism- to a sleek and somewhat predictable machine.

As the pandemic ruthlessly exposes various flaws and shortcomings, this moment in history, just before the end of the crisis, is the exact right time to change course.

Let’s look at four things we could do.


1We could hand back the mic to smaller DIY artists and promoters

For now, the pandemic put a brutal stop to the growing hyperprofessionalism of the pop music industry. Nobody wants to return to the nostalgic ideal of amateurish rock ‘n’ roll but we need a more balanced ecosystem where smaller artistic voices not just superstars and super-products can thrive.

When I started out organising concerts in the beginning of the 2000s, amateurism ruled supreme.

Literally any music lover could put on a live show and pretty much any band could land a couple of semi-decent gigs a year. A lot of smaller artists could be part of a scene. In today’s landscape however big international promoters and larger music venues have gradually taken over the role of grassroots venues and music bars.

Over the years, opportunities for DIY artists and non-commercial musicians and promoters dwindled. An ever-shrinking group of music professionals got to decide who played when and where. And on top of that, they all seemed to like the same ten bands.

Hyper-professionalism has led to powerful gatekeeping structures that make it next to impossible to build alternatives from the bottom up.

This gatekeeping hurts the artistic diversity of our sector. It also explains -to some extent at least- the terrible gender inequality that still plagues live music stages. And it is the reason why stages are slow to adopt artists from more culturally diverse backgrounds.

Hyper-professionalism has led to powerful gatekeeping structures that make it next to impossible to build alternatives from the bottom up.

The pandemic has put an end to all of that for now. And if we want to, this could open up massive new opportunities for smaller artists and DIY promoters without the intervention of the usual gatekeepers.


2

We could build a stronger local European market

The UK and the United States have long been the dominating cultural force in the live music industry. It is notoriously more difficult for a band outside of the UK and the US to build an international career.

One of the bizarre quirks of the European music industry is that we seem to know about every obscure American or British release but are unable to name the three biggest bands in our neighbouring countries. It is this cultural hyperopia that is damaging the careers of our local talent.

One of the bizarre quirks of the European music industry is that we seem to know about every obscure American or British release but are unable to name the three biggest bands in our neighbouring countries.

In the coming year we will see only a couple of American bands doing European tours because of the pandemic. On top of virus-related travel restrictions, Brexit will make it harder for British bands to tour the EU.

It makes a lot of sense to use this time to finally build a better local touring market for European bands. Initiatives to expand tour schedules to neighbouring European countries would considerably improve market conditions for small and mid-level European bands.

In no way does this mean that we should resort to some sort of European protectionism. It would be foolish not to invite great acts from all over the world to our venues and festivals in the coming years. But this sudden virus-induced lull in long-distance touring is the ideal moment to start building a European market for European bands.


3

We could build a sustainable career in pop music

In many countries the forced closing of music venues was mitigated by some sort of temporary unemployment scheme for employees. However musicians, the essential workers of our industry, usually do not have that protection. The coronavirus once again exposed how financially precarious the position of our artists is.

It is a problem as old as the music biz itself: as soon as there is money to be made, a lot of the money goes to middle men. And even though most of these intermediaries are doing great and necessary work, it is a terrible thing to see that musicians can’t rely on the same protections and benefits as a lot of the non-artistic personnel.

Now is as good a time as any to try and find new and sustainable business models that end up paying artists a fair price. This will be a complicated story because the future of a sustainable pop music industry will consist of various interconnected business models, not a one-size-fits-all solution.

If we want to build sustainable careers in pop music, we have to build an ecosystem in which bigger players support smaller artists.

And yes, one of those solutions will have to be new agreements between concert promoters and representatives of artists about what we understand to be fair prices.

The solidarity funds that have been popping up in the wake of the coronavirus crisis are also an interesting avenue to explore. Part of the ticket sales of more popular acts or a percentage of the yearly profit of live music venues could go into similar funds and could be used to top up fees for smaller up and coming bands. In turn, these bands could then contribute to the fund if one day they themselves become financially successful.

If we want to build sustainable careers in pop music, we have to build an ecosystem in which bigger players support smaller artists.


4

We could start looking beyond consumerism again

A fish has no concept of water. That is, until most of the water has leaked from the bowl. Then all of a sudden the fish will be acutely aware of what is missing. In a similar vein the pandemic has taught us how much we rely on contact with other humans. And how crucial it is for pop music that there is a live audience.

This may very well be the biggest opportunity for the live sector in the years to come. Over the past decades our relationship with the audience has become too transactional. ​Bums on seats.​ Selling drinks and tickets became the driver for what we do and stand for. Creating a better product for individual consumers. Creating a better live experience, it seemed, was all about food trucks, VIP areas and ticket upgrades. But what about hanging out with your friends? Meeting new people? And ideally starting your own band after an inspiring night of gig-going?

Live music is more than consumerism. It is about the magic that happens when people get together in a venue. Bringing people together again is what grassroots venues do and this is what the world needs right now.

The pandemic has given us a new clarity. Live music is more than consumerism. It is about the magic that happens when people get together in a venue. First and foremost pop music is a social experience. It is nightlife. And it is precisely this sense of community that has been painfully absent from our socially distanced lives. We need to bring people together again. This is what grassroots venues do and this is what the world needs right now.


A new creative climate

2021 will be a pivotal year. We know that in the years to come the live music industry will be looking for new business models and new roles for musicians, venues, nightclubs, music bars, record labels and agencies. We also know that our industry will find these new models, just like we always have.

A new creative climate is about opening up the stage to a multitude of new voices. Not just to the guaranteed successes of tomorrow but also, and especially, to creative experiment and risk. There is no artistic innovation without the room to fail.

Now is the time to act. A new and more diverse landscape of pop music could emerge from this crisis. Not because it miraculously happened overnight but because we as music professionals got together and decided to build it.