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Lights, camera, action: UK suppliers on the reopening

Do you remember at which point the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic first hit home? For some, it was when they suspended all flights to mainland China. Or when the UK government admitted that we faced a “substantial period of disruption… due to the outbreak.”

For others it was the realisation that, after the announcement on 9 March of a strict nationwide quarantine in Italy, lockdowns were coming to us all. For those whose livelihoods were invested in the music industry, watching all of this unfold prompted an increasing feeling of dread.

For Yvonne Donnelly Smith, music lighting sales director of PRG – a global company operating audio, camera, lighting, and various other production services – that latter date was particularly significant.

“I got my first email from Bryan Adams’ team saying: ‘All shows cancelled due to Corona,” she says. “That was quickly followed by The Script, who cancelled because someone in the touring party had caught Covid. Then the domino effect really started to kick in.”

As she tells it, every day two or three more tours would cancel as the reality of the situation began to outweigh optimism that the whole thing would blow over quickly. And then the summer festivals started to fall – “which everyone was holding out hope for,” she says.

“We’d just loaded the trucks to head to site the next day when everything was cancelled”

It was a similar story with John Henry’s, a multi-disciplinary company in the live sector offering audio, backline, and staging services, who had just sent out audio and backline equipment for multiple US country artists touring Europe and heading towards the C2C Festival at London’s O2 Arena.

“We’d just loaded the trucks to head to site the next day when everything was cancelled,” says Johnny Henry, company director. “We then had to negotiate the return of equipment from all around the country to get it back before we had to close the doors and send staff home. It was a devastating moment for everyone.”

Christie Lites, a global stage lighting vendor covering live music, theatre, TV, corporate, and special events, and employing over 400 employees around the world, were ramping up into what business development executive Jessica Allan describes as “a very, very busy year.” It all came to a sudden, complete halt.

“The realisation that pretty much everything was coming back in kit-wise – including shows that had been out for five years or more – and the logistics of what that involved was definitely one of the ‘Oh shit!’ moments,” she adds.

Everyone IQ spoke to for this feature talks of the initial shock and disbelief, and how thoughts turned extremely quickly from dealing with the mammoth task of returning equipment and personnel, to the question of “what happens now?”

“We all thought it was only a temporary blip, not an 18-month hiatus”

Bryan Grant of Britannia Row, a company that has been supplying audio systems and crews since 1975 and is now part of the Clair Global Group, was initially optimistic.

“The enormity of it didn’t really sink in for some time,” he explains. “We all thought it was only a temporary blip, not an 18-month hiatus.”

As such, hard work continued behind the scenes at all these companies, to ready themselves for whenever a re-opening – and large-scale music events – could once again take place.

Grant notes how crucial it was to keep key people in place and remain open for business, while Donnelly Smith says that “remaining flexible and resilient” kept PRG busy through the on-slaught.

John Adam’s famous old adage, that “Every problem is an opportunity in disguise,” was severely tested as companies struggled to make sense of what they were dealing with, and what the long-term future of touring and live might look like.

John Henry’s began working with an AV company, PIXL, to convert their studios into a live-streaming and broadcast hub

Tentative suggestions that late summer 2020 could see some events return, were nixed by the looming threat of the second wave, and with further lockdowns throughout winter and the early part of 2021 – not to mention the Delta variant – the prognosis looked gloomy.

Nevertheless, the pause became a chance to take stock, to develop their offerings, and branch out into new tech or events.

Britannia Row, through the Clair Global Group, developed the Virtual Live Audio system, a high-quality, low-latency streaming platform that allows presenters and performers in the broadcast and corporate sectors to interact in real-time with their audiences, while PRG was also helping clients move into streaming, setting up studios and live spaces, and tailoring solutions to help events transition into the digital space.

They opened a rehearsal space, too, The Bridge, which allows clients to prepare for shows safely and securely.

John Henry’s began working with an AV company, PIXL, to convert their studios into a live-streaming and broadcast hub, and were actually able to service a number of recorded events that saw over a thousand people back through their doors.

“We took the opportunity to re-evaluate internal processes with our team behind the scenes”

For Christie Lites, planning and research never stopped, but they also – like the others – took a brief step back.

“We took the opportunity to re-evaluate internal processes with our team behind the scenes, making improvements in preparation for the return,” says Allan.

These ranged from technology tweaks through to broadening and building on sustainability programmes, as well as a number of ‘Crew Prep’ events to help crew and clients prepare for getting back to work.

With Britain having lifted restrictions on 19 July this year, many other countries following suit, and the continuing rise in the number of people double vaccinated, something approaching normality has begun to return.

Music’s live and touring sector has been scrabbling to respond, but with lead times normally measured in months, and many still wary of attending packed, sweaty arena shows and festivals, it’s been a stuttering reopening.

