Hello cars and table service, farewell mosh pits: is this the future of live music?

Neil McCormick
German singer Heino performs for a drive-in audience at the BonnLive concert last month - Getty Images
German singer Heino performs for a drive-in audience at the BonnLive concert last month - Getty Images

You flash your biometric app for a visor-wearing doorman with an infrared thermometer. Fluorescent arrows lead to a table where pre-ordered drinks await. The band are spread across an outsized stage, playing in-house instruments over the venue PA. A barrier ensures no stray droplets from the singer reach the front rows as they launch into their viral hit, Social Distance Blues. Dancers in face masks throw semaphore poses from personal circles on a demarcated dance floor. You raise your voice to sing along and consider it well worth that £400 you blew on a pair of tickets.

Meanwhile, down the dark end of the street, police gather to break up another squat rock show, following reports of an illegal mosh pit. Back at home, Zoomers tune into a live webcast, share highlights on social media platforms and clock up “likes”, wondering why anyone would want to be there in the flesh.

Is this the future of gigs? Premium events, illegal raves and video streaming are among scenarios being contemplated by promoters, venues, festivals and artists desperate for a way out of the complete Covid-19 standstill. The live music sector in the UK is estimated to have had £900 million wiped off its value this year. The entire summer festival season has been lost, arenas and theatres are shuttered, and more than 90 per cent of small grassroots venues are in imminent danger of permanent closure.

“If nothing is done, we are talking about losing somewhere over 700 out of 800 trading music venues by October,” says Mark Davyd, co-owner of Tunbridge Wells Forum and CEO of the Music Venue Trust charity. “It would be the biggest blow to British music ever.”

We know the scale of the problem. But what are the solutions? Last week, the Government published a five-stage road map to get theatres, concert halls and arts centres back in business. It has been heavily criticised within the industry for offering neither a timescale nor extra funding. Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Ireland, Canada and New Zealand have all announced tens of millions in extra arts funding.

Davyd is cautiously optimistic about a financial deal for the UK live sector because “it’s a world-beating industry and the level of investment is tiny compared to the gains”. In the meantime, a new gig-going future is already taking shape.

Later this month, global entertainment company Live Nation and energy company Utilita will launch a drive-in concert series at 12 specially converted outdoor spaces around the UK, from Filton Airport in Bristol to The Royal Highland Centre in Edinburgh. Stars including Gary Numan, The Streets, Dizzee Rascal, Kaiser Chiefs and Beverley Knight will tour, performing to 300 cars a night.

Beverley Knight - Getty Images
Beverley Knight - Getty Images

“The concept is to run like a venue, not a festival,” explains Peter Taylor, who is managing the events for Live Nation. “We’ve got airfields, arena car parks, racecourses, anywhere that we can roll cars on and off for six weeks. There’s a whole infrastructure to consider.”

Taylor has programmed more than 400 shows and expects to double that, running until September. “We are providing live concert sound, not broadcasting across a car radio. To make it authentic, you need to feel the music. So we are making it spacious, you can get out the car if you want, you can dance, you’ve got your own safe area, away from the next vehicle.” The audience will be made up of individual social bubbles, “as many people as the car holds, to a maximum of seven, no coaches or minibuses”.

For Taylor, drive-ins are a stopgap. “This isn’t the new norm, it’s a bridge to where we want to get back to. A lot of shows are already sold out, but 300 cars is a different model to putting 15,000 people in the O2 Arena.”

At the other end of the scale, illegal raves and parties are breaking out. Last week, there were street battles in several areas of London as police attempted to close down multiple unlicensed music events. There have been reports of “quarantine raves” in woods, parks, forests and warehouses around Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol and Leeds throughout June.

Chris Pleydell is CEO of Hybrid Events, a veteran independent promoter and events strategist who was active in the Eighties rave scene. “Some people will do gigs just for the sheer hell of it. Over the summer we are going to see a lot of pop-up events, independent promoters risking a bit of police attention. The pent-up energy of youth, you can’t subdue that.”

For more legitimate venues, Pleydell envisions a shift upmarket. “Venues are going to have to operate at between 30 and 70 per cent capacity. But you still have fixed costs: rent, staff, crew, artists, marketing. Venues should be brave and realise they have a premium product. The black box days are over, with people crammed into a sweaty mosh pit. It is going to be more like a classic jazz club: table service, elbow room to sit and listen to your favourite artist. I’m convinced people will pay for it.”

Davyd is sceptical of this vision. “It would represent a massive and elitist limit to the extent of culture that could take place. You aren’t going to want to sit at a table ordering a prawn cocktail and sucking on a martini while [punk acts] Yungblud or Fontaines DC hurtle around performing their sets.”

Davyd prefers to focus on ways to “make sure that we have an infection-free environment. The pillars of live music in a grassroots venue are that you go there in person, you mix socially, you sing and you dance. Those are the four things the Government currently considers high risk. So we should be looking at plans to list everybody as they walk in, use temperature checks and have a track-and-trace style operation. If you can do that, you would be able to have a normal programme of entertainment.”

This is effectively the “full capacity plan” of Melvin Benn, head of Live Nation’s Festival Republic, overseeing the Reading and Leeds Festival, Download, Latitude and Wireless. Benn proposes that when people book tickets, they are required to obtain a Covid-19 test and download the NHS app (which is itself still in development). With extra security and hygiene procedures, he is “100 per cent confident” festivals will go ahead next year. It is optimistic.

Crowds at the 2016 Glastonbury Festival - PA Wire
Crowds at the 2016 Glastonbury Festival - PA Wire

What everyone I spoke to agreed upon was that touring itself would have to change. Long-distance international travel will be limited, so expect few American artists to tour the UK. Productions will slim down. Bands will have to be prepared to use in-house equipment. “Big sets and elaborate stage shows are on their way out,” according to Pleydell. “All you’re doing is taking the festival model and putting it into venues.”

Last month, Live Nation sent a controversial memo to talent agencies outlining proposed contract changes for festivals in 2021. Effectively, they want to reduce artist fees by 20 per cent, while expecting artists to take greater responsibility (for flights and hotels) and share promotional risks. The company backtracked slightly after the memo was leaked, insisting these were just talking points. But when the biggest entertainment company on the planet says it is time for things to change, you can be sure the industry is going to take notice.

“A crisis can be an opportunity,” agrees Davyd. “If we can settle the sector down and get government support, there is an urgent need to have a proper collaborative discussion about where the money goes. Because too much of it is spent on quite out-of-date concepts.”

One of the most intriguing points Live Nation included in their proposed new structure was the suggestion that artists sign over filming, streaming and broadcast rights to the promoter.

“That is the future,” says Pleydell. “What has come out of Covid are virtual events, which were such a niche before. The industry has done a fantastic job upscaling technology and pivoting to online.”

Artists, venues and festivals have been providing a huge amount of virtual entertainment throughout lockdown. And that is unlikely to go away. The challenges are daunting, but there is a lot of optimism about the live industry bouncing back. “We are a resilient industry, we have weathered lots of storms over the years,” Peter Taylor insists. “It’s been a difficult few months. But we are ready to rock and roll again.”

What do you think the future of live music will look like? Tell us in the comments section below.

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