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Plotting the path back: Live music tests its mettle

Event organisers around the world are using test events to prove that live entertainment can reopen safely

By IQ on 29 Apr 2021

Love of Lesbian perform in a pilot concert at Palau St Jordi in March

image © Xavier Mercadé

Historically, the live music business has relied on an army of creative minds to deliver once-in a-lifetime experiences for fans, but as the industry slowly starts to emerge from an enforced shutdown, professionals are turning to the scientific community to help kick-start live events.

Statisticians and epidemiologists have been key players in government policy to put a lid on the spread of Covid-19, and with international studies proving that various vaccines are even more effective than originally thought, the events industry is hoping scientists can help map out the best way to reintroduce live entertainment to society.

In the UK, such high-profile occasions as the Brit Awards on 11 May and the FA Cup Final on 15 May are being run as test events to showcase various Covid-safe systems, procedures and products that will help pave the way to arenas and stadia reopening – and that’s in addition to dedicated pilot shows such as this weekend’s 5,000-cap. Blossoms show in Liverpool, organised by Festival Republic. Across the North Sea in the Netherlands, meanwhile, a series of test events are being run by Fieldlab Events, a government-backed initiative that has represented the events sector during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Elsewhere, test events have been held recently in Barcelona and Berlin; programmes are being discussed in the likes of Denmark and Greece (where a collaboration of rap acts are working on a solution); and in Germany, a group of scientists, health experts and doctors have created a set of guidelines to enable the gradual return of audiences to cultural and sporting events.

Reigniting confidence
Biosecurity Systems uses robotic cleaners and other integrated technology and services to diminish the risk of Covid-19 and other epidemic infections in tourism destinations, public buildings (such as airports) and sporting events.

Company CEO Dr Paul Twomey says the test events that the industry is relying on to plot its return to action need to deliver results that convince scientists and politicians, but crucially the proof will also be vital to restore confidence among consumers. “One of the bosses of a major arena operation told me that they were not in the business of trying to convince the kids; they are in the business of trying to convince the parents of those kids that it will be safe when their children come back home to see grandma after a show,” he notes.

Indeed, the Biosecurity Systems founder notes that being able to list a series of precautionary measures could also be crucial in persuading artists to return to live work – especially those from North America. “The Americans are a lot more risk conscious and litigious, so acts based in the states are going to be cautious not only for themselves but because they live in a different liability environment, they’re going to want to know that people have taken all the steps that they can to minimise any prospect of negligence claims,” notes Twomey. “Due diligence is going to be important.”

“Arenas are in the business of trying to convince the parents of kids that it will be safe when their children come back home to see grandma after a show”

Test event programmes
When the coronavirus first started shutting down events last March, most people in the industry (if they are honest) thought the ‘pause’ would last a matter of weeks. When it became apparent that was not the case, promoters and venue operators in a number of nations were granted permission to run test events to prove that live entertainment could still continue, despite the virus.

As successful as those initial tests were, the fact that strict social distancing had to be implemented meant that venue capacities were slashed, making shows financially unviable. However, thanks to the thousands of scientists around the world who have been studying the virus, the test events that are being held in 2021 are benefitting from a whole host of new technology and protocol that is geared toward showing that the live entertainment industry can reopen its doors with minimal risk of Covid-19 transmission.

Individual companies have been formulating their own plans to mitigate Covid transmission – for example, ASM Global’s VenueShield is being rolled out across the group’s 325 venues worldwide in an effort to provide “the highest levels of safety, security and consumer confidence, in alignment with approvals from local government officials and health care experts.”

In Israel, where the majority of the population has now had both Covid-19 vaccinations, a new passport or ‘green pass’ has been introduced by the ministry of health that has to be shown before fans are admitted to concerts and other gatherings, although such events are still subject to capacity limits. The certificate, which can also be presented virtually on a mobile device, confirms the holder has received two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which has been preferred by the Israeli government.

