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The Czech Republic

Features
December 16, 2019

With rising wages and low unemployment, the Czech Republic is in good shape economically and its music fans are sustaining a rise in show numbers, primarily in Prague; the country’s dominant market … but there are challenges. Christopher Barrett reports    

O

n 17 November 1989, eight days after the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany, student protesters surged onto the streets of Prague in Soviet state neighbouring Czechoslovakia, to begin what would become known as the Velvet Revolution.

In the 30 years since the uprising overturned communist rule and  Czechoslovakia, split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the former has prospered on the back of robust economic growth, not least with its live music business.

Joining the European Union (EU) in 2004, the country’s decision not to adopt the euro and continue with the koruna has paid dividends. There is virtually no unemployment and the country has enjoyed one of the highest Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rates in the EU.

That is forecast to slow somewhat due to an ongoing shortage of workers and sharp wage inflation, but the situation means many of its 10 million citizens have plenty of disposable income to spend on entertainment.

This economic good health, combined with its central location on the continent – between Germany, Poland and Austria – has helped it attract some of the world’s best known performing artistes.

Its capital Prague is one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations and is the beating heart of the country’s live music industry.

The country’s dominant promoter is Live Nation Czech Republic (LNCR), established in 2004 after Robert Porkert and Serge Grimaux’s InterKoncerts was sold to Clear Channel Communications, which later spun-off its live entertainment business as promoter Live Nation.

Headquartered in Prague and headed by Porkert, as MD, LNCR promotes more than 40 concert per year along with festivals including the single-day Prague Rocks at Sinobo Stadium (cap, 30,000), which last year was headlined by ZZ Top and Kiss.

One of the city’s leading concert venues is the 20,000-capacity O2 arena Prague, where LNCR promoted shows by acts including Ariande Grande, Elton John, Maroon 5, Phil Collins, Slayer, Slipnot, Mark Knopfler, Def Leppard and Whitesnake this year.

One of the biggest events for LNCR was two sold-out shows by Rammstein at Sinobo Stadium. Tickets were priced from 1,790 to 2,390 koruna ($80-107).

Porkert says the company promoted around 50 shows this year, 20 per cent up on 2018, with around 600,000 tickets sold.

“It has been the busiest year of my 26-year career in the concert promoting business,” says Porkert. “It is a crazy amount of shows for our little office, but we are very happy about it. The economy is in great condition and people are spending much more money on culture and entertainment.”

However, Pokert says the market does have its challenges.

“Wages keep going up and are currently around 30 per cent more than they were a couple of years ago,” he says. “So our costs are much higher and we have to charge a little more for tickets. Meanwhile, artistes’ fees are getting higher every year.”

Market fources

Fource Entertainment was founded in 2011 and has worked with artistes including Beyonce, Leonard Cohen, Kylie Minogue, The Eagles and Black Eyed Peas.

In an average year its team will work on 80 concerts, while also staging shows in Poland and Slovakia.

Among its most successful recent concerts were Twenty One Pilots and Billie Eilish at the at the O2 arena, with tickets ranging from 1,090 to 1,590 koruna ($48 to $70), and Hollywood Undead and Alvaro Soler at Tipsport Arena (13,000).

It has also had The Lumineers, Bastille and The Neighbourhood at the 4,000-capacity Forum Karlin in Prague, where tickets ranged from 795 to 990 koruna ($35 to $44).

“We did more than 100 shows this year in the Czech Republic, which is quite a good number considering the territory is basically a one-city market for most international artistes,” says Fource Entertainment founder and CEO Anthony Jouet.

He says 2020 is shaping up to be another great year with shows by Nick Cave, Stormzy, James Blake, Metronomy, Melanie Martinez and emerging acts such as Murder Capital and Easy Life.

Jouet says a knock-on effect of the buoyant economy and Prague having a 0.9 per cent unemployment rate, is that the cost of hiring staff, including security and stagehands, has risen sharply in recent years, as has the price of venue rental and overall operating costs

“It is definitely effecting the business,” he says. “An increase in touring costs and artistes’ higher financial expectations are putting pressure on ticket prices. As promoters we need to be cautious about keeping prices in line with what the market can sustain.”

