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All the world’s a stage

Features
June 6, 2019

Family entertainment is a catch-all term encompassing an array of live show formats that appeal to a wider audience than standalone concerts, but the evolution of the sector and its global success has much to do with the concert industry’s leading promoters Christopher Barrett reports.

Rock promoter veterans who enjoy success with family entertainment and major tribute shows will remember how it began, just two decades ago.

Being able to buy Riverdance for a week or two and settle it into one theatre, quickly followed by Night of the Dance and an ABBA tribute, not to mention the Chippendales  – opened up a whole new world.

The revelation was that a promoter was in charge once they had bought the show, there were no Prima Donna artistes, crazy riders or brutal percentage deals.

Audiences wanted more, promote needed more and show producers did their best to create touring productions that would feed that audience and venue sector, generally theatres.

As shows and audiences grew, productions had to adapt to arenas too and what is generally called family entertainment exploded around the world.

For many promoters it has proven to be a less stressful and more profitable business than stand-alone concerts or short tours.

Since Cirque du Soleil was formed by 20 street performers 35 years ago, the stage show brand has become one of the world’s best known and its growth has involved the work of concert promoters worldwide. 

While its successful pop music-themed productions include Michael Jackson One and The Beatles Love, the Canadian organisation – based in Montreal – is best known for revolutionising the circus business, with shows featuring elaborate sets, flamboyant costumes and breathtaking acrobatics coupled with live music. 

Among its many original themed and branded shows is Alegria, which premiered in Montreal in 1994 and has since been seen by more than 10 million people worldwide. The show was retired in 2013, after two decades of non-stop touring, but has been refreshed and relaunch this year. 

“Given its heritage and popularity we thought it would be a good idea to give Alegria a new lease of life,” says Cirque Du Soleil senior vice-president of touring shows Finn Taylor. The show will be back on the road in July for a world tour. 

In total the company has 12 touring and seven resident shows, while a further handful are being created behind the scenes. 

“We have shows in South America, North America, Europe and Asia,” says Taylor. “South-East Asia is a big focus for us, we visit places like Singapore and Hong Kong regularly, but we are looking to add Indonesia and Thailand. We are also looking at launching shows into northern and western Africa.”

With interests and activity worldwide, Taylor is well placed to gauge the health of the sector.

“We are seeing a very strong market out there,” he says. “There are a lot of shows, and music touring has increased exponentially in last 15 years, so there is much more on offer for customers – but people still gravitate toward quality productions.” 

Game-changing vision

Two decades before the stage show explosion, in 1981, Kenneth Feld pitched Disney with the idea of bringing the studio’s characters to life on ice. 

By the end of the decade, his Feld Entertainment production company was touring Disney On Ice shows outside North America and it grew to become one of the most successful touring entertainment franchises in the world, visiting 77 countries. 

Feld’s vice-president for Europe, Steven Armstrong has been with the company for 20 years. Based at Feld’s European headquarters in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, his responsibilities include all marketing, ticketing and operational functions across its live events, which include Disney Live, Marvel Universe Live, Sesame Street Live and Monster Jam. 

Around 30 million tickets are sold worldwide, for its shows each year.

A new partnership with NBC Universal has seen the creation of Trolls The Experience and Jurassic World Live but Disney On Ice remains the company’s flagship brand, with nine tours in action worldwide at any one time. 

“We are moving into new territories such as South Africa, India, Ukraine and the Middle East,” says Armstrong. “There are lots of places in Africa we would like to go, but there is a lot of infrastructure, security and economic challenges and political unrest to take into account, as well as considerations such as the strength of the US dollar — some of these countries have pretty volatile currencies.”

Disney On Ice regularly rolls into some of the world’s biggest and best arenas, such as London’s The O2 (cap. 21,000) and Los Angeles’ Staples Centre (21,000), but because of the productions space needed and the floor being covered in ice, show capacities are often limited to around 5,000. 

“The concert touring model usually means coming to a venue for one night but we can do up to 12 shows a week in the same venue. It means we can sell around 60,000 tickets and there is only one load-in and load-out, which is where the majority of the cost is,” says Armstrong. 

Unlike concert promoters, Feld doesn’t have to cope with the demands of artistes who can sometimes set their fees high. 

