Music Under Pressure: Reviewing creative solutions in the Belgian music business.

Pictures by Rafael Deprost

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These unprecedented situations force artists and promoters to find creative solutions, but can anyone come up with a profitable or sustainable initiative?

Like many other industries that depend on large human gatherings, the music industry is suffering from a severe lack of income as a result of restrictions posed in response to the current pandemic. As other fields of activity are slowly picking up speed again, the music scene looks like it will have to stay inactive for an undetermined period of time. However, this hasn’t stopped artists, DJs, festivals and clubs to look for new ways to connect with their fans and followers. Live video streaming has, so far, been the key in this new approach. Charlotte de Witte, Amelie Lens, Milo Spijkers, Klaps and Nico Morano are only a few of the artists that set up independent live broadcasts from their homes in the past four weeks. Clubs, venues and events quickly joined in on the action too. Antwerp’s Club Vaag, Charleroi’s Rockerill and Brussels’ Hangar and La Cabane have all started a series of livestreams, each with their distinct approach. Established concert venues Trix, Ancienne Belgique, Vooruit and Handelsbeurs joined the Artists Unlimited initiative, a series of livestreamed concerts that took place on April 26. And last week, two different drive-in festivals were announced. But wait - is anyone making any money? Do any of these creative solutions actually have chances of surviving their novelty? Let's take a more in-depth look into the viability of these numerous initiatives.

To livestream or not to livestream?

In his article for Pitchfork, music journalist Shawn Reynaldo poses a very valid question: “do DJs actually make money with livestreams"? Some streams call upon the listeners to donate a fee, either for direct support or for a good cause. But as applaudable as these initiatives may seem, the fact remains that most people are conditioned to get this content for free. This raises the question: is a livestream-focused music industry a sustainable business model for the upcoming months? Some artists get paid for their participation in livestream events (especially the more exclusive ones that require you to buy a ticket), and some get the occasional fee directly from fans, but are these fees enough to cover the income they would receive in normal circumstances?

Due to the massive free possibilities for the consumer, I don’t believe streaming is a viable way to perform in the future. - Red D


“I don’t believe in streaming or virtual clubs and festivals as viable means to perform in the future”, explains Bart Van Neste, better known as Red D. “This is due to the massive free possibilities for the consumer, and the fact that the people who are actually making the music are left with their work being used without them getting payed. It may benefit some bigger names for whom consumers might be willing to pay a viewing fee, but I think the novelty will wear out. The streaming experience is not close enough to a real performance, both for the performer as for the audience, to become a real substitute."

Despite the downsides, some organisations stick with the livestream format, but double down on the production value, offering something extra in return.   La Cabane  for example hosts streams in which they ask DJs to talk about their favourite records. There's no mixing and a whole lot of talking. "We were getting bored with the wave of straightforward livestreamed DJ-sets, that's why we wanted to tweak the formula", explains promoter Julian Leclercq. “Doing these streams right costs money too – and we want to pay everyone involved at least something, both artists and technical crew members". In this case, the organisation receives funding from the City of Brussels, which just about covers the costs. Yet, it doesn't represent a replacement for the income these people would receive in normal circumstances. "We know it's not a solution, but at least we keep being creative, which is important".

Antwerp’s Ampere club takes the added value to a livestream even further. The venue has transformed its space in a large dedicated livestream studio, where they pre-record sets by invited local guests from a wide array of backgrounds. “We try to differentiate from other livestreams”, says manager Joachim Marynen. "Every set is followed by a 30-minute interview, and our team provides a powerful production, from special light installations to visuals and even dancers". For these livestreams, Ampere gets financial support from commercial partners, but it's by no means an ideal situation. Just like Leclercq, Marynen is unsure about the future. “Even if events are allowed with a limited attendance, it looks like night clubs will have to remain closed for much longer. We’re not looking for handouts, but we are exploring creative ways of staying busy, connected and relevant”.

Unlike real events, livestreams are not bound to a geographical location, so they all go in direct competition with each other.

