Summer 2021 & the return of ’panem et circenses’
As the live music industry nervously gears up for its return (‘The first to close, the last to reopen’), mindful of the evolving regulatory authorities’ response to COVID-19, vaccination roll-outs, levels and locations of any new Coronavirus variants, and their own internal organisational and fiscal preparedness, there are a number of questions relating to both the velocity and scale of any relaunch.
Not least because the hoped-for recovery may not be nearly as swift or as straightforward as desired following the last year+ of postponements, cancellations, and multiple lockdowns with politically-directed and oft inconsistent health guidelines.
As discussed in previous posts, the speed of any return, whether to the golden-era of 2019, or earlier, will depend upon a number of factors including: (international) Artist availability (Will domestic talent be able to exploit staggered market re-openings?); the accessibility of event and public liability insurance; the distressed events supplier services and logistics sectors; the need for local licensing authority agreements; and the cashflow impact of the COVID-19 shutdown(s) to event organisers – many of whom have utilised employee furloughs, redundancies, supplier contract terminations and event postponement (avoiding the need to offer consumer refunds for cancelled events) in a desperate attempt to survive.
The cash-deprived live sector, which historically has operated on thin-margins (typically requiring 70%+ paying capacity and then access to bar sales or other incremental revenues for event breakeven), cannot effectively operate with restrictive timeslots or socially-distanced reduced capacities that for example restaurants, galleries, museums, or theme parks have incorporated.
Some Promoter / Producers have already re-negotiated Artist fees requiring a greater level of shared risk, lower or no guarantees, applied downward pressure on show settlements and service supplier agreements to reflect the inherent risk of any relaunch with potentially smaller and/or nervous audiences coupled with the fragility of their own operations as they attempt to recoup the COVID-19 related costs of any newly onboarded corporate debt.
There is also the fiscal and operational reality that aside from restricted capacities some venues and event organisers may struggle to implement any required contactless technologies, increased ventilation, protective equipment for staff, and new health & safety signage whilst ensuring more regularised and intensive site cleaning is undertaken.
Additionally, many of the show reps, stage, sound & lighting crews, security, concierge, and concessions staff and all the other freelance, self-employed or zero hours employees who provide the oft invisible labour force that makes live music possible have all endured complicated, if not futile, efforts to attract furlough support, or collect unemployment benefits.
And so many may have been forced to take on other work, with employers reticent to re-hire too quickly. So the UK live events labour market does not yet show any rebound – ‘Lockdown restrictions continue to affect jobs and vacancies in two industry sectors more than others, with vacancies in arts, entertainment and recreation down 78.9% (18,000) from a year ago’ – https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/bulletins/jobsandvacanciesintheuk/april2021#vacancies-for-january-2021-to-march-2021
And then consumers attending events in 2021 (and beyond) may also be presented with a potentially emotionally dislocating event environment which includes: travelling to venues via reduced-capacity public transport with mandatory masks and the more anxious also carrying anti-viral wipes, tissues and disposable gloves; identity verification with temperature scans and/or health certification checks at event entrance; digital ticketing; contactless payments; the enforcement of some form of social-distancing within the event, with traffic-flows for access & egress to bars (dispensing single-portion pre-packaged F&B) and toilet facilities ideally with plentiful hand-sanitiser stations, all supported by onsite First-Aiders & Paramedics not at all exhausted after sixteen months on the COVID-19 front-line.
Will the ‘new normal’ therefore be a more restrained experience, with at least initially, fewer events and venues open, for a smaller than previous number of Artists able to perform (impacted by potentially lower show grosses as well as the added complications of travelling, especially for international artists) with lower than previous staffing levels, or will there be a ‘Roarin20s’ or ‘années folles’ of artistic and cultural dynamism with accelerated consumption?
Arguably it is more likely that the tremendous loss of life – over 152,000 (as of June 2021) in the UK alone – and the macroeconomic impact of the 2020-21 lockdown(s) will re-shape the existing codes of business behaviour, the level, and types of audience engagement as well as the commercial operations of the live music industry.
COVID-19 could prove to be a disruptive moment for live music in the same way that Napster impacted the recorded industry.
However, many Promoters have already claimed that there is an overwhelming demand for the return of live (Do you really expect them to say anything to the contrary?), from both Artists wanting to tour (Not least for economic self-necessity) and by Audiences wanting to re-embrace the live experience.
The daily announcement of new concerts and tours for 2022 and beyond is taken as proof-positive of the strength of this relaunch.
But closer examination of the actual ticket sales reveals many are previous bookings (from as far back as 2019) where customers have retained their tickets in nervous expectation of eventually attending, and new onsales are not consistently being embraced by audiences – in part because of the (over) supply exceeding demand for new events.
Promoters are trumpeting the fact that 2022 is ‘much stronger than usual’, with almost twice as many major touring artists on cycle than a typical year.
But are there more venues or twice as many weekend nights available next year? Further are audiences financially able and likely to attend twice as many events as in previous years?
Or will the glut of tour onsale announcements inevitably become the live music equivalent of ‘shipping platinum and returning gold’ i.e. can everything sell-out, or at least achieve breakeven?
Will the industry be able to adapt to and successfully integrate the new (temporary?) health protocols, and event capacity restrictions, whilst ensuring budgeted breakeven-plus (To aid their commercial relaunch and to pay down some of their newly acquired debt), and re-establish the formula of ticket pre-sales funding events several months in advance of the actual spectacle?
Or will Artists, and/or Rights Owners, and their Audiences continue to adopt new innovative platforms enabling remote but immersive connection, and monetisation, whether via gaming, livestreaming, AR, or VR, and, at least partially, sidestep the live experience?
To be continued …