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The perfect storm: Inside the UK’s only live shows

Selling over 72,000 tickets for a concert series that began when live shows in the UK were – strictly speaking – not allowed, is no small undertaking. But then neither is building a new outdoor arena for shows at a time when strict social distancing rules are in place.

All the things that could have gone wrong would’ve gone wrong on the opening weekend but they didn’t,” says Jim Gee, a director at Manchester-based production company, Engine No.4.

Gee and his team have spent the last few months working tirelessly on the launch of the UK’s only major summer concert series of 2020 at the country’s first socially distanced arena in Newcastle. And it’s a remarkable story in a time of lockdowns, postponements and cancellation.

The Virgin Money Unity Arena is set to host 29 events in 26 days, featuring artists including Supergrass, The Libertines and Maximo Park.

Sam Fender opened the series on 11 August with a sold-out show, which Gee deems were an enormous success despite the high stakes. We went from never having done this kind of event before, straight to a full-capacity for the first show but it opened with a bang,” he says.

“We went from never having done this kind of event before, straight to a full-capacity for the first show”

The 2,500-capacity shows are the vision of SSD Concerts boss Steve Davis, with whom Engine No.4 worked on Newcastle-based festival This Is Tomorrow.

Having one pandemic project under their belt already – the UK’s first socially distanced dining concept, Platform 15, at Escape to Freight Island at Depot Mayfield, Manchester – Engine No.4 was the ideal choice for Davis and SSD, and the team set to work on finding the perfect site for the concert series they’d dreamt up.

We looked at various places around Newcastle and the Racecourse ticked all the boxes. We needed a big car park capacity, a big arena capacity and a big capacity in between those sites for walking and socially distanced queueing,” explains Gee.

The site features 500 viewing platforms each accommodating up to five people. Attendees were given 20-minute slots in which to arrive, though Gee says that was the only aspect that didn’t quite go to plan on the first night.

Avoiding queues was one of the key factors in the event running smoothly, along with space and sanitation

“The thing that slightly caught us off guard was how quickly people arrived. They were raring to get in ahead of their segmented times so we ended up having slightly longer queues getting into the event than anticipated, but we tweaked that after the first night,” he says.

Avoiding queues was one of the key factors in the event running smoothly, along with space and sanitation, says Gee. And the rest is “purely common sense and over-speccing things”.

“Over-speccing things” meant equipping the arena with 150 hand sanitizer stations; eight food operators; more bar frontage; and approximately four times more toilets than an event of that size would usually require.

But of course, over-estimating facilities is just one of the factors driving up costs for an event like this. “Holding an event for 2,500 with facilities that could normally take 35-40,000 people clearly isn’t a brilliant financial model,” he laughs.

Gee notes that for events like these, commercial support from sponsors like Virgin Money is crucial. He also says that although the financial model of socially-distanced events like this one isn’t sustainable, it is a step closer towards a viable model.

“There was a lot of stakeholders working together in the perfect storm”

“I think you can mitigate those costs in some way with the length of the run,” he says. “What we’ve done here is a bit like the venue model. If you can create a temporary venue and put enough shows into that venue then at some point you might start to break even and maybe make a bit of money but to try and do this for a weekend or a festival or a week doesn’t make sense,” he adds.

The desired time frame was another crucial consideration when choosing the site, says Gee, but the Racecourse was able to provide the licences and planning permission required for the event.

However, the success of the event wasn’t just down to right place, right time. “There was a lot of stakeholders working together in the perfect storm,” says Gee, crediting the enthusiasm of Newcastle City Council, the emergency services, Virgin Money and the artists who have to “buy into the concept”.

According to Gee, the series has been such a success so far, Newcastle City Council has been approached by a number of other local authorities asking for pointers. On top of that, the Department for Culture, Media and Sports and Public Health England has accepted an invitation to view the systems in place.

“A lot of hoops have had to be jumped through to make this work and it isn’t particularly economically sustainable but what we’ve managed to create could be used as a model going forwards,” says Gee.


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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Boost for Manchester nightlife as new venue opens

A brand-new, socially distanced outdoor events space is preparing to open in Manchester city centre this weekend, as news comes that two of the city’s music venues – Gorilla and Deaf Institute – have been saved from closure.