When the lockdown was announced, a handful of concert venues joined forces to host the Artists Unlimited Festival two weeks ago, which claims to be the first Belgian livestream festival. The live performances by artists like Absynthe Minded, Susobrino and Rare Akuma were exclusively available for paying customers. “We sold 2000 tickets, and every stream had around 1000 viewers – that’s more than we had hoped for”, says promoter Ann Kermans. “We wanted to make sure every artist was paid around €800 to €1000, which is not what they might be used to, but it’s a fair deal nowadays. The budget for artist fees was divided equally amongst all artists, regardless of their fame, and we didn’t want to make any money ourselves. With the operation costs of the production, and a few sponsorship deals included, this made for an almost breakeven operation". These numbers might not convince a rational businessman, but that doesn't deter the organisation from doing it again sometime soon. "We asked the viewers for their feedback, and 97% of the people found the €10 ticket money well-spent, and 95% was prepared to pay more. This means that there is a business model in here somewhere. As long as you can guarantee a top-notch production and an experience as close to the real thing as possible, we're sure there are opportunities for this type of event".

Some artists take it upon themselves to add extra value to a paying livestream. The producer duo Curtis Alto is hosting an exclusive IIIMAGINE livestream on May 15. Here too, the proceeds can ensure a higher production value, as long as enough tickets are sold. Curtis Alto does this by sending a gift box to every ticket buyer that includes the code to access the stream, drinks and other goodies. This week, they sold all 200 available tickets at €20.

Saying yes to a livestream can be a tough question for some artists. Many smaller names are currently receiving unemployment benefits and thus aren't allowed to make an extra buck on the side. Being seen online performing, especially when a ticket is required, therefore, can be a risk many artists are not willing to take. 

There just aren’t many ways you can stay relevant as a DJ nowadays, so I understand why everyone keeps doing livestreams. - Cellini

Unfortunately, another downside is that the value of a livestreams acts in direct contrast with the number of similar initiatives on offer. Unlike real events in clubs, livestreams are not bound to a geographical location, so they compete with each other. More competition equals less value, and that’s why livestream fatigue has become a real thing amongst music fans. Gianmarco Cellini (the versatile techno DJ who goes by just his last name) is sceptical too, even though he has been a guest in several different livestreams in the past month. “At first, it was nice to do livestreams, but as I started getting daily requests and my timeline got clogged with the same kind of content every day, I felt oversaturated. In the end, the experience of dancing to a DJ-set on a big sound system in a nightclub can't be compared with a livestream, regardless of the added production value”. That raises the question: why bother playing a livestream at all? “There just aren’t many ways you can stay relevant as a DJ nowadays, so I understand why everyone keeps doing it”, Cellini explains. “If you do, my advice would be to do something people don’t necessarily expect from you. Why not show the viewers a side of you they don’t know”?


In other words: livestreaming is not a sustainable alternative source of income for DJs in the long term, especially when everyone’s doing it. The desire to connect with the audience is undoubtedly an excellent motivation to start streaming, but clearly, there's not a lot of money to be made here. Admittedly this may change in the future, but for now, paying performances seem to be an exception, rather than the rule.

Bandcamp as a band-aid

There is some good news, though. On the level of music sales, Bandcamp has been championed this month as one of the few inclusive platforms that offer a more direct (and more effective) way to support independent artists. The website allows artists and labels to sell their music directly to fans, while they only keep 10% of every amount paid. Compare this to the relatively low royalty fees artists receive from streaming services or physical sales, and it’s no surprise Bandcamp has gained a lot of positive attention during the pandemic. Even event organisations like Voltage Festival and C12 have turned to Bandcamp for alternative sources of income, offering compilations with music by local artists. In both cases, the artists themselves receive the lion’s share of the proceeds (in the case of Voltage Festival, this is 70%). Is one website’s effort enough to provide a stable source of income for thousands of artists? Definitely not, but it gives us a viable alternative and a reliable option to support artists more directly and effectively for the time being.

The race for creative initiatives is on

Avoiding to contribute to the livestream tidal wave, Brussels techno institution Fuse instead launched the sale of exclusive €10 vouchers, which can be exchanged for tickets of any event that takes place in the club in the future, regardless of the line-up. "It was an enormous success, and we quickly sold thousands", explains Dylan Guaetta, co-promoter at Fuse and Voltage Festival. “It solved our cashflow problem for the moment, but we had to pull the plug at some point to avoid problems in the future”. Other than that, Fuse is doubling down on their merchandise, revamping their webshop and offering new online deals.

