2021: The year live music returns?

Artists, fans and industry were silenced by Covid-19. Will the notes ring out in 2021?

Artistic bubble: The Flaming Lips perform on September 11th, 2020. Photograph: NBC/NBCU via Getty Images

Artistic bubble: The Flaming Lips perform on September 11th, 2020. Photograph: NBC/NBCU via Getty Images

 

The absence of live music has been an unmitigated disaster, both for music fans, and for the artists, promoters and crew whose livelihoods depend on a lively concert scene. The shutdown has hit the industry hard, and left many artists, already struggling to earn a living in an age of streaming and downloading, without their vital income from live performances.

Big-name acts have had to cancel world tours, but it’s the smaller, independent artists who are really feeling the pain, as they patiently ride out the pandemic, hoping that they can still afford to go out and tour as soon as they get the go-ahead.

When will that go-ahead be given? In the early months of the pandemic, promoters hastily adjusted their concert calendars as artists pushed their gigs back to 2021. Back then, there was still a sense that this would all have ended by autumn 2020 and the live gig scene would be back up and running before Christmas.

Now, in the first week of 2021, and though a mass vaccination programme is getting under way worldwide, there’s still little clarity on when it will be safe for people to gather together in large, sweaty crowds. It could take some time to get vaccines rolled out, and it could take even longer to get to the point where Covid-19 no longer poses a threat.

In the meantime, concert promoters are following a hope-for-the-best-but-prepare-for-the-worst scenario, rescheduling dates, then re-rescheduling them again as the pandemic keeps pushing everything back. The resulting backlog of postponed dates means the 2022 calendar is already filling up fast.

Play it safe

There’s a noticeable dearth of big international names on the spring 2021 calendar. Thanks to travel restrictions and the sheer expense of organising a world tour, big, globe-straddling acts are playing it safe and just sitting out the current tour cycle. For smaller, struggling artists, though, the loss of revenue from live ticket sales has been devastating, and they’ll be hoping they can get back on the live circuit sooner rather than later and start bringing in the shekels.

For promoters, the gig calendar for the coming year is already proving a logistical nightmare, as gigs rescheduled for early 2021 will almost certainly have to be moved yet again. All hopes are pinned on summer, with numerous big outdoor shows planned for June, July and August, including Westlife, Dermot Kennedy, The Killers, The Coronas, My Chemical Romance, Fontaines DC, Lewis Capaldi, Caribou and Damien Dempsey. And that’s not to mention the big summer festivals, some of which have been announced, with others still awaiting permission to land.

“Everything is still up in the air – the industry is shut down, effectively, and until the world is vaccinated, we can’t gather in crowds, and our business will remain shut until that point,” says Bren Berry of Aiken Promotions. “The simple thing is that our business relies on people being able to gather in crowds, and that’s not going to happen anytime soon, and it’s definitely not going to happen before next summer, in my opinion.”

Even if a vaccine begins to be rolled out in the next couple of months, don’t expect to suddenly be able to rock up to a venue waving your ticket. Many younger music fans may be thinking, “My granny’s got the vaccine, so I don’t care if I catch it – I just want to get out and see a band.”

Responsible performers

“There won’t be a gig to go to, because promoters aren’t going to risk it,” says Berry. Apart from the obvious insurance problems, “as a promoter you have a responsibility to everyone, from the audience to the staff to the artist. We’re still learning a huge amount about this virus, and my attitude would be not to rush into doing anything that may endanger your health. We are still looking at the long game here.”

Some artists have put on socially distanced shows, with limited capacity and strict health and safety protocols. British artist Sam Fender played a socially distanced outdoor show at a pop-up venue in Gosforth Park, Newcastle, last August. Audience members were corralled in small groups on separate raised metal platforms. And, in a unique experiment, US band The Flaming Lips performed a mini-concert with both band and audience members enclosed in their own inflatable “space bubbles”. The trial went so well that the band are now planning a full tour in January.

But practically, says Berry, promoters need capacity crowds standing shoulder to shoulder to make it viable to put on a gig, so expect socially distanced gigs to be the exception rather than the rule.

More artists are, however, taking a “behind closed doors” approach to live performance, playing in empty venues and streaming the shows to fans worldwide. Over the Christmas, with help from the Government’s live music grants, several venues, including Vicar Street and the Grand Social, staged a series of virtual gigs which were live-streamed by large numbers of fans. But the odd live-streamed gig, while welcome, is no substitute for a live venue that’s hopping seven days a week to keep staff and crew earning a living.

In October, Minister for Culture Catherine Martin announced a live performance support scheme, which provided €5 million funding to “assist commercial promoters and producers to employ artists, musicians, performers, technicians and other support staff in live performances, which may subsequently have to be curtailed, cancelled or postponed due to Covid-19”.

State funding

Aiken Promotions received €400,000 under this scheme but, says Berry, while gratefully received, that is only really a starting point. He welcomes the recent report by the newly formed Arts and Culture Recovery Taskforce, which acknowledges the catastrophic impact Covid-19 has had on the live music sector. The report’s recommendations encompass income, taxation and financial provision measures; education and training supports; mental health supports; and social protection measures. Launching the report on November 17th, Catherine Martin reiterated the budget pledge to provide €50 million in supports for the sector, to allow live music events go ahead in 2021.

Despite the uncertainty, some promoters are taking a punt and announcing festival programmes for summer 2021.
Despite the uncertainty, some promoters are taking a punt and announcing festival programmes for summer 2021.

