To tie in with February’s RISE Spotlight on live events, Stew Hume, Editor of TPi (Total Production International), discusses how the industry used its customary ingenuity and innovation to keep live music alive through 2020 and into 2021.
The lights go down, the crowd erupts as the band walks on stage and launches into their set. Whether you’re watching a show at Wembley Arena or a small dive bar with a handful of other patrons – live music, no matter the size of venue, has a transformative magic on a group of people. But in a year that many will be ready to forget, live events as we know them became some of the most dangerous places to be, thanks to an infectious virus that brought the world to its knees.
As sad as this has been for music fans across the globe, it’s of the utmost importance that we remember that at the heart of this there is an industry of hardworking men and women who overnight were told that their livelihood had suddenly been deemed unsafe. As has been repeated many times through this crisis, live events were the first to close and will more than likely be the last to open. Although the promise of vaccines seems to offer a light at the end of the tunnel as we enter a new year, we clearly still have some way to go.
But the live events industry is one that is made up of problem solvers. These men and women working tirelessly behind the scenes are able to transport fleets of trucks and buses filled to the brim of people and equipment, load-in at 5:00am, work all day, put on a show then load up in the early hours of the morning to do it all again. In short, they are not idle. So for this Big Read about live events, it seemed right to highlight some of the truly inspirational stories of people who, despite the odds, have kept live music alive in 2020. From socially distanced events to VR experiences, there have been plenty of cases where the music has continued to play in the most trying of years.
Arguably the simplest solution to providing entertainment while keeping people safe was the socially distanced show. From March onwards in Europe and the UK, the adoption of drive-in shows saw concert promoters taking over large car parks and patrons getting to enjoy a performance from the comfort of their vehicle. Many organisers chose to readopt the use of FM radio transmission, with the car radio replacing a massive PA system.
There were certainty a number of successful projects in the early months of the pandemic, including the work of Nordic Events and its P Scenen event in Aarhus, Denmark. “We sold around 500 tickets in a minute when we announced the drive-in shows,” stated the CEO of Nordic Events, Torben Pedersen, during an interview with TPi last April. “Fundamentally we try and find ways to ensure our presence is still here, pioneering new business areas as they appear.”
It was a trend that continued well into the summer. In the UK the concept of a socially distanced show was taken to new levels with the Virgin Media Unity Arena. Set up on the outskirts of Newcastle, a temporary outdoor space through August and September welcomed over 50,000 over the two months with each night 2,500 music and comedy fans having their own private penned-off area for up to six people.
Engine No.4, the company behind such festivals as Parklife, Snowbombing and Kendal Calling, were tasking with pulling the pieces of this project together. Operations Manager for Engine No.4, Kate Doyle, explained to TPi some of the considerations necessary for the project: “Key to making this event safe was having a solid ‘customer journey’ in place,” she stated. “What I mean by this is taking into account everything that a customer would go through from the point they leave their house to the point they leave the arena. Prior to their ticketed show day, before they even got on-site, we sent customers all the relevant track and trace information as well as everything they would need to know once they got through the gates.”
The team behind the Virgin Media Unity Arena certainty seemed to find a workable formula for putting on an outdoor event. With summer 2021 getting ever closer and the news that Glastonbury will not be taking place, perhaps the framework they created could be utilised once again if necessary.
On the other side of the globe we have seen the success of other outdoor events with a socially distanced element including Good Day Sunshine – reported as the world’s first COVID-safe music festival.
It seems that a workable solution could be possible for outdoor events, but what about indoor venues? Across the world, there has been a shared statement from venue owners that socially distanced events within venues were simply not viable – although there have been a number that have gone ahead, including in London’s West End. But what we have also seen is a number of venues open their doors for another purpose – streaming.
Yes, in the world of music, streaming has been the staple throughout this entire crisis. From artists singing into their phones for an audience on social media, to high tech productions in some of the world’s most well-known venues, the streaming of live events seems to be the solution most artists have adopted to keep in contact with their fans.
From TPi’s standpoint we spent most of 2020 on Zoom calls with the technical crews who have turned their hand to this developing medium. We’ve also asked the million-dollar question – does it create a viable revenue stream?
Well, the fact that Live Nation in the past few weeks has made the acquisition of ticketed livestream platform Veeps does signal the monetary value of streaming. Veeps in the past few months has featured performances from the likes of Louis Tomlinson, Architects and Liam Payne; and this move by one the globe’s largest music promoters surely indicates that streaming will become very much part of the fabric. Indeed in a statement issued alongside the release, Live Nation’s President and CEO, Michael Rapino, commented: “Live streaming is a great complement to our core business, and essentially gives any show an unlimited capacity.”
