Nico Ubenauf: “International artists should be exempt from pandemic rules”

As the pandemic hopefully starts to slow down, we hardly need to say that the overall situation in the live music sector is still far from ‘business as usual.’ While some shows and festivals have taken place, the overall numbers of such events still are way down. But while artists mostly have been forced to stay at home and perhaps have been able to record new songs, those usually providing sound and lights for a proper live music experience faced a much more challenging situation.

Nico Ubenauf is the founder and a board member of satis&fy, one of the bigger companies in the live sector. Founded 1993 the company nowadays has 450 employees, running 10 offices in Germany, the Netherlands and the USA. With departments for technical equipment, stage design and even rehearsal facilities, this company offers a holistic picture of the growth of the live music sector before the arrival of Covid-19.


So, perhaps now is a good moment to ask Ubenauf how he managed to keep the company running when the core business of satis&fy has been more or less suspended for such a long time?  
Nico Ubenauf: The first six months were really tough, after that it got much better. When the pandemic started, we secured our liquidity, pretty much like every company in the business. Then we made sure to inform our stakeholders on a regular basis and worked on securing government help and bank loans.

At the same time, we transformed our business to offer alternative services that would still generate revenue. We built over 24 digital studios across Europe and US, and we focused on innovative retail installations. That got us back to around 50 percent of our usual revenue.

Your company announced a significant investment in a new sound system, enabling satis&fy to serve live shows right up to arena and stadium levels.
Yes, we made a significant investment into additional sound systems because we believe in a strong rebound effect in 2022. We have numerous requests and bookings for the period starting in May 2022 and we want to make sure that we can deliver. After 2 years of touring-lockdown virtually everyone wants to get on tour as soon as possible. That will be very interesting.

You also run branches in the US. What can you tell us about the situation for events and concerts over there?
We see a huge difference from state to state. We run operations in NYC, Portland (Oregon) and Los Angeles. These states are slowly coming back, but more slowly than some of the southern states, for example Florida, Texas and Nevada.

Some of my colleagues are reporting strong business in the southern states with country music and festivals. We see our local business coming back but big corporate companies are still hesitant about the larger shows.

Looking forward to 2022, what are your expectations for your business in terms of tours and festivals?
I believe that festivals and national touring will start early. International touring will probably be the very last thing that will go “back to live”. I think we will see a strong rebound with national touring starting in April/May 2022. International touring hopefully late summer.

When speaking to promoters and agents, most of them now are confronted with fewer and slower ticket sales. Could it be the case that the recovery of the live music sector may take longer than other industries?
The slower ticket sales are worrying. I believe there are two reasons: the main one is that people have already seen their concerts being postponed twice. They want to wait until it is absolutely certain before they purchase a ticket again.

The second reason is that there will be a limited ticket budget for each individual and so many stars will go on tour. I think many people will have to select which show they want to go to. This also slows down current sales.

You also are one of the co-founders of Alarmstufe Rot, an initiative by various players from the German live entertainment economy, lobbying for an appropriate support in the political sphere. What are your findings and what are your recommendations as to how the live music sector should survive the ongoing crisis?
My findings are that the entire live events community needs to come together and lobby as one strong group. There are hundreds of small associations and not one of them has a strong voice in politics. This needs to change. And we have very similar needs when it comes to political lobbying. Therefore, clubs, concert promoters, DJs, technical suppliers, trade show companies, venue operators and all the other different trades need to come together. We are a huge industry if we combine our forces, but if we don’t, we remain invisible to politicians.

The international circulation of artists has been drastically interrupted by Covid-19, and we also noticed that the policy of a border-free Europe has been partially suspended. Does the live music sector need to improve its lobby efforts on a European level, as this situation might last even longer and needs more and better awareness by political and governmental bodies?
As stated before, we need to combine our forces in the live events industry. Not only on a national level but also internationally. The pandemic pushed all of us closer together and initiatives like #wemakeevents are great examples.

Currently we are totally misrepresented on a European level. We basically don’t exist. This is in sharp contrast to the effect artist appearances have in a society. Imagine if our industry was seen as an important factor for the stability of our society, and just like politicians are allowed to travel and gather, international artists would also be exempt from pandemic rules to perform in public. Crazy idea? Well, the truth is that right now we don’t even have anyone on a European level to discuss any crazy ideas with our political leaders.

Interview: Manfred Tari