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Ally Pally: “The entire industry is learning”

While the majority of the UK’s stages have remained silent throughout the pandemic, the team at London’s Alexandra Palace (more commonly known as Ally Pally) have been on a pioneering streak to achieve the opposite.

Since opening in 1873, the Grade II listed venue has remained open even throughout the war and took only a brief period of respite when the pandemic took hold in March before launching back into activity.

During the pandemic, the venue has produced Nick Cave’s Idiot Prayer live stream; hosted the Melody VR-produced Wireless Connect, and began delivering a modest programme of events for autumn/winter – all the while, acting as a charity base for the local community in Harringey.

Dubbed ‘The People’s Palace,’ director of operations at the venue Simon Fell tells IQ how that title has governed the way the venue is going about things now.



 


IQ: What’s it like behind the scenes at Ally Pally at the moment?

SF: For me, things are really busy as we sadly have a much smaller team now and still have events and film shoots etc happening whilst navigating our way through new restrictions, as well as trying to plan our way out of this in 2021.

Has it been difficult to work out the logistics?

None of it is rocket science. All the information is there in the government guidelines. Sadly, people have been bamboozled by so much change in legislation. We’ve made practical decisions on what we need to do; we scaled down the numbers, put in one-way systems, encouraged longer interval times, established three different exits and increased cleaning regimes. It’s about being pragmatic about what we can achieve safely.

What are the logistical advantages of a venue like Ally Pally when it comes to restrictions?

And as soon as the pandemic hit, we needed a bit of time to get our heads around it and catch our breath. But very soon, we realised that one thing that we’ve got here is a huge amount of space. And that was the one thing that came out of all [the advice] – in space you’re safe. We followed the guidelines and in the hall, where we can usually fit 3,000 people, we’ve got a maximum of 700 so we’ve really scaled down the numbers but it’s a nice atmosphere – it works and we’ve only had positive comments.

“It’s about being pragmatic about what we can achieve safely”

What was it like having Nick Cave performing without an audience in the vast expanse of the West Hall?

It was brilliant and eerie. There was a video that came out of it of Nick walking through the building, this empty palace, and the team that had remained here during that time, looking after the space, really related to this person walking through an empty building before he started singing his atmospheric, solemn songs. Nick’s show captured a moment for us as a venue.

Is it financially viable to do small shows in such a huge venue?

It’s not financially viable at all. At the moment, we’re doing really small events that you would normally do in a 300-400 capacity venue. And that doesn’t substantiate when you’ve got many 200 acres of land and a building of this age that you need to upkeep.

What’s the value in doing events during the pandemic, if not for financial gain?

The little things don’t pay as much as the big shows, like exhibitions, concerts and festivals, but it’s important that we are doing them. They’re contributing to the palace more so than they would do if we’d have shut the doors. Also, it keeps morale in our industry alive and gives everyone hope. Every time you hear of a venue opening or doing something, there’s camaraderie and respect in the industry – even if previously they were your competitors. There’s nothing but positivity now.

“Every time you hear of a venue opening or doing something, there’s camaraderie and respect in the industry”

Ally Pally is somewhat of a bastion in the UK’s music scene. Is there a greater significance in keeping its doors open?

We are the people’s palace. We’re a huge part of the community here. We’ve been around since 1873 and never really closed at any point. We were open during the war and we’ve always had a place in society through the bad times and the good times. The venue is almost like the Sacré-Coeur of North London, sitting on top of the hill with its big aerial antenna, and I think when people look up and know that we’re open, it gives people hope. I think it’s as good for the local community, as it is for London as a music hub.

How will you utilise the knowledge you’ve accumulated from doing these events?

If DCMS turned around tomorrow and said: “Right what we need to do to open venues safely?” We can give them a case study and tell them what’s safe and what’s not. With the learnings we’ve made, we wouldn’t have to start from scratch. So we’re poised to open as soon as we safely can and we wouldn’t be making it up as we as we go along. The entire industry is learning.