On 5 March, local star Ivri Lider performed to an audience of 500 fans at the 30,000-capacity Bloomfield Stadium in a concert that was organised by the Tel Aviv-Yafo Municipality, which governs the city. Although those fans were not socially distanced, they were all seated and were required to wear face masks.

Thanks to the success of that pilot, up to 1,000 people were soon allowed into indoor events in the country, and 1,500 for open-air shows, provided all attendees have a green pass. However, those capacity limits came with caveats as they only applied to venues that normally can seat more than 10,000 people. For smaller venues, a capacity of 500 still exists for indoors, while smaller outdoor spaces are limited to 750 fans.

The green pass programme has quickly been adopted nationwide, with Israeli restaurants, hotels, cafés, gyms and shops allowed to reopen without social distancing restrictions provided patrons can prove they have had both doses of the vaccine, and seated venues are now able to welcome up to 4,000 people for indoor shows.

The green pass programme has quickly been adopted nationwide, with Israeli restaurants, hotels, cafés, gyms and shops allowed to reopen without social distancing

In the UK, all hoped are currently pinned to the results of the forthcoming Events Research Programme (ERP), which will examine scientific findings from a dozen pilot events over the coming weeks in order to gauge the viability of large-scale events without having to impose social distancing on audiences.

Depending on the results of the ERP, the UK may see a return to full-capacity concerts, shows, sports, festivals and other events as early as June, with the UK prime minister’s roadmap to recovery naming 21 June as the date when all restrictions on indoor gatherings are set to be lifted. Before that (from 17 May), outdoor gatherings will be permitted with audiences of up to 10,000 people, under that roadmap strategy.

“These test events will be crucial in finding ways to get fans and audiences back in safely without social distancing,” stated Dowden. “We will be guided by the science and medical experts, but will work flat out to make that happen. We want to get the people back to enjoying what they love and ensure some of our most important growth industries get back on their feet.”

Experts in the Netherlands have been running a testing regime called Back to Live for a number of weeks. Dutch tests have used Amsterdam’s Ziggo Dome (17,000-cap.) , where 1,300 participants were given access to a dance event featuring a number of DJs, and a similar number enjoyed a concert by André Hazes. Those events, organised by Mojo and ID&T, ran from 3pm till 7pm in order to comply with the nationwide curfew (9pm to 4.30am), which had been in place since January.

The promoters of the Ziggo Dome shows report that 100,000 people applied for tickets, providing further evidence of public support for the industry’s revival. Those who were successful were required to produce proof of a negative Covid-19 test within 48 hours of doors opening. Those applicants who received a positive test, which amounted to 12 people, were not admitted. Those who did attend were asked to take another test five days after the shows, while the Back to Live guidelines ensured that the movements of event participants were tracked and traced.

The Dutch testing scheme has been heralded as one of the most comprehensive yet. Attendees for the Ziggo Dome shows were divided into five ‘bubbles’ of 250 people, plus one of 50, each of which had to comply with different rules to test different spectator scenarios.

Additionally, one group was reportedly given a fluorescent drink and encouraged to sing along to the music, so that scientists could monitor the levels of saliva being spread.

“These test events will be crucial in finding ways to get fans and audiences back in safely”

Speaking to media, Tim Boersma, of Fieldlab, said, “We hope this can lead to a tailor-made reopening of venues. Measures are now generic, allowing for instance a maximum of 100 guests at any event if coronavirus infections drop to a certain level. We hope for more specific measures, such as allowing the Ziggo Dome to open at half its capacity.”

The Back to Live series has also included a simulated conference environment with 500 people and two music festivals on the site usually used by Lowlands Festival in Biddinghuizen, with future events including the Eurovision Song Contest in May. The behavioural data gathered at the pilot events will inform governmental decisions on the easing of restrictions in the Netherlands as the country plots its way out of lockdown, which has seen a ban on gatherings of more than 100 people for more than a year.

In Spain, a concert by chart-toppers Love of Lesbian on 27 March at the Palau Sant Jordi arena has been hailed as a success, with the non-socially distanced format presenting no increased risk to the 5,000 fans present, according to doctors.

