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'We need a plan': Live events are happening in Ireland - but it's not all plain sailing

We speak to promoters and venues putting on gigs in the new era of live performance.

Dom Martin's Savages
Dom Martin's Savages
Image: Paul Dubbelman

THE ONSET OF the Covid-19 pandemic meant huge changes for Irish society, some of which are already starting, in a small way, to roll back.

But for the live entertainment industry, things are only barely getting back to normal. Earlier this month, DJ and promoter Niall Byrne (aka Nialler9), made a direct appeal to the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht Sport and Media Catherine Martin TD for an urgent roadmap for the live events sector. 

“Like many involved in the Irish music industry, I have been waiting with bated breath for over 500 days, 16-plus months, to get back to live events, to putting on gigs and club nights – to make a normal income,” said Byrne.

Minister Martin had said she was working closely with Government colleagues towards developing a re-opening plan for the sector, but Byrne said that he and his peers need that plan now. While pilot events have taken place, watching how quickly other countries have progressed from pilot to live events has led some in the industry to question how far behind Ireland is. 

Still, it was recently clarified (amid controversy over an event organised by former minister Katherine Zappone) that venues are able to hold live music events outdoors under specific restrictions. So how have the organisers of events fared so far? 

‘We’re conscious the artists have been hit badly’

Aislinn OhEocha Executive Artistic Director Baboro International Arts Festival for Children Photo Andrew Downes Aislinn Ó hEocha, Executive Artistic Director Baboro International Arts Festival for Children Source: Andrew Downes:

Aislinn Ó hEocha is the Executive Artistic Director of Baboró International Arts Festival for Children. Over the past two years, things have changed massively in how Baboró has been able to bring its festival to audiences. But despite the constraints, it’s gearing up for this year’s event in October. The fact that this is the 25th anniversary of the festival only serves to highlight how much has changed in so short a time. 

“This year was maybe more difficult [than 2020] in some ways. The uncertainty has been around for so long now and I guess we were very hopeful at the end of 2020 about what the end of 2021 would look like,” said Ó hEocha. “And then we were hit with new year 2021 [and another lockdown], so from that stage forward we’ve been planning as much as possible to meet the audience in person because during our 2020 festival, the country went into lockdown three.”

They had a blended programme last year, but ended up having to pull out of the venues due to the lockdown. She said that artists and audiences were “really understanding” as they moved online. But this experience only encouraged them to meet their audience this year.

That’s not least because of the positive impact the creative arts and expression have on our wellbeing, especially children’s, she said.

Ó hEocha believes that there’s a “real fatigue around digital consumption at the moment”, and so Baboró is really keen that children can share in live performances. 

But due to the fact there is still uncertainty around it, Baboró has to plan for reduced capacity theatre performances. It’s also bringing work out into the community, with a festival in a van and Little John Nee going out to meet people in rural communities in Galway. 

The festival has a very broad reach – in 2019 it engaged with 24,000 people over seven days. About half the audience is usually ticket-buyers, and the other comes through schools. This is a really important area for Baboró, but one that is affected by Covid-19 restrictions. While some schools are set up for outdoor events, others aren’t. 

“We’re thinking about different ways of being able to fully deliver and engage with children in the classroom,” said Ó hEocha. 

Usually, the festival’s artists are mostly from abroad (about two thirds of them are international). But this year they have a mostly Irish-based contingent, apart from one artist from the UK.

Aobhlín Flynn (age 9) and Mícheál Barceló (age 12) flying the flag for Baboró at 25 Photo Andrew Downes 3

It’s “just too uncertain” to bring people in from abroad in the same numbers, plus they are “very conscious of all of the fantastic artists [in Ireland] who have been really badly hit as well [by the pandemic]“. 

A further challenge, though, is how long it takes to get the programme together. Usually planning is done very far in advance, but these days they have to be very agile and have plenty of backup plans and different scenarios, “for when things change as they almost certainly will at some point”, said Ó hEocha. They know, too, that it’s “very challenging for artists as well”.

The layers to this new way of working includes team training, needing to sanitise the venues after use, and setting up clear signage. Plus, on the practical end the festival needs extra time for venues to be set up. 

When it comes to financial support, Ó hEocha said that the Arts Council has been “very responsive”.

I think the whole sector generally has felt very supported which has been great, not to have to worry so much about that aspect of things. Although anything during a pandemic is more expensive than it would be normally. 

She added that when it comes to the future, the “sooner that we know what we can work with the better”, but acknowledged it is better to be cautious before opening any further. 

“At the moment I’m hopeful that we will be able to meet small audience numbers, and then we’ll hopefully be planning for next year dealing with a different  scenario. Clearly this is something that isn’t going away, and we have to find a way of living with it in some shape or form in the next number of years.”

As for why a children’s festival like Baboró is important, Ó hEocha said it’s because “their lives have been so disruptive in missing school and all that comes with that, socially and creatively, and their wider life experience. You are only five for only 365 days, you don’t get that back, so I think it’s really important that children aren’t forgotten in the planning and in life outside of school as well. They’ve been so resilient and they’ve dealt with so much.”

Because of that, she said it is important that teachers and artists are supported too, so that children get “the chance to not only enjoy the arts for art’s sake but also find that expression to be able to reflect on what they’ve lived through”.

And, she added: “The sector is incredibly resilient. It’s been really notable how the arts have really stepped up to the plate in any way that they can.”

Live gigs

Moving from festivals to live music events, Cork promoter the Good Room has been able to put on small live gigs in the county. But like with Baboró, it’s not without its challenges. 