“We’re poised to open as soon as we safely can and we wouldn’t be making it up as we as we go along”

What’s your approach for programming next year?

I think if there’s one thing that we feel a bit more confident with, it’s doing things outdoors. Outdoor events seem to be something that we’ve got a bit of control over ourselves. For 90-95% of indoor events we rent the space out to promoters but we do a lot of the outside stuff in-house, so we’re able to take that risk and make decisions ourselves rather than relying on someone else.

We work in the financial year so we’re looking at April, which is what the government has put down as their line in the sand. There’s nervousness but I’m sure a lot of people will want to start doing things again. On paper, everything’s looking positive. Going towards the end of next year, we’ve never had so many inquiries and bookings for concerts and music-related things.

 


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Immersive music startup MelodyVR acquires Napster

Live music virtual reality platform MelodyVR is acquiring Rhapsody International, which operates as music subscription service Napster.

The US$70 million acquisition will eventually combine Napster’s library of over 90 million audio tracks and Melody VR’s catalogue of virtual live music shows, to create a platform where users can stream music and experience immersive live performances.

“For music fans today, live and recorded music are intrinsically linked. We are as keen to see our favourite artists perform live as we are to listen to their albums,” says MelodyVR CEO Anthony Matchett.

“Our purchase of Napster, one of the music industry’s original disruptors, is born out of our wish to deliver the world’s foremost music experience, available seamlessly across audio and visual media and in turn presenting a truly next-generation music service.”

Napster CEO Bill Patrizio commented: “This is a tremendous outcome for two organizations with complementary platforms and loyal audiences, and we could not be more excited to be moving forward as one company.”

“Our wish is to deliver the world’s foremost music experience… a truly next-generation music service”

“The product, technology and cultural synergies of Napster and MelodyVR will bring tremendous innovation for music lovers, artists and the entire music industry. Good things come from being together, and we look forward to creating a powerful platform that combines our strengths and offers an even wider range of content to consumers, creators and advertisers.”

The UK-based MelodyVR broadcast its first live concert in virtual reality in 2018 with Liam Payne in London, after releasing its app – touted as the world’s first dedicated virtual reality (VR) music platform – in 2019, and subsequently partnering with O2 in the UK.

Since Covid-19 hit the industry, the company has delivered a digital edition of Wireless festival in London and live music VR series, Live from LA, which has featured artists including Cypress Hill, Kesha, John Legend and Tori Kelly.

The shows were available to watch in 360° for free via the MelodyVR app and VR headsets.

MelodyVR and Napster, which is currently 84% owned by RealNetworks, will operate independently for the foreseeable future.


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Melvin Benn: ‘I’m very optimistic about 2021’

Amid a challenging summer 2020, Festival Republic is feeling “incredibly optimistic” about next year’s European festival season, managing director Melvin Benn has said.

Speaking to IQ, Benn says Festival Republic (FR) – whose festival portfolio includes the UK’s Download, Wireless and Reading/Leeds Festivals, Germany’s Lollapalooza Berlin and the Republic of Ireland’s Electric Picnic – is working to the assumption that its open-air events will “be back in full force next summer”, most likely after the release of a vaccine against Covid-19.

With UK scientists now said to be 80% sure a vaccine will be ready by September, Benn (pictured) says festivalgoers being immunised against the coronavirus is currently FR’s “plan A” for 2021, with some sort of test-and-trace system also a possibility should the vaccine not be ready in time.

“I take great confidence in the fact that test and trace is a plan B for me,” he explains. “I don’t think we could have imagined the unity the scientific community has showed in working together to find a vaccine against this disease.”

Underscoring his optimism that a vaccine for Covid-19 is close, Benn adds: “If you look back at all the incredible inventions and creations – aeroplanes, cars, medicines; everything we take for granted in our normal lives – and then you think that, cumulatively, there are more scientists alive and working now than ever existed before… Are we going to solve this? Of course we are!”

