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Music venues take cautiously optimistic approach as live gigs return with social distancing

As music venues slowly begin to host live gigs again, they face a series of financial and logistical challenges.

The set-up for a socially-distanced gig at The Workman's Club on 14 August.
The set-up for a socially-distanced gig at The Workman's Club on 14 August.
Image: Owen Humphreys

MUSIC VENUES AROUND the country are looking to mitigate the challenges posed by social distancing, reduced capacities, and changing guidelines as they reopen for the first time since March.

With the venues beginning to open their doors again, new measures have been put in place to accommodate socially-distanced gigs in the coronavirus era.

In Dublin, the Workman’s Club is among one of the first venues to host live music since Covid-19 hit Ireland, with a gig to launch Ultan Conlon’s new album yesterday evening.

The Button Factory and the Green Room at the Academy also have shows lined up for August, with most venues recommencing live gigs from September onwards.

Uncertainty

For many venues, the most significant challenge has been navigating new social distancing measures while struggling with a lack of clarity on when they would be allowed to reopen – and more importantly, how.

Under the government’s original phased reopening plan, 100 people would have been allowed to gather indoors and 500 people outdoors from the end of July in Phase Four.

Phase Four was pushed back in July, and pushed back again in August, and the phasing plan is now to be replaced by a colour-coded system to indicate Ireland’s Covid-19 risk status. 

“We were all prepared on 22 July, and then on 10 August again, to open and be compliant with social distancing, expecting people to come to a gig for 60 minutes and then leave,” said Gugai, booker and co-owner of the Róisín Dubh in Galway.

“But, obviously, we weren’t able to open, which was a huge disappointment to all the staff and the customers.”

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Una Molloy, who runs the music agency Turning Pirate and is the programmer for Lost Lane in Dublin, said that there has been a “lack of focus from the government on the live entertainment sector”.

Several of the bookers spoke of difficulties faced by venues without kitchen facilities due to current regulations on the need to serve food alongside alcohol.

In Galway, Róisín Dubh doesn’t currently do food, so they’re “looking at ways that we can open”. 

“The food thing seems arbitrary and fairly ridiculous – that you can go have something to eat and sit down, but you can’t go sit down and be socially-distanced at a show,” Gugai said.

Similarly, Molloy said that it was “very arbitrary, the rules around it, compared to most things”.

“You can go sit in a restaurant with six of your mates from different houses and sit across them for an hour and a half eating food, but you can’t go into a venue and quietly look at an acoustic show,” she said.

“Having people focused on music and going to see a live show and is good for the heart and the soul and mental health. It’s good for focusing, so you’ll have more control over people sitting looking at Lisa Hannigan playing a solo set than people milling around a restaurant.

“The unfairness is that there’s no focus on it. There’s no focus on venues as an entity in their own right.”

Social distancing

At the Grand Social, booker Keiron Black said that hygiene measures when customers arrive will be “just like any other place”.

“They’re going to have to put their hands in sanitising lotion and follow the two metres, or one metre by then,” Black said.

 The venue will also allow only a small number of people into the toilets at a time.

“If people are too intoxicated, they won’t be allowed in,” Black said.

“We will take no risks whatsoever. We have to protect the staff, protect the customers, and protect the musicians.”

At Workman’s, the new set up is a “whole different” place, according to Vinney Casey, venue manager at Workman’s. “It looks almost like a classroom.”

Customers at the Workman’s will have their temperature checked at the door and be assigned a set table.

Orders will be taken from the table, with customers writing their orders down on a card which the wait staff will bring to bar staff.

“The only reason that people would need to get up and around is to go to the bathroom,” Casey said.

Whatever about government regulations, we want people to feel safe and want people to be safe.

Socially-distanced gigs will likely be “significantly shorter” than an ordinary experience at a venue.

At Friday’s night show in the Workman’s, for instance, there was no support act, which reduces the amount of time people spend at the gig.

“Instead of being there for three hours, like you usually would be, it’s probably just over an hour,” Casey said.

For contact tracing, music venues have an advantage in the sense that they already have a system in place for collecting details through the sale of tickets.

“The difference between a normal pub and a gig, or a restaurant and a gig, is that we already have contact information because of buying tickets,” Gugai said.

