How SSD Concerts Nailed Distanced Open-Air Shows (European Live Savers Issue)

– Steve Davis
UK promoter SSD Concerts made headlines this summer, when announcing a series of shows at what got dubbed “the UK’s first dedicated socially distanced music venue,” the Virgin Money Unity Arena: 500 viewing platforms, each offering space for up to five people, located at Gosforth Park in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. 
The field would hold 40,000 during normal times, so the audience was properly able to space out. There were food and drinks vendors accessible by one person per platform at any given time, as well as table service and the opportunity to pre-order drinks packages. 
“We first started working on the event in late March when we realized the severity of the situation for the industry and that normal gigs would not be returning. It made sense that there was a middle ground between normal shows and socially distanced performances,” SSD Concerts director and promoter Steve Davis told Pollstar, “We then went through a process with local authority and our production company Engine No.4 and started mapping out what would work within the guidelines at the time.” 
The vision really came to life when the team had the idea to create viewing platforms, a decision that was made “quite late in the planning process,” as Davis remembered.
Sam Fender is ready.
Thomas M Jackson/Redferns
– Sam Fender is ready.
The singer and songwriter performed the UK.

The first two concerts by Sam Fender took place on Aug. 11 and 13. They sold out within minutes. Speaking to Radio X before the gig, Fender said, “I’m proud that the Geordies are being the trailblazers on this one,” using the nickname for a person from the Tyneside area of North East England. 

“Hopefully we don’t make a mess of it. I want my job back, and I think all the musicians, all the bands want their job back.” When Davis approached him and asked if he wanted to do a gig, his answer was simply, “obviously, aye!”
The advantage of SSD Concerts’ concept compared to, say, a drive-in show is the atmosphere. It almost looked like a normal gig, guests were allowed to stand, dance and jump around on their platforms, not confined to a seat, let alone their car. 
“We were confident in the plan but all were amazed after the first show,” Davis recalled, explaining that what surprised him most was how compliant the audience was with all the guidelines in place. He said the bands’ reactions post show were overwhelmingly positive. “They have all absolutely loved it and most people’s reaction was they want to play again.” 
According to Davis, the Virgin Money Unity Arena model is economically viable only “over a long period of time,” but what was more important to him was “keeping the North East Music Community in work. We have a lot of staff to keep busy, so it was more of a necessity to keep everyone working.” Aside from entertaining more than 50,000 music and comedy fans throughout the summer, SSD Concerts employed a crew and staff of over 200.
The lineup at Virgin Money Unity Arena featured A-listers like Fender, Two Door Cinema Club, Van Morrisson, The Libertines and more, but also emerging artists including Heidi, Mosa Wild, Andrew Cushin, Beth Macari and Bare Roots. Sellouts included Sam Fender (Aug. 11-13), Patrick Topping (Aug. 21), The Libertines (Aug. 29), Van Morrison (Sept. 3), Maximo Park (Sept. 5), Ronan Keating (Sept. 11), Becky Hill  (Sept. 13), Joel Corry (Sept. 16) and Chase & Status (Sept. 17). Ticket prices ranged betwee £20 and £45.
Please take your platforms.
Ian Forsyth/Getty Images
– Please take your platforms.
Fans wait to see Sam Fender at the sold-out Virgin Money Unity Arena, Aug. 13, 2020 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England.

UK agent Jon Ollier told Pollstar that he had been in talks with Davis about a performance by Anne-Marie, one of the artists on his roster, which didn’t work out in the end due to Anne-Marie’s schedule. Ollier thought Davis and his team “really nailed it. It was just like being on your own VIP platform. You go to Ibiza, people pay good money to have their own platform at the front of the stage. From an audience experience perspective, I think they got it as close as you can possibly get it to the real thing, out of all the different options I’ve seen.”

He added, “The other thing I was really impressed with is that the guys who put it on just seemed to have such fantastic energy with it, and that came across. They probably felt inspired and empowered to be on some kind of crusade to make sure that people got some entertainment that summer.”
That summer that would have lasted even longer, had the UK government not introduced further restrictions on public life in late September, making it impossible for a large open-air gathering to comply. Thus, SSD had to cancel the last concerts, including Jack Savoretti, Kaiser Chiefs, and Declan McKenna. 
While Davis was obviously extremely disappointed at having to cancel the final shows, he can also look back on “what has been an incredible six week run of successfully socially-distanced concerts. We’re honored to have been able to provide a little happiness and joy to thousands of music and comedy fans throughout the region and the UK in what has been such a tough 2020 for everyone.”