Covid 19 and events

The future’s so bright…..

Events at the end of the pandemic

By mid-February I’d read so many contradictory reports and surveys about how to resume live events and concerts that I’d begun to doubt if we’d ever be able to open a venue again.

An example of the conflict is summed up in two German studies – one claimed that the transmission risk at indoor concerts was negligible, provided that good ventilation, social distancing and face masks were in use

At the same time the Germans were celebrating this ‘win’, another report suggested that the risk of aerosol spread was reckoned to be higher if you sing in certain languages, like, er, German.

Promoters and venues were already well aware that the risk factors are hugely dependent on a number of issues, from type of venue to genre/style of show. A seated, socially distanced performance in an airy, high-ceilinged hall would be entirely different to a standing gig in a sweaty basement. The trouble was that governments and licensing bodies were insistent upon treating everything the same.

So, whilst we could have some hope that cultural events were safer than schools there was little public clamour to test that proposition. Yet in the UK, after months of barely acknowledging that the sector exists, we were finally given a glimmer of hope and, astonishingly, actual dates. It looked like a plan, which was astounding for all those who had been asking for evidence of one since before Christmas.

Naturally the dates came with caveats, but they were enough for some festivals to go on-sale and sell out, almost before the PM had stopped speaking. The following week produced future amazement as industry experts like the Music Venue Trust  noted that the plan looked to be based on data rather than guesswork. The predicted roll out of the vaccine and continuing expected fall in infection rates make these dates likely to become a reality.

Whilst I see few people clamouring to hit the May deadline for restricted capacities, July and beyond look like reasonable expectations. The industry will have its own caveats of course, the most notable being insurance. Where EU governments and some others have stepped into the void where commercial firms fear not tread, UK authorities are more tight-lipped. Perhaps the upcoming budget will give us a better steer, but I fear the chancellor is keener to tighten the purse strings than keep the coffers open.

 

covid 19 and the music industry
Can live events resume in 2021?

Talent may be another thorny issue in 2021. The UK may relax but that possibility seems unlikely across Europe. If you’re an international artist and dependent on the economies of scale that multiple shows offer, flying in for one or two UK shows might not cut it. That’s if you’re even able to escape your own country’s restrictions.

On that basis the future looks more optimistic, as long as you like British artists. Frankly, since everyone seems to be straining at the leash to be released, this looks to be less of an issue than it normally would be. New UK acts may thrive on those festival slots that may previously not have been available and, as Brexit & Covid restrict their ambitions, popularity may well have to start at home. Bring it on.


World Tour Melbourne March 2020

Passport to Freedom

The road to recovery for live events

This is Christmas, what have you done?

For most of us in events and subsidiary industries, the answer for 2020 is likely ‘not enough’. Many of us started the year well before seeing all the work crumble and disappear in March.

 

World Tour Melbourne Stage
World Tour Melbourne, Albert Park

For my part I was in Melbourne working on the first event in a planned series of concerts following the F1 circus into different countries. It was ambitious but we’d negotiated with promoters, commercial partners and venues worldwide; everything looked great. We’d planned and designed our bespoke stage with environmentally friendly touring in mind, we even built it ready for event one – March 13 & 14, Albert Park. On Friday March 13th that was cancelled and, as we dismantled it, we assembled in production offices and bars and watched our summer shows tumble one by one.

Everyone has a similar story to tell. The great bonfire of the live events industry, spring and summer 2020. Many of us were optimistic that some of the later summer events might be rescued and that by the time of peak touring, Oct-Dec, we’d be back to normal.  It hasn’t happened and even the 2020 shows that were pushed into corresponding time slots for 2021 are looking dubious. Some of this may depend on your location but, from a UK perspective, there’s little cause for optimism.

 

Albert Park Melbourne World Tour
Stage construction with screens

Whether large-scale touring can resume, with giant productions being hauled across continents, seems doubtful. As I scribble these words many borders to the UK are closed and lorries litter the M20 and Kent countryside.  The solution that they’re suggesting for that problem is the only one likely to rescue the 2021 festival season: testing.

I originally wrote of this a few months ago, since when the UK Government has rolled out wider, general testing for cities such as Liverpool and schools in London. There remain some doubts about the reliability of the ‘quicker’, lateral flow or lamp tests but the standard PCR is highly regarded, and results can, in some cases, be produced in under 2 hours. A promoter’s willingness to hand over half his festival site to become a testing facility is unlikely but, given the pace of vaccine roll-out in the UK, there may be few other options to save 2021.

Whether the Govt will make generalised testing more available in the future months is open to question. There’s no doubt they’d have to sign off on any plans to resurrect live events and give substantial reassurance of no further instantaneous tier systems. One potential route is for Governments to provide ‘insurance’ to promoters as none will be available/affordable commercially. Testing and vaccination go hand in hand towards greater immunity and a combination is essential for us to be able to move forward.

