FEATURE: How Copenhagen Music Venues are Coping with COVID Closures
Sitting in the courtyard on Nørre Allé between Union and Alice on a sunny Saturday is a nice way to pass an afternoon. Mizgin is playing energetic Kurdish folk music from a small stage. People are seated comfortably in rows, clapping along, and enjoying their drinks from a bar set up in front of the entrance to Alice.
The concert is part of a summer series of shows with an audience capacity of 50 people, spaced at a government-mandated safe distance with clear guidelines posted on every table. It’s Alice’s way of making up for what has been months of no live music — and an effort to deal with an uncertain future for live music.
“It’s a fine line of doing something that doesn’t feel awkward and doesn’t feel forced but at the same time is where you can go and enjoy yourself and engage with music and feel it’s an actual concert,” says Rasmus Steffensen, who is is responsible for PR and communications at Alice.
Since mid-March we have been wondering what post-lockdown, post-COVID life will look like. Post-lockdown, many businesses businesses around Denmark have resumed normal operations. The music industry, however, is in for a long haul struggle.
Festivals asked attendees to keep their tickets until next year and sold support wristbands to fundraise in the short term. Bands and labels have been able to ask fans directly to buy music and merch and have released bonus material and streamed performances. But bands can’t tour right now, and concerts can only be held under very strict conditions, whether it’s the summer series approach taken by Alice, the ad hoc jazz festival held at Huset, or drive-in concerts.
What will become of local venues?
The number of people allowed to gather is being raised at regular intervals and Copenhagen venues are eyeing September with the hope of operating under normal conditions, but permissions for music venues and night clubs are still unclear.
“The only thing we know right now is that we are in the Phase 4 opening,” says Ditte Sig Kramer, Head of Communications for Vega. “We don’t know what that means, basically.”
Vega, which includes Store Vega, Lille Vega, and Ideal Bar, is trying to rebook concerts at three different room capacities without clear guidance on what those limits will be. Early drafts from the Minister of Culture have suggested standing room capacity for a concert will be about 10% of the norm, and seated capacity at 40%.
“In Store Vega, it means we would be able to accommodate 160 people,” says Kramer. “Usually we sell 1550 tickets. It’s the same in our smaller venues, in Lille Vega and Ideal Bar. It’s not the final draft we have seen, but basically, this is what we know right now. We’re not able to go through with one out of ten. It means we would have the same concert ten times in a row for the tickets we’ve already sold for everyone to get their concert. We would lose so much money.”
Alice, though a smaller venue, is uncertain as to whether they are small enough to be allowed to operate at full capacity or if social distancing rules will limit them.
“We’ve postponed some concerts and one of these shows is already sold out,” says Steffensen. “Do we have to cancel the show because it’s too popular? Do we have to move it to a bigger venue where people can sit with some distance to each other? There’s a lot of unanswered questions in this.”
Everyone we spoke to for this article accepts the importance of meeting new health standards so that concerts can continue and be safe for everyone. But a lack of clarity on what those standards will be has made all planning very tenuous.
“Of course this situation is nobody’s fault, and we are willing to share our part in taking responsibility for health, but basically, when we are out of 2020, we will have no money left. And that’s really critical,”says Kramer. “We entered 2020 in a really good state. We sold a lot of tickets already, had a really strong program for both the spring and the fall, so it’s really frustrating that by the end of this year we will not have much money left. It’s really complicated because we’re a big business and it’s a lot of money we spend on just rent and we have a lot of employees and everything that comes with running a big venue like this. So we’re just looking into some cloudy thing right now. We don’t know what will happen.”
In early March, Vega attempted to keep their shows going while adhering to restrictions by splitting concerts into two performances so that all ticket holders could see the performances they paid for. This tactic came to an abrupt end on March 11, when the lockdown took effect between sets. Big Thief, the band performing that night, played a few songs for fans who missed out on the sidewalk outside of Store Vega.
Delayed openings and gradual reopenings
For Vanløse-based venue Stairway, the lockdown has meant not only rescheduling concerts, but rescheduling their opening night: The venue was meant to open on March 27.
“It’s a life lesson in hard work to open a venue in this time,” says Jeppe Greve who books Stairway. “We have rescheduled all of the concerts we had planned. The Danish things are going to happen in the fall, and most of the international acts that we had booked will be rescheduled for 2021.”
Stairway find themselves doing the math on venue capacities even before a single set has been played on their stage.
“It’s a weird calculation because it’s hard for us to break even if we’re going to downscale the capacity,” says Greve. “The room is not that big. It can easily fit 350 people, but it’s just a square, there’s no balcony. If we are to downscale it to 50-60 people, it’s going to be really tough to do shows financially. It still costs money just to open.”