Audience members were given three locations in Barcelona where they could take a rapid antigen test on the morning of the show. Test results were communicated in a matter of minutes via an app on their phones and only a handful of people tested positive, with those fans banned from the concert but refunded. The ticket price covered the cost of the Covid test, while attendees were also provided with a mask as part of the package.

At the Palau Sant Jordi, the show was delayed due to the strict health controls at the entrance, but with the audience all wearing masks, the event was heralded as a great success.

The planning for that show reportedly persuaded organisers of Barcelona festival Cruïlla to proceed with plans for its 8–10 July 2021 festival, despite fellow Parc del Fòrum festival Primavera Sound cancelling its 1012 June activities. The proposed Cruïlla is a step forward from last year when the festival pivoted to host a series of socially distanced concerts, Cruïlla XXS, in place of its usual 25,000-capacity gathering.

While shows in Israel have required proof of full vaccination, Cruïlla promoter Barcelona Events Musicals will allow vaccination proof as well as depending on a rapid testing programme to create a “sanitary bubble” of healthy festival- goers. The company is confident that that will deliver a full-capacity festival, with no social distancing restrictions for attendees who have bought tickets to see the likes of Two Door Cinema Club, Editors, Morcheeba, Of Monsters and Men, and local acts Kase.O, and Natos y Waor.

In nearby Canet del Mar, the annual Canet Rock extravaganza on 3 July is planning wide-ranging measures including rapid tests, mandatory masks, a trace-and-track app, and a scheme to enlarge the festival site to provide extra space for its 50,000 visitors.

“We hope this can lead to a tailor-made reopening of venues”

Despite calling time for the second year in a row, Primavera Sound Festival has been at the forefront of activities to try to reopen the events sector in Spain. In addition to a series of 70 small gigs last summer, Primavera partnered with Hospital Germans Trias i Pujol and the Fight AIDS Foundation to conduct a test event in Barcelona’s Apolo venue last October. The show saw 1,000 fans trial a situation that coupled temperature testing with a rapid testing scheme, before watching the concert wearing face masks.

That pilot show was considered a success as the venue introduced additional ventilation and the study concluded that people should be able to begin attending live events again, as long as similar measures were followed. For 2021, the Primavera team is organising a second round of shows in late April, where over the course of a week the likes of Swedish singer-songwriter José González, Seville collective Califato ¾ and Derby Motoreta’s Burrito Kachimba will entertain fans at Barcelona’s Coliseum Theatre.

In Denmark, the live music industry’s ‘restart team’ has submitted a catalogue of recommendations on the reopening of the cultural and sports sectors to the ministry of culture for government approval. The ten-person team – which includes Esben Marcher (Dansk Live), Signe Lopdrup (Roskilde Festival Group) and Sara Indrio (Danish Artist Association) from the music sector – has met with more than 80 key stakeholders across the two sectors to determine how the government should allocate its DKK 50million (€7m) fund.

Among its recommendations are:

  • Form an advisory expert group composed of members of the culture and sports sectors, which will maintain dialogue between the sector, authorities and the government, and assist in the preparation of a fact-based long-term opening plan
  • Launch a nationwide campaign, immediately after reopening the entire cultural and sports sectors, to celebrate the restart. The team has recommended that the government arranges a nationwide festival, and sets aside DKK 2m (€0.3m), for this purpose
  • Back the implementation of SAFE (Sars-CoV-2 antigen testing of fans before events in Denmark), which is a large-scale study of Covid-19 antigen testing of the public prior to matches in the 3F Superliga. The estimated cost is DKK 5m (€0.7m)
  • Create an ‘innovation laboratory’, bolstered by DKK 6m (€0.8m), which will develop new digital formats, technologies and initiatives for parts of each sector that have difficulty reopening – principally crowd management solutions for live music events
  • Collect data to understand citizens’ concerns, considerations and motivations in relation to cultural and sports life in the wake of Covid-19 and make the information publicly available so the sectors can make informed choices of how to restart. DKK 500,000 (€67,000) has been suggested for this recommendation
  • Set aside DKK 36.5m (€4.5m) for the development and testing of new formats for culture and sports, which will enable a safe return.

