No Picnic for the live events sector as it vies for Government help

The industry worth €3.5bn to the economy employs 35,000, and most are now idle

Electric Picnic was due to take place this weekend. Judging by the forecast, they might even have got the weather for it. But in a world laid low by coronavirus, there is little sunshine now for live events such as music festivals. There are only clouds and no sense of when the pall might lift.

The long-running Laois festival was to have expanded this year to 70,000 fans. Many would have traipsed today to Stradbally with tents, wellingtons and a giddy determination to escape the mundane and breathe life. Electric Picnic may no longer be the boutique festival of its origins. But it remains a pilgrimage of sorts for many.

This year's line-up, unveiled the day before virus panic buying engulfed shops in March, was to have included Rage Against the Machine, Snow Patrol, The Chemical Brothers, Picture This, Lewis Capaldi and many others. Those are the artists. Behind successful art, there is always industry. The live events industry has been devastated by the restrictions brought in to tame the virus.

Each year, about 4,000 people work at Electric Picnic. Before the artists can take to the stage, somebody must build it. Live events such as music festivals would be silent without battalions of riggers, lighting and sound technicians, audiovisual crews and production personnel. The site would sink into the mud without workers to lay trackways and erect fences, install toilets, operate food outlets, and provide security. Then there are the promoters, the event managers, the marketers.

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The industry, which estimates it is worth up to €3.5 billion to the economy, employs close to 35,000 and most are now idle. Many in the sector who spoke to The Irish Times this week feel abandoned by Government. Taxpayer funding for the arts, which is traditionally reliant on the State purse, has been juiced up beyond €100 million with about €25 million in Covid funding.

But the largely commercial live events sector, which includes indoor music venues and various festivals, has been pencilled in for barely any help – just €5 million was promised to help de-risk the staging of events that won’t happen anyway under current health guidelines, which limit indoor gigs to six and outdoors to 15.

Many in the industry are asking: how can a concert viably go ahead with 15 people? And why is somewhere like the 13,000 capacity 3Arena limited to just half a dozen? It appears to make scant sense to those whose livelihoods have been upended by the restrictions.

"What the Government seems to be saying to us is: would you mind quietly going out business? Would you mind quietly going bankrupt?" says Shane Dunne, a music promoter and production manager who sits on the steering group of Epic (Event Production Industry Covid-19 Working Group), a pressure group set up recently to seek State help to save an industry with no business model for the foreseeable future.

Dunne owns the Indiependence music festival in Mitchelstown in Cork and also manages events for MCD, including gigs at St Anne's Park in Dublin and at Irish Independent Park in Cork. He also used to manage production for the band, the Coronas, whose name unwittingly captures the current zeitgeist.

“The Government thinks that by funding the arts sector, they’re funding live events. But there were 4.8 million tickets sold for live events last year and the funded arts only sold 10 per cent of them. The commercial sector sold the rest. We’re not looking to open back up straight away. But if the Government is going to kill us off, they should at least offer some support first.”

Outdoor events

While indoor live events take place year round, the outdoor side of the industry is largely seasonal from March to October, and kicks off around St Patrick's Day. The production manager for the main St Patrick's Day parade in Dublin is industry veteran Tony Killeen, who is also site manager for gigs such as those at Slane Castle and Croke Park, as well as event controller for many outdoor music festivals.

“My venue is normally a field or a stadium. I build the site – the stages, toilets, concessions. I’d be across all of it. I’m at this since I was 18 or 19. I’m 42 years in the game, but I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Killeen. “I stopped working in March and that’s the way it has been since.”

He feels a “sense of abandonment” by Government, which he believes is overly focused on helping the funded arts at the expense of commercial events. His major concern is that skilled technical workers, such as riggers, who may feel they have no immediate future, will move to other industries.

“Expertise will be lost. The riggers won’t be back – they’ll join the construction industry. You used to have to go to the UK for everything when you were putting on a show years ago, but now it is all here. I fear those skills will be gone and it will take 10 or 15 years to get them back.”

Killeen acknowledges that all sectors of the economy want State help, but he insists that live events need it more than most. The worry takes its toll.

“It plays on your mental health. You have bad days. I’m passionate about the industry and I want to stay in it. I might have to look at moving on. But I don’t want to just peter out without a fight. At the moment, I’m still up for the fight.”

The live events industry is diverse, but its operators are united by the blow they received. For David Mongey, of Kildare-based family business Mongey Communications, it could have been even worse. The company's services include the rental of huge screens for concerts, as well as CCTV and walkie talkies. In February, just before the pandemic, he backtracked on a plan to invest €1.5 million in new equipment, such as screens and communications infrastructure.

