The lockdown's financial and mental repercussions on Belgian artists and DJs

Pictures by Annika Wallis & Dauwke Van Rompuy

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Three Belgian booking agents explain why the current situation is untenable.

One of the biggest problems artists and DJs face is their increasing financial dependence on live gigs. Live music events have been cancelled since the lockdown in March, so many saw their source of income dry up fast. In short: these are incredibly hard times for artists and their booking agents, who are entirely dependent on booking fees. Since these agents have a very clear view on the financial side of things, we spoke to three familiar faces in Belgian artist's booking management: Live Nation’s Roel Vergauwen, Crap Inc’s Christophe Fedele, and Kurious’ Jochem Peeters.

The money tap runs dry.

Christophe Fedele, who manages bookings for Murdock, Faisal, Eagl and TLP (amongst many others) is very clear. “The entire revenue model for many of my artists has disappeared”, he explains. “Some have part-time jobs on the side, but often those jobs are shut down too, as these are often other roles in the music industry, like event promotion”. 

But even the revenue generated from streaming and digital downloads have gone down considerably during this pandemic, claims Jochem Peeters, who manages acts like Jeroen Delodder, John Noseda, Nico Morano and Bibi Seck. “As people are staying home, streaming numbers have also gone down – and since DJs are not playing, they don’t buy digital downloads anymore, which in turn leads to less revenue for other artists”. 

And what about DJs that don’t produce music themselves? Well, Peeters says they are struck even harder, since fees for gigs are often the only income they have. “Those who have bet their whole livelihood on a DJ career are experiencing the hardest setbacks now”. The question is: can they hold on long enough?

“Granted, income from streaming had been rising in the last years, but it’s still peanuts in comparison to what you get for playing a live show”, says Roel Vergauwen, who represents big Belgian acts like Charlotte Adigéry, Charlotte de Witte, Soulwax, Netsky and Oscar & The Wolf. Not that these artists won’t feel any impact on their finances – they certainly do – but the situation becomes more harsh when you look at the smaller Belgian acts. 

Vergauwen summarises the issue: “what has become clear now, is that being dependent on just one source of revenue is incredibly risky, and so we need to rethink the entire financial model for artists and DJs”.

We need to rethink the entire financial model for artists and DJs. - Roel Vergauwen

Smalltime DJs are disproportionally harmed.

One problem that has become dramatically clear is that many artists and DJs who didn’t have the necessary framework for their business are disadvantaged. You may think that’s on them, but it’s important to keep in mind that the regulatory structure for paying creatives in Belgium has never been optimalized for DJs (we made a whole article about this right here). 

In case the artist has a freelance status, the government can provide some financial support. "For everyone else, there are payroll services or (technically illicit) KVR/RPI’s – and this group of people cannot claim any help whatsoever", says Peeters. "The problem with payroll systems is that it’s based on a special statute without a company number, so it’s impossible to expect much help from the state. Every artist or DJ that relied on occasional small gigs to pay the bills is left behind. Even before the lockdown, some of them were barely holding on, and it gets worse as this situation continues. I know of a couple of heartbreaking examples”. 

Even before the lockdown, some of the smaller artists and DJs were barely holding on. - Jochem Peeters

A mental health crisis is unfolding.

Now let’s set aside the money issue for a moment. Many artists (and people in the nightlife scene) don’t just depend on the industry for their income; they rely on it because it’s the life they know. 

“Imagine your whole social live revolves around playing music or going out. Not being able to do any of that for months will have a severe psychological effect on you”, explains Peeters. “You have lost any perspective on a paycheck, and you have lost your way of escaping. Meanwhile, the pressure to stay relevant stays high – and without gigs, this can become incredibly tiring. Who will get bookings when the nightlife scene gets up on its feet again? Right, those who have stayed very active on social media”.

Summer bars and livestreams to the rescue?

