The event business is in deep crisis. Can Kristof Darcon, the man behind mega-events like RAMPAGE and REVERZE find ways for the industry to adapt to the new reality?
As co-owner of Europe’s biggest drum ‘n’ bass event (RAMPAGE, alongside Murdock) and of the world’s most successful event organization within the harder styles (Bass Events, which hosts REVERZE and The Qontinent) Kristof Darcon is certainly no rookie. As a 32.000 capacity sold-out RAMPAGE at Antwerp’s Sportpaleis got cancelled with only a few days' notice in March, his team was dealt a severe blow. In the following months, it became clear the governmental support for the entire industry is seriously lacking. Darcon now takes stock of the effects on his organization and contemplates on what’s about to happen if the current ban on large events continues.
One does not merely start an event promotion career with mega-events. How did you start hosting parties?
“I was 16 when house music was just starting to
gain traction. I remember inviting guys like Koenie or Sven Van Hees
on my tiny parties. After that, I shifted towards promoting events at
discotheques and clubs – and from there, the events gradually became bigger and
bigger. For most promoters like me, throwing a night at Sportpaleis is ultimate
bucket list material. The first event I hosted there was Thunderdome (an
iconic hardcore event by Dutch event company ID&T, ed.) in 1996. As
a young kid, I drove to The Netherlands to ask if they wanted to help me throw
an edition in Antwerp. First, we did Thunderdome twice a year, later that
became four times a year. Even after all these years, managing the preparations
and seeing a packed Sportpaleis never gets old. I admit it’s a bit of an
RAMPAGE had to be cancelled last minute, while the preparations on site were 90% complete.
How have you experienced the current lockdown crisis? As an organization that only hosts mega-events, you'll be the last in line to resume your activities.
“The last REVERZE took place right before the
first lockdown – and RAMPAGE was supposed to happen the next weekend, but
unfortunately that had to be cancelled last minute. The preparations on site
were 90% ready by this stage. It was a catastrophe; we had to pay for the whole
production without any earnings. The ‘good’ news is that we are an experienced
and stable company with enough funds on the side to take this financial hit.
Now, if that would have been it, we could shrug it off as a case of bad luck
and move on. Unfortunately, things only became worse in the following months,
because it was impossible to make plans. At this point, you have to reevaluate
and think about what you have to do to survive. Are we going to start an
entirely new business? In any case, we decided to put the company into ‘hibernation
mode’ to save as much money as possible. That meant that we put most of the
team on technical unemployment, cancelled the rent contract for our office and
severely reduced the capacity of our warehouse”.
What does cancelling an event like RAMPAGE imply?
“There was still a lot of work to be done. First, we had to deal with sorting out the thousands of sold tickets and contracts. Keep in mind we make reservations for around 1000 hotel rooms for our international guests for each event, which all had to be annulled. Then we moved RAMPAGE to a new date in September, started a new promo campaign for it, cancelled it again, then moved it to April 2021. You can imagine the headache. The frustrating thing is that during this whole time, we are not making any money”.
When do you expect to throw big raves again?
“Maybe next year? Or the year after that? Who knows? If we’re not able to host any events in the coming year, I fear the consequences. I want to avoid finding myself in a situation where you spend all your last reserves for a last-minute event, only for it to be cancelled again a few moments later. I know many other event companies are going through that situation now”.
Hosting mega-events requires stability and a long time to prepare, both of which are not an option now.
"It's a bit more nuanced than that. Like I said; all the preparations for the cancelled RAMPAGE were made already. If we’re able to host the next planned edition in April 2021, we use the same production, book the same lineup... Everything is in standby mode. Over 32.000 tickets have been sold already, and more than 80% of the buyers chose to keep the ticket for the next edition, instead of asking for a refund. Our niche market fans value the experience of our events. That means we won't have much work selling the last few thousand tickets. So relatively speaking, we could pull off hosting a full house RAMPAGE with only three weeks' notice. The only thing I'm scared of is the idea that we have to deal with a similar blow like past March. If we have to cancel again two days before the event, that will be the end of us. That’s why the government needs to guarantee that it can take place or provide funds in case it can’t. Of course, I’m well aware that we’re not the only ones in our business – and that our business is one of many that need substantial help. So, I’m not entirely sure how to solve that problem”.
