- 04 Mar 21
March 12th marks the one-year anniversary of the shutdown of the live entertainment industry in Ireland. With summer on the horizon, industry professionals are calling for clear decisions to be made about the future of live events and festivals. "The end of March is D-Day for us," says events producer Pearse Doherty. "We need decisions made in the next two to three weeks. That's the reality."
With summer rapidly approaching, event organisers, crew, production staff and artists are seeking clarity about the future of live music in Ireland.
Following the uproar sparked by Taoiseach Micheál Martin's comments about hospitality not reopening "before the middle of the summer", Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media Catherine Martin TD confirmed last week that, given the advice of NPHET, it was currently impossible to put a timeline on the reopening of the live music sector.
“There had been an expectation of a timeline," the Minister acknowledged. "But the medical advice is that we should not do that – because there are so many moving variables."
However, encouragingly, she went on to state that "we have to look with optimism to the summer," when queried about the future of outdoor festivals in Ireland – many of which are currently selling tickets for events this summer.
While the situation on these shores remains uncertain, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently announced that he hopes to lift all Covid-19 restrictions in the UK on June 21, allowing large events, including festivals, to go ahead.
Speaking on Today with Claire Byrne on RTÉ Radio 1 yesterday, Nick Morgan, the CEO of London-based event and festival production company We Are The Fair, noted that he is "planning now as if we are going ahead" – but also acknowledged that there are still many obstacles to face before festivals and large-scale events return in the UK.
"There are some concerns," he admitted. "You would've seen in the small print that there's an Event Research Programme that still has to be undertaken, which will centre around pilot events. That data from those pilot events will inform some of the operating procedures or guidance that we may have to operate under when shows are given a green light.
"The biggest caveat is around social distancing," he continued. "It's not realistic to be able to operate most of our shows, for example, which are 10,000 and above in terms of capacity, with socially distancing being a control. You've got to think of the realism – in front of the main stage, is it possible or viable to actually get people to socially distance?"
Morgan went on to note that vaccinations and testing are two other major issues that event organisers have to take into consideration. He argued that testing everyone who arrives at a festival is "just not realistic" – and instead advocated for "the aviation model, which is away from site".
"Whether that's in in mass-testing centres, or they buy a test, which will be readily available through retail in advance of coming to that show," he resumed. "And then that test result links to an app – whether that's the NHS app, or myGP. There are challenges with that, because obviously it's self-administered, and you could effectively manipulate that test... But anything is better than nothing."
Morgan was joined on Today with Claire Byrne by Shane Dunne (Indiependence managing director), Trevor O'Shea (founder of Bodytonic Music) and Pearse Doherty (Vice Chair of EPIC, events producer and former member of The Saw Doctors) – who offered an Irish perspective on the future of the live music sector, which is approaching the one-year anniversary of its closure on March 12.
At the outset, Claire Byrne asked Pearse Doherty if there was hope for anything on the festival front this summer.
"There's always hope – that's the nature of the business," Doherty responded. "Promoters and event organisers always have hope that something positive is going to happen. From our point of view, we are looking forward to the establishment of a cross-departmental stakeholder forum, that was advised by the Arts and Culture Task Force back in November. If we could get this in place, we could actually start having the conversation about restarting this sector, so that when the time comes we'd be ready for it.
"But at the moment we don't have that stakeholder forum established, and that's what we are calling for immediately."
Later in the day, Minister Catherine Martin confirmed also that she will be proceeding with the Stakeholder Forum.
Doherty went on to address the ongoing frustrations of those involved in the industry.
"Back in October, the announcement of the €50 million investment into the live events industry was very, very positively received," he said. "We fought hard for it, and we got it. It was the first time that the industry was recognised. But not a lot has moved, as regards our companies, and the professional event organisers. The CRSS hasn't ticked the boxes for our SMEs. We haven't been able to access those supports, so they're on their knees. We will get to the other side of this, but we cannot leave these people behind.
"We are having conversations with the Government on this," he added. "But we really need to move it along faster."
Shane Dunne was hopeful about the possibility of holding safe, standalone concerts in the near-future – but expressed concerns about the potential problems of festivals opening on one side of the Irish border, and not the other.
"You're going to end up with a lot of movement of people heading North, over the border," he said. "If we find ourselves in a scenario, after the 21st of June, whereby there are still very strict restrictions in the South, but events and festivals are happening in the North, it will be a very strange anomaly on the island of Ireland."
After the Taoiseach's comments about hospitality not returning until mid-summer, Trevor O'Shea noted that he was not hopeful about festivals and events returning in the coming months.
"Mid-summer could mean anything from the start of June to the end of July," he stated. "If they're that negative about hospitality, which did open last summer, and had a framework to operate under, then where does that leave things like festivals, events or sports?"
However, O'Shea saw the news about the roadmap for reopening the live entertainment industry in the UK as a glimmer of hope on the horizon. "But," he added, "the big issue here is vaccinations."
"Boris can say what he said, and can have a roadmap, because they've nearly vaccinated a third of the population," he said, before voicing his frustrations over the vaccine distribution programme in Ireland.
Indeed, the vaccine programme in Ireland has been widely criticised – with former minister Dara Calleary and other Fianna Fáil TDs reportedly among those who have expressed their concerns about the alarmingly slow pace of the roll-out. Last week, the HSE failed to reach its commitment of 100,000 administered vaccines, falling short by 18,157 doses. The shortfall has been blamed on delays in the delivery of AstraZeneca vaccines.
Speaking at a Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting this week, the Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said that he expects over 80% of the population will be offered their first dose of the vaccine by the end of June – and hopes that the country can do better than the September vaccination target.
"Whether we open slowly, or at a different speed, like the UK – as long as we don't close down again, that's my main thing," says O'Shea. "As long as we can move forward in a positive direction, that's really all that we'd be looking for."
Doherty concluded that a decision about the future of summer festivals in Ireland must be made sooner rather than later.
"There is a restart delay here," he explained. "If we're given the go-ahead, it's going to take 16 weeks for events over 5,000 – which are highly unlikely. But aside from that, anything that involves an outdoor situation involves an awful lot of planning. We can't just turn it around in three weeks. All the musical acts have to be taken into consideration as well. The end of March is D-Day for us. We need decisions made in the next two to three weeks. That's the reality."
In New York, meanwhile, the governor, Andrew M. Cuomo, has announced that venues will be allowed to reopen at 33% capacity from April 2. Indoor events will be limited to 100 people capacity, while outdoor events will be allowed to have 200 attendees. If the venues are able to carry out tests on their attendees, the capacity will be increased to 150 people indoors, and 500 outdoors.