What does normal look like post COVID-19?

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See you down the front? (Image by Kevin Barrett)

As the UK moves toward an end of the COVID-19 lockdown the damage to the music and arts sector is likely to be felt for some time to come, Getintothis’ Chris Flack looks across the horizon.

In the time of Coronavirus and keyworkers, it is perhaps a little crass to suggest that anyone has it hard unless they’re actually on the frontlines fighting this thing in hospitals or labs up and down the country.

Those people on the front lines are being killed by an enemy they can’t see and by a government that has failed each and every one of them, say what you will but the numbers speak for themselves.

In any consideration about the future or what happens next, we are duty-bound to recognise the huge sacrifice these key workers have made, whether they be surgeons or shelf stackers at Asda.

That this government has this week passed an immigration bill that (still) lists anyone earning less than £25,600 pa as ‘unskilled labour’ while front line workers earning under that are being killed is reprehensible.

That this Government has already talked up an NHS wage freeze for the next two years is unconscionable.

But this is a music magazine and our job is to watch the horizon; keep an eye out for land or predators that may scupper future missions; we’re sorry to report but the blur on the horizon might just be a tsunami.

There are very odd times ahead for the music scene, there are very odd times ahead for any kind of public events frankly, festivals, big gigs, afternoons in a cafe, everything is about to get very weird.

There may well be solutions by the way of social distancing, be it pool noodles, greenhouses, inner tubes from truck tires, or leaving empty seats here and there, but I’m not sure we’ve given the problem enough thought.

This post from Zach Finkelstein about classical audiences is a starter for ten, and it should be alarming to anyone with even an ounce of sense. It is worth delving into for a moment.

His calculations on ticket prices and the space required to deliver orchestral shows, even if they are admittedly a bit ‘back of a napkin’, highlight the scale of the problem facing the wider entertainment sector.

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In his post, Zach uses the 2,625-seater Symphony Hall auditorium which is home to the Boston Symphony Orchestra as the basis for his calculations, which come complete with sketches.

He assumes that we will have to implement social distancing by the six-foot rule and takes those thoughts to a seat map with a red pen, scratching out seats that would have to be left empty.  Those empty seats are in front, behind, to the left and right of each punter, allowing room for the occasional family member.

The results are a little terrifying.

To save you the click, his suggestions would mean a drop of 75% of the total audience with a maximum of about 500 people in the auditorium who will find themselves paying over four times for a ticket than they do at present.

And this, whether we like it or not, is likely to be replicated in every venue across the world.

In South Australia, for example, cinemas are allowed to open from the 8th of June with a limit of one person per four metres squared, up to a maximum of 20 people.

Per screen.

Last week the cross-sector trade group UK Music called on the government to set up a music industry taskforce to help the sector work its way through the COVID-19 shutdown and understand the pressures of reopening.

Over the course of this lockdown, there have been many press conferences and little clarity, there was certainly little clarity at the last conference Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson gave.

It was so clear in fact that we had to wait three days for the document that laid out his thoughts to materialise, that document ‘Our Plan To Rebuild: The UK Government’s COVID-19 Recovery Strategy’ and it isn’t an awful lot clearer if we’re honest.

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It sets out what the government calls a three-step ‘roadmap” for easing the lockdown designed to slow the spread of COVID-19. The priority appears to be getting those people who have been unable to work over the last few weeks back to the coalface, their jobs may not be deemed essential but it appears their labour may be required.

One element of the plan is that non-key yet still somewhat essential workers make it to work and home without touching anything, speaking to anyone or taking any form of public transport. Because that’ll work.

Without using the word unprecedented, none of us has been through this, and while this government seems particularly inept when we look across the globe, getting the country back into gear will prove tricky.

Especially for this lot.

It will obviously be incredibly difficult to keep the number of new cases and deaths to a minimum and will require all of us to work together, though seeing so many people rush to the beach does make us wonder.

And we haven’t even mentioned the absolute lack of testing tracing, and tracking the UK has deigned to do.

That leaves the sector in the dark as to what it is to do next.

We’re expecting a second wave, we’re expecting hotspots where COVID-19 will flare up, we’re expecting rolling lockdowns to try and control the thing before we find a vaccine and produce it in high enough volumes that we can go back to whatever normal will look like.

At this stage, no one knows what will happen, but for venues, theatres, megadomes and the rest, there is still rent, rates and whatnot to pay out with no money coming in.

That’s before we even consider that there are thousands of staff and thousands of artists with very little room to manoeuvre in their bank accounts. And we haven’t even got to Brexit yet.

Looking to other shores again, Toronto has said there will be no large events until at least September, no theatre, no gigs, nada; though at least governments who offer clarity are better than the de Pfeffel piffle we get here.