If you take a look at the social media pages of most artists and DJs, you’ll still see they keep busy. After all, we’ve seen a rise in improvised pop-up bars and terraces that (on paper) operate within the boundaries of the legislative framework this summer. Before that, you couldn’t open Facebook without scrolling past a dozen livestreams (feel free to read our evaluation of these creative alternatives here). 

Don't these initiatives have any effect on the artist's situation? “Not really”, says Fedele. “We are talking about fees that are less than half of what they would be in normal circumstances. We often still do them because we admire the dedication and passion, but unfortunately, this economic model is not sustainable at all”. 

“These are praiseworthy actions because they keep many people working and anything is better than nothing at all”, argues Vergauwen. “But how much can you afford to pay your artists if you can only sell 200 tickets”?

“I don't know a single artist or DJ who is genuinely happy with all these livestreams and summer bar gigs”, says Peeters. “At first you still agree to play to stay busy or relevant, but if we’re honest we have to realise these are not viable replacements of the real thing”. 

Additionally, the sets for these summer bars are often much longer than what the artists are commonly used to – and playing for 20 tables of people having a drink is not the same as playing a full club at peak time. For DJs whose entire thing is peak time music, this formula is less than ideal. On the other hand, some artists see the benefit in finally being able to play more laid-back sets with music they might never play otherwise. If there’s one good thing to take away from this situation, it’s that we’ll have many more skilled warmup DJs after the pandemic. 

For bands, the situation becomes worse, as the profit margins are even slimmer for them. - Christophe Fidele

Past the point of no return.

As mentioned in our interviews with Brussels By Night Federation’s Lorenzo Serra and RAMPAGE’s Kristof Darcon, businesses are already going bankrupt; and while the uncertainty continues, artists and other people in the industry are looking for jobs elsewhere. We’re dealing with a clear case of brain drain. “This is a disaster because they are the driving force behind the scene”, says Vergauwen. 

Without any perspective on possible reopening, promoters (and thus artists) are stuck between a rock and a hard place. “It’s crucial the government includes the industry’s advice on reopening”, Vergauwen explains. “Because so far, there has not been any logic in their strategy or communication whatsoever. You cannot justify that responsible events are banned, while you can go to the movie theatre with as many people to see a virtual festival"

"I agree we need to be careful, but I also think people will always need to relax. Why is it not better to offer alternatives that are organised by professionals within a very strict framework? As we have seen, you will have to deal with unsafe, illegal raves instead”. This, in turn, creates an even more negative frame around the nightlife industry.

Let’s go back to the artists themselves. If they haven’t already found work elsewhere, artists and DJs will find it increasingly hard to further their careers. You can drop new music, but if you are not able to capitalise on that with live gigs, it becomes nothing more than a passion project. 

“Many promoters are throwing in the towel, which means there will be fewer events upon reopening”, says Fedele. “Artist fees were already under pressure before, and it sure won’t stop now. If, for example, your gig is postponed, the promoter will try to get a much lower fee, which I understand. It just leaves us in an incredibly vulnerable position to negotiate. For bands, the situation becomes worse, as the profit margins are even slimmer for them”.

The current governmental support can be a bare minimum in some cases, but they are not viable in the long term.

Booking agencies don’t function without bookings.

Even if the event industry magically gets back on its feet again after September, the festival season will be over. It’s during the summer months that agencies make most of their revenue. “Most booking or management agencies in Belgium will virtually not have any income in the coming year”, says Vergauwen. Most of these organisations, in this case Live Nation, Crap Inc and Kurious, have some options in the form of technical unemployment and transitional allowance (‘overbruggingsrecht’ in Dutch or ‘le droit passerelle' in French). 

Still, in at least two of these three cases, employees have been layed of. After all, the governmental support can be a bare minimum in some cases, but they are not viable in the long term. “We have dealt with a 90% loss of turnover; we're treading on thin ice, but I’m sure we’ll survive”, says Peeters. “Cutting down all our costs and having to let people go breaks my heart, but when I see how other kinds of companies are dealing with much more severe survival struggles, I praise myself lucky”.