“Ramping up from essentially a standing start, combined with the uncertainty, was always going to be a challenge”

PRG just serviced Creamfields – as did Christie Lites – alongside Rewind, Wireless, and Isle of Wight, but really all eyes are on 2022, and a full-blown return.

“We’re optimistic,” says Britannia Row’s Bryan Grant. “We think there’s going to be huge demand,” adds PRG’s Yvonne Donnelly Smith.

Others are even more confident: 2022 is shaping up to be a “very mad year” says Christie Lites’ Allan, with two years’ worth of events squeezed into one system. But that pressure is already being keenly felt, and having some worrying knock-on effects.

“Ramping up from essentially a standing start, combined with the uncertainty still floating around, was always going to be a challenge,” says Allan.

“There is fear from vendors and freelancers that limits will be pushed both of budgets, timescale, and of people to meet demand. The other big issue is the lack of crew, as so many have had to get work elsewhere or have decided not to come back.”

“There is fear from vendors and freelancers that limits will be pushed both of budgets, timescale, and people to meet demand”

That’s a problem noted by Britannia Row director Bryan Grant as well; “that’s why we’ve kept up with our training programmes and have kept as many of our people employed as we possibly can,” he says.

Demand outstripping supply has had other consequences too. “Material shortages are already affecting manufacturers, so spares and some of the vital things that you need for touring and shows are in short supply already,” notes Johnny Henry. “There is no sign of that improving yet.”

There is also the issue of Covid bubbles being broken, and isolated infections bringing whole operations to yet another temporary halt.

“We’ve already recently seen shows and tours being pulled at the last minute because of positive Covid cases,” continues Henry.

“Everyone involved in productions is doing their best to avoid these situations, but it’s clearly very difficult no matter what precautions are being taken. I expect this to continue into 2022.”

“The fact that we can duplicate both equipment and people in many territories means less freight and air travel”

And that concern has led to yet another issue, particularly with regard to larger tours. “We’re starting to see some now pushed back into 2023 as artist management look at scheduling, and also the fact that so many artists and bands are potentially competing for venues and punters in 2022,” says Allan.

Making sure long-awaited live performances are delivered in the best possible way to fans is a key component for festival chiefs and touring acts when deciding on their 2022 and beyond plans. Innovation has seemingly blossomed during lockdown; so too gains in efficiency.

“We are constantly upgrading our systems to provide more efficient packages in terms of weight, size, and coverage,” says Grant. “For touring acts, the fact that we can duplicate both equipment and people in many territories means less freight and air travel, which saves money and the environment.”

That last part – sustainability – is becoming an ever more vital component of companies’ offerings, and something the music industry is keen to embrace. All of the companies IQ spoke to had placed it at the top of their agenda.

“There’s a high demand for LED products to take the lead on jobs, and PRG were doing this well before the pandemic,” says Donnelly Smith.

“Our warehouses use rainwater harvesting and solar panels where possible”

“Joining and working with TPG has been extremely influential for us in continuing this journey towards sustainability in our events – we’re taking an inside-out approach to solidify this culture change, offering sustainable kit to our customers and also making changes in-house, like switching energy suppliers and using sustainable materials.”

“We are constantly trying to learn about where we can improve on sustainability – it is something we are passionate about,” says Allan.

“We have a living sustainability programme, so our warehouses use rainwater harvesting and solar panels where possible, and we’re excited to be opening our most eco-friendly building to date in Nashville in September, which is built using a revolutionary decarbonised method of construction.

“On tour, our standardisation of flight cases helps reduce the truck pack and the fact that you can pull and drop a European leg from the UK and pick up again in North America without the need to fly or ship kit is a key reason why sustainability-conscious clients use us.”

Undoubtedly, the last 18 months have been a seismic shock, and recovery will depend on the ticket-buying public – as Grant notes, “Covid isn’t going away, so we are just going to have to adapt to the circumstances that confront us.”

“This past year has shown what we can achieve if we pull together”

But live events have proved resilient before, and are doing so again. The future will just be a little different.

“This past year has shown what we can achieve if we pull together,” says Allan. “Yes, a very difficult road lies ahead, but we have confidence that collectively the industry will find a way through and come out the other side.”

“I think what we’ve learnt over the last 18 months is that you can’t stand still,” adds Johnny Henry. “You have to use any spare time to continue to refine your trade, improve where you can, be more efficient, and get more out of your resources than you think possible. Your staff are your greatest asset, and while you’ve got to put faith in the future, don’t forget the past.”

Ultimately, the message is one of collaboration, and working together for greater success – and the greater good. “It’s an opportunity for all of us in the touring community, from artists, agents, promoters, and managers, to supply companies and all of those who work within these organisations to realise that we’re all on the same side,” says Grant.

“We all need to earn a living, and all need to respect what we all contribute to making this wonderful, mad machine work; let’s keep going.”

 


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