Even as venues reopen, there is still a question of whether there will be any bands to book. Though the coronavirus seems to largely be under control in Denmark, such is not the case everywhere, and international bands are facing quarantines, reluctant tour insurers, and new capacity limits that will make it harder to turn a profit.
“A lot of these bands, especially the American bands, when they come to Europe, they play maybe 20 shows,” notes Kramer. “So everyone is trying to reschedule a whole new tour and that takes a lot of work. Right now, there’s a travel ban for Americans into Europe. We don’t know about that. It looks easier within the European countries, but still, it’s really expensive to tour and right now it’s not really possible anywhere to have concerts at a capacity where it’s financially sustainable to plan a tour. So I guess we won’t be seeing any international bands really in Denmark for the rest of the year. We can of course hope that things will turn out differently, but it’s what I expect.”
Steffensen agrees. “A lot of agencies don’t want to build up a tour,” he says. “Le Guess Who? is canceled and we have a lot of spillover from events like that in the autumn because a lot of bands build up their whole tour around a few of these festivals. I think a lot of these acts we would usually get in autumn we will simply not be offered because they will not be going on tour when a festival like that is canceled.”
Though no disrespect is meant towards local talent, the consensus is that Copenhagen venues cannot survive on booking Danish bands alone — no more than Danish bands can earn a living by only playing shows in Copenhagen.
“We are definitely rethinking how to do shows to attract people because I don’t believe that we can just go and book a Danish act and 350 people will show up,” says Greve. “Most of the acts that we reached out to already have shows in Copenhagen because they’re rescheduled. They can’t play that many shows in Copenhagen — no Danish band can do that — especially not the type of bands that we’re looking at. If we are going to climb the ladder a bit and do big shows, then the risk is relatively high, and we really need to have steady nerves to do that. At a capacity of 350, it’s an easy calculation of how much we can spend on an artist and still make money. Especially if people are already booked for Lille Vega and Pumpehuset in the fall. Not that many Danish bands can do Pumpehuset and then do Vanløse.”
“There’s a lot of talk in Denmark that now we have to be in solidarity with the Danish artists, we have to present more Danish music,” says Steffensen. “Well, that might be the case for a while, but definitely it shouldn’t affect our overall ambition to reflect a global world. We don’t take quite as huge a risk when we open the doors as a huge concert hall. We have that advantage that we are small but we have the disadvantage that we have a very international program and can’t recreate our profile with local acts in the same way some other venues might be able to do. It might change our profile for a while, we might not take quite as many risks with overseas bands, but we will try as good as we can to get back to that when we can.”
Vega, which dedicates about 60% of their programming to international bands, is optimistic about the short term prospects of an all-Danish program.
“It feels like there is a golden era for Danish music at the moment. There’s so much good Danish music coming out in recent years,” says Kramer. “We can program a lot of Danish artists and we’re happy to do that, but in the long term, we will need bands. It’s in our DNA that we present more than half of our program as international. We’re located in the middle of Copenhagen and we feel like we are an international venue with of course a strong Danish profile also and with a lot of emerging artists from the Danish music scene. Right now we just want to be able to open and present a lot of Danish music and then let’s see when we have some international bands playing.”
Holding tickets for someday
If crowds are allowed to return to venues, the demand is there. Would-be concert goers are not only keeping their tickets for postponed dates but also buying them for future dates.
“The good thing that we see, even though we’re closed, is that people are really buying tickets for when we announce shows for the late fall,” says Kramer. “I have a feeling that people are really eager to get out and see shows and really want to support live music.”
“We managed to keep a lot of the program just with new dates,” Steffensen says of Alice’s bookings. “In general the audience and the musicians have been very supportive and very understanding of the situation. I know everyone is kind of in the same boat and it’s the same everywhere around, but I think in terms of people just keeping their ticket for the show when it’s moved to a new date that people have been very nice and supportive.”
It’s heartening that fans of live music have been supporting the venues they love, but buying and keeping tickets isn’t necessarily enough to support live music in its current state. And if venues can only open and operate at a limited capacity, they will not be able to recover quickly.
“At the moment, venues are bleeding,” says Greve. “I’m relatively sure that we’re going to survive this because we haven’t even opened yet. We didn’t have to rebook 50 shows. I could imagine that other venues really are having a hard time at the moment. There needs to be some kind of funding otherwise we’ll see that within a year some venues will be closed down.”
Kramer agrees that venues need more than help from fans. She cites the recent, successful campaign in the UK for a bailout of cultural spaces as a model to be followed in Denmark. “Of course the situation is not as critical as in the UK,” she says, “but we’re getting close.”
The Danish government has extended support to businesses that have been forced to close during lockdown in the form of salary compensation for employees and tax breaks among other things. But these measures assume that venues will be able to resume business as normal when they reopen — not reduce their paying guests by 60-90%. Even tourism, once considered the industry with the bleakest outlook, is slowly creeping back with popular attractions reopening and increasingly available flights. Live music faces many of the same challenges of travel and large gatherings that tourism does, but there has yet to be a specific package to support venues. Even the cobbled-together bailout of SAS features some support from the Danish government. Alice and Stairway both receive funding from the Copenhagen municipality among other sources. Vega also receives some amount of government funding, though it is not their primary source of revenue.
