Entertainment

The Strange New World of Socially Distant Gigs

Live shows might one day come to a venue near you, but they look and feel as bizarre as you might think.
Hannah Ewens
London, GB
August 5, 2020, 8:15am
​The future of socially distanced gigs doesn't look good.
The future of socially distanced gigs doesn't look good. Photo by WIN-Initiative via Getty.

On a Tuesday night in late July, people slowly trickled into an empty venue for what was the first indoor socially distant gig in the UK. Ticket-holders were excited to be present for a strange milestone: this was the possible future for live music, at least until a coronavirus vaccine is widely available. Only 200 people attended – sat around tables rather than standing – compared to the venue’s usual capacity of 1,250. This was as many as the venue could hold while following social distancing guidelines.

There was one obvious problem with proceedings: the “crowd” weren’t allowed to sing. “I very nearly pulled out of the show,” says Frank Turner, who headlined the gig at Clapham Grand, when he heard this news from friend and venue manager, Ali Wolf. “The pinnacle of the show is when you break down the barrier between performer and audience and it becomes a collective activity. If you can’t have a singalong, that’s ‘what the fuck?’” But the show did go on – to a silent audience providing lonely claps between songs.

“It was very strange to have Ali MCing the show, and instead of coming out and saying ‘go crazy!’ he was coming out and going ‘don’t go too crazy, chill out a bit’,” says Turner.

This trial show was held to collect data to show the government the reality of socially distant indoor gigs. When the government announced that they could be held from August 1st, music fans were partially delighted and curious. Those who put on shows were extremely stressed.

“There was actually a lot of dismay in the industry when the announcement about August 1st came around, because a lot of people who run venues were like, ‘Everyone’s going to think it’s fine to have gigs and it’s not. What do we do now, how do we demonstrate this to people?’” says Turner. “That’s what this show was about. If every venue in the UK started putting on shows like the one I did on Tuesday, everyone would go bankrupt in about two weeks, if they’re not already.”

The night successfully showed that these gigs are a financial impossibility. Despite the fact that Turner waived his performance fee, Clapham Grand lost money because of overhead costs and having to operate at 20 percent capacity. But the music industry was willing to cooperate to make something like this work and show that venues – and audiences – would follow the very strict guidelines on social distancing.

After the show, the audience filled out questionnaires about the experience. Turner and those at the venue also gave feedback to the government. The reviews that ran in the following days were clear: the first socially distant gig was a failure – financially, emotionally and experientially.

Would Turner rather play these anaemic shows or forfeit gigs entirely? It’s a question that all musicians are wondering as the months tick on during this pandemic and a vaccine remains hypothetical. “I’ve gone back and forth on it a few times to be honest,” he says. “There is a big part of me that thinks if I can’t do what I do the way that I do it, then I shouldn’t try to sell a sad version of that.

“But at the same time, I want to be able to look back and think that I was a part of the solution, rather than sitting on my arse and complaining about this period of history we’re currently living through.”

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The confusion around the future of live music began in March, when the lockdown began in the UK and upcoming shows and festivals were cancelled or rescheduled for later that year. By the end of May, anything rescheduled for August or September started to seem ridiculously optimistic. Once the summer came around and festivals and gigs were booked – or moved again – to early 2021 and summer 2021, even that began looking dubious.

“I’ve got the managers and agents of shows that got rescheduled for September 2020 coming to me saying ‘do you think we should move this date?’ and I’m like of course we should, these shows aren’t going to happen,” says Jon Dunn at London-based promotion company Parallel Lines Promotions. “Which makes me think outside of what we do, the fans and the bands really do think there’ll be shows this year.”

Prime minister Boris Johnson’s initial talk of easing lockdown from 1st August – plans now retracted as COVID cases rose in the UK – confused anyone not dealing with the finer details of live music. “We’ve got artists approaching us trying to do shows now and we’re almost trying to be political in our answers, saying that we don’t think it’s a great thing to do,” Dunn says. “I think the whole industry is agreed that social distancing is not workable really.”

It’s political for various reasons. Multiple insiders tell VICE that you need to be at 80 to 90 percent capacity to cover the costs of even running most shows. The very precarious nature of live music means it’s a “break-even process at best”, as one independent promoter says. If you were a 200-capacity venue, you’d be able to fit a maximum of 40 people in with social distancing measures. People must wear masks so can’t drink beers, which is how bookers, agents and venues all know money is made. Even without masks, 40 people would not mean enough drinks sales.

Camden Roundhouse gig

A gig at the Camden Roundhouse. Photo: Robert Stainforth / Alamy Stock Photo

Bigger venues face identical problems. “The overheads of opening those venues are just too high,” says Ed Lilo, the talent buyer at Live Nation. “If a show at Brixton Academy, which is 5,000 capacity, sells 3,000 tickets, then the band probably lose money because they don’t break percentage on their deal with the promoter. The promoter definitely loses money and the venue loses money.”

One of these venues is the Roundhouse in north London. Lucy Wood, their head of music, has been working with the venue’s production team to work out what is doable. She’s discovered that, as a 3,000 capacity space, two metre social distancing takes capacity to 222 people. Even at one metre social distancing, it’s still only 495 (“we just couldn’t cover our costs doing a show with 495 people in the space,” she says).

