When the British rock band Genesis announced the postponement of the final four nights of their autumn UK tour only days before they were due to take place, 75,000 would-be concert goers discovered that Covid-19 had lost none of its capacity to cause havoc. Supporters hoping to see the trio at the SSE Hydro in Glasgow, and over three nights at London’s 02 Arena, earlier this month, were told instead that the dates would be rescheduled.
“This is a hugely frustrating development for the band who are devastated with this unlucky turn of events,” a statement read. “They hate having to take these steps but the safety of the audience and touring crew has to take priority. They look forward to seeing you upon their return.”
Mark Davyd, the founder and CEO of the charity the Music Venue Trust, tells me that the 02 Arena has “fantastic protocols” for getting the audience in and out of its 20,000 seats. Along with masked staff and a brand new air filtration system, it has processes galore for keeping people safe. But here’s the kicker. “They are reliant,” he says, “on the artists and their crew not succumbing [to the virus] themselves. Because if any one part of this machine misfires, it can blow everything off course.”
Welcome to the world of live music in the age of the coronavirus. Forget the maxim once minted by the Rolling Stones – “if you can stand, you can play” – out here musicians and their road crews are as vulnerable as newborn babies. No longer a sociable circus of fun and excess, in this grave new world a tour is a chain of uniformly weak links that can be pulled apart by a single PCR test. Every caravan travels from city to city atop a high wire. There is no safety net.
“Out on the road [groups] need to have a new protocol in place that effectively says, ‘You are a totally singular unit’,” Adam Saunders, the senior agent at the concert agency X-Ray Touring, tells me. “There’s no partying, there’s no mixing with other artists, and there’s no mixing with your audience… all of that has to go completely by the wayside. In order to protect your tour you need to have as little contact with other people as possible. It’s a case of playing the show, getting on the tour bus, getting off the bus, and nothing at all in-between.”
Seeking reliable sources of revenue, since late summer artists have returned to the road en masse. Alongside Genesis (who completed 12 dates of their British campaign), this season UK audiences have had their pick of tours by artists as diverse as Richard Thompson, Manic Street Preachers, The Reytons, Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott, The Specials, Kasabian, The Offspring, and many dozens more. The recent announcement of spring and summer stadium excursions by Ed Sheeran, Liam Gallagher and Coldplay suggest a confidence in the future as well as the present.
In truth, though, everyone is winging it. As well as the threat of infection and derailment, artists are facing unprecedented costs of doing business. While in the old world a band could take out insurance against shows lost to illness, no such surety exists for Covid-19. In order to embark on a tour, musicians are required to pay in advance for transportation, production and the hiring of a road crew. Agents and promoters will pony up for venues and advertising. The cost of cancelling concerts at the last minute amounts to much more than lost ticket revenues.
“I had a discussion with [promoter] Live Nation at the onset of [a recent] tour and said, ‘Let’s hope we get through to the end of this because if we don’t you and me are going to be in an almighty row’,” Adam Saunders tells me. “There’s no doubt about it and there’s no way of avoiding it. There’s going to be a huge bill that we’re going to have to get covered… It’s amazing just how fragile things actually are.”
Whether a band is playing in stadiums or clubs, the problem is universal. Unable to secure insurance for their forthcoming UK theatre tour, the English rock quintet Marillion calculated the cost of derailment after only two or three of the 10 scheduled dates at somewhere in the region of £150,000. For a group that operates as a cottage industry – the recording of their forthcoming LP, An Hour Before It’s Dark, was funded via pre-orders – the idea of being on the hook for an un-recoupable six-figure outlay was unthinkable. The band’s manager, Lucy Jordache, however, had an idea.
“[She] said, ‘I wonder if the fans would be up for pledging and becoming our insurance company?’” drummer Ian Mosley tells me. The money would be held in an escrow account and returned to its donors if unused. The band could offer inducements such as Zoom meetings and hand-written lyrics. “She put it to our fan base and within three days we’d raised £113,000 from 30-odd countries. This is what’s extraordinary about our audience. This is a UK tour but we had people from all over the world pledging money because they want to feel part of the Marillion family.”
With this, the band were back in business, if not quite as they knew it. Mosley tells me that “on this tour no one is allowed backstage. We have two buses, one for the crew and one for ourselves. We mustn’t cross paths with anyone that’s working out front – the soundman, lighting guys – so even the touring party has been divided. The band are in a bubble. In fact, I was talking to Steve [Hogarth], our singer, the other day. He said to me, ‘What are we going to do? We’re going to have to talk to each other!’”
To keep the show on the road, extreme measures have become routine. Forced to forego the social aspects of touring – seeing friends in foreign cities, visiting a club after a show, doing anything on a day off – instead bands are required to regard every stranger as a vector of disease. I have a friend who lives in London whose brother plays bass in a band from Newcastle. When the group performed in London recently, only yards from his front door, the siblings were kept apart by Covid protocols.