“We try to make tickets as affordable as possible and have a range of prices to suit everyone’s wallet size. We are not a one-off performance, in certain countries we come back every year, so it’s important that people walk away thinking the experience has been good value,” says Armstrong. 

Aiming for authenticity

From its headquarters on the minuscule island of Fanoe off the coast of south-west Denmark, CSB Island Entertainment has had a major impact around the world for the past 20 years with its carefully-crafted pop tribute shows.

Among the company’s stage shows are A Tribute To Dire Straits, The Whitney Houston Show and The Show – A Tribute To ABBA – the latter having toured for 18 years and visited more than 50 countries.

With a tour of northern Europe this year that saw around 100,000 tickets sold – including two nights at the Netherlands’ Ahoy Arena (15,000) in Rotterdam, followed by 10 shows across Brazil and Uruguay that generated 30,000 ticket sales, CSB is preparing to take the ABBA show to Argentina, Chile and Peru for the first time. 

Its Queen Machine show has also proven hugely popular in mainland Europe and an enhanced version of the production, Queen Machine Symphonic, will tour the UK in April next year at venues including London’s Eventim Apollo (5,039), the First Direct Arena (13,500) in Leeds and the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall (2,475).

“There are so many Queen tribute shows in the UK already, we wanted to distinguish ours with increased quality and put it in the best venues,” says chief operating officer Kenneth Svoldgaard. 

“We have added an orchestra and the show features Kerry Ellis, who has collaborated with Brian May and starred in Queen musical We Will Rock You.

“The ABBA show features original ABBA touring musician Ulf Andersson, and our focus is always on quality and authenticity. We have the deepest respect for original artistes and are committed to producing highly professional shows that keep the music alive”.

Founded in 2006, Belgium-based MB Presents has worked on many of the biggest family entertainment touring productions and is promoting shows such as Star Wars In Concert at the 15,000-capacity Palais 12 in Brussels and Monster Jam at Sportpaleis in Antwerp. 

“Brands are a strong attraction point, but can also be a double-edged sword,” says MB Presents CEO Manu Braff. “Some brands will perform well through one medium, such as a book or film, and then under-perform in its theatrical version.”

Braff also promotes shows through France and Germany, and says working on family shows is very different to concerts. 

“It’s an entirely different approach to marketing and promotion, you have to get much closer to a broader potential audience and so it is harder to achieve the right impact,” he says.

High spirits

In 1996, inspired by Irish dance show Riverdance, David King founded Spirit Productions and created his first hit musical, Spirit of the Dance, which went on to become a huge international success and was seen by 30 million people. 

“At one stage we had 14 different troupes in 14 countries performing on the same night, that hurtled me into the business,” says King. 

Last month the company’s musical Puttin’ On The Ritz began an eight-week tour of Australia. Venues include Sydney’s State Theatre (2,034), Bunjil Place (800) in Melbourne and Perth’s Regal Theatre (1,048). Tickets range from A$81 to A$101 (US$56 to $70). 

Sprit owns the King’s Castle Theatre (1,500) in Branson, Missouri, in the US, where four of its shows play constantly. With offices in the US and UK, it has around 25 shows available for promoters to buy, with around six usually on the road at any one time.

“We make the shows, test them, film them and then offer them for sale,” says King. “We re-assemble them when a buyers comes along, which is usually a casino, a venue or a promoter,” he says.

“The majority of the industry is focused on promoting big names and they take all the profit out of the pot and leave very little for the promoters, that is why they come to us,” King explains. 

“We sell them a show at a fair price, they can make more money on one of our shows than having a major star with all the stress and financial outlay that goes with it,” he says. 

Meeting demand

Also based in the UK, Flying Music – now majority owned by Kilimanjaro Live, itself a subsidiary of German entertainment giant Deutsche Entertainment, has had success with a series of shows celebrating the work of hit acts, including Thriller Live. 

In May the show, which is focused on the life and music of The Jackson 5 and Michael Jackson, reached the landmark figure of 7,000 shows.

Among the company’s newer productions are The Beatles-themed production All You Need Is Love and A Beautiful Noise, which features the music of Neil Diamond.

Flying Music joint MD Derek Nicol has a history that includes promoting shows by acts such as Deep Purple, The Who, Elton John and Fleetwood Mac. Although the company continues to promote concerts by original artistes, much of its time is spent creating and promoting tribute shows around the world. 

Nicol says the rise in popularity of such shows has seen the market become saturated with some very cheap productions. 