One option is to make the venue fully seated – something now being considered for the interim period between socially distant gigs and normal gigs returning – but Wood says it’d involve leaving some seats empty and lots more stewarding to make sure people comply with the social distancing. “It’s really tricky because you want to reassure audiences that they’ll be safe but you don’t want to be so heavy handed that people are frightened of standing in queues,” she explains.

What Your Pandemic Holiday Says About You

There lies another problem: it’s not just about venues and logistics. It’s about people wanting to return to gigs at all. In a Roundhouse survey of 1,500 people who had booked gigs with them, 80 percent said they were missing live music, but far fewer were confident about returning to shows. “Disinfection regimes and temperature testing, all these different things we need to bring in, will cost a lot of money,” says Wood. “We’re already planning to bring a lot of that stuff in, but any grassroots or smaller venues are going to have real trouble putting those sorts of measures in place.”

Without government support or being able to put the appropriate social distancing measures in place, over 400 grassroots venues are at risk of closure. It’s something Dunn keeps thinking about as he continues to reschedule gigs into a future date that’s leaping away from him:  “We’re moving shows into new venues, but how many of these venues will even be around?”

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We do know what the fully high-tech future of socially distant gigs will look like for the very few venues in possession of the necessary funds – and it’s weird. The Piano Works, a live-band jukebox club, has an otherworldly system in place – part of which involves a queueing to go through a Tardis-like machine –  in their London venues.

First, you’d get a thermal imaging scan – a temperature any higher than 37.8 degrees and you’re turned away – while you’re having your usual security and ID checks, the latter of which will automatically record your details for a track and trace system. Next, you go through a portable tunnel, where you’re sprayed with chlorine dioxide. “If they have any viruses or harmful bacteria on their outer skin or clothing, it destroys them completely so they don’t actually even have to sanitise their hands on entry. It does that in about five seconds,” says Tristan Moffatt, the operations manager at Piano Works.

Inside the venue, there is a grid pattern of one metre lines. If customers want to stop and socialise, they have to stand in the middle of their little portion of the grid, so everyone can easily socially distance themselves. If you want to buy pints, you can order on your mobile to avoid a queue. And then the star of the show: a PuriFog air machine that operates much like a disco smoke machine. Instead of air, it huffs out two different disinfectants.

“One formula is safe to be distinguished while people are in the venue and you could do that between seatings, and that will take the pathogens out of the air, and the other formula you can run when you close the venue,” says Moffatt. “All your team need to do when they come in the next day is wipe your food and drinks surfaces. You know every single day when you open your venue that it’s completely disinfected.” According to the company that manufactures this product, it’s 1,700 times more effective than the average manual disinfection spray system.

The pandemic set-up at a venue belonging to The Piano Works

The Piano Works

All of this sounds heinously expensive, but Moffatt assures me that all the equipment is available to lease on a monthly basis, rather than the company having to take one crippling financial hit. But then he also admits that with the “no singing and dancing” rule, it’s pointless opening venues. There’s absolutely nothing to suggest that there will be any steps to transition between the no-singing-no-dancing-socially-distanced-gig and the proper return of gigs once we have a vaccine. All of these extravagant extra measures might be for nothing.

Perhaps the real dilemma is whether we even want to go back to these shows as music lovers. The whole reason Dunn is dissuading artists from wanting to do shows as soon as possible is because gig-goers being unable to get right up to the barrier isn’t appealing to anyone who loves exciting live shows – least of all a promoter. “That’s the first thing anyone does when there’s a hot band where the show’s sold out – people want to move to the front and they won’t be able to do that if there has to be a two metre gap,” he exclaims.

“We never try to push acts into venues that we think they can’t sell. It’s all about a sold-out buzzy audience. That’s why we get into shows in the first place, it’s about having these moments. You almost can’t articulate them, but we all feel them – and that’s why we go to gigs.” Playing boring shows could be disastrous for some emerging artists’ careers in the long term.

After months of not making any money, one anonymous promoter told VICE that they’d rather book popular and larger artists to ensure they get paid, rather than potentially riskier (i.e. smaller) artists who might not sell out anyway. Certain scenes will inevitably suffer more – classical, instrumental, ambient and acoustic music will fare better than shows that thrive off a mosh pit and movement, like punk and metal. If festivals don’t go ahead in 2021, it will be disastrous for everyone: artists, promoters, PRs, festival companies.

Yet some in the industry are worried that even showing support for socially distant gigs will make the government think the live music industry’s problems are solved and focus on other industries. “If we start going down the road of socially distanced gigs, it may not be best for the long term,” says Dunn.

It’s the oceanic swell of a crowd that I’m missing – something that can’t be recreated or faked, regardless of precautions. For a real live gig, it’s clear we will all have to wait. As Wood says when reminiscing about the Roundhouse in full-swing: “It’s the experience of being close to each other’s bodies and hearing each other singing along, it’s that closeness that brings that ecstatic feeling of togetherness. Without all that, it’s just a totally different thing.”

@hannahrosewens