Crucial support for venues or awkward rooms with no atmosphere? Are socially distanced gigs worth it?

At the beginning of this year, I eagerly booked two festivals, confident that the only possible thing standing between me and a concert-packed summer was a global catastrophe. In hindsight, bragging to my Twitter followers about how I was going to see Charli XCX twice was definitely tempting fate. For eager concertgoers like me, grassroots venues are our church, and gigs are the closest thing we get to a spiritual experience. The feeling of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with other fans, taking in the presence of your favourite artist, and feeling the music physically reverberate throughout your body is unmatched. 

After a live music drought spanning almost six months, gigs were greenlit by the government to return in a socially distanced form. Thirsty music fans were delighted at the prospect of seeing their favourite musicians back in action but, almost a month later, has this gig format turned out to be a viable alternative or just a waste of time?

Sam Fender’s christening of the Virgin Money Unity Arena, the UK’s first socially distanced open-air performance space, has undoubtedly received the most attention. The requirements of social distancing led to the creation of five-hundred viewing platforms (perhaps more aptly described as human pens) separated by two metres. It’s a far cry from the rowdy festival crowds that, sans pandemic, Fender would be playing to this year, with one attendee calling the gig, “very civilised.” 

Concert goers took to instagram with photos of Sam Fender’s socially distanced gig

Indoor socially distanced gigs have been permitted from 15 August; Frank Turner’s appearance at the Clapham Grand on 29 July was a trial run for this new style of concert. Organisers reported that the show did not make enough money to cover operating costs, never mind pay Turner for his set. For the majority of grassroots venues, socially distanced gigs are not the financial lifeline that the government predicted they would be. Many do not have the physical space to abide by government guidelines and those that do are forced to operate at around ten percent of their usual capacity. Consequently, most venues continue to primarily depend on contributions from the Government’s £1.57bn Culture Recovery Fund in order to avoid bankruptcy.

Venues that can afford to run socially distanced gigs, whether through government grants or being a larger venue, appear to be running them at the expense of diversity, however. As journalist Selim Belut noted, the musicians currently being booked for big gigs are predominantly white, male artists, as organisers believe that they will reliably draw in large crowds. Out of the Unity Arena’s twenty-one musical events in August and September, only six feature women performers or musicians of colour. Economic necessity is warping the inherent inclusivity of the music scene and creating outsiders. This pandemic is evidently setting the live music industry back in more ways than just financially.

“one of the worst things that the Government can do is say: ‘Ok, you can re-open, but keep your distance please.’”

Another expressed grievance with socially distanced gigs is that they cannot replicate the atmosphere of a normal concert. Government guidance for indoor gigs stipulates that ‘singing along to music or cheering’ should be ‘discourage[d]’. Think less mosh pits, more responsibly distanced seating. People release their inhibitions at gigs, which cannot be achieved whilst adhering to the necessary safety rules. This limitation is felt by the performers, too, with Turner declaring, “my instinct is to create atmosphere and frenzy.” Can you imagine going to a Slowthai concert and politely nodding your head and humming along? This blueprint is clearly suited to some artists more than others, inadvertently exacerbating the lack of diversity in bookings.

Outdoor gigs are slightly different. After watching videos of a DJ set held at the Unity Arena, I actually found myself tempted to attend one. Instead of being relentlessly jostled around in a sweaty crowd, you get your own section in which you can sing and dance to your heart’s content, allowing a lively vibe to be created. Fender himself said that his gig, “felt like [he] was at a festival.” What more could you want?

At first thought, socially distanced gigs seem like the most logical way to restart the music industry. Outdoor gigs appear to have been the most effective in raising money, but have cracked the code a little too late. As winter looms around the corner, the practicality of outdoor gigs withers away with the sunshine. In the case of indoor gigs, myriad caveats mean that they are unable to raise sufficient funds for most grassroots venues. As one venue manager concisely summarises, “one of the worst things that the Government can do is say: ‘Ok, you can re-open, but keep your distance please.’”

 The live music industry relies on normalcy. It relies on packed venues, on lengthy queues for the bar, on everything that social distancing denies. As long as we stay two metres apart, gigs cannot provide a sustainable alternative for musicians, industry workers, or fans.

By Emma Bain
Image: by Rocco Dipoppa on Unsplash

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