How Coronavirus is Impacting Electronic Music

Live events are the at the heart of the electronic music industry. And the coronavirus has put many artists, booking agents and promoters in a scary and difficult spot. Shawn Reynaldo finds out how some are coping with an increasingly uncertain future.

25 min
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Mar 11, 2020
Shawn Reynaldo

The past week has not been good for Marco Passarani. Last Thursday, the Roman artist had to cancel a trip to California for a couple of Tiger and Woods shows with production partner Valerio Del Prete. The two had performed in Venice (a city inside of Italy’s coronavirus “red zone”) less than two weeks prior, and they were worried about not being let into the United States.

“On the foreign affairs webpage, it said that [Italians who had been in the red zones] could travel to the U.S., but in most of the cases, either they would bounce you or ask you to go into quarantine,” says Passarani. “Even if it was a 10% risk of getting bounced, how could I actually go? The idea of being far from home, risking quarantine, who’s going to pay for a hotel for 14 days? My food? Probably the coronavirus test too? That test is really expensive and it’s not really clear if insurance will cover it.”

On Tuesday, things got worse when all of Italy was put on lockdown. Non-emergency travel has largely been prohibited. Public gatherings, including nightclubs all throughout the country, have been suspended until at least April 3rd. And though Passarani is doing his best to keep cool and be rational, he’s also worried, not just for his family (his mother is 85 years old) and country, but also his livelihood, and the livelihood of musicians and artists in general.

“I have to pay the rent,” he says. “I need to perform, I need to work and I can’t do this. I don’t have any wages this month. I have some money in the bank of course, but I have other friends who literally rely on shows to pay the rent and everything. And our category, it really doesn’t have any protection, because we don’t have a store, we are not employees of a company. No one gives a shit. There’s no plan to help artists at the moment, because of course there are more serious concerns, and I understand that, but we’re in trouble.”

“What we don’t have in our particular industry are strong representatives,” says Lele Sacchi, a veteran DJ, producer, promoter and national radio presenter based in Milan. “We hope that our voices are heard. Our community needs help at some point because a lot of DJs, bands, musicians and live venues need help. Anything that can be done by the state or the regional governments to help economically, it’s much needed right now.” Clubs have been shut in Milan since late February, and Sacchi notes that the remainder of Italy’s winter clubbing season has been potentially wiped out. “One thing that people from outside the industry don’t realize is that live venues and clubs rely a lot on cash flow,” he explains. “Stopping the cash flow is a hard blow because it’s not the kind of business where you put money aside.”

Although clubs are closed, they’re still having to pay their rent or mortgages, along with ongoing payments on things like PA systems, which are often financed. And while contracted staff at these venues are still being paid, plenty of others are going without income. “People think about DJs and always think about all the international touring artists,” says Sacchi, “but there are plenty of old-school resident DJs who just get their wages from their weekly spots. At the moment, they’re totally on hold.”

While the coronavirus situation is particularly intense in Italy, the problem is quickly spreading throughout the globe. Asia has been dealing with coronavirus for most of 2020, and has seen mass cancellations of events throughout the region. Sónar Hong Kong has been postponed. Taiwan’s Organik festival has been cancelled. Farther south, the 2020 edition of Tasmania’s Dark Mofo has been scrapped. Over in Europe, the French government has banned all events of 1000 people or more, and has been joined by Switzerland. Germany may soon be following suit, and Berlin’s Trauma Bar Und Kino has already cancelled the remainder of its March calendar, and Berghain — a global clubbing institution — has cancelled events until April 20th. In Northern Africa, the Beat Hotel Marrakech festival was postponed after the Moroccan government also banned events of 1000 people or more.

Things aren’t looking much better in the US. Coachella has been postponed to October, while Miami’s Music Week, which is set to begin on Monday, is in limbo. Ultra Festival has been cancelled (and won’t be offering refunds), along with this year’s Winter Music Conference, while the annual Get Lost party has been postponed. And just yesterday, President Trump announced a travel ban on anyone from Europe coming to the U.S.

There’s a lot of uncertainty in the air, which creates a difficult situation for artists like Jessica Gentile (a.k.a. Jubilee). “I’ve already had my entire month of April canceled, like so much income,” she says. “And now I’m in this weird position where I have these Miami Music Week gigs and I’m like, ‘Are they happening? Is this going to get canceled after I fly down there?’ If those shows get canceled, I’ll have no income for two full months. And I live in New York City.”

“When you’re an independent artist and you’re not making any money, you sacrifice your whole life to do this, and you’re not even really making any money,” she adds. “So when this shit happens, it’s just like, ‘Ugh.'” Making things worse, as an American, Gentile has the added hurdle of dealing with the country’s nebulous health care system during what’s now officially been declared a global pandemic.. “I actually do have health insurance,” she says. “However, because I’m a freelancer and because nobody understands how that works, I have to prove my income by April 1st or they might pull it. And that’s like a whole other thing because it’s like, ‘Do I have income? Do I not have income? Is the New York State website gonna crash and they’re just going to pull my insurance anyways?’ That has happened to me before and they give no fucks, so that’s a whole other nightmare.”

