Zeit Online
“The coronavirus is on my personal top three crises list”

Scumeck Sabottka is a concert organiser. In fact, he fills halls and earns millions. But thanks to coronavirus, his future is uncertain. Only Rammstein can save him.

Interview:  Antonia Schaefer  | 3 July 2020, 7:53 p.m.

The German event sector sells around 120 million tickets a year and turns over several billion euros. Since the  coronavirus pandemic broke out at the beginning of March, major events can no longer be staged. As of now, concerts are forbidden up until and including 31 October. Although help is available from the federal government for the culture sector – not all benefit from it by a long chalk. The agency MCT is one of the medium-sized companies in the concert business. Its founder, Scumeck Sabottka, fears for its survival.

ZEIT ONLINE: Mr. Sabottka, are there any concerts which you are not sad to see cancelled? 

Scumeck Sabottka: Well of course. There are around five percent of my concerts where I’m not sure if they will make any money at all. Frequently I don’t know beforehand if the tickets will sell. In cases of doubt, it makes more financial sense to accept the cost of cancellation. 

ZEIT ONLINE: Which concerts are they? 

Sabottka: I prefer not to say. That would be simply unfair to the artists, like giving them a slap in the face out of the blue. Nevertheless: I would prefer to put on ten concerts where I make a loss than to be in this situation now.  

ZEIT ONLINE: What does the coronavirus mean for you? 

Sabottka: For me, this is the greatest imaginable disaster – like Chernobyl but over the whole world. You know nothing and don’t notice at first how the radiation is destroying your body. It’s the same with viruses. It takes some time before you realise you’ve become infected. And there’s the personal side to it. I know a few people who have  caught coronavirus and some even whose relatives have died of it. But that was in Brazil. In Germany, I’m not scared of it but I worry about the future.  

“Overall I would get through it with around three million euros less revenue.” 
Scumeck Sabottka, concert organiser

ZEIT ONLINE: You have organised Rammstein’s European tour for this year and next. In other words, huge concerts with crowds in the tens of thousands. How much money are you going to lose there? 

Sabottka: Put it this way. If the European tour and all the other concerts which we have postponed can be held next year, I’ll get off lightly. I would have had a bad year and used up my savings. But next year, I can expect to make money again. Overall I would get through it with around three million euros less revenue.  

ZEIT ONLINE: And what if the concerts can't be held even next year?  

Sabottka: In 2020, we have had more or less no takings from ticket sales. Many concerts were simply cancelled. If we still can't stage anything next year, I can shut down. 

ZEIT ONLINE: How are the fans reacting to the cancellations? 

Sabottka: Initially with uncertainty and incomprehension. But ultimately they have stayed true to their bands. Many bands didn't know if they could move their concerts to next year. Then there was a run on halls and venues. Overall, we were able to move 85 percent of events to next year. Hardly any fans returned their tickets. It seems the people who wanted to see Björk and Rammstein this year, still want to go next year.  

ZEIT ONLINE: Björk, Rammstein, Pearl Jam and Massive Attack are all bands you work with. How are they coping with the crisis? 

Sabottka: I honestly don’t know, I don’t have much to do with the artists. But working with the bands, they have all shown a lot of appreciation of the fact that we, too, as the concert organisers are struggling now with a lot of uncertainty. I think most of them are highly frustrated as there is so little to do at the moment. For example, I have much less contact with managers and agents. They’re all stuck in their Homeofficeor alone in their office like me. 

"So far I haven’t had to let anyone go"
Scumeck Sabottka hasn’t had to dismiss anyone as yet. But it’s not clear what things will be like for him in the future.

ZEIT ONLINE: How many employees do you have? Have you had to fire any of them? 

Sabottka: Fourteen employees, and so far I haven’t had to let any of them go. But we have been on short-time working for a few weeks now. Currently at 50 percent. We had enough to do with Rammstein. Moving the concerts was even more complicated than booking them in the first place. At the moment, all the artists are moving their concerts – we’re quickly running out of halls. 

ZEIT ONLINE: Wouldn’t it be an idea to set up concerts like a drive-in cinema? So let the guests park their cars in front of the stage? Nena and Revolverheld have already done that …

Sabottka: Definitely not! I used to be totally bored by drive-in cinemas with their ridiculously small speakers. What we're selling is emotions, rubbing shoulders with each other, maybe a bit more than that. That doesn't work if people are all sitting in their separate cars. 

"Massive Attack by Zoom concert? No, that wouldn’t work.”
Scumeck Sabottka, concert organiser

ZEIT ONLINE: What about Zoom concerts? 

Sabottka: My God! I’m not involved in that. I don’t think any of our artists have done that so far. Massive Attack in a Zoom concert on your sofa? No, that wouldn’t work.  

ZEIT ONLINE: What do you think of going to concerts wearing a mask? And keeping one and a half metres apart? 

Sabottka: Masks I can see. Distancing won’t work. Who's going to supervise it? You can do it at the gate. But when people are inside, what are we to do then?  