In the past few months TPi have covered some the most well publicised streamed events, including Niall Horan’s latest performance from the Royal Albert Hall, which raised almost £2 million for crew members who have been out of work for nearly a year.
Alongside the viability question, another recurring threat to live events is that once we return back to normal, will people still want to watch performances on their phone, laptop or TV? Early on in lockdown however, while working on Laura Marling’s performance from the Union Chapel, Russ Tannen, Chief Revenue Officer at DICE, spoke on this very topic: “Can you imagine if the only people that got to see Manchester United play were those sitting in Old Trafford? People across the globe for a long time have either paid for a TV subscription or visited pubs that pay for an annual licence. This type of infrastructure where you could simultaneously stream a show could really open up live music to a far bigger audience.”
One of the other technologies that has also seen a sharp upturn in progress has been the world of XR studios. Prior to last March, the use of LED screens by studios to create entire landscapes and worlds in camera was still a rather new technology with some notable players in the broadcast sector experimenting with its possibilities – The Mandalorian being one of the most well-publicised examples.
But with live shows being cancelled, many have turned their attention to this developing world to formulate a workflow to make these options viable for clients. With standout performances from Billie Eilish, not to mention the MTV VMAs, it seems that there is certainly scope for LED studios to play an important part in the touring cycles of the future.
At the forefront of this conversation has been disguise and its xR toolkit. Speaking to TPi as the start of this year, CTO Ed Plowman gave an overview of how 2020 had been for the company. He reported that during the past 10 months, disguise have known over 100 xR studios being built in over 30 counties and “what we have seen so far is only the beginning.” He continued: “For the past year, this [xR] has been technology out of necessity but what is has turned into is incredible. We’re getting to a model where is doesn’t even matter where he talent is based – a show can still be put on.”
But performing on an LED stage that can create a whole visual world is only the tip of the iceberg. Straight out of the pages of Ready Player One, perhaps we really could be getting close to musical events existing in a fully immersive, virtual world. I am of course talking about VR.
During the summer of 2020 we saw a number of festivals organisers opt to not sit idly by while their events got cancelled, but to create a VR world in which patrons could still attend a fully immersive experience. In America, the organisers of Burning Man created the Burning Man Multiverse; while on the other side of the Atlantic, the creatives behind Shangri-La partnered with VRJAM and Sensar to create Lost Horizon. This was a two-day event in which gig-goers were able to create a virtual avatar and, either via a VR interface or on a PC, attend the multi-staged virtual festival and interact with other patrons. Robin Collings, co-director of Lost Horizons, spoke about what the future might hold for this type of event: “What we are looking at is a future where both a virtual event and a true live event would be able to take place simultaneously. So in the virtual space, there would be an IMAG screen showing footage of the actual event in the real world and vice versa. We don’t think this will replace live events, but what we do see is an opportunity to expand the reach of the events.” Collings will take part in the Reporter Roundtable at the RISE Spotlight event ‘Live Event Experiences, Reinvented’ on Wednesday 3 February.
Touring model likely to change
So where do all these various pieces of innovation leave us? Sadly that is still very much up in the air as in 2021 in almost every continent, we are still in the grip of the deadly virus. But one thing that is clear in all the examples given here is that the live events industry is made of highly creative individuals hell bent on technological innovation to find solutions for the artists they serve. It’s an industry of problem solvers, and when events begin to return they will surely be ready with a number of options for artists.
However, this will not be an overnight change back to normality. Touring across the globe will not be a simple task as different regions will progress at different rates. So you might have to watch the next major world tour on a headset or phone while a friend in another country gets to see it in person. Time will tell but we can be sure that the men and women of the live events industry will stop at nothing to let the music play. As the old adage states – the show must go on!
Stew Hume is Editor of TPi – widely regarded as the industry’s most authoritative monthly business-to-business publication dedicated to the design and technology of live events, from concert, gig and festival productions, to theatre shows and temporary events.
He is the moderator of the Reporter Roundtable and On the Sofa sessions at RISE Spotlight: Live Events Experiences, Reinvented on Wednesday 3 February.
With events producers increasingly looking to deliver an immersive experience that begins at the entrance to the venue, the new Live Events Zone at ISE 2021 will showcase lighting and lighting control, rigging and staging equipment, motion tracking, video mapping, holography and much more besides. It will be full of solutions for small temporary venues right up to major stadium concerts.