Escape to Freight Island, the brainchild of veteran Manchester DJs Luke Cowdrey and Justin Crawford (The Unabombers), together with Gareth Cooper of Festival No.6/Broadwick Live, Jon Drape of Engine No.4 and venue operator Dan Morris, is a large, socially distanced food and entertainment complex launching at Broadwick’s 10,000-capacity Depot Mayfield site this weekend.

The space can hold up to 600 people while complying with social distancing rules, with plans to bring the capacity up to 2,500 once measures relax. Platform 15 is the first part of the complex to open, with the full launch to follow.

DJ Colleen ‘Cosmo’ Murphy will perform at Platform 15 on its opening night on Friday (24 July), with Mr Scruff, Mikey D.O.N. and Jamie Groovement playing the following evening. Norman Jay MBE and Mass will close out Escape to Freight Island’s inaugural weekend on Sunday.

Other acts scheduled to play at Platform 15 include Gilles Peterson, Erol Alkan and Greg Wilson, with events organised in conjunction with Manchester Pride, Festival No.6 and We Out Here Festival, and venue Band on the Wall, among others.

The space is all seated, with all food and drink ordered via an app and QR system. Fans must book in advance, with groups of up to 12 permitted. A staggered arrival system, managed queuing and toilet areas and extra hygiene precautions all form part of the complex’s social and safe manifesto.

“Platform 15 will give a flavour of what is to come when we launch the full Escape to Freight Island experience, so let’s all meet at Platform 15 to begin our escape to freedom,” comments Cowdrey.

“Let’s all meet at Platform 15 to begin our escape to freedom”

The opening of the new venue comes as many around the UK, and the world, struggle under the financial pressures of Covid-19.

Manchester venues Gorilla (600-cap.) and Deaf Institute (260-cap.) last week announced they were closing their doors permanently due to the pandemic. However, it emerged yesterday (22 June) that the venues have now been acquired by venue group Tokyo Industries (TI).

TI founder Aaron Mellor says the group has been working together with promoter SSD Concerts – which is launching the UK’s first socially distanced arena next month – and the Charlatans frontman Tim Burgess, to come up with ways “to help save both venues and their existing operating style in a post-Covid world.”

“So, looks like the story is out Deaf Institute and Gorilla have been saved and will be kept as live music venues as we know and love them,” writes Burgess in a Twitter post.

“I’ve been talking with the new owners over the weekend and we’ll be doing all we can to help with the next chapter.”

Manchester night-time economy advisor and Parklife founder Sacha Lord thanked mayor Andy Burnham for “helping to raise the profile” of the two venues’ plight.

“Great news…all done within four working days. Jobs saved and two of the city centres best live music venues kept alive,” tweeted Lord.

Bookings for Escape to Freight Island can be made here.


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Events 4 Covid 19: UK co’s unite for local community

Events 4 Covid 19, a new network of event organisers and suppliers in the north-west of England, are pooling their resources to assist with requests from hospitals, local government, charities and other organisations who need support to fight the coronavirus.

The group includes suppliers that have access to generators, furniture, comms equipment, tents and marquees, outdoor and indoor audio equipment, outdoor and indoor lighting, vehicles, staging equipment, medical and ambulances, heating equipment, venue dressing and many other items.

Companies signed up so far include promoter From the Fields (Kendal Calling, Bluedot), Jon Drape’s Engine No 4, the Warehouse Project, Manchester International Festival, the Green Events Company and Mustard Media, among others.

The group can also provide services including security, medical, AV engineers, traffic management, project management, networks of freelancers, transportation and volunteer management.

Less than a week after its inception, Events 4 Covid 19 has already joined forces with a number of organisations, charities, initiatives and local government groups in Greater Manchester to support the fast-growing demand for equipment and services.

“This a great example of the events industry coming together in a moment of crisis to assist the organisations most in need”

The Warehouse Project’s Sacha Lord, who is also Manchester’s night-time economy adviser, says: “I’m backing this new initiative which is a great example of the events industry coming together in a moment of crisis to assist the organisations most in need.”