It has been able to plan the shows thanks to government funding, and knowing that indoors might be an issue, has only planned for outdoor gigs. Last week, it announced Magic Nights By The Lee, a live programme that includes gigs outdoor in Cork city parks – like John Spillane and Lorraine Nash at Ballinlough Park, and The Frank and Walters at Fitzgerald’s Park. 

That series is funded by the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Cork City Council and the council’s Arts Office. Without this sort of funding, it’s arguable that such events – live gigs across seven nights – just couldn’t take place. 

The Good Room is even putting on a festival, It Takes A Village, in September thanks in part to funding.

But it had bad news earlier this year when it closed the Kino venue, as its landlord wants to sell it. That meant one less live venue for the city.

Ed O’Leary, concert promoter with the Good Room, said that though they’ve been able to do some planning and organising, “there is no roadmap” for the next few months and into 2022. 

“We were hoping that by September we would be back with a small indoor capacity, or at least have that option,” he said. “It was very hard to plan after 30 September. I 100% agree [with Niall Byrne], we are flying blind, we can’t plan for next year.”

The Good Room runs the Live at St Luke’s gigs (it held a Lankum gig in the impressive city church venue in early 2020, just before lockdown), and has had to postpone a number of gigs there. 

“All were sold to capacity, so we can only run them if they’re full capacity. At the moment I can’t see that happening before the end of the year,” said O’Leary.

We’ll probably have to reschedule all those shows again. It doesn’t make sense really as well, the way the vaccinations take-up is so good. Why aren’t [the Government] starting to look at full capacity in gigs? Why aren’t they talking about getting rid of all restrictions [for live events]?

He pointed to shows in places like Portugal and Northern Ireland as proof that full capacity shows can happen (under certain rules). “[Ireland is] again the last to the party in that respect.”

He said that smaller independent venues, promoters and nightclubs are in the dark: ”It is very hard to look at next year or even know what we will or won’t be able to do. Even by Christmas we would have been hoping to be back to some form of normality.”

Applying for funding is an art in itself, and O’Leary pointed out that it can be a new area for some people. “Most of the people in our situation have never applied for Arts Council funding or any funding,” he said. “It’s a private industry sector really, it’s all for profit but we’ve always been able to stand on our own two feet. It’s a whole new world for most of us. It’s a challenge and it’s time consuming.”

He said that in general Minister Martin’s department has funded the sector very well, though he acknowledged that one or two things can fall through the cracks.

“It’s just the message and roadmap from here on in that is lacking for me. 

“We need to have a plan – we need to know when we can have full capacity gigs with no restrictions. Doing your 50 capacity gigs, it doesn’t pay the bills.”

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He said that the financial supports will have to stay in place until promoters are able to run gigs back at full capacity. 

As for the audiences, he said that everything the Good Room has put on so far has sold out.

The demand shows people are starved for shows, starved for entertainment. They are really, really appreciative and delighted these things are going ahead.

Online meaning new audiences

Over in Naul, Co Dublin the Séamus Ennis Arts Centre (which is 20 years open this year) is gearing up for four live gigs this month at the Piper’s Garden, its outdoor venue. Aoife Scott, Mick Flannery, Lisa Canny, and Dom Martin’s Savages are all booked in to play this month.

During lockdown, the venue pivoted to online gigs, and Deirdre Roche, Director of the centre, said that this brought in a whole new audience from across the world. 

She described the small arts venue as “nearly like a best-kept secret”, but the Zoom sessions it started to hold last year “took away the geographical barriers”.

It soon realised that 20% of the audience was coming from abroad, countries like South Korea and Sierra Leone. The same went for the online music lessons. 

During live streams, it would regularly see 38 countries represented among the viewers. “A little arts centre in a rural town could never have this reach, and suddenly we had that global reach.”

But Roche said that “with online events you don’t get the same sort of electricity you get from live events”.

When the venue got the go-ahead to hold outdoor gigs, it booked in artists for the Piper’s Garden. “That particular space holds about 500 people normally, but with current restrictions and social distancing we are down to 80/100,” said Roche. 

The first time the team got together after 16 months “was so brilliant, so exciting”. “Seeing people coming through the door with happy faces, they were so enthusiastic about getting back to live events, it really boosted our confidence for the upcoming season of events in August.”

The venue was able to gain capital supports to buy safety equipment, and engaged with a health and safety consultant. “For artists as well it’s down to little things like labelling water bottles so they are not swapping them,” Roche said of the safety measures. “We have separate labelled mics which then go into sanitising units. All the things you [in pre-Covid times] don’t think about.”

As for the artists themselves, Roche said “they were all a bit concerned, they hadn’t played in front of audiences in a few months – some artists were pacing around behind the scenes nervously waiting to go on. But then once they went on it’s like riding a bike”.

“And our audiences are very appreciative and friendly.”

Though she is delighted to have the Piper’s Garden open again, Roche said that realistically an outdoor space like that would only work until the weather shifts to colder temperatures in the winter.

Its indoor venue, with social distancing guidelines, would only be able to fit a small number of its total capacity of 95 people, which Roche said wouldn’t be a “meaningful audience” for performer and visitors. So the centre has to think about potentially pivoting back to digital.

“If things continue as they are we will be back into live streaming again and to be honest, going forward anyway our plan is to go with a hybrid model – a live audience and another level of tickets where people can access the gig on a live stream. Then the new audience we have gained globally will still be able to participate in events and our music classes. We don’t want to lose our new audience we’ve gained.”

But like the other promoters, she noted:

“There is still uncertainty; none of us knows what the future is going to bring.

We’re just very hopeful the vaccine rollout will bring us to a semblance of normality.

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