South-Germany: Will the Echelon festival survive corona?

This summer is different. Due to the coronavirus all major events in Germany are prohibited until August 31st, which includes festivals. How does this affect the organizers, artists, technicians, stand operators and visitors that make festivals happen? Some lose more than others. Meanwhile, a new law has been introduced to reduce the damage.

Echelon festival

Echelon sign at the entrance of the festival.

The sound of techno music roars across the area, the air vibrates from the bass of the music, the colourful crowd moves to the beat. Confetti trickles down on the visitors, the sun is shining, the mood is good, the beer is refreshing.

There will be no pictures like these this year at the Echelon Festival in Southern Germany. The two-day electro event usually takes place every August in Bad Aibling, near Munich. The location is special – the US Army transformed the former military airbase into a monitoring station for the American Foreign Intelligence Agency ASA. There are striking white domes located on the site that were used as radar installations for the Echelon spy network, which gives the festival its name. Today, around 25,000 visitors celebrate electronic music there every summer, making the event one of the largest open air and indoor festivals in the federal state of Bavaria.

This year the organizing company Permanent Entertainment had to cancel the event due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“We were of course upset at the beginning,” explains Simon Piontek, the marketing manager. It’s weird for the team that they can’t see the result of our work this year. “It’s the reward of our work when we stand at the festival in the end and see that everyone is having fun, everyone is doing great.”

Besides Echelon, Permanent Entertainment organizes many other festivals like Ikarus, Contact, Wet and the Isle of Summer series. Not all events have been cancelled yet, as some of them are happening in winter. “However, I have little hope that we will be able to host them,” says the 32-year-old. Due to social distancing, this seems impossible.

A summer without a festival feeling that doesn’t only affect the organizers, but also the visitors. “We want our guests to forget their everyday life, celebrate and have fun,” explains Piontek.

Festival fan Anna Schaber lives close to the site where Echelon takes place and will miss exactly that. “Fun with friends, meeting new people – I can’t imagine a summer without festivals, that’s been an integral part of my life for years.” However, she understands the reason. “It would be too dangerous, because the virus could spread,” says the student.

Posts on social media show a similar picture. “Too bad but postponed is not cancelled! Next year, we’ll be celebrating even more,” writes one Facebook user. Another user posts: “Next year will be even better.” Reactions like these make Piontek happy: “It is nice when our guests are understanding and trust us.”

The excitement for next year is great, but what happens to all the tickets that have already been sold? The German government has introduced a new voucher law, in order to reduce the negative consequences of the pandemic for the event industry. Organizers of music, cultural, sports or other leisure events can provide vouchers for corona-related cancellations instead of refunding customers.

“Therefore, we are in a quite secure position, as we sell tickets all year,” explains Piontek. Permanent Entertainment offers its customers the ability to exchange their tickets into new tickets for next year. For some tickets, there is a bonus. For example, all owners of a Saturday ticket get Friday for free or all those who have a Full Weekend pass get a VIP upgrade.

Even though the company is mostly covered by the voucher law, all employees are on reduced hours.

“We had a lot marketing work to do until now, but during the summer it will be way less,” says Piontek. In his opinion, this will not be the only change. “We assume that the market will change permanently. We consider it unrealistic to have such high visitor numbers as in the last few years.”

Especially with regards to advance ticket sales, he said that there will be some changes. “People will no longer buy their tickets that far in advance. We therefore see the next few years as a rebuilding effort.”

The corona crisis is hitting the service providers working at festivals like Echelon even harder. Matthias Hof is the general director of Tonwerk, a company that specializes in everything related to sound, image, lighting and stage technique. He also worked for Echelon for a number of years. The pandemic has had a major impact on his work.

“We’ve actually been unable to work since March,” explains the 49-year-old. “We can only do storage work, the permanent employees are on reduced hours.” Normally he and his team work at around 700 events a year, but now it’s only sporadic technical work. “We’ve had a 90 percent drops since March”, says Hof. He no longer hopes for an improvement of the situation this year. He is already preparing for next year, thinking about marketing strategies and advertising measures. He has applied for financial aid from the state, but the situation is still affecting his financial reserves.

“As always, it hits especially the little ones,” explains Piontek. However, good midrange DJs, who play around 100 gigs in the summer and get one to two thousand euros per show, are not heavily affected by the pandemic. “They built up so many savings that they probably don’t care. High salaries are paid and artists have no current business expenses besides the equipment. So, it really only affects the very, very small artists who live from hand to mouth and wait for the breakthrough,” says Piontek.

Up to 60 DJs perform at Echelon every year, satisfying festival visitors with their electronic beats. Last year the top acts were world-famous artists such as Adam Beyer, Amelie Lens and Stephan Bodzin. But a festival isn’t only about the music. At Echelon there are also various stands selling clothes, jewelry or other festival essentials. In the food corner you can also find all kinds of treats like pizza, burgers or Asian noodles. Kathrin Konrad and her ex-husband, Claus, would have been at Echelon this year with their stand. Since 2014, they have been supplying customers with sweet things like crepes, waffles and churros, as well as hearty things like steak rolls or Schupfnudeln, a type of thick noodles found in southern German and Austrian cuisine.

The outbreak of the coronavirus and the resulting cancellations of events hit the Konrads pretty hard. “The flair is missing – talking to people and having fun,” explains Kathrin Konrad. But the situation is not easy financially either. They have started to renovate their stands and equipped them with new dishwashers and worktops. “We have started to invest, we have to finish this, but of course it hurts now.”

Besides being self-employed, they both work full-time. She works at a driving school and he is a professional soldier. Konrad appreciates their financial security: “Otherwise we could not survive. No chance.”

Some lose more, others less. The corona crisis has changed summer and society, and thus also the festival scene. All those involved have a lot in common, whether organizers, artists, technicians, stand operators or visitors. They all suffer, they all hope and they all look forward to next year. It will also be a completely different summer, with festivals where freedom has a whole new meaning.