Organisations can submit requests for resources here, while rvent suppliers can submit a request to join the network here.

Events 4 Covid 19 was initiated last week by Nelson Beaumont-Laurencia of CityCo and Robert Masterson of Mustard Media, after being inspired by their colleagues in Portugual.

The group is looking for colleagues who are able to replicate the scheme in other areas of the UK. If you can help, please contact [email protected].


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Cover Story: the cost of event cancellations

From Kanye West to Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Cardi B and a host of festivals, the tail end of the 2010s has seen no shortage of big-name cancellations and postponements – with illness, civil disorder and, especially, severe weather all doing their part to torpedo major live music events in recent years.

All touring productions are team efforts, and when it becomes clear a show won’t go ahead, the first person to receive a call is a stakeholder that’s otherwise largely forgotten about, jokes insurance broker Steven Howell: “When something goes wrong, we suddenly become the most influential and important people in the chain – but before that we’re just another P&L.”

It is, of course, yet another spiralling cost on a tour’s balance sheet. But with artist fees and production values trending ever upwards, and inclement weather conditions apparently becoming more common, insuring against a tour or show’s cancellation can be worth every penny.

Howell, of Media Insurance Brokers (MIB), which has offices in London, Glasgow, Dublin and Los Angeles, says that while he doesn’t necessarily see an increase in the number of cancellations, the size of claims is rising (in tandem with rising performance fees and production costs).

“Every year we have lots of claims – there’ve always been cancelled shows – but the claims we’ve had [in 2019] are bigger than before,” he explains. “You’re also getting bigger production going into festivals as they try and differentiate themselves from each other, but it’s mainly because artist fees are higher.

“When something goes wrong, we suddenly become the most influential and important people in the chain”

“The value of claims is getting bigger year on year. And that’s not just by 5%, 10%, even 20% – recently we’ve seen some artists who were earning hundreds or low thousands [of dollars] per show, and they’re now earning hundreds of thousands. Then at the top end, you’ve obviously got the people who earn two or three million a show.”

The result is, of course, higher premiums, with experts telling IQ that premiums have increased, on average, 20-30% in the past year alone. And there are indications cancellation insurance could cost even more in the next 12 months.

“This year has seen an increase in cancellations compared to previous years on both sides of the Atlantic,” says Tim Thornhill of international insurance brokerage Integro (which is set to rebrand as Tysers in 2020 after a recent acquisition). “The US has been hit by strong winds, storms and fires, and when these happen during a tour – particularly a big one – or any mass-participation events, it will have a big bearing on the level of claims that insurers are liable to pay out.”

“There have been an awful lot of large claims, which has had a big impact on the insurance market,” agrees Miller’s Martin Goebbels, speaking to IQ from London (the company also has offices in Paris, Brussels, Singapore, and Ipswich, UK). “Whether the number of claims as a percentage has increased I don’t know, but certainly on the weather side they are growing.”

The impact of this cluster of large pay-outs, says Goebbels, is that premiums have increased recently, and several large insurers have pulled out of offering cancellation insurance altogether.

“This year has seen an increase in cancellations compared to previous years on both sides of the Atlantic”

Hard Time
This, explains Integro’s Tim Rudland, is “what’s called a ‘hardening market,’ where insurers have increased their premiums due to a number of losses in the contingency market.” (Examples of ‘contingency’ insurance products include policies covering event cancellation, non-appearance, terrorism and prize indemnity.)

“Some insurers have reduced the amount they are able to write, and some have stopped writing this type of business altogether,” Rudland continues, “which means that the size of the market is shrinking.”

According to Howden’s Robert Barron, formerly vice-president of accident, health, sports and contingency at US insurance brokerage giant Lockton, in 2018 loss ratios incurred by non-appearances reached the highest level since records began in 1999.

“As a result of such losses, there has been a scaling back in lines, and three market exits since last summer [2017],” he wrote last year. “Barbican and Travelers both exited the standalone contingency business for 2017, while ProSight Specialty Insurance, which wrote contingency as part of its media and entertainment book, placed its Lloyd’s operation into orderly run-off last June.”