It’s hard to make clear plans because there’s so much uncertainty about what will be allowed and what won't. - Jochem Daelman


As it’s one of the only direct ways to earn income when there are no ticket sales, selling merchandise is a plan many others have too. The yearly club festival Full Circle has just announced a series of t-shirts that will be sold in direct support of struggling nightclubs in Antwerp. Other than high-production livestreams, Ampere has quietly told us that they will be opening a new record shop – not exactly a moneymaker, any record shop owner will tell you. The idea to open a record store at the club was something they had been playing with for a long time, but given the current situation, the process was given extra urgency. "The stock is ready, we're just finishing the last details", explains Marynen. At first, the shop will mainly be available online, and gradually customers will be allowed inside. “This project will not replace the lost income in any way, but we finally have the time to develop this plan into something real”.

Like most big events, Horst Festival is actively exploring the possibilities to host events in the summer that would still comply with the governmental restrictions. “There might be options to host events, but those would need a completely different kind of organisation and drastically lowered capacities”, says promoter Jochem Daelman. “Because there’s so much uncertainty about what’s allowed and what’s not, it’s hard to make solid plans. That said, I’m sure we will find a way to do what we love”.

Drive-in, hang out

The current uncertainty hasn’t stopped some promoters of finding inventive ways of throwing events within the boundaries of what’s allowed. Last week, two different drive-in festivals were announced. One is a joint effort by media outlets Humo, De Morgen and Willy. The second one, Beat Park, is hosted by the promoters of Sunrise Festival. Both festivals are set to take place across multiple locations throughout the summer months. For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, it's similar to a drive-in theatre but the movie screen will be replaced by a massive festival stage. Both the organisation itself, as well as external promoters, will be able to host their events on these places. "At Beat Park, you will experience a qualitative drive-in music venue, not just a muddy field with some speakers", explains promoter Marijn Venmans. “Other than live performances, we will host an impressive light and laser show to come as close to the original festival experience without breaking social distancing rules”.

You may be wondering how this could ever become a profitable operation. “By hosting up to 20 events per location and working with external promoters, we spread the costs and risks as much as possible. That said, we still depend on creative solutions and deals with commercial partners to break even”. And what about the artists involved? Do they receive a payment that’s on par with the usual festival fee? “In normal circumstances, some of these artist play festival stages in front of 10.000 people during a busy season full of competition. Our operation is a whole lot riskier, and our capacity is drastically lower, so it makes sense that artists don’t get the same amount. If the artists want to receive a bigger share, they are free to rent the space and host their own event”. It’s clear Venmans doesn't see this project making big bucks anytime soon, mainly because it's hard to make any predictions. "We like to see the opportunities, rather than the restrictions. We want to give local suppliers, partners and associations some perspective. Working on positive solutions like this one is the most important thing for us”. Will enough people be convinced by this idea? Only time will tell.

For all their good intentions, livestreams, virtual festivals and drive-in festivals try to offer us an experience that - in essence - can’t be replaced.

Conclusion

So, are there any viable alternatives to compensate the loss of income of thousands of artists, DJ’s and promoters? No. And it doesn’t look like anything will come close to a real event experience. Bursting with good intentions, livestreams, virtual festivals like Artists Unlimited or drive-in festivals like Beat Park try to offer us experiences that can’t be replaced. But as long as we can’t come together on a dancefloor – the crucial element of experiencing dance music – it feels like the novelty of any surrogate could easily wear off. Yet, what all these initiatives have in common is a creative person or team behind the scenes who are looking for ways to connect with their audience (while trying to make a living in the process) during an unprecedented situation. That’s why we must applaud the audacious entrepreneurs who test these waters. For now, our summer depends entirely on governmental decisions that have not yet been made. Everything will reshape once again sooner or later. In the meantime, feel free to support your favourite artists and organisations by watching that livestream – or better yet – buy their music, merch or support their daring new initiatives. It’s an uncertain time, but luckily there will always be music.