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Electric Picnic refusal suggests live events sector missed reopening window

Sector faces more misery as schools likely to take priority before winter comes

The business reopening carousel was supposed to keep turning. First up was the construction sector in April. Then it spun round to retail in May, outdoor hospitality in June and indoor hospitality in July. This month and next was supposed to be the turn of the live entertainment sector – gigs, festivals and events.

But as this week's impasse over Electric Picnic shows, the carousel is stuck and nobody has a plan for what comes next. It may be difficult to get it turning again before winter sets in and health fears take up the attention of policymakers.

The entire live entertainment sector has had a “closed” sign in its window for more than 500 days. There seems to be a real risk that it could face a couple of hundred more. How could any commercial entity be expected to arise profitably or sustainably from such a long slumber?

The reopening of the hospitality and tourism sectors sucked up a lot of the oxygen recently in public debate. But few are gasping for breath quite like the commercial live events sector. Along with nightclubs, it has been truly decimated by the nature of the pandemic and, arguably, the level of caution inherent in the Government’s response in recent months. It has also suffered from a chronic lack of official planning.


Like tourism and hospitality, the live entertainment industry a bit of an image problem among policymakers, regulators and sections of the media. Very often it is not viewed as a proper industry at all. Not like, say, technology or manufacturing or agriculture. Live entertainment is mostly seen as just a bit of fun. It’s just the craic. And if that is how it is viewed, that is how it will be planned for and officially treated.

35,000 people employed

But the commercial live entertainment industry employed about 35,000 people before the pandemic arrived. According to a report published by the sector’s main players, it was worth about €3.5 billion to the Irish economy. Its output doesn’t just go to artists. It goes to producers and stage managers, riggers and sound technicians, security staff and service providers such as food trucks, portable toilet providers and fence erectors. There was a vibrant commercial ecosystem around the live events sector and now it is in grave danger. Operators are losing skilled staff to the UK or other industries, while debts are mounting.

This week, Laois County Council bowed to the inevitable and refused permission for Festival Republic’s Electric Picnic this year in Stradbally. Its organisers had hoped to attract 70,000 fully-vaccinated revellers, many of whom would be camping over the weekend. The council said no on safety grounds.

What else was it supposed to do in the absence of any operating guidelines for large-scale outdoor events from the Government and health authorities? Laois councillors and their executive, feeling the heat from understandably worried locals, were left to make the decision alone when national policymakers should have effectively made it for them, one way or the other.

From one vantage point, Electric Picnic always looked like a long shot this year, even though the organisers were already selling tickets to the public. It took a near rebellion from the hospitality sector and weeks of wall-to-wall media coverage to get the Government to acquiesce to allowing vaccinated people to eat their dinner indoors. Allowing 70,000 young people to converge on a Laois estate for a weekend-long party at the end of September was never going to be a slam dunk. Not in the context of the the Delta wave.

But if not now, when? More than 75 per cent of the adult population is vaccinated. By the end of September, basically anybody from teenagers and above who wants a vaccine will get one. Electric Picnic was to have been an event open only to fully-vaccinated attendees, conducted entirely outdoors. That is not a guarantee of safety. But if the current context – a near fully-vaccinated population – is not safe enough to hold an outdoors music festival (while 40,000 people traipse to Croke Park for the All-Ireland final) then what is?

The sector desperately needs a roadmap and guidelines. The hospitality sector was allowed to reopen this summer only under guidelines produced by the industry in conjunction with State agencies. Operators screamed for them and said they couldn’t function without them. The live entertainment sector has been asking since last summer for its set of guidelines, but so far it has yielded very little. This week, industry operators have asked again.

Paying the price

As well as a lack of operating guidelines, the live entertainment sector also has no real timeline from the Government for when the industry can get back on its feet. Perhaps this is because the Government doesn’t really know the answer, which is a reasonable stance. But why, then, did the Government award grants to the sector (including about €423,000 to the organiser of Electric Picnic) for events that had to be put on before the end of September? The majority of those grants will never be drawn down.

The sector is also paying the price of the Government’s tardiness in setting up a vaccine pass system. Planning for it should have started in earnest in spring but, in the end, it was only cobbled together in early July because of the Delta variant. If the system had been designed earlier, its utility for other sectors beyond hospitality could have been fine-tuned and readied for implementation.

The real problem for the live events sector is that, in reality, it is not next in line for the reopening carousel anymore. Schools and colleges have skipped ahead of it to the front of the queue for September. The Government might find it hard to explain to the public why it was prioritising the reopening of gigs and festivals at a time when parents were worried about getting kids back into education.

Through no fault of its own, the live entertainment industry appears to have missed its launch window and, with autumn and winter coming over the hill, it could be deep into next year before the sector sees anything close to a sustainable reopening.

The Government may have to put much of the industry on to a form of corporate welfare for another eight or nine months until it can get back on its feet. That seems like a lose-lose situation for everybody.