There’s been a lot of kick-back against a ‘Covid passport’ for some justifiable civil liberty issues, but whatever name it goes under there seems little chance that artists, crew or audience will be allowed to stage or attend large capacity events without a recent clear test or proof of vaccination. The sooner we start to plan for this eventuality the better state we’ll be in. The campaign to save 2021’s concerts has started, who’s listening?

 

Footnote.

This is always going to be a rapidly evolving scenario. The US view has them banking on mass vaccination and a return to live by September:

The vaccination prospect seems optimistic and September feels like a very long way away. Also, how will you know who’s had it?

The Guardian reported of the slow pace of British vaccination which, at current rate, would take about 5 years to cover the country.

We should have additional reservations over how similar industries have been treated. The travel industry lobbied for testing and clearance to travel for months with apparent apathy from the Government. Then the policy was dumped on them with very little notice or detail on execution.


Testing Times

Covid 19 and the live events industry

In the popular events industry, we’ve rarely benefitted from Government intervention; we prefer to advise them than the other way around. We get on with things ourselves and work with local licensing bodies and authorities for the best outcomes. Governments just get in the way, with their infinite bureaucracy and leaden-footed methodology. Those in concert and event production are proudly autonomous but that same independence is punishing many of us who have slipped through the treasury’s ‘safety net’.  The question is not whether we trust the authorities to get things sorted quickly enough (we don’t), rather is there something we can do to speed up the process?

How to re-start concerts and events

Next year the most important pass you’ll get won’t be the ‘crew’ laminate or ‘AAA’, it’ll be your Covid passport, the certification that you’re coronavirus free. It will inevitably come to this, those who are allowed to work & travel and those who are not. You may legitimately argue that if you’re allowed on a flying tube of metal with as little vigilance as a simple temperature check then we should be able to do the same with mass gatherings. Sadly, it’s unlikely to be that simple and we all know that socially distanced shows aren’t going to work - not only do the numbers not add up but you’re still at the mercy of locally enforced lockdowns as experienced by SSD and their socially distanced arena. No one can or will insure you against those risks which means that the solution is testing. All event attendees are going to have to arrive pre-tested and clear, with evidence to prove it – or you’ll have to provide testing on site.

Photo of people partying at a festival
photo by Adam Whitlock from Unsplash

Right now this sounds daft.  Government is struggling to get results for people within 48 hours, lab capacity is non-existent, but we are not Government and our industry is too important for us to wait around for them to get their act together. If nothing else, we’ll need to have next year’s festival shows on-sale in the next two to three months and we’ll need a way to reassure ticket buyers that the shows will go on.

In 2020 we won’t just be in the business of shows, we will also be in the testing business.

Testing, testing…..Lamp Testing?

It’s no secret that the UK Government has failed to make test and trace work. We can do better. We already create mini cities with their own eco systems to stage big shows. In 2021 this will become greatly expanded to give more space to testing. Naturally the process will have to give instantaneous results, but we are very nearly there. I was alerted by friends in the movie industry to the possibility of a Covid test result within 30 minutes.

It hasn’t been widely reported but the methods  and the costs seem promising. Perhaps at scale it’ll become even cheaper and faster, more efficient. Of course, we’ll need people to take and process the tests, but those services are being discussed, it’s a conversation we can already have – drop us an email when you’re ready.

Perhaps the only realistic way of starting events again is to put the onus on the attendee. Either they turn up with a clear Covid result or evidence of immunity and failing that they have to pay for a test to ensure they can get in. Correctly communicated to meet statutory conditions or event safety restrictions it should overcome any significant issues. We should not underestimate people’s desire to resume normality and start having fun – the quantity of ‘pop-up raves’ proves that.

Just as there are no omelettes made without broken eggs and no festivals staged without sore heads, there are significant logistical challenges, but it has to be better than another year without gigs and festivals. With our industry on its knees, that is just unthinkable.

 

Note (Oct 2020): The Events Industry Forum, Association for Independent Festivals and Association of Festival Organisers have published a draft document to assist festival promoters and organisers during the pandemic. It is sensible and comprehensive. They anticipate further updates as the situation evolves.

Boots (UK pharmacy) has also introduced a nasal swab test producing results in 12 minutes at a cost of £120. This is potentially a vital step forward for event organisers. The test uses technology developed by LumiraDx.

The UK Govt's 'moonshot' programme which is partly operational in Liverpool uses a version of the Lamp Testing referenced above.


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For the third year running we are delighted to be assisting Unique Lives & Entertainment in the promotion of Chris Hadfield's UK tour. The ever-popular astronaut will be appearing in Southampton, Manchester, Glasgow and Belfast next February. Full info is here.

Chris Hadfield at Symphony Hall
Howard Szigeti, Unique Lives; Paul Flower, Profound Media; Chris Hadfield; Chris Proctor, Symphony Hall

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