Saturday 22 June 2024

People are willing to spend money on concerts and festivals – just don’t rip them off

This column first appeared in Malta Today

Although I didn’t go myself, it is clear from social media that the Robbie Williams concert was a resounding success – as a born entertainer, he gave an incredible show, connected with the audience and made two people picked out from the audience, ecstatically happy. His interaction with Priscilla, especially, was heartwarming and genuine in a way which not every mega star is capable of, and it endeared him to the audience even more.

More significantly, he opened up about his struggles with depression and feelings of low self-worth – a very real mental health issue which affects so many people, whether they are famous or not.

The magic of attending a live concert is incomparable to anything else and while there have been a number of great shows in Malta over the years, not every singer has that special something, a magnetic charisma, which makes them so beloved by their fans. Robbie Williams is one of those who has “it’, judging from the rave reviews by everyone who attended. The vibe, even just from the video clips, was electric. When fans know the words to all your songs it must be the most exhilarating feeling in the world, and those who attended did not disappoint him. He reciprocated by saying in a post the next day that it was one of his best concerts ever.

But this is not to say that there weren’t any hiccups or fails; for a start, the placing of the portable toilets smack in front of the Floriana parish church was a distasteful, insensitive move. After residents and local councillor, James Aaron Ellul, raised an uproar they were removed before the concert, and placed elsewhere. Had they not spoken up, it seems it would not have occurred to anyone involved in this decision to think hmm, maybe queues of people urinating in front of a church is just not done?

There were also members of the audience who had spent €100 per ticket only to find themselves behind the platforms for the lighting, camera crew and sound technicians, blocking their view of the actual stage, so they had to be content with watching the performance on the big screen instead. Being forced to watch it on a big screen, not because one is far away but because the section one has paid for one is obstructed, is just a way of fleecing audiences. They might as well have saved their money, stayed home and watched a recording of the concert later on TV.

Which brings me to the concert site itself. Apart from the damage being inflicted to the historic Granaries, which should be preserved and not trampled on by thousands, and apart from the enormous amount of litter left behind each time, one also has to wonder whether it is even the best venue for large-scale events. I know that, historically, the ‘Fosos’ was the ‘go to’ site for when you are expecting a big audience – politicians especially love the place to hold their mass meetings where they can gauge their core base by how much they have managed to fill the space as it becomes jam-packed with their loyal supporters. “Fqajna il-Fosos” (we filled the Granaries to bursting), has been the rallying cry of many an election campaign. Thankfully, mass meetings are only once every five years..

But for annual major musical events it does not seem to be the best venue, logistics-wise. Visually, unless there is tiered seating, you will always get people who find they have paid good money to be stuck behind structures and platforms. The location is also a bottleneck which results in snarling traffic for anyone who has to go towards Valletta as access starts being closed off in the early afternoon. Parking tends to be limited for the number of cars which descend on this town, further bothering the residents (although these days most people are sensibly opting to go by taxi).

The point is that if we are going to keep having these regular events, then other venues need to be considered which can cater for large crowds and have the right infrastructure for sound and cameras without interfering with the views of the paying audience. People should be discouraged from using their private cars by providing a good shuttle service to the venue. The Fosos and its long-suffering residents should be given a break.

At other summer events, the issue was not so much the venue as the way clients were ripped off. The Summer Daze music festival, which was held at Ta’ Qali was harshly criticised for its token system to buy drinks as pointed out by one person who went: “The event employed a system of drink tokens with a minimum spend of €20. Alcoholic beverages were intentionally priced at €4.20. This pricing strategy meant that the 20 cents difference would cover the cost of only 4 drinks, leaving a balance of €3.20 (insufficient for an additional drink). To avoid leaving any remaining funds on the card, as these cards were intentionally made non-refundable and non-reusable, one could only opt to purchase a bottle of water for €2, leaving a remainder of €1.20. Consider the number of these vouchers purchased and their cumulative impact. The same scenario applied to food, where a Turkish kebab was purposefully priced at €10.50. Consequently, purchasing 2 kebab without spending a total of €40 was impossible. Individuals such as students or those unable to spend €20, but wishing to buy a single soft drink, found themselves at a disadvantage. The event touted a “water fountain,” offering free water from dispensers. However, these dispensers were empty by 8pm and not refilled.”

Each time these token systems are being utilised, the general consensus is that the organisers are being sneaky and cheeky in the way they try to scam patrons because of the way everything is priced. If one adds up how much unused balance there was on these tokens, and the fact that tens of thousands of people attended every day of the festival, it means the organisers were potentially raking in quite a chunk of money.

This same person went on to point out other shortcomings: lack of sufficient waste bins, and poorly-lit toilets which were not being cleaned regularly despite the presence of cleaning staff. Why do we keep accepting such a shoddy service whenever a major event is organised? As long as we keep doing so, nothing will improve.

The Maltese public are not exactly novices when it comes to attending concerts or festivals as low-cost airlines have made it easy to travel over the weekend to watch their favourite artists. This means they have a basis of comparison when it comes to the professional way things are organised in other countries with great attention to safety and hygiene, and the logistics of getting masses of people in and out of the venue with as little chaos as possible. They also compare the prices they are being asked to pay, not only for food and drinks, but the ticket itself, and what kind of vantage point they get in return. In reply to the above complaint about tokens, many pointed out how much more practical and ethical the system is abroad where people are given a bracelet topped up with the amount they have paid, which is scanned at the bar and they are then refunded for any balance not used.

As a nation we are not averse to spending, and splurging on a concert or festival as an annual treat is something which thousands obviously have no trouble doing. But, let’s face it, no one likes to feel they have been cheated.

The organisers of these concerts need to get their act together and treat the public with respect – there have been just too many instances where greed has taken over. They should not take it for granted that audiences will always come to these events, because those who have been bitten once too many times will stop going and save their money to watch a concert in another city instead.