ZEIT ONLINE: Before the crisis, you were on the road a lot, even abroad, on the lookout for new talent. You can’t do that at the moment. How are you coping with that? 

Sabottka: I just accept it for what it is. You have to adapt. It’s no good complaining. And blaming other people doesn’t help either. I don’t go to the office much at the moment, I’m looking after the garden. I have learned how to plant tomatoes. My first three attempts died on me but I’m trying again. Strictly speaking, it’s doing me good, no rushing around at airports, no time pressure. Although I also miss the job, the pressure, life in the fast lane. The first flight to Los Angeles is mine. 

“If everything goes down the drain next year, I’ll have to think about what to do.”
Scumeck Sabottka, concert organiser

ZEIT ONLINE: Wouldn’t a permanent civil service job be a grand thing now?  

Sabottka: Nah, as a civil servant, I couldn’t be proud of getting through the crisis because I had made good money beforehand. I can say that about myself. Things are still running. And if everything goes down the drain next year, I’ll have to think about what to do. I’m quite creative when it comes to such things.  

ZEIT ONLINE: You began as a punk in the Ruhr district and you built your business over the years. You nearly went bankrupt a number of times. Isn’t  coronavirus a trifle for you by comparison? 

Sabottka: The coronavirus is definitely on my top three crises list. Especially as we don’t know what’s coming next. I could tear my hair out. My bet is that the major concert halls won’t open any more this year. The two close shaves I had with bankruptcy were the only worse times. At the beginning of the nineties, I had several gigs which went badly. Suddenly my account was half a million in the red and I didn’t know how to get out of it. I was lucky back then to find a buyer for my company. At any rate, it was a question of survival then but now I have more experience, contacts and reserves. 

“If many small companies go to the wall, that would be hard.”

ZEIT ONLINE: You were diagnosed with hepatitis B in the eighties. Does that mean you’re in a high risk group?  

Sabottka: I haven’t asked myself that question yet. My liver may not be my strongest organ but I have fully recovered from my hepatitis B. At any rate, I don’t believe that I’m in a high risk group.  

ZEIT ONLINE: At the time, the illness was life-threatening to you. You lived in isolation for half a year. Can you empathise with Covid-19 patients? 

Sabottka: I was so weak I didn’t even experience isolation as a nuisance. When it's a massive effort just to go to the toilet, you don’t think about hanging out with friends. If it’s the same for coronavirus patients, I certainly can empathise with them. Back then I listened to contemporary experimental electronic music every day. I have stuck to that. SPK, Throbbing Gristle, Nurse with Wound, this music symbolised for me what was going on inside me.  

“Just because there’s a pandemic on, I won't become my enemy’s friend.”
Scumeck Sabottka, concert organiser

ZEIT ONLINE: In the past, you have made no bones about your dislike of your competitor Live Nation. Has the crisis brought you together? 

Sabottka: No. OK, yes, the sector has had one common mouthpiece in talking to the government, but just because there’s a pandemic on, I won't become my enemy’s friend. I also wouldn't care if Live Nation went bankrupt. I think the large companies like Live Nation or ourselves are in any case having a harder time than the smaller fish. They have more mouths to feed. And Live Nation has been so brutal in pushing others out of the market, maybe they’ll have to die by the same sword.  

ZEIT ONLINE: Isn't that negligent from a financial perspective? 

Sabottka: Maybe it’s not particularly smart – but I have the romantic idea that people will want to go to concerts again after this long drought. And should the artists be the ones who have to pay for my uncertainty? That would be lacking in solidarity. They have also had a hard year. It’s not just hard for us, it’s hard for everyone! 

ZEIT ONLINE: Let’s assume many companies in the concert and ticket sector will go bankrupt. What will that mean for the future of live events? 

Sabottka: If many small companies go to the wall, that would be hard. We are the ones who find the talented young artists and build them up before they are snatched away by the giants of the sector. If the big boys like Live Nation, for example, go bust, there might be a restructuring of the events sector – but will it be any better? What happens if we all go bust? Then in a few years, people will be amazed that concerts have become luxury events. With very expensive prices.  

“With personalised tickets, we would know directly which block the spectator sat in.”

Scumeck Sabottka, concert organiser

ZEIT ONLINE: You are no fan of the way in which tickets are currently sold. Because of over-expensive tickets which are resold on the secondary market, for example. Would the time after the coronavirus not be an opportunity to rebuild the system from scratch? 

Sabottka: We can only hope so. Personalised tickets for me are the best way to combat reselling at over-inflated prices. They might also be helpful in the initial stages after the coronavirus. With personalised tickets, we would know directly which block the spectator sat in, and we could inform them if it became known that there were infected people in their vicinity. 

ZEIT ONLINE: What’s happening with the crisis over ticket prices?

Sabottka: The price of a ticket is always a response to how society is doing. If we assume that Germany will go through some tough times economically after coronavirus, people will also spend less on culture. We will have to adjust ticket prices accordingly. So I suspect tickets might become cheaper. Whether the artists can still earn enough is another question.








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