Jouet would like to see more venues with capacities of 1,500 to 2,500 open in Prague, and a middle-sized arena scalable between 6,000 and 10,000.

“I believe Brno, the country’s second live music market, would also benefit from having a modern small arena,” he says.

Forum activity

A veteran of the Czech live music business, Canadian-born Serge Grimaux has worked in the country for the past 29 year and is a huge admirer of the entrepreneurial spirit that he has seen there.

“Before World War II, Czechoslovakia was the seventh most industrialised country in the world,” he says. “Czech people are very competitive, very creative and very hard working.”

Grimnaux launched ticket agent Ticketpro in 1992 and after 25 years running the business, he sold it to Ticketmaster in early 2017. Last year he became CEO of Forum Karlin; a 4,000-capacity, purpose-built concert venue in the capital.

He says the concert market is flourishing, with his venue staging around 50 shows a year. Acts playing the venue include Pixies, New Order, Skepta, Keane, Thom Yorke and Beth Hart.

“Thanks to social media you can reach an audience, sell merch independently and encourage ticket sales, all at very little cost,” he says. “In the last month I have had three local bands sell-out,

“It is an extremely flexible space, has won awards for its acoustics and is able to accommodate shows with capacities from 1,500 to 4,000, and the venue is well served by public transportation with trams and a subway very close by.”

While acknowledging the dominance of LNCR, Grimaux says there remain at least a dozen strong independent promoters that have largely found niches within which to operate successful.

Economic benefits 

Among independent promoters to work with Grimaux at Forum Karlin is one of the country’s longest-established promoters Milena Paleckova of  10:15 Entertainment.

The company had New Order at Forum Karlin in October, and has forthcoming shows with Nick Mason and Einstürzende Neubaten.

Paleckova says the past few years have been very good for the company, with 2017 its most successful yet.

“The economic situation is very good and the live business is growing, we already have five shows on sale and others in discussion; it will be a very busy year,” she says.

Paleckova’s only gripe is that with much of the action taking place in Prague, promoters are being hit hard by the five per cent city tax on tickets. Up until 2016, it only applied to venues over 3,000 capacity, but was amended to include all.

Another Prague-based promoter, Capricorn Promotion, has been working with international acts since it was launched in 1996, also promoting shows in Poland and Croatia.

Among events next year are Beth Hart at O2 Universum (4,500) in Prague, a 17-date tour by James Harries and three shows by Southern Avenue,  including one at the Palác Akropolis (650) in Prague.

It also promotes the three-day Blues Alive festival that takes place in November at the House of Culture (1,500) in Sumperk, with a bill included Lizz Wright, Doyle Bramhall and Marcia Ball.

“It sold-out four months in advance,” says Capricorn Promotion’s Štěpán Suchochleb. “Festivals are hugely popular in the Czech Republic, if anything there are way too many of them.”

While being grateful that the market is in good shape, Suchochleb says there is reason for caution.

“We are seeing the first signs of the economy slowing down and people not being so keen to buy tickets,” he says. “I expect this will become slightly worse next year, so we need to be careful about what we book, how many shows we do and what kind of ticket price we charge.”

Independent strengths

With offices in Prague and Tel Aviv (Israel), ICP Live was founded in 2005 and promotes shows across a wide range of genres including rock, electronic and world music.

Recent events include Il Divo at Prague Congress Centre (2,764), Fleet Foxes at Lucerna Music Bar (800in the city and a tour by Maluma.

ICP’s Lucie Kličková says that while the mood is very optimistic, there are challenges resulting from so few people needing work.

“To hire and keep a good team you have to build strong relationships and make sure you take very good care of them,” she says.

Like most other promoters, Obscure Promotion is also benefiting from the healthy economic climate.

Tomas Fiala says the company tends to work on small to mid-size shows by heavy metal and rock acts.

Among its most successful recent concerts have been The Rasmus at Lucerna Great Hall (4,000), and Behemoth and As I Lay Dying at Forum Karlín.