My biggest fear is that the insurance companies might adjust their policies, charging more money as the business becomes even riskier than it already was.
Are you realistically expecting help from the state? If so, what would be the way to go about it?
“We filed a lawsuit against the government because they told us we could not claim additional support as we don't own a publicly accessible physical location for our events. It's not about the money – even if we received any, it would not have been a substantial amount – it's more about the principle. Regardless, giving fixed amounts of money to businesses as they have done in the past months is ineffective and unsustainable. Some really need it; some don’t need it as much. A better way to go about it would be to look at the turnover and tax numbers from every company. Every organization has a unique structure and story. It requires a lot more work, but it would lead to fair results. Another option is the foundation of a dedicated fund for events that have to cancel last minute. But again, I’m not sure where all the money to fund that should come from. Probably my biggest fear is that the insurance companies might adjust their policies, charging more money as the business becomes even riskier than it already was”.
Even if RAMPAGE will be able to go ahead as planned in April 2021; most of your income from tickets has already been made. Are you afraid of encountering a cashflow problem next year?
"As a large company, we did our homework, and we have put some money for rainy days. That said, all those reserves have been lost after our first cancellation. The money we made from the ticket sales is still there, so we'll be able to use that for the production of the next edition. In this sense, we can deal with the blow; but I can imagine that's not the case in other companies. Luckily, the system of technical unemployment we know in Belgium saved many from even worse situations. Though the question remains: how long can we hold on? By now it’s clear big events will not be taking place at least until the end of the year. Will they be able to fund all those people if it’s decided that we need to continue the lockdown measures for another year on top? But even from the perspective from someone who’s technically unemployed, it’s not a very sustainable model. They now receive some income, but only a part of what they would make under normal circumstances. How long does it take before those people are fed up and look for jobs elsewhere? After all, technicians, electricians and project managers are in demand in other industries too. I’m sure our industry is already losing a lot of know-how”.
Our industry is already losing a lot of know-how.
Are you talking about production companies now? Those seem to be hit the hardest by the cancellations.
“Yes, for a large part, I am. At RAMPAGE, we got a serious hit, but I remain confident we’ll survive. At large production companies that have lost their entire revenue model, they’re taking hits every day. To give you an example, some of these companies have 10.000 square meters of warehouse space for their stage props and equipment. When there are no events, they need to double that amount. After all, in normal circumstances, half of their equipment would be on the road. So not having events at all actually costs more. I’m sure we’ll see a lot of bankruptcies after the summer”.
Hosting a big rave is not an option. But what about organizing alternatives during these months?
“We are doing different things in the meantime!
Last month we stage-hosted a drive-in festival in Germany and we co-promoted a
small festival in L.A. – as well as a couple of high production livestreams. In
September we're throwing a sizeable RAMPAGE event in Cologne, complying with
the local regulation. The huge arena will be split into 300 bubble spaces of
eight. The organization of that venue has tried and tested the formula for a
while now, and we're going to co-promote a night there. The stage is fixed in
the centre of the arena. To be honest, I proposed the same idea to Sportpaleis,
but given the circumstances, they deemed it wasn't feasible. Will we make a lot
of money with this German adventure? No. But at least we keep our people
working, we cover a few of the fixed costs, and we have something to look
forward to in the meantime".
Everyone was assuming large events could take place again by the end of the year. As it becomes clearer every day, the ban will be extended for a much longer time.
What now? Who should take the lead in the government negotiations?
“The virus is a reality, but it’s also a reality that we can’t support everyone. The event industry certainly deserves financial support, but I feel like the start of the negotiation with the government should come from big players, like Live Nation, for example. As long as they don’t take a clear stance, the smaller players are in a weak position. To a certain degree, that's happening already, with Sportpaleis Group taking a more understandable approach towards promoters. However, everyone was assuming large events could take place again by the end of the year. As it becomes clearer every day, the ban will be extended for a much longer time; and I suspect many people in the industry will become more militant. Another practical consequence for RAMPAGE or REVERZE is that the Sportpaleis calendar is filling up fast. Many big concerts are scrambling for several dates in the future, betting on the idea that they can take place by then. If our RAMPAGE edition in April 2021 cannot happen, our next available date is March 2022 – and it’s not unreasonable to start thinking about dates for 2023 and 2024 soon. That’s a harsh realization”.