For what it’s worth, Andrew Kelsey, President of North American booking agency Liaison Artists, is confident that this year’s Miami Music Week will happen, at least in some form. “All the rest of the events are running,” he says. “Space is running all week; Space even added another day and just added a bunch of Ultra artists to other days. Now that Get Lost is canceled, promoters are reaching out and snatching up all those artists because all the beach events, all the pool events, all the clubs, all of it’s running.”

And despite the wave of cancellations in the news, many festivals are still going forward. The Bang Face weekender is happening this weekend in the UK. During the first weekend of April, the 10th edition of Rewire is set to take place in The Hague. “At the moment in The Netherlands, the situation is quite stable,” says Bronne Keesmaat, Rewire’s founder, director and head of programming. “We’re still in the containment phase. During the coming weeks, there will of course be more people who are getting the virus, but for now, the Dutch authorities think they can control it. So at the moment it’s unlikely that the event will be cancelled, but naturally we will have a close look at all the developments and we are in constant contact with the city council and the public health service.” Another Dutch festival, DGTL, which is scheduled for the following weekend in Amsterdam, has posted a similar message on its website, which reads in part: “We are closely monitoring the current developments and will update you via our channels in case of new information. On a side note: In the event of cancellation due to official decisions, your tickets will be refunded in full.”

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Even with some festivals still moving forward, it’s clear that festivals on the whole have taken a big hit. In contrast, cancellations of club events outside of Italy and Asia have been relatively minimal up to this point, although that’s quickly changing as the coronavirus continues to spread. With new developments breaking every day, promoters and booking agents have been scrambling to keep track of public health announcements and travel advisories. As Daniela Cia, co-founder of Berlin’s Triangle Agency, explains, it’s added a new level of complication to her work. “For example, we don’t know if Sam Paganini (who lives in Venice) can travel to the embassy in Milan where he has to pick up his visa, and then we don’t know if he can get the visa. He wants to go to the US, but even if he gets there, we don’t know if the US will allow him to enter. There are so many chain reactions that were not even considered before all this happened, and not just by us. We’ve also tried to consult with other agencies and everyone is unprepared.”

The difficulties don’t stop there, as agents are also grappling with the varying interpretations of the force majeure clauses in their contracts. “Force majeure is by definition an act of God, something outside of what can be reasonably predicted,” says Rebecca Prochnik, co-owner of London’s Earth Agency. “It would seem reasonable to assume that coronavirus would be included, even if it’s not specified.” Unfortunately though, there may be a difference between what’s reasonable and what’s ultimately enforceable under the law. “We’re actually going to have a meeting with our lawyer in the next few days to talk about this because no one is prepared,” says Cia. “In our contract there is a force majeure clause, but apparently this virus situation doesn’t count as force majeure, or this is what we’ve been told. There is no official or clear decision you can make. You really have to go case by case.”

“Case by case” is a phrase a lot of booking agents are using at the moment, especially because this situation is so novel for everyone involved. “Artists are all very worried,” says Cia. “They’re trying to protect their business. Although everyone is trying to be understanding, they’re also quite resistant to being flexible because they want to see what’s happening. Human beings are like this. They want to see what everyone does before they make a decision.”

In the meantime though, decisions need to be made, particularly when it comes to things like refunds of artist and agency fees. “Our general response is to say that we will try to reschedule the date,” says Donelle Kosch, co-founder of Amsterdam agency The Collective Studio. “So either we’ll hold onto the fee if we already have it or we’ll let the promoter hold onto it, but we agree in good faith that once the situation becomes more clear over time, we’ll reschedule the date.” Cia is taking a similar route. “Some artists might go for canceling now and we keep all the fees, but we will reschedule for next fall or winter,” she explains. “But for some artists, that might not be possible because maybe their entire year is already booked right now.”

For booking agents, balancing the need to protect their artists versus their desire to maintain good relationships with promoters can be tricky, especially because they know that promoters are also facing a lot of uncertainty right now. “We just heard that certain festivals are fighting with their insurance company because if they themselves voluntarily cancel, it’s not covered,” says Kelsey. “Even if public opinion and the city itself advises that you should cancel and the public is just blasting you online, saying you’re responsible for operating a 100,000-ticket-a-day festival while this is going on, even then, if you’re kind of forced to cancel to do the right thing, insurance won’t cover you because it was voluntary.”

At the same time, booking agents also have to be on the lookout for promoters who might try to take advantage of the situation, whether it’s using coronavirus as an excuse to cancel an event with low ticket sales or unfairly pocketing insurance money. “Every festival has a different insurance policy and they’re going to have to wade through that,” says Kelsey. “Obviously, if insurance is paying these festivals then we would 100 percent expect the artists to get something.”