“Sometimes it is just the cost to the theatre that determines their programming,” he says. “We try to always deliver a very high quality show, but that doesn’t come cheap.”

Also based in the UK, Stuart Littlewood founded Handshake 52 years ago and is currently enjoying success with shows including A Country Night In Nashville and ABBA Mania, the latter has been touring since 1999. 

While also promoting artistes such as Russel Watson and Dr Hook, Handshake has helped fill a gap in the market, while also helping dozens of venues attract wider audiences.

“There is a huge part of Britain and other countries that have mid-sized, 1,000 seater venues that never see any of the contemporary bands, so heritage acts and tribute shows are hugely popular,” he says. 

Littlewood says he has come up against a degree of snobbery about tribute shows at some venues, but is always quick to point out that world-class orchestras are essentially tribute acts who play the music of long-departed classical music artistes.

Riding success 

Family entertainment is clearly not limited to music artiste tribute shows. 

With horses playing an integral role in all its productions over the past 16 years, Germany’s Apassionata World has established a reputation for creating shows that offer exhilarating equine entertainment. 

Around 500,000 people per year attend its shows, which have toured throughout Europe. Currently on tour, Cavalluna – World Of Fantasy has dates at venues such as Belgium’s Sportpaleis (23,000) in Antwerp and Germany’s ISS Dome (14,000) in Dusseldorf. On average, tickets are priced €40 ($45).

Producer Andreas Eckert says that due to the visually unique nature of the company’s shows, the production and distribution of video material is key in order to successfully market them and attract ticket buyers.

“It is all about the experience so the most important marketing channels for us are the ones where you can place video,” he says. “That is indispensable in terms of presenting the experience and the feeling of the whole thing. Every show needs sufficient and creative marketing, whether it be print or social media, to stand out in a crowded market.”

Social impact 

Promoter Daniel Grinbank, of DG Medios Espectaculos (DGE), has been responsible for many of the biggest concerts staged in Argentina.

He also also has a long history of promoting international tours of stage shows that stretches back to 1987 when he worked on a Latin American and Spanish tour of Disney theatre show Beauty And The Beast.

Since then the company has worked on numerous Disney brand shows including Violetta Live and Soy Luna, and is working with Disney on new production BIA, numerous other theatre shows and concerts tours, and has stepped into the exhibitions market with The Pink Floyd Exhibition – Their Mortal Remains.

With the Argentine economy experiencing a major downturn, Grinbank is focusing increasingly on Europe. He says that when purchasing a show franchise the strength of its brand is a major consideration.

Once acquired, DGE uses traditional media, including TV and radio, to build a show’s profile, but has found social media to be an increasingly powerful tool. 

“Nowadays we are focusing more and more on social media because that has a huge impact on people,” he says. 

Dan Colman, has been working in family entertainment since 1996 when he produced the Olivier Award-winning Slava’s Snowshow.

In 2000, Dan Colman Limited produced and begun promoting the Tweenies Live arena tour, which sold more than 800,000 tickets in the UK. In the years since, it has produced shows including Shaun The Sheep Live and Thomas The Tank Engine.

The majority of shows are developed in the UK and the company teams with promoters around the world. Among its shows currently playing is Brainiac Live!, which is in its 11th year on the road.

“In 2018 we played a two-week residency at The Playhouse [400] within Sydney Opera House, playing two shows per day. This year we launched our first English/Arabic dual-language production in the United Arab Emirates,” says Coleman.

Another key project for the company is Symphonic Ibiza, a show that celebrates 30-years of Ibiza dance music culture with a performance that blends a live orchestra, vocalists and music from DJ Andy Joyce. 

Following a sell-out premiere at McEwan Hall (1,100) on New Year’s Eve as part of Edinburgh City Council’s Hogmany celebrations, Colman launched the full show, with a summer season at the Edinburgh Festival. It is now running as a residency at Savannah Sunset Strip in Ibiza.

“Our understanding of the brand and its appeal to an audience is key to our ability to successfully develop it as a live experience,” says Colman. “Understanding the wider brand and promotional plans can also be key to routing and planning decisions.”

When it comes to marketing the shows, the company focuses strongly on social media. 

“Facebook is important for parents buying tickets to our family shows, but we are also constantly looking at how to maximise the use of Instagrammable images,” says Colman.

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