“I’m already getting companies contacting me and offering tests”

IQ caught up with Benn the week after Wireless Connect, one of two virtual festivals the Festival Republic team has staged this summer (three if you include parent company Live Nation UK’s Isle of Wight Festival) in lieu of the physical events.

“The learnings” from all three, says Benn, are “immense”, and allowed FR to “discover what people respond to” in a digital event.

Download TV was very much more a linear TV broadcast, just using YouTube rather than a terrestrial channel, and we learnt a huge amount,” he continues. “It was really the first time we’d done an as-live broadcast like that.

“With MelodyVR [for Wireless Connect], that was even more complicated, as we did a 360° virtual-reality broadcast, with artists going into a studios in London and the US. Whereas people were performing in their kitchens for Download…”  (The virtual Isle of Wight Festival, meanwhile, was a simpler affair, broadcasting past performances on Sky television.)

While Benn says the definition of a successful year for him is having “fans in a field”, he says the FR team has done “extraordinary things with the three outings we’ve had so far”. “I hope we can build on that in future,” he adds.

By charging for online events, IQ wonders? Benn is tight-lipped, though he concedes that, “as an add-on, [virtual festivals] have potential”. “There’s a lot of discussion going round, but it’s really too early to say,” he continues. “What we do know is that there’s an appetite for live – in all its forms – that can’t be replaced.”

“We’re feeling very optimistic about next year. I think the pent-up demand is absolutely there”

On that topic, Benn notes that of the three 2021 festivals Live Nation/Festival Republic has on sale – IoW, Download and Creamfields – all are “selling really well, so we’re feeling very optimistic about next year. I think the pent-up demand is absolutely there.”

Even in the event of a vaccine not being available by next summer, Benn is adamant that FR, and the wider UK/European festival market, is “in a really good position”.

“I’m already getting companies contacting me and offering tests that are incredibly reliable, and can be done in a short amount of time,” he explains. “At the moment [in July] they’re too expensive – but given that they didn’t even exist in March, I assure you that by the time April or May comes around next year, there’ll be a testing company on every street corner and it will be relatively inexpensive.”

As for how fans might respond to mandatory testing, which has mooted as a requirement for entering festivals in the absence of a vaccine, Benn adds: “I’m very optimistic about human beings. We’re incredibly versatile creatures and we’ll change and do what we need to do in order to participate in the things we enjoy.

“So if that’s the only way, so be it. You can’t beat the experience of a festival.”

Isle of Wight Festival, Download and Creamfields 2021 are on sale now.

 


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Final line-up for VR Wireless Connect revealed

Festival Republic and MelodyVR have announced the full line-up for Wireless Connect, a three-day virtual reality music festival taking place from 3 to 5 July.

The event will see exclusive performances – filmed in MelodyVR’s LA studio and custom-made studio in Alexandra Palace, London – from acts including Stefflon Don, Mist, Steel Banglez, Jay1, as well as additional footage from Wireless 2019 featuring Skepta, Young Thug, Rae Sremmurd and more. 

Other performances will come from Yungen, Unknown T, Big Narstie and Deno in the UK and from Saweetie, iann dior and 24kGoldn in the US. The full line-up and schedule can be found here.

Wireless Connect will be available in 360​° immersive virtual ​reality on smartphones and VR headsets via the MelodyVR app. It will also stream on the Wireless Facebook Live and YouTube channels.

Free to watch, Wireless Connect fans are encouraged to make a donation to the Black Lives Matter movement

Free to watch, Wireless Connect fans are encouraged to make a donation to the Black Lives Matter movement via a Crowdfunder, which launches at 5 p.m. BST today (29 June).

Radio station Capital Xtra will air artist interviews and provide the soundtrack to those bringing the festival experience to their home.

A celebration of rap, grime, hip hop and RnB, Wireless Festival was forced to cancel its fifteenth anniversary edition this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Acts billed to play the event in London’s Finsbury Park included ASAP Rocky, D-Block Europe and Lil Uzi Thug.