On the whole though, there seems to be a desire on all sides to work together. “Artists at our agency, they come back year after year to the same promoters,” says Cia. “For five years, most of the promoters we’re dealing with are the same. That means it’s healthy and we have a good business model, so there is no reason for us to go heavy on them. We want them to survive because it also sustains our business.”

As one of the leading ticket sellers for electronic music events around the world, Resident Advisor is also concerned about promoters right now. “We are speaking to experts and club commissions in major cities, and taking advice to ensure we understand the shifting landscape,” says co-founder and co-CEO Nick Sabine. “Based on what we know so far, we have produced a list of guidelines for promoters and venues in countries that are currently experiencing the impact of the coronavirus.” When it comes to refunds (both of purchased tickets and Resident Advisor’s ticketing fees), Sabine says they’re being handled on an “event-by event basis,” but explains that his staff “is working tirelessly behind the scenes to provide support, guidance and information to thousands of promoters across the world.”

Although many financial questions remain unresolved, intentions across the board appear to be good, at least for the time being. “People have been really understanding,” says Kosch. “The communication is more like, ‘Let’s stay in touch as things develop. Let’s try to make this work whenever we can make it work.'” That said, pretty much everyone in the industry is concerned about the future. Staying informed and staying calm can help for the time being, but a lot of serious challenges are looming on the horizon. “I actually think it’s going to become more complicated over time,” worries Kosch. “For example, for shows outside of Europe, I’m sort of holding back a bit on how much effort I’m putting into planning international tours. And so I think the financial effect will be more from shows that I don’t even try to book rather than ones that have already been in the calendar. I mean, there will be some immediate cancellations, but I’m thinking longer term and it’s like, ‘How much effort should I put into this Japan tour that was supposed to happen in July?'”

In the months ahead, some artists’ calendars could start to look thinner than usual. RA’s Sabine has already noticed a slowdown in new event listings in places like Italy, and he expects that phenomenon to grow as the coronavirus spreads, to the detriment of their bottom line. “Events are at the core of our business, and, given the likely number of cancellations, we’re forecasting a sizeable reduction in revenue for the year,” says Sabine. Booking agents are also facing uncertainty. “There is no magic power an agency has to understand how this unknown is going to escalate,” says Prochnik. “We’re applying logic to hopefully overcome problems as they arise. Should the world be in the unlikely situation where existing structures become untenable, we’re all going to have to find new ways forward.”

As an artist, Gentile is already feeling the pinch: “I went from being like, ‘Yes I’m good for the next six months to like, ‘What do I even do?’ Do I look for other work? If I get other work and these things don’t get canceled, then it puts you in a really weird position. Should I be scrambling? Should I not spend any money right now? Like, what is happening?”

Passarani is slightly more optimistic, but also concerned about what will happen. “It’s still too early to say that the future bookings will definitely be affected,” he says. “On the other hand, it’s not guaranteed that I can go to a specific place. How can people book you in this situation? Would you book someone that you know might not be able to come? Would you invest money in promoting the night if you don’t know whether this guy could make it or not?”

Without question, things are precarious at the moment, but the industry hasn’t yet succumbed to full-blown panic. In Milan, artists and promoters have already been working to keep the music flowing online. During the first weekend of club closures, a streaming event called Milano Suona Ancora took place, and has subsequently been converted into a regular series called Milano Suona Ora. Last Friday also saw the launch of Milan’s Musica in Quarantena, a 150-hour livestream of DJs that may possibly be extended all the way until the quarantine ends. That same night in Rome, Tiger and Woods decided to broadcast live from their studio as a sort of consolation for their cancelled show in San Francisco. Passarani explains: “It was like, ‘Listen, we’re alive, we’re here, we’re just waiting for this to be over. Don’t forget about us.'”

Until the infections slow down and the quarantines and cancellations begin to subside, artists especially will need help. Passarani suggests buying artists’ music, while Gentile says, “Just buy merch, anybody’s merch.” And assuming things eventually start returning to normal, affected artists, promoters and scenes will still need assistance. It’s possible that some of that assistance may come from various governments, but in all likelihood, the responsibility will likely fall on the larger electronic music community itself. “I hope the promoters will support the artists coming from here who got banned from traveling,” says Passarani. Similarly, Sacchi hopes that artists and agents will do what they can to help clubs and promoters who’ve faced extended closures. “International DJs,” he says, “I’m talking about the big ones that command bigger fees and are able to sell tickets, it would be amazing if they could come and play for a reduced fee.”

Only time will tell whether or not the community comes through for those most impacted, but for now, there’s little to do but hope for the best and prepare for the worst. “We’re just kind of all bracing ourselves for whatever happens,” says Kelsey. “It’s really an unknown. There could finally be some good news one of these mornings; so far not, but there could be eventually. Or even if it’s not good news, just some clarity. A lot of the rumors and conspiracy theories, if some of them would get weeded out and we could kind of calm the hysteria a little bit, we can really fight this thing with facts instead of hype.”

Shawn Reynaldo is a freelance journalist living in Barcelona. Find him on Twitter.

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