Fiala is frustrated by a lack of venues in Prague with capacities between 1,500 and 2,000, but welcomed the opening in the summer of the O2 Universum.

Built by Bestsport, the company that owns and operates the O2 arena, the O2 Universum. complex houses concert, conferences and corporate event facilities. It is joined to the O2 arena’s south side.

“The arrival of he O2 Universun means we are all set with venues from 3,000-capacity upwards now,” says Fiala.

Bestsport head of sales and events Stanislava Doubravova says the O2 Universum is a very flexible building that can accommodate a range of show sizes.

“It has 21 halls of different sizes, with a total capacity of 10,000 people,” she says. “The largest is Hall A, with a capacity of almost 5,000, which will be used as a space for organising medium-sized concerts and sporting events. Hall B has a capacity of 1,700 people can be used for concerts too.”

Doubravova says the O2 Universum’s big brother, the O2 arena typically hosts between 35 and 50 concerts per year and is almost fully booked for 2020; with shows including Nick Cave, Eric Clapton and Celine Dion.

“Our business with sold-out shows by international acts is very stable, and we are pleased with the growing number of concerts by local artistes who are able to sell-out the biggest arena in the country,” says Doubravova.

To keep up with demand for VIP facilities and experiences, Bestsport has been busy refurbishing the venue’s skyboxes and enhancing the customer service.

Roxy Prague is another of the city’s key music venues. Well established on the club circuit, the venue has a historic art-deco interior dating back to the 1920s. As well as the main 1,000-capacity room, the building houses a restaurant, bar, art gallery and a 300-capacity theatre space.

With 270 event days per year, the venue attracts an attendance of around 230,000 annually. Among acts playing the Roxy recently are Meute, Claptone, Chase & Status, Bicep, Laurent Garnier, Mall Grab and Postmodern Jukebox.

“Prague is the only city in the Czech Republic that international acts regularly visit, and there are not many venue choices in the 1,000-cap range,” says Roxy Prague booking agent David Čajčík.

“The low unemployment rates and thriving economy are helping business and, due to the venue being location in the heart of the city centre, the increasing number of tourists visiting Prague is also benefitting the venue,” he says.

“We are steadily increasing the number of shows that are booked in-house especially the live acts.”

Festive season

As well as concerts, Obscure runs the annual Brutal Assault festival (15,000) and Basinfirefest (7,000). The latter, which takes place in Spalene Porici in the Pilsen region over three days in June, has been running since 2003.

The four-day Brutal Assault festival takes place at Fortress Josefov in Jaroměř  in the north-east of the country. Among headliners at the next event will be As I Lay Dying and Benighted.

Fiala says that with so much entertainment on offer, the festivals that do best are well established ones that are targeted at fans of particular genres.

“People only attend events that are designed for them, so the ones that work best have core fanbase,” he says.

Another promoter active in the rock festival market is PragoKoncert, which organises a handful of annual events including three-day Metalfest Open Air (15,000), which takes place at Lochotín amphitheater in Pilsen in May. Among acts at this year’s event were Powerwolf and Arch Enemy.

One of the company’s biggest festivals is Masters of Rock (20,000), a four-day July event that has been running since 2003. Taking place in Vizovice, it was this year headlined by Within Temptation, Steel Panther and Dream Theatre.
Classic approach

JV Agentura has a history of promoting classical concerts and orchestras performing  soundtracks from films such as Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean.

The cancellation of the Fast & Furious Live show, due to take please at the O2 arena last January had a huge impact on JV Agentura.

“Our agency  suffered a huge loss due to the dishonest behaviour of the promotional company Fast Live Production, which did not carry out the planned show Fast and Furious Live and then refused to return the fees, thus causing our company JV Agentura,” says JV co-owner Vladka Zahradníková.

“JV Classics was founded to organise slightly different projects and we have many interesting ones ahead.”

Among forthcoming shows are Lang Lang and Andrea Bocelli at the O2 arena, and the National Geographic – Symphony for our World show at O2 Universum.

Zahradníková says, “Although the local market is small, the audience is very diverse and quite demanding but if you maintain a consistent level of quality offerings and cultivate your audience, you can succeed here.”

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