Ben Samuels, North America president of MelodyVR, was one of a number of music industry innovators to take part in the IQ Focus Innovation Session last month. All previous IQ Focus sessions can be watched back here.

 


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MelodyVR announces LA gig as Wireless prep gets underway

Music-focused virtual reality (VR) company MelodyVR has announced hip-hop act Cypress Hill will perform live via its platform this Friday, as the VR pioneer begins filming for the digital edition of Wireless Festival in London.

Working in partnership with Festival Republic, Melody VR is helping to produce Wireless Connect, the virtual reimagination of this year’s Wireless, which will be aired from 3 to 5 July.

The company is filming artists performing live in a recently unveiled, custom-built, 360° studio in London’s Alexandra Palace theatre.

London-based audio specialist is working with the Wireless Connect team to deliver broadcast audio mixes in stereo and immersive formats. Spiritland founders Antony Shaw and Gareth Iles have previously worked with festivals including Glastonbury, Reading and Leeds and Big Weekend.

MelodyVR is filming artists performing live in a recently unveiled, custom-built, 360° studio in London’s Alexandra Palace theatre

In keeping with Covid-19 restrictions, artists and performers remain in isolation for the duration of the performance and do not come into contact with the public, the MelodyVR team or other on-site crew.

Wireless Connect will be accessible to anyone with a smartphone and free to watch, with viewers encouraged to make a charity donation over the course of the weekend. The full line-up will be announced on the Wireless website soon.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, hip-hop legends Cypress Hill are performing as part of Melody VR’s Live from LA series. The show, which will be available to watch in 360° for free via the MelodyVR app and VR headsets, will be broadcast live on 19 June at 6 p.m. PT/3 a.m. (20 June) CET and will be available on demand from 25 June for those who miss the original broadcast.

Other artists to have featured in the series include John Legend, The Score, Katelyn Tarver, DaniLeigh and Zella Day.

Ben Samuels, North America president of MelodyVR, was one of a number of music industry innovators to take part in the IQ Focus Innovation Session last month. All previous IQ Focus sessions can be watched back here.

 


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Kiss, Iron Maiden to headline virtual Download fest

Festival Republic has revealed the line-up for the virtual version of Download Festival, Download TV, with exclusive footage from headliners Kiss, Iron Maiden and System of a Down.

Download Festival was among the first major UK events to cancel it 2020 edition due to the coronavirus outbreak.

In its place, Download TV is airing on the original festival weekend, from 12 to 14 June, available to watch on the festival’s social channels and on YouTube. Fans can subscribe to Download TV on YouTube here.

The virtual event will feature a day time programme of interactive activities, live artist Q&As and lockdown performances, with the evenings bringing footage of live performances from the acts billed to play the event this year, including Korn, Deftones, Babymetal, Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes, Creeper, the Offspring and the Darkness.

Past Download performances from headliners Kiss and System of a Down will be resurfaced for the event, while Iron Maiden promise “something just for Download TV”.

Festival Republic has revealed the line-up for the virtual version of Download Festival, Download TV, with exclusive footage from headliners Kiss, Iron Maiden and System of a Down

Download fans are encouraged to put tents up in their gardens, wear festival merchandise and send photos and videos in to the festival page to ensure a “celebration of the Download community”.

Fellow Festival Republic event Wireless Festival is also taking place in a virtual form this year, partnering with music-focused virtual reality company MelodyVR to produce Wireless Connect. From 3 to 5 July, pre-recorded live performances will be brought to Wireless fans in 360° virtual reality.

Performances will be recorded from MelodyVR’s studio in Los Angeles and the 10,400-capacity Alexandra Palace in London. The Wireless Connect line-up will be announced in due course.

MelodyVR’s Ben Samuels was among tech leaders to take part in IQ Focus panel The Innovation Session yesterday, discussing the most effective ways to monetise virtual shows. The panel is available to watch back on YouTube or Facebook now.

 


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