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What will it take for live music to come back?

Concerts could finally return this year – but when? And what will they be like? We asked scientists, venues and industry insiders

Huw Oliver
Written by
Huw Oliver

In the Before Times, the Fulford Arms in York was an always-busy kind of place. This pub in the north of England would generally put on around 250 shows a year in its dedicated live-music space. It’s a classic stop on the UK’s indie touring circuit, and the place to go in this part of the country if you want to catch the latest British guitar band tipped to make it big.

But then came Covid. Like countless other music venues around the world, the Fulford hasn’t hosted a single riff, a single rousing shout-along, a single rambunctious stage exit since March 2020.

Over the past ten months, venues of all sizes have had to get pretty creative when it comes to being able to host concertgoers and still make money. The Fulford, which has a normal capacity of 150, was no exception. Under social-distancing rules, it would have only been able to fit 20 people into its main room – not financially viable. Instead, it linked up with other venues around the city, collaborating on distanced shows at the larger Crescent and hosting outdoor gigs in a church graveyard. Bands changed their sets so they were less likely to stir up a mosh pit. The audience bounced in their seats. Several shows sold out. Considering the circumstances, the Fulford kind of smashed it.

‘There have been so many negatives,’ says Chris Sherrington, who owns the venue. ‘But there have also been a lot of opportunities for people to develop new ways to perform their music and for venues to develop how they interact with audiences.’

And not just in York. From drive-in shows to the Flaming Lips’ bubble concerts, anyone who’s been lucky enough to go to a gig over the past year has probably experienced a unique era in live music. For those who’ve stayed at home, live-streaming shows (despite the odd technical glitch) have become a decent stand-in for the real thing. Watching Britpop icon Jarvis Cocker performing from a cave was one memorable highlight.

But let’s be honest: what most music fans are really hankering after are the proper gigs of yore – mosh pits, dancing, singing, sticky floors, overpriced beer and all. With the Covid vaccines now being rolled out worldwide, talk has turned to when live music could return to something more like its old self. Could concerts across Europe and North America actually be on the cards sometime vaguely soon?

Hit me with your best shot

Will vaccines bring back live shows in 2021?

Although lockdowns are back in place across much of the globe, gigs are happening pretty much as normal in a handful of countries (like Taiwan and New Zealand) that have managed to control the virus. In Australia, even arena shows have returned at partial capacity.

But elsewhere, the biggest hope for live music is the rollout of vaccines. Dr Anthony Fauci, the incoming chief medical adviser to US President Joe Biden, said recently that if 70 to 85 percent of the population were vaccinated, concerts could return across the country by the end of the year.

We asked a number of scientists whether Fauci’s prediction could come true, and they agreed that the return of non-distanced live music in Europe and the USA, following widespread vaccination, is very plausible – with a handful of caveats.

Dr Donald Schaffner is a specialist in food science at Rutgers University who researches quantitative microbial risk assessment. He says: ‘Given the situation as we see it now, given the trendlines for vaccination, I think it’s quite reasonable.’ Dr Julian Tang, a consultant virologist at the UK’s Leicester Royal Infirmary and associate professor at Leicester University, agrees. He says that in any given country, ‘life could get more or less back to normal by Christmas’ as long as everyone has had both doses of the vaccine – and that includes concerts.

However, even widespread vaccination won’t make concerts completely safe – especially larger events.

A concert

Doctors are gradually realising that even young people who get mild, asymptomatic coronavirus may later develop longer-term complications. This could be the outcome in around one in ten of all cases. And even the best vaccines are only around 90 percent effective, meaning that even if everyone gets two doses of the vaccine, there will be likely still be a failure rate of at least 10 percent. Add in the possibility that many people will choose not to be vaccinated, and many of us will remain susceptible for as long as the virus is circulating, points out Dr Tang.

‘If you had 10,000 people at a concert, you’re looking at 100 people with the potential to develop longer-term complications,’ he says. ‘That’s not an insignificant number. I don’t think Dr Fauci should be so optimistic.’

And then there’s customer confidence. ‘The real question is whether or not the country, the states, the municipalities can effectively control the virus to a point where people feel that [going to concerts] is a safe thing to be able to do,’ says Rev. Moose, executive director of the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), which has been campaigning for financial support from government for venues and promoters across the country. ‘Hopefully this’ll get under control to the point that people will be comfortable being in large crowds again.’

Cruel summer

Festivals might be off the cards this year

Whether or not the vaccine rollout means live music can return by the end of the year, it’s likely to come too late to save the summer festival season in the US and much of Europe.

Despite Covid transmission being lessened in the open air, there are added risks at an all-day or weekend-long event like a festival. Spending more time in a crowd increases the risk to individual punters. If you spend the whole weekend mooching around a festival site, with regular toilet and bar queues, you have more chances to pick up or transmit the virus – even outdoors. And there are still few examples of a full-on music festival (as opposed to a one-off concert) managing to incorporate social distancing.

An extra problem in the UK is that British festivals have no access to coronavirus insurance. This means that the axe is likely to fall sooner in the UK than in other European countries, where festivals have been granted access to event cancellation funds which let them wait for longer before confirming a cancellation.

All of this explains why – as festival organisers told the British Parliament earlier this month – the UK is likely to see a string of high-profile festival cancellations over the coming weeks. Jamie Njoku-Goodwin, chief executive of lobbying group UK Music, said that even with the rollout of vaccines, ‘lack of notice and available insurance options will mean much of the 2021 summer music season can’t go ahead’. There’s only one upside: summer 2022 will most likely be one for the ages.