“In the past 12 months, there have been five or six decent-sized insurers that have pulled out of event-cancellation insurance altogether,” adds Goebbels, who notes that there have been a number of high-profile, non-music cancellation claims in that period, too, including severe weather-hit rugby and cricket fixtures. “All those claims go into the same book of business,” he explains, “so insurers have a much wider view of the risks.”

“There’s a larger pool of artists who could cause an issue for insurers”

The same is true in continental Europe, says Matthias Grischke, the founder of Novitas based in Ahrensburg near Hamburg. “Some major companies, like Swiss Re, have left the market, and a number of mergers have also reduced the total number of insurers,” Grischke explains, although he notes, “we aren’t really feeling a lack of capacity yet.”

This, in turn, he says, drives up prices. “The insurers have united a lot more,” Goebbels says. “They have their associations and they get together and they say we can’t sustain this – we either cut each other’s throats or we close ranks to make sure we maintain a market standard.”

Other factors can also push up premiums – although, contrary to popular opinion, Goebbels says he isn’t seeing a disproportionate amount of cancellations by artists of a particular genre (urban acts are often described anecdotally as being especially cancel-happy), suggesting insurers are rather “keeping a watching brief in a lot of areas. Something like when Krept was stabbed, for example [the rapper, one half of Krept and Konan, was attacked backstage at BBC Radio 1Xtra Live in Birmingham in October], they’ll be keeping an eye on – but it hasn’t yet had any impact.”

If anything, he adds, of more interest to insurers is the increasing average age of performers: “There’s a larger pool of artists who could cause an issue for insurers,” Goebbels explains. “Paul McCartney is 78, Patti Smith is 74… the implications [of artists getting older] is much, much higher premiums.”


Continue reading this feature in the digital edition of IQ 87 2019, or subscribe to the magazine here

Ground Control’s Jon Drape launches Engine No. 4

Event production veteran Jon Drape has launched Engine No.4, a new production company headquartered in Manchester, UK, as he retires the Ground Control brand.

The new company counts Parklife, Snowbombing Austria, Bluedot, Kendal Calling, Lost Village, Depot at Mayfield and the Warehouse Project among its clients.

Drape, former MD of Ground Control Productions, director at Broadwick Live and founder of Festival Safe, forms part of a core team of equal partners with Tommy Sheals-Barrett (Back On Your Heads Ltd), Jim Gee (N4 Productions) and Will McHugh (CC Events).

The decision to create Engine No.4 follows the withdrawal of Broadwick Live and Ground Control parent company, Global, from the festival space earlier this year.

“It was the ideal time for a rethink – it’s not just a rebadged version of Ground Control,” comments Drape. “We came to realise that a more streamlined business was the only sustainable option.

“With a desire to focus on quality events and festivals, I thought the best move forwards would be to form a new partnership of four equal shareholders and directors together, covering all elements of the industry and able to deliver more bespoke and considered solutions.”

“It was the ideal time for a rethink – it’s not just a rebadged version of Ground Control”

With over 30 years’ experience in the live industry, Drape managed production at legendary Manchester venue the Hacienda, later founding Ground Control in 2013. Drape is a patron for music charity Attitude is Everything and drug safety testing group the Loop.

Sheals-Barrett takes on the role of head of technical production, with 25 years’ experience managing production for Festival No. 6, Bluedot and Parklife.

Kendal Calling and Parklife operations director McHugh will handle the sponsorship side of the business, building on existing relationships with clients such as EE, Lynx, Nintendo and Carling.

Gee, whose recent projects include reopening Manchester’s 10,000-capacity Depot at Mayfield, will serve as the director and head of site management.

“We’re immensely proud of what we have achieved so far at the Depot,” says Gee. “Our remit was to transition the Warehouse Project from Store Street without losing the spirit and the vibe in a much larger venue. Somewhat of a challenge but something we have delivered.”

Operating from September 2019, Engine No.4 has new projects lined up to add to its existing client base.

International event production professionals will be gathering at the ILMC Production Meeting (IPM) on Tuesday 3 March at the Royal Garden Hotel in London.


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