Sir Van Morrison made headlines this week after it was announced that he was dropping his legal challenge against a "blanket ban" on live music in Northern Ireland. The singer has long been an outspoken critic of the government's Covid restrictions and his thoughts have been echoed by many in the industry. Singers, theatrical actors and entertainment crew have felt the repercussions of the long term lockdowns due to the pandemic.
Van himself commented this week:
"For some reason, completely unknown to me, the ban remained in force in Northern Ireland with catastrophic consequences for many artists, venues and the economy as a whole."
The singer, who has released three anti-lockdown songs in the past year, added:
"As we look to the future, we need to understand the plan and strategy to support the arts and live music sector going forward... as ultimately this helps support society as a whole. It's concerning that such considerations appear to have been forgotten."
We've all read over the last 18 months of how strict government lockdowns have had a devastating effect on live entertainment. Almost every major touring artist has been forced to cancel their tours, performers who've dedicated their entire lives to the arts were abruptly told to "retrain in a new profession" and some already struggling theatres have been forced to close their doors for good, unable to cope with the crippling financial impact of Covid lockdowns. It has left many in the entertainment field in despair.
While of course businesses the world over have struggled to adapt to the new realities of post-Covid life, few have been impacted as harshly as those who work in live entertainment. Many of the most severe casualties have found themselves on the poverty line, with little to no support from the government.
In the UK, when Covid numbers started to fall in September of 2020, Chancellor of The Exchequer Rishi Sunak announced a Winter Economy Plan to replace the furlough scheme which had previously been in place for employees negatively-impacted by the Covid-19 lockdowns. The new plan was predicated upon the assumption that the country was slowly getting back to normal. Whilst many businesses were not yet operating at full capacity, the government had agreed to financially support employees who were able to complete 33 percent of their usual contracted working hours.
Non-essential workers welcomed the news with a massive sigh of relief, but whilst hospitality and construction industries were slowly being supported to get back on their
feet, those working in live entertainment seemed all but forgotten. Life for the average live entertainment employee was far from getting back to normal and many were forced to find work outside of the creative sectors, with no assurance that they would ever be able to return. This would have had an immense impact not just on their financial situations, but their mental health.
In the last few months,with many of the more stricter restrictions now finally lifted, many of the biggest markets for live entertainment have begun to take tentative baby steps in getting back to normal. Bands are going back on the road, summer festivals are taking place and both Broadway and London's West End are opening up their doors once again. But the uncertainty remains for those fortunate enough to still be employed in the sector, with nobody really knowing whether future shows will go ahead or not, as live entertainment venue shut-downs are an inevitability if there is a coronavirus resurgence. Indeed, many must be wondering what support—if any—will be in place if their doors are forced to shut again once flu season arrives.
But—according to Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino—the public's appetite for live events is back and bigger than ever. Following a government announcement last February suggesting that large-scale UK events would be able to take place from June onwards, both Reading & Leeds and Creamfields festivals announced they were going ahead this summer and jointly sold out 170,000 tickets in just three days.
Rapino commented that "most of our major festivals sold out in record time" adding this was an impressive feat as "average ticket prices have been 10 percent higher than 2019." So it seems a worldwide pandemic and a massive hit to the global economy has done little to quell our interest in live events. We are happy to see it back and are prepared to pay more for it than before.
One can only hope that if there is a surge in numbers—as many are forecasting for the coming months–then those whose livelihoods depend on live entertainment are treated with the same courtesy and afforded the same financial support as other non-essential industries. Perhaps it is time the government recognized the value of an industry which, let's face it, props up many other industries.
According to a report from the Office of National Statistics, hotel occupancy in Greater London faced a predictably dismal August in 2020, with the average hotel operating at just 30 percent occupancy, compared to 86 percent in 2019. If this isn't an indication of the importance of live events to the overall economy then I don't know what is.
What lies around the corner for many established—and budding—entertainment artists is up for debate. Few feel secure in trusting in the current lifted restrictions, with the government already proving that anything can change at the drop of a hat. For many, that is just not good enough.