Don’t stand so close to me

When can we relax social distancing at gigs?

So if festivals are unlikely to be staged in their usual form for a second summer running, what about regular concerts – with or without social distancing?

The first form of live music that’s likely to return is socially distant concerts, similar to those that took place in many venues throughout the second half of 2020.

Mark Davyd is the founder and CEO of the UK’s Music Venue Trust (MVT), which represents hundreds of independent venues across the country. In the grassroots sector, he’s confident that the vaccine rollout will bring back live music – ‘certainly socially distant gigs, then moving up in capacity’ – much more quickly than expected. ‘In April, once all the most vulnerable groups are vaccinated in the UK, there will be a reasonable case to be considered about the health damage versus the economic damage [of not allowing live shows].’

But what about concerts without social distancing, in all their rowdy glory? Could those return before the vaccine rollout is complete? And, more importantly, should they?

At the end of last year, researchers in Barcelona teamed up with promoters from the festival Primavera Sound to try and answer those questions. They put on a gig without social distancing that involved rapid testing of all attendees beforehand, with other safety measures like hand sanitisation and mask-wearing still in place. The study, which is still awaiting peer review, found that an event run like this was ‘not associated with an increase in Covid-19 infections’.

Pre-event testing is also a hot topic in the US, where New York governor Andrew Cuomo has been among those suggesting that rapid tests outside shows (albeit socially distant ones) could well become commonplace.

Although the Primavera study results may be promising, testing still has its flaws. To start, there is the logistical trouble of having to get tested before entering every venue – which will favour only certain kinds of establishment, most likely those with lots of space or the kinds of line-ups that draw interest weeks or months in advance.

A concert

‘It will have little effect on venues that depend on the spur-of-the-moment visitor,’ says Bruce Finkelman, who owns the Empty Bottle and Thalia Hall venues in Chicago. ‘The more invasive the rapid-testing protocols, the more people might decide to stay on the sidelines.’

If the ‘lateral-flow’ antigen tests that are used for most rapid testing gain currency, there may be further problems, according to Dr Tang. These tests may reduce risk, but they are not foolproof, because external testing sites lack certain equipment (including a pressure-activated ‘vortex’ that shakes swabs so scientists to retrieve more significant samples). This means you may get as many as 50 to 60 percent of those who have the virus coming back with a false negative, Dr Tang says: ‘You’re going to miss a lot of people who might still be infectious and be shedding the virus.’ 

Given the flaws with rapid testing, other new safety measures may also be required if social distancing is to be eased before the whole population is vaccinated. ‘It’s really a multipronged approach that we need,’ says Dr Schaffner. ‘What I would like to see from folks that are managing that risk is a cautious and honest approach: these are the risks as we see them, and these are the ways that we are managing them.’

Better air circulation in venues may be part of the answer. As part of its Revive Live campaign, the MVT has been working with the 100 Club venue in London to introduce a UV-C filtration system, which cleans and ‘scrubs’ the air. Tests are ready to run, though the charity still emphasises the importance of wearing masks as long as the virus is at large.

Then there’s the idea of ‘health passports’ for events, similar to those being discussed within the travel industry. Both Mark Davyd of the MVT and Dr Julian Tang can envisage venues accepting both negative test results and proof of vaccination on entry.

‘Knowledge is key – we’ll need some form of health passport, no matter how resistant any government or individual is to it,’ says Davyd. ‘It doesn’t have to be compulsory, but I think you’ll find a very large number of gig-goers would be very happy to show whether they’ve had a vaccine or whether they’ve had a rapid test, if that means the show can go ahead.’

And because no measures are completely Covid-proof, Dr Tang says that ticketholders may well have to sign a waiver and declaration acknowledging the risks of going to a concert. He suggests something like: ‘Despite proof of vaccination, and the negative test that you declared, there’s still a low risk of transmission and infection at this concert. If you develop any long-term complications from this, you cannot sue the company or the event, because you’ve taken this risk of your own free will.’

It’s unclear whether or not all of these extra measures would be enough to safely bring back proper, non-distanced gigs before the vaccine rollout is complete. What’s looking certain, though, is that going to a concert will feel pretty different for quite some time to come.

Money changes everything

The music industry will still need support

All these precautions – rapid testing, better ventilation and potentially a whole load of paperwork – could help live music return in some form, with and increasingly without social distancing. But they’d also come at a cost. And venues have already shouldered plenty of extra financial burdens simply to stay in business – those that haven’t already gone bust, that is.

Rev. Moose of the NVA says that new subsidies will be needed, should venues be required to introduce new technology or testing: ‘Anything that’s imposed from a government perspective needs to be supported financially as well – these businesses have suffered for the past year.’

Hundreds of venues across the USA should be able to survive the coming months thanks to the Save Our Stages Act that passed in the most recent Covid-19 Relief Bill. In the UK, too, many venues have received funding from the government’s Culture Recovery Fund over the past few months. For those lucky enough to receive significant grants, reopening fully later this year should be feasible. For others, kitting out their venue adequately may prove too costly.

The Fulford Arms in York did receive government funding, and it’s already making plans. It may not be able to host shows itself until the UK’s social-distancing rules are relaxed. But looking ahead, the venue is considering hiring in UV-C scrubbers, improving ventilation (‘pretty hard when you’ve tried for years to make the room as soundproof as possible’) and even offering rapid tests in its garden area.

The pub’s hope is that proper gigs will be back on by the year’s end. Just imagine that opening riff.

All images: Shutterstock.

But since we’re still stuck indoors…

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