“It’s a really strange atmosphere to work in,” says Mark Davyd of the Music Venue Trust . “There’s just a whole new level of uncertainty. One advantage to us is that our industry is extremely skilled at risk management, especially when it comes to crowd management. That’s firmly in our skills set because it’s what we do for every show. But we now have this airborne pathogen, we have this set of things that we know it does, and as a result of that there needs to be additional planning. The problem is when you get grit in the machine. You can’t plan for some of these things. They are outside of any kind of risk assessment.”
Davyd tells me that the present processes and protocols are “probably adding 30 per cent to the costs” of every event. At present, the concert industry’s “eco-system is taking the hit”, but in time at least part of the increased expense will need to be passed on to the gig-goer via increased ticket and bar prices. Asked if there’s anything the government can do to help, with a mirthless laugh I’m told that the decision to increase VAT on tickets from five to 12.5 per cent (there are plans to hike it back to the full 20 per cent) and the reintroduction of business rates on venues at 50 per cent (set to rise to a 100 per cent) could well stand a look.
“This is a sector in recovery,” he says. “You don’t tax businesses that are in recovery… Everything is slightly more difficult, slightly more costly, slightly more time consuming.”
Last month I had the opportunity to see the palaver up close. Attending a concert at Cardiff Bay by the Scottish rock trio Biffy Clyro, I was permitted backstage to say hello to the musicians and their crew only on account of it being the last date of the tour. Even in the open air, everyone wore masks. As 15,000 people waited for the group to take to the stage, their tour manager, Neil Anderson, told me that he considered the successful completion of the three and a half week campaign to be the greatest achievement of his 20-year career.
“Metaphorically speaking, I’m not sure I exhaled until the final date in Cardiff,” he tells me.
“Biffy’s” autumn excursion was one of the first arena-sized productions to hit the road in the age of the coronavirus. In less than a month the touring party burned through thousands of lateral flow and PCR tests, each of which were logged online. As headliners at the Leeds and Reading festivals, the group’s touring party consisted of 80 people sequestered into smaller bubbles. The only members of the crew who came into contact with the group were those whose work required them to be on the stage during the concert itself.
“At Reading and Leeds the band and I were knocking about this massive backstage dressing room compound that would normally be filled with crew and with friends,” Anderson tells me. “That’s the kind of environment we like to be in at festivals. But this time round not even the crew were with us. They were all at the stage. It was basically the band members and myself and management sitting around in a space we literally couldn’t fill because we were keeping everyone separate.”
Hours before headlining their first ever festival, at Knebworth House in 2011, Biffy Clyro hosted a backstage barbeque for family and friends at which singer and guitarist Simon Neil cooked the burgers himself. Very nice they were, too. A decade later, during rehearsals for their autumn campaign, members of the road crew who were in the same bubble as the band were required to wear high-visibility jackets so other crew members knew to keep their distance. Once the novelty of being back on the road starts to fade, I think it’s inevitable that musicians will struggle with the regimented loneliness of touring in this way.
Cracks are already beginning to appear. Last week the rock group British Lion (featuring Iron Maiden bassist Steve Harris) announced their decision to give up the support slot on the forthcoming British tour by The Darkness on account of “protocols, that are not government protocols, which are completely unacceptable to us”. In response, the headliners accused their would-be special guests of being unwilling “to join in with the Covid management policies being put in place by responsible venues and promoters”.
And what of these policies? Inevitably, one person’s sensible precaution is another’s trespass on personal freedoms. Neil Anderson tells me that “we must have spent hundreds of hours on calls, on Zoom calls, on emails, batting back and forth between myself, the managers, the production manager, what was the best way to do this”. A big part of the negotiations boiled down to “figuring out what parts are actually realistic. Is it realistic to ask everyone to stay in their hotel rooms on days off? Is it realistic and appropriate to ask people who have five days off between shows to isolate themselves?”
The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind. So, too, are pathogens that are turning gregarious and sociable musicians into nervous wrecks. The world has changed but the show must go on. And it <<is>> going on. As Mark Davyd says, “the number of concerts that are affected to the point of cancellation is probably fewer than five percent”.
With much justification, he also tells me that he “thinks the live music industry is delivering an amazing piece of work here. We still have a fairly prevalent virus,” he says. “We have very safe shows taking place where people really can feel quite well protected… [But for] how long we can do that without the prevalence [of the virus] in society going down, or the ticket prices going up, is a big question. It’s a big question. And we don’t know yet know the answer.”
Marillion’s UK tour starts on November 10 at Hull City Hall. Biffy Clyro’s new album, The Myth of the Happily Ever After, is released on Friday