“I was either clever or lucky enough to say no,” says Mongey, who is also chairman of Punchestown racecourse. “For example, we were going to go from about 3,500 to 5,500 walkie talkies to become the biggest supplier in the UK and Ireland. But we pulled the capex (capital expenditure) plan in time.”

Mongey says the many SMEs that supply equipment have invested heavily in their stock, now lying useless in warehouses. At an Oireachtas Covid committee hearing in June, where he appeared alongside industry representatives including Dunne, he estimated that about €20 million worth owned by smaller players was idle. With banks about to end virus moratoriums on loans, he worries that many companies’ finance will be called in.

“The Government has to intervene with the banks on funded equipment. We’ve never shouted and roared before, but this is an industry worth preserving. I believe the industry will come back. There is a future. It is a good industry and it is important that the Government supports it.”

Revamp

Venues are also suffering. Ger Kiely, owner of the Cyprus Avenue gighouse in Cork, invested about €4 million in a full revamp which was completed months before the pandemic. It hasn't opened its doors since March, and unless the Government changes its tune on allowing socially-distanced gigs, it won't host any events anytime soon.

“There would have been something on five nights a week here if it wasn’t for the restrictions. The leaked Government proposal this week for gigs without alcohol is not a good solution. People know how to act and how to behave. What we need is guidance on putting on socially distanced gigs.”

Kiely says that if he was allowed put on intimate gigs, he would be prepared to serve meals with the drinks and offer table service to small, seated groups, to assuage concerns about raucous punters shoulder to shoulder: “I think there’d be demand. But ticket prices would be dear. We wouldn’t be making any money but at least we would have something to do. We just don’t know where we stand at present. It is very frustrating.”

When Dunne and others from the industry presented their case for State support at the Oireachtas committee meeting in June, they hoped that they might be able to put on small gigs of perhaps just a couple of hundred later in the year. Little did they know that such onerous restrictions, announced in a haze of confusion last month, were coming.

The small amount of Government support offered to the sector, the €5 million that was originally announced as part of the July stimulus, is being repurposed to be announced once again as a “pilot scheme”. Dunne was working at a crowdless streamed benefit gig for industry workers in the Olympia theatre, Songs From an Empty Room, on the day the lowly sum was originally revealed.

“I’ve never seen a shadow fall over a room so fast. All the industry’s SMEs were there. When you see the funded arts sector get more than €100 million in supports, and they sell only 10 per cent of the tickets, and then you see that …”

Epic is part of a wider industry group, the Events Industry Alliance, which released a statement on Tuesday that was scathing of Minister for Arts Catherine Martin’s decision to meet the funded arts sector the day before, but not the events industry. The alliance expressed its “deep concern” over the “exclusion” of the commercial sector.

The previous day, The Irish Times had also sought an interview with Martin to allow her to respond to the sector’s criticisms of the Government, specifically its charge of abandonment while supporting funded arts such as theatres. Within an hour of the release of the alliance’s statement, the minister agreed to do the interview and also swiftly scheduled a Zoom meeting with the alliance for Wednesday.

Martin says she twice agreed to meet the sector last month, but claimed the industry's representatives had pulled out for scheduling reasons. Industry sources dispute this, but suggest she was at one stage supposed to meet MCD promoter Denis Desmond, who had to change his arrangements due to travel. Either way, Martin was keen this week to stress that she understands their concerns.

“I want to engage. I come from a music background. My goal is to get events going ahead,” she says. “There will be an industry taskforce and I will be inviting someone from live events onto it. They will have a voice there.”

Martin says she is known around the cabinet table for “constantly bringing up this issue”.

“I get it. It’s not just about performers. There are also the stage people, the lighting people. These are people’s jobs we are talking about. We need to look at the business perspective too. We need to work out how to make events happen. It is 35,000 jobs. We need to get this sector back.”

Dunne, who was on the alliance’s call with Martin on Wednesday, is glad for the Minister’s recent engagement, but wants more concrete help. Those in the commercial events industry have distilled the request for assistance down to three points. They want more equal representation on the arts taskforce, due to the commercial sector’s size. They also want State wage subsidies and employment supports continued at the €350 rate for workers in the sector.

Finally, they want direct grant aid to “scaffold” events by providing just enough financial support to keep them solvent until they can reopen, in effect keeping them on ice until they can again generate cash for the communities where they are held.

"When Barack Obama and the Pope came to visit Ireland, the Government came to our industry to run it for them," says Dunne. "The live events sector is also joy and happiness for many people. We were the first to close and we'll be the last to open. We need that to be recognised, and to be helped."