Live and not dangerous: Ireland needs an ambitious plan to revive live music

Other countries have shown how a safety focus and innovation can get things moving

A concert in Prague, Czech Republic, earlier this month. Photograph: Martin Divisek/EPA

A concert in Prague, Czech Republic, earlier this month. Photograph: Martin Divisek/EPA

 

A vast number of people across Ireland have sorely missed the opportunity to experience live music in their local arts spaces since stages went dark 14 months ago.

From the perspective of Music Network, the national music touring and development organisation, news that a major announcement is expected from the Government at the end of this week regarding the reopening of arts venues is hugely welcome. The opportunity for musicians to return to our stages and for music lovers to collectively experience the thrill of live music performance again can’t come soon enough.

It’s our mission at Music Network to provide access to high quality live music for people throughout Ireland, and in a regular year we present 80-100 concerts with our partners around the country, which include arts venues, voluntary organisations, festivals and local authorities. Despite the varying restrictions in place since March 2020, we have succeeded in presenting a number of live events in safe and comfortable settings for audiences and musicians when circumstances allowed.

Last August, for example, Music Network and five partner promoters – Triskel Arts Centre, The Dock, The National Opera House, Ionad Cultúrtha and Glór – presented the concert series Music Network: Live & Local. People from Cork, Carrick-on-Shannon, Wexford, Baile Mhúirne, Ennis and farther afield jumped at the chance to come out and enjoy live performances of classical, jazz, traditional and folk music by some of Ireland’s finest musicians in these venues, and the series was a big success for all involved.

The high level of planning and preparation that went into these events to ensure the safety of all should be of comfort to everyone involved in, or benefiting from, the forthcoming reopening of venues. To say that the concerts were an emotional experience for Music Network, our partners, the musicians and audience alike would be to understate the visceral energy, the sense of connection and of belonging we all felt in each of those spaces that evening.

Of course, aside from events like these, we have not been entirely without live music of sorts since March 2020. The music sector, including Music Network, has been swift and innovative in translating concert offerings into digital formats. But while ‘digital’ has been a lifesaver in many ways, it is not the solution ultimately. If anything, it has thrown the irreplaceability of the live experience into starker relief. While it may be one way in which we continue to enjoy the arts in the future, and help to broaden access to them, it will work best as a complementary offering. 

UK experience

It’s been interesting to observe how other countries have approached the issue of a return to live events. Our closest neighbours in the UK have seen arts venues reopen from May 17th. The extensive health and safety measures in place include reduced capacity audiences and use of the National Health Service’s track and trace app with manual recording of contact details for those who don’t own smartphones. Farther afield in Vienna, large capacity venues such as The Wiener Staatsoper, home of its State Opera, have taken the further step of requiring proof of a negative Covid-19 test, recovery from Covid-19 or of vaccination. In New York, the Lincoln Center has been offering audiences an outdoor programme: Restart Stages comprises 10 outdoor performance and rehearsal spaces, “to help kick-start the performing arts sector and New York city’s revival”.

The reconfigured Lincoln Center in New York. Photograph: Sachyn Mital/ Lincoln Center
The reconfigured Lincoln Center in New York. Photograph: Sachyn Mital/ Lincoln Center

Whatever the approach Ireland takes, it needs to be as fast and as ambitious as possible. Most importantly, it needs to be inclusive, in line with both government and Arts Council strategy of working to ensure the arts are for everyone in Ireland, and towards this end, increasing public engagement with the arts. It’s worth noting in terms of smaller arts venues around the country that a 5 per cent capacity figure translates into five people in the audience in a 100-seater theatre.

Many of us have used the past year to rethink how we present live music, and have delivered concerts safely and effectively across Ireland. Behind the scenes, promoters have also been devising new ways to support the work of artists, and musicians have been developing exciting new work for future listeners. It’s time to capitalise on these efforts, to trust the sector to act responsibly in its approach to reopening and to be ambitious and innovative in restoring this vital aspect of Ireland’s cultural and social fabric.

Sharon Rollston is chief executive and artistic director of Music Network

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