“That’s going to be crucial to helping us get back up on our feet, because as an industry we’ve been completely wiped out,” says Berry. “That has given the industry a lot of hope as to how we move forward, because I think it’ll be a long time before we’re back to anything close to a normal concert environment, where people can stand shoulder to shoulder.”

Despite the uncertainty, some promoters are taking a punt and announcing festival programmes for summer 2021. Longitude, promoted by MCD, is set to go ahead at Marlay Park, Dublin, from July 2nd-4th, with a line-up that includes Kendrick Lamar, Tyler, the Creator and A$AP Rocky. And the POD-promoted All Together Now festival is ready to come together at Curraghmore Estate in Co Waterford between July 30th and August 1st, with Underworld announced as the first headliners. Punters can spread the cost of a ticket across five payments, and all tickets for the cancelled ATN 2020 festival will be valid for ATN 2021.

Gut-wrenching decisions

One festival that feels it has a better chance than most of going ahead is Kaleidoscope, Ireland’s only family-first music and arts festival, at Russborough House in Blessington, Co Wicklow, on June 25th-27th. After staging a successful inaugural event in 2019, which attracted about 15,000 people to the sprawling grounds of the historic house, having to cancel the 2020 festival was “gut-wrenching”, admits Brian McDermott of Event Fuel, who developed, designed and curated the inaugural event in 2019, in partnership with The Tenth Man and Festival Republic. “It was very difficult, particularly for the crew and the artists. It takes hundreds of people to stage an event like this, so there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. The effects of cancelling a show that big are far-reaching, so the sooner we get it back on the better.”

The festival starts the weekend most kids get their summer holidays, and McDermott is confident that, whatever the state of play with coronavirus, he and his crew will be able to keep their guests entertained in a safe environment over the weekend. “We’ll be watching very closely in terms of the virus and public health measures and vaccines, and we’re working with scientists in the UK and Germany, and taking best practice from New Zealand and the United States about how to create a safe show, even with the virus in the air. We have a lot of clever and well thought-out measures as to how we operate. And we believe that, one way or another, people are going to start getting back to normal in the new year, so we’re embracing what needs to be done, and working closely with health officials and throwing all our resources behind it to make sure the show goes ahead.”

Kaleidoscope is in a much better position for managing risk than many other festivals, says McDermott.

“First of all we have over 50sq m of space per person on our site. That’s an enormous amount of space for one person to avoid other people. Second, everything is outdoors, including the camping. And third, all of our attendees come as a family and a household. The very bedrock of the restrictions is keeping to your own household and not mixing with others. And we can facilitate that.”

Code of conduct

Kaleidoscope already uses radio frequency identification (RFID) wristbands, to minimise handling of tickets and cash, and measures to ensure families don’t have to queue up for food or facilities, and the organisers will be adding a raft of extra safety measures to ensure the 2021 festival is, well, safe as houses.

“We’re lucky in that we designed this festival to be a good environment for families. Largely because we want families to have the best experience.

Fans wait in socially distanced enclosures to see Sam Fender at the Virgin Money Unity Arena on August 13th, 2020, in Newcastle upon Tyne. Photograph: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images
Fans wait in socially distanced enclosures to see Sam Fender at the Virgin Money Unity Arena on August 13th, 2020, in Newcastle upon Tyne. Photograph: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

“And the families police themselves.We don’t need huge security. People behave themselves, they have their own code of conduct, they’re very courteous to each other, they get out of each other’s way, and don’t get in each other’s faces. We don’t have antisocial behaviour – there’s a real positive vibe running through the whole thing.”

If the worst-case scenario comes to pass and the festival is postponed again, McDermott plans to take it in his stride.

“The worst-case scenario for people is that you could die from Covid-19. So you have to put it into perspective. Our health is what’s most important. Festivals can be put on hold. But health measures can’t be put on hold.”

For many music fans, the one sure sign that coronavirus is on the wane will be the announcement of Electric Picnic at the end of the summer.

Earlier in December, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar expressed his hope that by next summer, “we will be back to a level of normality in terms of going on holidays, matches, events”. Speaking at a Zoom meeting of Laois Chamber of Commerce, the Fine Gael leader added: “Hopefully Electric Picnic will happen in 2021 and a lot of people will be making it to Stradbally.”

So far, though, nothing has been announced for Stradbally, says Lindsey Holmes, the publicist for Electric Picnic, but watch this large space – Electric Picnic usually announces its line-up in March.

Opening act

In the meantime, we may have to accept that the first half of 2021 is a write-off in terms of live gigs, but hope springs eternal that the second half of the year will see the music party to end all parties.

“Some people will be absolutely gumming to go out, but a lot of people have been hit in their pockets, and we are still to see the full economic impact of the pandemic,” warns Aiken’s Bren Berry. “That’s still playing out. The problem is when we come back, we’ll have massive amounts of gigs in the diary, Everybody’s tours have been postponed, so we’ll probably be putting on gigs seven nights a week. And the danger is that early in the week, Monday, Tuesday Wednesday, unless it’s a hot ticket, people may not want to go out.

“There could be an adjustment in ticket prices, that’s absolutely possible. The Minister has reduced VAT again, which was a help and will be a help. Insurance has become a problem, and that’s likely to escalate, and the whole health and safety aspect of how we run shows could change significantly.

“But I will say we are a highly skilled industry and used to working in controlled environments, so we will adapt very well. I think this is a brilliant industry which is unfortunately suffering terribly at the moment.”

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