Magna Charta Special Issue Leadoff: A Year In, A Way Out
– Something’s missing: Nürburgring in Germany,
legendary race and festival site, in 2020 (left) and 2019 (right), when CTS Eventim’s Rock am Ring went down last. A decision on the 2021 edition is expected soon.
March 2021 marks the saddest anniversary this industry has ever faced: one year of lockdown. Most people might say that it’s not really an anniversary, seeing that lockdowns around the world have been on and off, tightened then eased again, depending on the development of COVID numbers in any given territory. Anyone working in live, however, is unlikely to agree. For the professionals in this industry, the lockdown has been permanent.
“First to close, last to open.” It’s a situation many live pros have been navigating as gracefully as possible. Those with sufficient funds have been focused on saving costs and keeping on staff, which will be crucial once public gatherings are green lighted again. The independent players, grassroots venue operators, sole traders, self employed crew and security, suppliers – in short: the backbone of this business – have been struggling. Many have left the industry to find work, and there’s a fear that, once live is allowed to return at full capacity, it will be a slow start for the lack of available professionals.
The live entertainment industry, for the most part, has been doing everything it can to keep spirits high, enable people to physically meet and experience culture, and show the decision makers how events can be executed safely even under these unprecedented circumstances. A study conducted in Spain showed that no infections could be traced back to a live concert where all audience members had been previously tested, Dec. 12.
All 1,047 participants underwent same-day entry screening with a negative antigen test and then separated into two groups: one went inside the venue and one control group did not. All of them got tested again after eight days. The remarkable result: none of the 463 participants in the active group were infected with SARS-CoV-2, whilst in the control branch, two of 496 participants were infected. Scientists in Germany conducted a scientific experiment at the Quarterback Immobilien Arena in Leipzig, Aug. 22, in order to gather data on crowd management that could provide useful for live event professionals. The movements and behavior of 1,500 participants were analyzed as was the air flow inside the building. The scientists concluded that, with the right measures in place in addition to good ventilation technology, events could take place even in a pandemic situation.
A third example came from Switzerland, where Gadget abc Entertainment Group worked alongside Chili Productions to realize a series of six concerts by Swiss icons Patent Ochsner at Blausee in the Kander Valley: 1,000 people came each night, hosted across four different sectors, each with its own food and beverage offerings and toilets. Promoters left it up to the people to decide whether they wanted to wear a face covering, particularly when making their way into their food and beverage sectors. However, there was no obligation to wear it during the concert. No infections were traced back to the concerts, which ran between Sept. 8-14.
Semmel Concerts opened the scenic Waldbühne in Berlin for a concert series dubbed “Back To Live,” which ran from Sept. 3 through Oct. 2. The capacity had been reduced from 20,000 to 5,000, which was still enough to make for an almost normal concert experience. At least for the fans. For the promoter, Dieter Semmelmann, it was “a zero-sum game, only possible thanks to concessions and compromises made by our partners, suppliers and artists.” Again, not one infection was traced back to the Waldbühne concerts, and according to Semmelmann, “politicians have started acknowledging that they don’t regard events promoted by professionals as the real problem.”
This seems to be the conclusion decision makers in the U.S. reached as well, when they allowed 25,000 people into Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium for Super Bowl LV. Why is it then, that the live events sector is still facing the harshest restrictions? The UK prime minister Boris Johnson just announced a roadmap out of what has been the country’s third lockdown, starting March 8. It won’t be until phase-three of said roadmap, which will be implemented no earlier than May 17, that “performances and sporting events in indoor venues with a capacity of 1,000 people or half-full (whichever is lower), and in outdoor venues with a capacity of 4,000 people or half-full (whichever is a lower number),” will return. Nightclubs, which the UK government treats as a separate category, aren’t included in phase three. Large-scale outdoor gatherings for up to 10,000 people will only be allowed to go ahead if people can be seated.
About five minutes into his Feb. 22 speech, Johnson got to the point everybody working in this industry has been waiting for, when he said, “provided we continue to pass the four tests, then from the 21st of June, we will go to step four and say goodbye to most remaining restrictions, resuming large scale events like business conferences and football matches, lifting the limits on weddings, and reopening nightclubs.” By “four tests,” Johnson was referring to (1) the UK’s vaccine deployment program continuing successfully; (2) the evidence showing vaccines are sufficiently effective in reducing hospitalizations and deaths in those vaccinated; (3) infection rates do not risk a surge in hospitalizations which would put unsustainable pressure on the NHS; and (4) the government’s assessment of the risks is not fundamentally changed.
All working in this sector, of course, want audiences, staff, crew, artists and their teams to be safe and healthy, it’s been their main concern long before COVID hit. Many are running out of time though. Paul Reed, CEO of the UK’s Association of Independent Festivals, said, “we are rapidly approaching the decision cut off point for the vast majority of festivals at the end of March. If a complete picture is not given by this time, it will be too late for many to stage events later in the year.” He added, “Festival organizers only want to return when it is safe to do so but, if the easing of restrictions does lose momentum and events are suddenly cancelled as a result, it is vital that our sector receives swift and targeted government support to compensate. In addition, government intervention on insurance and VAT remain critical.”
Promoters across the European continent have been emphasizing for months how a government-backed insurance program would ease the predicament they’re in. If governments took over the costs incurring in case events have to be cancelled for no fault of their own, promoters would still be able to plan, put down guarantees for artists and sell tickets confidently. However, there are only a few countries in Europe providing such a scheme, including the Netherlands, Austria as well as some cantons in Switzerland. The different approaches to battling the crisis across Europe, have caused festival association Yourope to pen an open letter demanding two things from the continent’s decision makers: clear guidelines and reopening timeframes to allow for reliable planning, as well as a financial bailout to secure the future of the culturally very relevant live events sector.
The world’s biggest promoter Live Nation is “working with trade bodies and local governments in every market, ensuring the needs of our industry are understood for the smoothest reopening possible across the EU and UK,” John Reid, president of Live Nation Europe-Concerts, told Pollstar. “We are closely involved with test events in ten of the European markets, including Spain with Primavera. So yes, a combination of results from these test events coupled with vaccine rollout and a huge industry effort to return to live does give me hope for events this summer,” he said.
Reid explained, “reopening will be a process, not the flip of a switch, but we’re seeing some positive developments with everything from vaccine distribution to increased testing capabilities. Alongside that it’s important to have national and local governments engaging with us to help create consistent guidelines that allow reopening safely at full capacity. We will work on a market-by-market basis to open curated and appropriate events to fulfil what we know is unbelievable fan demand to get out there later this summer.”
And he mentioned something many in leadership positions have praised in the past months: the resilience and creativity of their staff. Reid said he was “constantly amazed at the resilience and creativity of the LN teams around Europe and their focus on getting us back to work this year. They are more dedicated than ever to deliver incredible shows to make up for lost time. This year has brought out the very best in our people and I’m extremely proud of them.”