The live industry, despite being one of the hardest hit by COVID-19, displayed incredible ingenuity and innovation during the global lockdown. We saw virtual concerts, intimate gigs live-streamed on social media, and even drive-thru concerts in some countries. However, 2020 was undeniably a catastrophic year for the live music sector. Sadly, despite our best hopes, it seems 2021 isn’t proving to be all that different.
Last week, it was announced “with great regret” that Glastonbury would not be going ahead in 2021. This is, perhaps, unsurprising given the sheer scale of the festival. Others, such as Download Festival and Reading & Leeds are fiercely insisting that they plan to go ahead in 2021. So, what’s changed?
In March 2020, our advice to festivals was to check the force majeure wording in their contracts, get a written agreement in place, engage in discussions early on before cancelling or postponing, and make sure contingency plans are in place. A year on, our practical advice for event organisers remains largely unchanged. Organisers should, however, now expect more negotiation on force majeure wording. Any bans on gatherings implemented in response to COVID-19 should still be a force majeure event, but in addition to outright bans, additional restrictions such as social distancing (which prevent any event going ahead as originally planned) should also give a right to cancel. We would also recommend parties agree specific terms relating to COVID-19, including how they keep the other informed in relation to decision making and who is responsible for certain costs in the event of cancellation. The additional complications of planning an event in a pandemic means it’s more important than ever for organisers to engage in discussions early on with suppliers, venues and talent.
When we first wrote about the impact of COVID-19 on live events in March 2020, we also suggested people keep an eye out for government guidance explaining how events organisers, suppliers and artists could navigate the challenges ahead. In May 2020, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) published guidance on ‘Working safely during coronavirus’, in consultation with representatives of the performing arts sector, Public Health England (PHE) and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The guidance provides recommendations as to how, when it’s legal to do so, events can go ahead managing the risk of COVID-19.
Most recommendations take a fairly common-sense approach, including limiting audience numbers, reconfiguring spaces to accommodate social distancing and staggering entry and exit times. However, from a practical perspective, the majority of these suggestions are incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to enforce at a festival. These measures also ultimately demand additional expenditure from already-stretched event organisers in the form of venue adjustments, additional security, and extra cleaning staff. With limitations on audience numbers, it will be tough for organisers to claw back this investment from box office sales.
There are also some more dubious recommendations, including one that “organisers should ensure that steps are taken to avoid audiences needing to unduly raise their voices to each other, such as shouting, chanting and singing along.” Good luck with that at Download Festival...
As with 2020, the industry needs proper guidance and direction rather than platitudes to be able to plan for the summer ahead. The country has been repeatedly given hopelessly optimistic timescales for ‘getting through this’ (by summer, by Christmas and more recently by Easter). Each promise creates false expectation and additional pressures on the industry. We want live events to go ahead, but the industry cannot be expected to plan for things, engineer events to comply with guidance and incur significant costs where, ultimately, there is strong likelihood mass gatherings will be banned. A decision which needs to be taken centrally based on expected reality rather than wishful thinking.
If the government believes the that events could be safe in the summer, the industry needs more positive action by the government to protect the industry and secure the livelihoods of those who work in it. The Emergency Grassroots Music Venues Fund ring-fenced by the DCMS was a welcome start. However, with the scheme now closed there is little other industry-specific support on offer to those left without an income.
In a House of Commons inquiry earlier this month, the committee was told by Sacha Lord (co-founder of Parklife Festival), “If the government don't help with insurance, then the smaller festivals are going to drop away". UK Music said lack of insurance was the “biggest barrier” to events being able to take place. Some have suggested the government-backed terrorism reinsurer should expand its remit to become the vehicle for COVID/other pandemics. Given the fact that COVID-19 is effectively uninsurable for many event organisers, this would be a widely welcomed initiative.
As Julian Knight MP, chair of the DCMS committee said in response to the cancellation of Glastonbury, "The jewel in the crown will be absent but surely the government cannot ignore the message any longer - it must act now to save this vibrant and vital festivals sector."
Events are "rapidly approaching the determination point", after which they'll have to pull the plug, said the Association of Independent Festivals.