Counting heads

Currently, 50 people are allowed to gather inside and 200 are allowed to gather outside, with the limit due to increase to 100 people indoors and 500 people outdoors on 31 August.

Within those capacities, venues are trying to fit in acts, musicians, their backstage crew, and wait staff – and customers. 

“We believe that we’ll be up to a 100 capacity,” said Black from The Grand Social.

“It’s kind of a bold statement because as it stands right now we can fit about 60 people in that room with social distancing, but if it goes down to one metre social distancing, which we believe will happen, [then they’ll be able to fit 100],” he said.

“It’s not viable to be open for under 60 people. Every business has that problem – you have to double your staff to give table service, get extra security on to make sure your numbers are correct.”

At the Róisín Dubh, Gugai said a key challenge for spaces holding shows is the discrepancy between standing and seated capacities.

“The main problem with these shows, and even using venues for outdoor shows as well, is that even if you’re looking at a venue that usually has 800 capacity standing, you’re probably looking at it being maybe 180 capacity seated,” Gugai said.

“But, you’re not really saving any money on the PA or production, so that’s costing you about the same money, and you’ll probably have to bring in a floor and tables and chairs.

“It’s very, very hard to make the figures work with 180 people, unless you’re talking about a very high ticket price.”

Acts

Some venues have rethought what kind of acts they’re booking, and how many shows they book them for.

For social distancing and financial factors, solo acts have proven the most appealing option as venues start to reopen with limited capacities and funding.

“The acts that can play are solo acts, people who can travel on their own or people who don’t need to get on a plane,” Molloy said.

“You’ve also, within that, got people having to play two shows. A lot of the time we’re getting people to do two shows on a Saturday and two shows on a Sunday, where there would usually be one show.”

At Workman’s, most of the upcoming gigs are solo acoustic acts or comedy shows, which lend themselves to an “acoustic, sit down kind of vibe for sure”. 

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Empty pockets

Facing reduced capacities, venues are trying to balance lower intake with higher costs.

“There are suddenly the added costs of people taking temperatures at the door, contact tracing, extra staff in toilets to clean the toilets and making sure that people put the social distancing marks on the floor,” Molloy said. 

It’s all added costs for somewhere that has very small margins already.

Casey of Workman’s said that “financially”, reopening right now with current limits “doesn’t make a huge amount of sense”.

“We’re just trying to get acts back on stage – and if we even break even, we’re happy enough,” Casey said.

Similarly, Molloy said that the return of gigs was crucial for acts and venues who are trying to stay on top of expenses like rent.

“A lot of artists are just doing anything they can,” she said.

“People in the live sector have had no income since March and probably won’t get an income again until next summer at least.”

The stage lights at the end of the tunnel

For the Grand Social, the closure during lockdown allowed the venue to move forward renovations that ordinarily wouldn’t have been finished until 2022, including a new kitchen that will serve street food.

“We’ve taken the opportunity to do other things we weren’t going to do until 2022,” Black said.

“Because we were closed, we could make the renovations and not affect trade.”

Although restrictions and social distancing have created challenges for venues, the need to adapt to new circumstances has sparked different and creative approaches to gigs.

In England, the country’s first socially-distanced concert was held on Tuesday, with Sam Fender performing at Gosforth Park.

Groups of up to five people watched the show outdoors in Newcastle from 500 separate raised metal platforms.

Gugai said that “people trying stuff like the [show in England] is really admirable”.

“People were saying, ‘would you go to that show?’, and like, yeah, I’d go to that show, I would love to go to that show. It’d be amazing to go to that show.”

Black is optimistic about the landscape for the music industry, and said that there is a “lot of scope” for the government and fans to support musicians and venues.

Molloy said that support for the industry could make a crucial difference going forward, but that it’s not where it needs to be right now.

“There’s just no support, or the supports are €10k grants or €15k grants. For a lot of places, that’s a drop in the ocean in terms of weekly costs.

“It’s a labour of love – but if there was more support, we’d be able to do it for more than that.”

The return of gigs, however unusual their format, has come as welcome news for fans eager to soak up live music again.

Molloy said that gigs that have been announced are selling out quickly, while Black said that shows in The Grand Social between next January and April are almost sold out.

Casey said that the Workman’s received an “overwhelming” response to its reopening announcement.

“I think people were ready for just some bit of good news.”

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