Rocking out in your car: How Europe is staging live music events in the coronavirus age

When Denmark’s government banned concerts as a lockdown measure in early March, musician and event organizer Mark Chemnitz wasn’t sure what to do. So he and his friends brainstormed and came up with a new—yet decidedly old-fashioned—idea.

“We had to rethink the whole game,” Chemnitz says. “None of us could go out and play any gigs for the next five or six months, maybe longer. We said to each other, just because there’s COVID-19, that doesn’t mean culture is dead…You can’t hold it in. We did it because we had no other choice.”

What they did was to repurpose the century-old concept of the drive-in theater as a modern-day, continuous culture festival, called P scenen.

With assistance from the council in the city of Aarhus, they gained permission to set up a large stage in the Tangkrogen public park. Once, such a stage might have had 10,000 people thronging before it. Now, in the age of the coronavirus, the audience would sit encased in hundreds of cars, spaced out in neat rows, with their occupants enjoying the live entertainment through their windscreens and tuned to their FM radios.

For those without vehicles of their own, Mercedes and rental giant Europcar provided new cars for people to sit in—a neat marketing opportunity for an industry that is itself in crisis.

The first concert took place on April 24, featuring the popular Danish singer-songwriter Mads Langer, who took audience requests through a Zoom videoconference. Since then, events have taken place most days, ranging from concerts, stand-up comedy and theater productions to film screenings and church services.

The idea isn’t just confined to Denmark; in Germany, multiple club promoters have started holding drive-in raves. This all requires a big shift in thinking around business models. But, again, it’s not like the live music industry has much choice right now.

“A dizzying drop”

According to the European Live Music Association, the sector drew in more than $8.4 billion across the continent last year. Now, says association president Vincenzo Spera, that figure will likely drop by around 80%.

“With the COVID-19 crisis, many music companies across Europe have been experiencing a dizzying drop in turnover since February, which is draining liquidity, against [necessary payments to] suppliers, employees, tax authorities and banks,” he says.

Spera says the sector is being particularly “penalized” during lockdown because live entertainment is inherently social—which is what we’re all being told not to be. He calls for European governments to pay more attention to the live-music industry’s needs, as its complexities are “often little known.”

And what of ideas such as drive-in concerts? “This is mostly a working hypothesis that certainly cannot replace the typical use of concerts,” says Spera, while arguing that the suddenly-popular phenomenon of livestreamed concerts is “also an option, but it cannot be the solution.”

“We are seeing many important initiatives by artists from all over the world, but it is difficult to think of replacing the emotional charge and the consequent physical and emotional experience that the live event brings,” says Spera. “Then there is the complex issue linked to the economic sustainability of certain proposals.”

But neither of these factors is lost on live music’s new innovators.

New models

Chemnitz’s Front of House company and the other P scenen organizers—audiovisual firms Steady and Nordic Rentals—have certainly had to rethink the economics of live music.

Whereas a regular festival might pull in many thousands of people, they can only get 500-600 cars onto the Tangkrogen field. But the organizers are not charging more per ticket to compensate. They charge per car rather than per person—the recommendation is that people only bring the close friends or family members in their social bubble—with the price varying according to the prominence of the artist. And the result is that it generally works out cheaper for each person to attend, not more expensive.

This is largely because of the continuous nature of the festival—an idea Chemnitz says he had been toying with for years before it was forced into reality. This drives down the capital costs of the production.

“The economic model works over time, but not as a one-off,” Chemnitz says. “That is very interesting, because when we get on the other side of this, we will apply this model to other festivals. It works really well.”

The festival is also structured as a type of cooperative effort, where artists, organizers and promoters all have a stake. Chemnitz argues that this ensures the participants all work harder. If artists manage to sell out their concerts, he says, they earn much the same as they would have done in former times.

Bernd Breiter, the CEO of German electronic dance music giant BigCityBeats, has a different take on the issue of making money through drive-in concerts.

BigCityBeats’ World Club Dome festival was due to take place in Frankfurt in June, before the coronavirus forced its cancellation—Germany’s government won’t allow any big concerts until August at the earliest. It would have drawn in 180,000 clubbers over three days.

A World Club Dome Drive-In rave in Düsseldorf, Germany.
A World Club Dome Drive-In rave in Düsseldorf, Germany.
BigCityBeats

The first World Club Dome Drive-In rave, which took place in Düsseldorf on May 1, could only take in 500 cars, with up to two people in each. Meanwhile, the organizers still went all-in on creating a huge show, involving fireworks and lasers.

“This makes it harder, because we’re limited to 1,000 people, and we would never expect our fans to pay €200-€400 [$217-$434] a ticket,” says Breiter. “So we made a decision to charge €40 per ticket, and we brought in some sponsors to help with the extra costs. This brought down the totals. However if you host an event like this correctly, you can offer fans huge amounts of fun, raise awareness and provide a great feeling during such a strange time…We weren’t looking to make money, or develop a business model.”

Breiter hopes clubbers will repay the favor by coming to BigCityBeats’ more traditional festivals from next January.

New experiences

The drive-in concert experience is obviously not what people are used to, but it does provide new avenues for creativity.

In the case of World Club Dome Drive-In, the DJs added elements such as car horns and flashing indicators to their performances. The crowd, sitting in their cars, synced up to the performers for a communal experience.

“Judging by the WorldClubbers’ reactions, they absolutely loved it,” says Breiter.

Aarhus’s P scenen festival experience is quite different, though no less remarkable. There, quietness is the order of the day, due to the use of old-school radio transmissions right into concert-goers’ cars.

According to Chemnitz, this makes it possible to put on a big show without bothering residents in nearby properties too much. It also has huge implications for sound production. There’s no need to worry about the acoustics of the environment or the phasing effect that can result in people hearing a washy sound, depending on where they are sitting or standing. And because there is none of the microphone feedback that would be associated with a giant sound system, it is possible to use more sensitive, high-grade condenser microphones.

“We could make it into a studio setup… Everything is crystal clear,” Chemnitz says.

Of course, it’s not just the audience that needs to adhere to social distancing—the same applies to the performers on the stage. For larger ensembles, that requires an extra layer of creativity.

“On Sunday we had a gospel church service with a choir,” Chemnitz says. “We can only have 10 people on stage, so we put the choir in cars in front of the stage. We had the camera people going around the cars, filming them and showing them onscreen. And for the preacher and the choir to interact with people, we had the Zoom app.”

Chemnitz says that, during a children’s concert, one 12-year-old boy was pressed up against the windscreen of his father’s car, crying happy tears—he suffered from intense anxiety and was for the first time able to be part of a festival crowd, while in a safe space.

“It’s opened up the experience to a whole new segment of people,” he says.

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