The team has also made a number of recommendations that require a longer-term effort and/or funding that is outside the allocated DKK 50m. As a result, various schemes, such as compensation funding and a government-backed insurance guarantee, were tabled, as was the suggestion of ongoing compensation for those who have to wait longer to open.

Dansk Live’s Marcher says: “We have gone for broad, embracing proposals that can benefit all actors, which, of course, means that recommendations are not necessarily directly aimed at live organisers. However, I think it is positive that the SAFE project on quick tests is included in recommendations, just as it is positive that there is a focus on pushing for innovation in culture and sports.”

Roskilde’s Lopdrup, who is deputy chairman of the restart team, says: “Our recommendations certainly do not solve all the challenges, but I hope they can help inspire and open up new opportunities for the players and thus pave the way for the reopening of cultural and sports life, so we can meet about the community-creating experiences again.”

Earlier this week, the group said it now looks unlikely there will be major music festivals in Denmark this summer, as the “work [was] started too late”, although it is hoped there will still be at least one test event sometime this year.

“If you say to consumers that there’s going to be a bit more expense as we try to sort things out, I think consumers will live with that”

Next steps
All who rely on the live entertainment business for their livelihoods will be anxiously awaiting the results of those test show schemes to gauge when they might conceivably get back to work. For its part, and despite zero revenue streams, the industry at large has been investing significant time and money into creating protocols that will allow doors to reopen, to meet the huge demand for entertainment that has been underlined by the frenzy for festival tickets apparent in the UK.

And those protocols could be a vital part of the business into 2022 and beyond, according to Twomey of Biosecurity Systems. “The population might slowly be beginning to understand that the vaccine does not solve Covid,” he says. “It certainly diminishes it, and the death rates and hospitalisation numbers will ease, but the disease problem is not going to go away and the variety of issues around that are going to continue to exist. “The real question for the industry, particularly in Europe, is can they get to a position where they can show sufficiently diminished risk to the extent that public health authorities – and agents and artists – are willing to adopt that risk. If that’s the pertinent question, then I can see a tiered pathway forward.”

Twomey believes venues should be able to show that the risk profile of the people they are inviting into an event is well known and “less than the average risk elsewhere in the environment”. Using Israel’s green pass scheme as an example, he comments, “I can see the same thing happening in Europe built around showing similar types of passes or passports that show that the holder has been inoculated or has recently had a PCR test. The mix between those two is going to vary country by country.

“At ILMC, one of the things I was taken with was some of the festival people saying they would not consider vaccine passports because it was against their beliefs. Obviously, I’m not close to their business or the people that attend their events, but my immediate thought is that those events won’t be returning to business as quickly as those who do implement such guidelines. Put simply, if you’re not willing to make the effort to shift and know your risk, then that’s not going to solve any problems.”

Citing such measures as air purification, disinfection of surfaces, obligatory mask usage, and audience testing, screening and contact tracing, Twomey draws parallels with the anti-terrorism precautions introduced by airports in the aftermath of 9/11, where, ultimately, travellers bore the cost. “The difference between this and terrorism is that everybody now has changed their behaviour, whereas there was only a small percentage of the population who went through airports regularly,” he observes. “With Covid, everyone has been through it and everyone understands it. Therefore, if you say to consumers that there’s going to be a bit more expense as we try to sort things out, personally I think consumers will live with that.”

Twomey concludes, “It’s going to cost a bit more money but probably not as much as people think. But people are going to have to do something. If your model is I’m going to sit and wait, that’s fine, but plan for the second quarter of 2022… maybe.”

 


This feature has been edited since first appearing in the digital edition of IQ 97. Read the original piece below:


This article forms part of IQ’s Covid-19 resource centre – a knowledge hub of essential guidance and updating resources for uncertain times.

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