LONDON — In May, as the coronavirus spread through Europe, Serbian prime minister Ana Brnabić tried to stop her country’s summer EXIT Festival from becoming another casualty of the pandemic. Started in 2000, after the end of a series of bloody regional conflicts, the four-day event — held at the Petrovaradin Fortress on the Danube River — has served as a symbol of the country’s openness. So Brnabić urged organizers to move the festival from July to August rather than cancel it.
The Serbian promoters slashed the event’s daily 55,000 capacity by half and instituted safety measures including mandatory COVID-19 tests and isolation facilities for attendees who show symptoms of the virus. Since Serbia had relatively few cases, hopes were high that EXIT could happen. Then in July, when Serbia’s infection rate spiked, Dušan Kovačević, the event’s co-founder, told Billboard that artists might perform for just a few hundred people at the site, and that the festival would focus on its pay-per-view livestream broadcast. “We are determined to at least symbolically do it,” said Kovačević. When those concessions didn’t seem sufficient, Kovačević finally canceled in mid-July.
Not all hope is lost for live shows this summer — but it’s fading fast. In Europe, where countries have had more success than the United States in controlling the virus, a handful of promoters are still battling to salvage some of the season. On Aug. 7, Live Nation announced a concert for 12,000 fans at a stadium in Düsseldorf, Germany, featuring Bryan Adams. The country’s Reeperbahn Festival is moving forward in September with shows at 20 venues in Hamburg, as are festivals in Croatia (Awake Croatia, Dropzone) and southern France.
The situation is tenuous, though. As recently as July, with EXIT shut down in Serbia — and clubs in Ibiza and Mallorca mostly shuttered — Croatia and Malta seemed poised to become Europe’s summer-tourist party spots. Malta had five major events scheduled for August and September, including the bass festival Rhythm + Waves and BPM Festival, with a lineup that included Fatboy Slim. But in late July, when infections there ticked up, the Maltese government pushed organizers to cancel.
“There is the feeling that any second [French authorities] could say it cannot happen, no matter what we do,” says Eric Schönemeier, the co-founder of Monticule Festival in southern France, which rescheduled its five-day event from June to Sept. 9-13.
Some of Europe’s biggest events already chose a different path. Tomorrowland, the electronic music festival in Belgium, made history in July with a virtual-reality livestream featuring stars like Tiësto and Katy Perry, who recorded their sets in green-screen studios. Rather than invest in health measures, the Tomorrowland founders bet $10 million on artist fees and technology to create a virtual raving island, utilizing the same Unreal Engine software that has powered Hollywood shows like Disney’s The Mandalorian. Creamfields in the United Kingdom also announced that its August festival would be a livestream of past performances.
Most promoters of shows still on the calendar expect to lose money even if they take place, but also say that more than profits are at stake. Serbia credits EXIT with adding nearly 20 million euros a year to its tourism economy. Up to 95% of the people attending the dance music festivals Awake Croatia and Dropzone will be international tourists, says Joško Perković, the festivals’ promoter. Croatia is among the few European countries that is allowing foreigners from outside the European Union to visit with a valid coronavirus test taken within 48 hours.
Perković says “a lot of really crazy dedicated fans have found a way to come to Croatia.” Before arriving in Croatia, one man from Oregon, he says, plans to travel to Los Angeles Airport, then to Istanbul, where he’ll take a COVID-19 test at the airport. And for elite globe-trotters, with a scarcity of open clubbing spots this summer, “we’re seeing customers ask for 7,000- to 8,000-euro villas, full concierge treatment, the best tables in the club,” says Perković.
As of Aug. 5, according to Perković, tickets for Awake Croatia, where Paul van Dyk is booked to spin, were about 85% sold out. The festival, which takes place Aug. 20-23 on Pag Island’s Zrće Beach, is capping attendance at under 1,000 people, less than half of its intended capacity. Van Dyk, who tells Billboard he hasn’t played a show since March 8, says he isn’t overly concerned about the smaller crowd or his own safety, but he plans to wear a mask at all times. “It will be different for sure, but if it’s for the safety of all of us it’s a small sacrifice,” the DJ says.
Complicating matters for European concert promoters has been a confusing array of travel restrictions, some of which include 14-day quarantines. Three countries — Ireland, Norway and the Netherlands — currently recommend against travel to Croatia, for example. (In mid-July the Dutch government suddenly downgraded Croatia from a yellow to orange travel warning, causing problems for Perković because all of his artists booked for Dropzone live in the Netherlands.)
In spite of the challenges, the remaining festivals have adopted a whatever-it-takes attitude. Promoters say they negotiated up to 30% discounts on artist fees, but are spending more on hygiene measures. Live Nation’s Düsseldorf concert, a seated show, will prohibit alcohol and require attendees to wear masks.
In Hamburg, the Reeperbahn Festival, which takes place Sept. 16-19, will cap concerts at 850 people and disinfect venues for two hours between shows. Because attendees need to be seated and socially distanced, performances will take place in 20 venues — five of them outdoors — rather than the usual 90, with visitors restricted to about 2,300 a day, down from about six times that.
“One should not think that just because we are doing this it is an economic case or that we can live on it,” says Reeperbahn CEO Alexander Schulz. “What we are doing here is keeping just a little bit of the live-music culture alive in the minds and the hearts and the ears of people — the audience, but also the music economy.”