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December 13, 2022

Billboard's Lars Brandle on Post-COVID Trends in Touring and the Future of Live Events

It’s just turned 1pm in Brisbane, and Lars Brandle is logging on for his shift as the Overnight Editor with US music industry publication Billboard, a role he’s held for the past 10 years.

While those in the northern hemisphere are sleeping, Brandle is chasing up stories, keeping an eye on music industry developments, and generally ensuring the 24-hour news cycle remains sated, all while juggling his other role as a senior journalist for The Music Network.

Right now, however, he’s agreed to talk to Audience Republic about his observations around the touring industry, emerging trends in promotion and the answer to the public liability issue impacting venues globally...

As a journalist, what insights have you gained around the national and international touring circuit over the past 12 to 24 months?

I think the best thing we're seeing as the industry recovers from the pandemic is people – and Australians in particular – love to see live music.

I don't think there are many countries with 25 million population, or thereabouts, who see as many concerts per capita, and spend as much at a show as we do.

And Australia is a very important piece of that global jigsaw puzzle that is a world tour. So that's very good news.

"Australia is a very important piece of that global jigsaw puzzle that is a world tour."

But there are complications behind it. We're seeing a lot of new issues which weren't there a few years ago. The pain promoters are feeling right now is the additional costs that are being rolled into everything they do.

And behind that, the live industry lost so many of its support staff. All these essential workers within the wider live industry, many of them sat and waited for a few months and then had to look for other work during the pandemic, and they've been lost to the industry.

So, there are shows which need more hands at the pump. And those hands either aren't there or they’re twice the price. There are all these new challenges that promoters are dealing with.

But as we say that, there are some pretty spectacular numbers flowing around right now. Elton John is on the verge of posting the biggest tour in the history of tours. He’s gonna have the number one tour [of all time] when he finishes in Sweden next July. So, the big acts do really big numbers. And that's also a positive.

Lars interviewing Daniel Glass (credit: Stella Bay photography)

When you talk to promoters, are you getting a sense of what’s working in terms of how they're actually promoting these tours and moving tickets?

Well, the smartest way of selling tickets is to interact with an audience of people you already know buy tickets, so that is to build a database. And the smart promoters have been doing that for decades.

I think the good promoters essentially educate themselves with data – they really have a very good understanding of which artists click in what market, and which cities are soft with ticket sales.

What we've been seeing is promoters putting ticket sales up a year ahead of time. And that's nothing new. But we're seeing it more and more often. Certainly for the bigger shows, arena shows and even stadium shows. 

It makes sense – you can put some of that money in the bank, it's a safety guard, and you can build interest around that when you have a year to play with. So, I think certainly with the bigger tours with more risk attached to them we'll see the announce and sales going up well ahead of time.

"I think the good promoters essentially educate themselves with data."

Are there other trends you’re noticing?

One of the other things, certainly in the past year, is rival promoters working together on shows, which is something that you just would not have seen three years ago.

You'd never have seen a Live Nation and Frontier Touring working on a tour. But you're seeing a little bit of that now. And they're jointly carrying the weight and carrying the risk. It is interesting seeing the big players – the TEGs, the Frontiers, the Daintys and the Live Nations – working almost in a collegial atmosphere. I don't think it'll last. [Laughs]

Why do you think it’s happening now? Because costs are higher? There’s more competition?

Yeah. It's mutually beneficial. If you can share some of the resources, you can put the show on, and everyone is okay. So that makes a lot of sense. That's one of the more unusual things I've noticed coming out of the pandemic is these fierce rivals burying the hatchet to ensure that the show goes on.

Lars interviewing Lyor Cohen (Global Head of Music, Google & YouTube)

What role does media play in selling tickets?

I can only speak for myself, and my role is to engage and to tell an interesting story. And I also have to write a story that I'm interested in writing.

There are only so many hours in the day, and there's only so many stories you can pursue. There's only so much energy a journalist has to pursue certain stories, and some stories are just literally better stories.

Aside from that, I like looking at a bigger picture. It might be the return of the one-day festival, which we saw with Good Things. And that has by all accounts been very successful.

I think when I attend a show, or a festival, sometimes it's for a bigger picture idea. Sometimes I'm gleaning color for a story. So, I might not be attending to watch a specific band or get a take on a show, but extracting what I see and what I hear for a story that comes down the track.

"I like looking at a bigger picture. It might be the return of the one-day festival, which we saw with Good Things."

You must get inundated with publicist requests to cover tours. What do you think publicists and promoters can be doing to more effectively engage the media?

I'm a little bit old school – I like to know who it is that I'm talking with. So maybe at the beginning of the business relationship we're having we need to have a little chat about what it is we're going to be talking about, and a chat about what I do. I've always had questions about, ‘Well, will this run in Billboard Australia?’ Well, there is no Billboard Australia, it's a US publication.

So it’s a very good thing to have a little read about what Billboard is and what we do. Because that just feels silly having to explain what Billboard is and whether it's an Australian publication.

And a smart publicist will put forward the ideas that they think will work with me. I don't have time to pursue every small story, but if there's one which might fit into the Billboard world, let's talk. That's just old school publicity, isn't it?

Lars with Mike Sniper of Captured Tracks

You've written recently about the skyrocketing cost of public liability insurance for venues. What are you seeing in this area? Are there tangible solutions?

Well, it's a bit of a nightmare. I hope my story cut through and woke a few people up who hadn't thought about their insurance premiums until they made that phone call.

But I'd spoken to many venue owners who experienced multiples of 15 or 20 times their previous insurance payment, which is just outrageous.

This is one of the many issues that the live industry is dealing with now. The answer to all of this is, I believe, strength in numbers. And I certainly know the ALMBC [Australian Live Music Business Council] took expressions of interest from its members. And it was looking at forming a group buying arrangement, which would in turn secure more favorable terms from insurance providers.

So, I think one of the best solutions to this is uniting. And there are some industry or insurance providers who understand the issues better than others.

"I'd spoken to many venue owners who experienced multiples of 15 or 20 times their previous insurance payment..."

Are you finding that this is happening internationally as well, or is this an Australian issue?

Yes, it's happening internationally as well. If you look at a place like the United Kingdom, they have issues across the board. And they're also being punished by energy costs, thanks to the war in Eastern Europe. So, you've seen people just trying to keep their rooms, their houses warm.

We're seeing multiples of 11 times the power bills that people had a year ago. So fortunately, we don't have those issues, but the Brits have. I think if you're running a live venue in the UK right now, you've got many, many things driving you crazy. 

What do you think the biggest stories will be around the live industry for the next 12 to 24 months?

Well, I'm curious to see where Adelaide fits in to Australia, how it settles back into the touring circuit. Live Nation recently plugged $6 million into a venue in Hindley Street, just off Rundle Mall. I've been there. It's a terrific room, 1800 capacity, and I expect that will be a presence for bringing A-tier local bands and international acts back into South Australia.

So, I expect that Adelaide will miss out on less tours going forward. I expect that will be one of the stories.

I think there's probably some appetite for testing new formats in music festivals. The Good Things festival shows that a well-run genre event is probably worth having a crack at. Not the Big Day Out type titan which we saw back in the day, which had a Boiler Room for dance music and it had a mash of hip-hop and rock and indie and all of those things.

I think that the one-day format with a specific genre, maybe in the next year we'll see more of the promoters with deeper pockets and wish lists testing that space.

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Article by
Rod Yates

Rod is the Marketing Content Manager at Audience Republic. He was previously the editor of Rolling Stone Australia and Kerrang! Australia. Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich once sent him a toaster – which was very thoughtful of him.