Because audiences haven’t had many opportunities to see live music yet — and certainly not on a large scale — there is also the question of how people will initially feel about going to concerts indoors with large numbers of people.
“So far, it’s not so much a question of if we will come through this urgent crisis,” says Steffensen “but of course the big question is how will it affect the industry we work with, how will it affect the pattern of the audience and how they will go to shows in the future? I think it will have a long-term effect that we simply cannot predict at the moment. In a strange way I think we might have an advantage as a smaller venue. I think people maybe will start to look more for small scale events. But of course all of this is pure speculation. But we can see that people are definitely waiting and they’re happy to have something to look forward to, so I don’t think that people will stop appreciating going to a concert.”
How venues proceed will be determined by what’s allowed come September, but the consensus is that bands and venues cannot return to booking and promoting shows as they were as recently as early March.
“I hope inside of Europe there will be a focus on a bit more of a sustainable way of touring,” says Steffensen. “There is a growing awareness that has been bigger with the corona situation that we have to think of this in a different way. Because we present music from Africa, from Asia, many other places, flying will of course still be an integrated part of the touring industry, and we have to deal with that in some way or another. It’s definitely very important for us that we can still present music from these parts of the world.”
Kramer, however, notes that while the coronavirus has rightly been the focus of public policy the last few months, it has drawn attention away from another looming crisis: Brexit.
“We don’t talk so much about it right now because of corona, but the situation is that from January 1 if they don’t find a solution or negotiate some deal, then it will be really, really difficult for the British bands to come play in the rest of Europe,” she says. “If the situation is that you need to have a visa, it gets complicated and for smaller bands who don’t have the money to get these visas, there will be a lot of bands we will not be able to see here. That’s also a problem in the ecosystem of international bands touring in Europe. It doesn’t have that much focus right now, but January 1 is coming very soon.”
How concert goers can help
While much of the future of live music in Copenhagen relies on a contained epidemic and the attention of politicians, regular gig-goers can also support the spaces they love. Everyone we spoke with agrees that keeping tickets purchased for shows that have been postponed is a huge help, as is buying tickets for upcoming gigs. Alice has their membership program and an online shop selling t-shirts and old gig posters, Vega also has merch for sale, and Loppen has launched a GoFundMe campaign to help fill gaps. But everyone we spoke to sees more public-facing, community-oriented solutions as part of venues’ long term health and survival.
“There’s of course buying tickets, that is the main thing because it tells us that there is a crowd when we open up again that will come and visit,” says Kramer. “But also, speak out that venues and festivals are important to people’s everyday lives. It’s not just granted that Vega or other venues important venues in Copenhagen and the rest of Denmark are there. Speak out to politicians that venues are important to you and your everyday life.”
Greve understands how gigs and show spaces are an important part of daily life; much of Stairway’s strategy for their planned opening September 3 centers around working with existing communities.
“We’re here to do stuff with people in Copenhagen and we’re really interested in working together with different groups of people who want to do shows,” he says. “It’s the way that we’re doing shows at Underværket. We’re really getting in connection with groups that wouldn’t necessarily attend a show. It’s a bit unconventional for venues to do it that way, but to us it makes a lot of sense to work not only with agencies but also with small DIY groups who are interested in music and culture in general, because they usually are super well organized and they’re really having a lot of knowledge about certain genres and which bands to book.”
Steffensen agrees that people need to be constantly reminded of the value of music and venues, especially after having a break from them. “I think it’s super important that we keep on talking about the importance of this,” he says. He also feels that using a community to spread the word about a venue can be as valuable as buying a ticket.
“As soon as things open up, it’s cool if you buy a ticket for a show, but maybe also think about it as a present for another person,” he says. “Give them a present of live music, not only because of the money we get from it but also it’s a great way to get new people to discover a place like this. I still think Alice is a quite unknown place in Copenhagen, even for people who would theoretically be interested in the music profile, people who go to Roskilde and hear an African group or some experimental music there.
“The support of actual music fans who talk to their friends about music is a better way to reach new people,” he continues. “In the future, we will need all the support we can get from that. I really hope that when venues like Alice can reopen that people will remember to stay curious about discovering new artists. It’s not so difficult to sell tickets to a Thurston Moore show but there are a lot of other shows that are very difficult to sell tickets to and we still think it’s super important that we keep doing these kinds of shows because that’s a part of why a place like Alice needs to be in Copenhagen. People stay curious and I think that’s the best thing to do. And they can support us, but I think they will find they can also give themselves an unexpected present.”