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“Just incredible”: Inside the O2’s emotional first shows back

The team behind Gorillaz’ two shows at London’s O2 Arena earlier this week have spoken of their joy in being involved in the UK’s first full-capacity arena concerts in 17 long months.

The Damon Albarn-led virtual band made their return to the O2, the world’s busiest music venue, on 10–11 August, playing a free show for National Health Service (NHS) workers on Tuesday and then a sold-out ticketed event for the general public the following night. Stuart Galbraith, CEO of the shows’ promoter, Kilimanjaro Live – who says he last saw a concert in May 2020 – tells IQ of his excitement at seeing “17,000 people all in one place, having world-class entertainment and just having fun. And [the first night] in particular, it’s brilliant that we could say ‘thank you’ in this way and give these heroes a night of free entertainment.”

Featuring special guests including Shaun Ryder, Little Simz, Leee John, Robert Smith and New Order’s Peter Hook, the shows marked both the return of full-capacity arena entertainment to the UK and Gorillaz to the stage, the O2 dates being the band’s first live performances since October 2018.

“The atmosphere was… I really can’t describe it. It was just incredible,” says Emma Bownes, vice-president of venue programming for the O2’s operator, AEG Europe, for whom the Gorillaz’ shows marked the first arena concerts at the venue since Halsey played on 8 March 2020.

“We’d been talking internally about how great it would be if we could have a really special first show back,” she continues, recalling the genesis of the free gig for healthcare staff, “and then Stuart from Kili got in touch, as he’d been talking to Ian [Huffam at X-ray Touring, Gorillaz’ agent] and also the band about this NHS show, so that was really fortuitous. He said, ‘We want to do this’, and we told him on the venue side we were also trying to think about how amazing it would be to have a special first show back, so it worked really well.”

“It’s brilliant we could say ‘thank you’ and give these heroes a night of free entertainment”

Bownes explains that the venue used a now-familiar system of Covid-status certification to keep concertgoers safe, with entry restricted to those who could prove they are fully vaccinated against Covid-19, have natural antibodies against the disease, or had returned a negative lateral-flow test in the previous 36 hours. Due to a combination of effective communications ahead of the event, she says, and growing awareness among fans of the need to keep shows provable free of coronavirus as they return, a huge 95% of the 17,000 people who attended the second Gorillaz show had their NHS (National Health Service) Covid Pass ready at the gates – despite it being, in many cases, the first live event they had attended in nearly two years.

“What we spent a lot of time doing in the run-up to the show was trying to make sure that everybody knew what to expect before they arrived,” Bownes says. “For the ticketed show, only 5% of people weren’t quite set up, so the comms worked. Even among those 5%, she adds, “none of them required a test – some, for example, had already taken the it but they hadn’t uploaded the result to the NHS yet – and none of them were turned away.”

Helping with the speedy ingress was the fact that people turned up earlier than for a ‘normal’ gig, continues Bownes. “Because we did all these comms in advance, it wasn’t like it normally is, where you get a massive rush 45 minutes before the band goes on,” she says. “People turned up in good time and had factored into their journeys that we needed plenty of time to check their Covid Passes.”

Covid-status certification like that used at the Gorillaz shows is a “good thing to educate the audience on”, particularly as it could become mandatory for live events in the UK later this year, Galbraith says. “I think it’s a good thing to do it now and get people used to it,” he comments. “In the way that you’re going to use exactly the same system for travel, I think it will become the norm for many things in society for the next few months, and possibly a couple of years. And I don’t think it’s that big of an imposition to be able to just prove to your fellow customers that you’re safe – and that therefore enables us to say to the customers, ‘Come to the show with certainty that everyone around you is virus-free. That also adds to that overall customer confidence, which in itself will add to our ticket sales.”

“I think the vast majority of people are quite happy to do it and show that responsibility to their fellow members of the public,” he continues. “And we’re running similar protocols backstage as well: The ability to get a pass to work in the backstage area is contingent on providing your Covid certification in exactly the way that getting a ticket is in the front of house.”

“I will never take it for granted, being at a gig, again. Everybody says it, but I genuinely mean it”

With a busy diary of upcoming shows – Galbraith notes that ticket sales are picking up across the board, particularly among rock acts and those popular with younger audiences, with acts as diverse as Sabaton, Andrea Bocelli and film composer Hans Zimmer selling particularly well – the Kilimanjaro Live chief says he’s looking forward to getting back to doing what he loves after nearly 18 months of “politicking and lobbying” with LIVE (Live music Industry Venues and Entertainment) to help the UK business survive the coronavirus crisis. And while he’s under no illusion that the industry body will have plenty to deal with over the next few years, particularly the challenges posed by Brexit and the environmental impact of touring, “it’s going to be brilliant to get back to what we should have been doing”, he says.

“It’s been such a weird time because we’ve just been rescheduling constantly. We’ve rescheduled over 200 gigs, and we’ve had to cancel 55, and whereas normally we’d be doing all this work and have all these gigs – actually have something to show for it – the past 18 months have just been reschedule, reschedule, reschedule countless times,” adds Bownes. “So to have the show actually happen was amazing.”

“The bit that did it for me,” she continues, “was walking around the back of the stage to go and see Stuart and Ian. The O2 probably does 200 gigs a year so it was something that you used to do so often, but it was like you’d forgotten that you used to do it – just walking behind the stage on the way to see the promoter and the agent, and hearing the crowd… It was amazing. It was just great.

“I will never take it for granted, being at a gig, again. Everybody says it, but I genuinely mean it. You know what the industry is like: People don’t always go to gigs, or they’ll maybe see a few songs and go home, but I do feel like that will change.”

Another free show for NHS workers headlined by Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher will take place at the O2 next Tuesday (17 August).

 


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