The current reopening plan (that applies only to England because Scotland Wales and NI have decided to collectively delay things a little more) suggests that regular retail outlets will start to re-open in early June under the proviso social distancing becomes a part of daily life.

There is a hope that hospitality and leisure businesses may begin reopening in early July, though whether this applies to gigs or not is still very debatable and will probably depend on the size of the event itself. This part of the advice may include pubs and cinemas, but sporting and entertainment venues are unlikely to be included until later. Much later. And if social distancing is to be followed everything goes on at 25% occupancy.

If we look to other places, South Korea opened too much too soon and saw a huge spike in numbers and most of Canada has cancelled anything that involves more than 250 people until the end of July. Anything that involves over 25,000 people is kiboshed until at least August 31 and everyone has been warned that could go further.

But, the City of Toronto announced this news with the news that there is a fund available to save events for next year. In all of this, there is a requirement to ensure social-distancing remains at the core of every venue.

That leaves us with a question around what these places will look like, how many people a bar, venue or shop might be able to hold. Plans to ensure that everyone is sat down, that everything is based on table service takes the soul out of hanging around bars and is likely to be a bigger issue in generating crowds than anything else.

But this is a bigger debate.

The UK hasn’t really been at the forefront of the battle against COVID-19, in fact, it could be argued that we have been essentially three weeks behind everyone else in our response to any of this even when the advice and the numbers suggested we move it along a little. We were possibly the only country touting herd immunity.

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Restrictions will be essential, but they will hugely affect the viability of the venues trying to re-open, the question is does this government get it or are they too concerned with getting bankers back to the Isle of Dogs?

Tom Watson, UK Music Chair had this to say last week about the three-stage plan; “The government is right to try to move towards kickstarting our economy, provided it can ensure protecting public health is paramount at all times. However, these latest proposals on the easing of the coronavirus lockdown are missing the clarity that the UK music industry so desperately needs. There is a risk the British music industry will be left behind as other countries come out of lockdown, we cannot afford that to happen to the UK’s world-leading music industry which is really suffering”.

UK Music is calling for the government to establish a formal taskforce with the industry to ensure that businesses and events are COVID-19 secure, to support venues in planning for the months ahead. The other issue of huge concern is the economic support schemes that have been set up in response to COVID-19. If the industry is to survive it is vital that government support packages are not cut back until we find normal.

Our favourite indie venues are truly struggling.

The Music Venue Trust has been supporting dozens of schemes across the country to save indie venues, their #saveourvenues campaign was launched three weeks ago and the support has been so great they have taken 140 grassroots venues off their ‘critical’ list.

The campaign has raised over £1.5m in donations, but that is a drop in the ocean when you consider how much money is likely to be pumped into venues over the next few months, the Music Venue Trust believes there are over 500 indie venues that are in trouble and there doesn’t appear to be any central government action.

Liverpool rescheduled gig guide

But maybe the biggest issue has nothing to do with venues, artists or even social distancing.

What if it’s us?

We have been listing the rescheduled shows we’ve been hearing about, looking forward to them, waiting for the day when we can literally see you down the front, beer in hand, and when we can pogo to the finest noises we’ve ever heard up to that point, living it, loving it and sharing it with friends and the good readers of Getintothis.

But what if the past 9 weeks of constant lockdown, the fear of transmission, the impact of the numbers involved and the never-ending news cycle has had a bigger impact than we’ve quite considered yet?

New Orleans began reopening some of its hotels’ bars and restaurants last week, but the jazz bands are as thin on the ground as the tourists and the long weekenders. People aren’t quite ready to test the waters yet and any who do go are able to grab those highly contested balcony seats with ease.

A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll suggests that most people in the US are fearful of heading outside just yet. The responses suggest that fewer than half of Americans plan to go to sports events, concerts, movies or amusement parks until there is a coronavirus vaccine or a very significant drop in the numbers falling ill.

Closer to home, how do you feel, do you think you could or would take a chance to pop out to a gig?

On a personal level, I have a letter from a GP telling me I should duck and cover until at least the end of June. I’m not convinced I should be heading to sweaty gigs, leaning on sweaty bars or hugging random punters at gigs.

No matter how much I want to.

In whatever way this works out, we all have a duty to make sure that music, that the indies and the artists we love and cherish survive whatever the next few months look like.

We need to buy on Bandcamp, we need to pre-order tickets, tune into the live streams and throw some cash in the hat, we need to donate to the Music Venue Trust funds, donate online when we see a video or a live gig and we need to collectively hope that we make it through this with some form of normalcy.

Because I don’t know about you, but I need a pint at a gig.

And soon.

 

 

 

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