Rock Werchter: ‘It was all or nothing, and everything was unattainable’
Rock Werchter’s second postponement in a row means that even more music festivals will die this summer. ‘This year will be a reflection of 2020.’
This summer there will be another one without Rock Werchter. This is not surprising, but it did take so long for the decision to be made. The colleagues from Glastonbury, Rock am Ring, Rock im Park, Primavera and Best Kept Secret already announced that they will skip another year. There are too many uncertain factors, such as vaccination rate, spectator travel options and the availability of international performers.
After intensive consultation with foreign colleagues who still believed in it in recent weeks, Herman Schueremans resigned himself to the situation. “It’s frustrating,” said the Rock Werchter organizer four times in a Zoom conversation on Tuesday. ‘Too many artists dropped out. They did not like to tour in Europe. We didn’t feel like a small copy of the festival. We have a reputation to defend. It was all or nothing, and everything unattainable. ‘
It does not mean that nothing at all will replace it. Schueremans gives himself five to six weeks to see what is possible at the end of the summer. He hopes to organize a small music festival in the last weekend of August. “Who knows for 10,000 people and if possible with a campsite.” Although he wants to fish out some bands from the postponed edition, the music event will most likely not be called Rock Werchter.
Fan of Europe
The CEO of Live Nation wants clarity quickly. He expects stiff competition from the United Kingdom on the festival calendar by the end of August. Since British Prime Minister Boris Johnson drew up a roadmap at the end of last month that aims, among other things, to limit the distance measures, many British festivals have raised the hope that larger mass gatherings will be possible in the second part of the summer. And the CEO of our largest concert company does not want to miss that train. The longer he has to wait, the more difficult it is to get hold of some artists. “I’m a fan of Europe, but why is everything going so slow here?”
It is almost impossible that Werchter will drag the rest of the festivals into its trap.
Schueremans will have to wait until mid-April to see what is possible. By then, the Flemish government will come up with a strategic plan for the events sector. That was announced for this week, but uncertainty about the corona numbers and vaccination rate made it too difficult to make a decision now. Flemish Prime Minister Jan Jambon (N-VA) also wants to await the results of a test event in mid-April.
If the end of August is not feasible, a small-scale initiative in July is still possible for Schueremans, such as last year’s summer bar concerts. ‘No less than for more than 400 people, how happy I was to see so many happy people at those concerts. Hopefully we can let in 1,000 people by then. ‘
Rock Werchter’s postponement risks triggering a cascade of postponements and shifts. The Graspop metal festival had already been canceled. The one-day festivals TW Classic and Werchter Boutique will also be canceled this year, Live Nation announced on Tuesday. Pukkelpop continues to hope to organize its 35th edition in the penultimate weekend of August. ‘But there is a great need for a timeline. We are not a café or a shop. We can switch quickly, but certainly not do magic ‘, says spokesperson Frederik Luyten. Tomorrowland would make a decision later this week: move to September or skip a year.
In all likelihood, it will be another festival summer in a minor key. Last year it was already heard that a second wave of cancellation would destroy the sector. How big are the consequences for the economic fabric of the Belgian music world?
‘We will survive this’, says Schueremans about his own company Live Nation, which is not only a concert and festival organizer, but also the largest booking agent in our country. “We have enough reserves to survive even a third delay.” This is also evident from the latest annual accounts. Figures for the corona year 2020 are not yet available. However, the 2019 balance sheet looks very healthy. In that financial year, Live Nation Festivals generated an operating profit of 7 million euros on 57 million euros in turnover. And with EUR 118 million in equity, the group had a very healthy balance sheet that could sweat out a crisis.
On Wall Street, the share of Live Nation Entertainment, the American parent holding of the music company, is even at a record high. Thanks to solid cash buffers and the expectation that the US economy will soon reopen and people will be eager to go to festivals and concerts as soon as possible.
Dried up reserves
Of course, behind Rock Werchter is an ecosystem of dozens of suppliers and thousands of freelancers. “I fear for many of them,” says Serge Platel, director of the Federation of Music Festivals in Flanders.
The second postponement in a row is coming hard at the best-known supplier, stage builder Stageco. The company normally sets up four stages in Werchter. ‘The impact of the festival amounts to only a few percent of our turnover,’ says operational director Tom Bilsen. ‘But it can hardly be otherwise or Werchter will drag the rest into his trap. We assume that we will be able to write on our stomachs for the first part of the summer, until the end of July. ‘
The vaccines may bring light to the end of the tunnel, but the dark times are not over.
If the festival season falls to pieces again, it will be a blow to employment at Stageco, which has almost all medium-sized and large music festivals in our country as customers. The company employs 100 people on a permanent basis. In a normal summer, 250 stage builders and subcontracted technicians are added. On the spot, all those people also receive help from technical personnel supplied by the festival organizer.
What about the tickets?
Tickets for the postponed edition of 2021 – actually already last year’s edition – will be transferred to next year. Ticket holders can also convert their money into credit for other festivals that take place in the Werchter Festival Park in 2021 or 2022, it says.
Last year, the global player stranded on a turnover of just under 4 million, or 10 percent of its Belgian turnover in the 2019 financial year. 2021 will not get much better, the director already knows. Two almost lost years, how does he keep his company afloat? Bilsen: ‘With state support, the little work in fashion and construction that is available and our reserves, we will survive this. But what if everything gets going again and our reserves are completely eaten? How are we supposed to keep up? ‘
The same can be heard with the light and sound company PRG. “For the time being we will survive with all the measures that have been taken,” said Tom Van Hemelryck, CEO for Central Europe. ‘We will have had 22 months by the end of this year with less than 10 percent of our regular turnover. Of course, our initially strong buffer will eventually run out. The authorities must step in and extend the support measures at least until the end of this year. ‘
Rock Werchter also counts on the various authorities for support of the live music sector. ‘The vaccines may bring light to the end of the tunnel, but the dark times are not over,’ says Schueremans.