Government is “pushing live music off a cliff-edge” without pilot gig results or insurance

"The government are really quick to stop us, but never quick to support us," argue industry bosses, with yet more festivals cancelled without guidance or support

The government has been accused of “pushing live music off a cliff-edge” and endangering the future of the industry by failing to publish the results of recent COVID event pilots or providing festivals with insurance.

This week saw Kendal Calling become the latest in a long line of UK festivals that have been forced to cancel this summer. Despite being due to take place after the delayed July 19 “Freedom Day” re-opening date for life to resume without coronavirus restrictions, the festival said that they were unable to go ahead without the guidance that should have now been provided by the results of recent pilot events – such as May’s Blossoms show at Sefton Park and the clubbing test nights in Liverpool, not to mention the BRIT Awards and others.

Kendal Calling organisers said that it was “an insult to the entire industry” to still be waiting for the long-awaited research from the Event Research Programme (ERP) two months later, combined with the government refusing to provide festival insurance until the industry reopens. The Association of Independent Festivals claim that this would be far too late.

“The cancellation of Kendal Calling is heartbreaking and, like many other festival cancellations, was entirely avoidable,” CEO of the AIF Paul Reed told NME. “The live music and festival industry has spent months participating and investing in pilot events to develop a rationale for how events can safely reopen with the right mitigations in place. Government are now delaying the publication of the ERP report. We call for full transparency and for the release of the report, which will demonstrate how we can safely reopen and inform relevant guidance.”

He continued: “Over 90 per cent of festivals still planning for this year take place after July 19 and could still go ahead – but they cannot continue to plan and invest without a government-backed insurance scheme. The industry has made a compelling case for this over six months and most countries across the rest of Europe now have indemnity schemes in place to protect their festival industries, placing them firmly on the road to recovery.

“The absence of this is pushing the UK’s festival industry to a cliff-edge, evidenced by the fact that over a third of UK festivals have already cancelled, with many more to follow. Festivals require months of planning and cost millions of pounds to stage. If the government has confidence in July 19 as a terminus date, they will back this now. Waiting until after step 4 will be far too late for the vast majority of festivals this summer.”

Kendal Calling Festival
Kendal Calling, which was cancelled this week. Credit: Getty

The delayed reopening and lack of clarity is also having a very profound human impact on the individuals who work within the live music world. Andy Lenthall is the general manager of the Production Services Association, who has been campaigning for more support for crew workers, roadies and technicians throughout the pandemic. The government’s inaction is now causing huge damage to industry confidence and individuals’ mental health and financial situations.

“Everyone in the industry is really confused,” said Lenthall. “You can’t doubt the rise in infection, but that’s absolutely nothing to do with live events – because there haven’t been any. Yet they’re still delaying us, despite the fact that we’ve done loads of test events that prove that you get a load of people who don’t have COVID into one place, then people don’t get COVID.

“Events run on the protocols from these pilots will be safe. So why not let them go ahead?”

Lenthall argued that as well as at least another month’s work being lost on top of the fact that companies now face a rise in contributions to the jobs support scheme, and that freelancers are still being denied any benefit from the Cultural Recovery Fund, painted a very grim picture for crew workers when the government is doing little to show the light at the end of the tunnel.

“The government are really quick to stop us, but never quick to support us,” he said. “We’re left scraping by. We’re still operating the Stagehand Crew Relief Fund. Fundraising for people has been difficult because people thought we were all going back to work.”

He continued: “Day to day, you wake and think, ‘Will I actually be getting back to work in July?’ The struggle really goes on until next summer. We’re a seasonal business of feast or famine and we’ve already lost three months. Add to that the doubt when the government simply aren’t giving us the tools to get back to work. Look at Europe: they’ve got the insurance, the guidance and the confidence to go back to work at a certain time.

“That lack of confidence goes all the way down the market from a festival not being able to happen to an individual not being able to pay their rent. People haven’t been able to pay their bills for over a year, and if you take away that confidence that it will ever return, then it’s just going to have a really negative impact on people’s mental health. It’s a vicious circle of hope and doubt that we’ve been put into.

“No one has seen the full results from the pilot events. What are they trying to hide from not releasing the data?”

Citing reports that apparently just 15 out of 58,000 people tested positive for COVID-19 following the various government-run event trials, which followed a corroborating report that mass events without COVID-19 restrictions are “as risky as going shopping”, Lenthall agreed with claims that events like last weekend’s Download pilot event stood as “100 per cent evidence” that festivals could go ahead this summer – but that the government urgently needed to do their bit to make them worthwhile.

“The hurtful thing is that the live music industry paid for these test events. They’re not government-funded,” he added. “They had to be done on a shoestring budget with limited ticket sales, and that just shows that the industry’s will to help is not matched by the government’s will to support us. They’re miles apart.”

The crowd at Blossoms’ Sefton Park Liverpool pilot gig. Credit: Ben Bentley

Dave Webster is the National Organiser of Live Performance at the Musicians’ Union, who agreed that the delayed reopening and lack of insurance or guidance was having a huge knock-on effect throughout the music world.

“Yesterday (June 21) was going to be the day when everything reopened, so it’s a massive blow for musicians and the whole industry,” he told NME. “Everyone’s absolutely furious about it. Look out there at what’s going on at the football and sport events and things like that, and it doesn’t make any sense that the live events industry, which has worked really hard to make this work, are being held back and still can’t earn a living. It’s just devastating.”

He continued: “When they announced the third round of the Cultural Recovery Fund we asked for them to please make it available for musicians and freelancers because so many are falling between the gaps, as we have been since COVID started, and the answer was no. They managed to do it in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but it’s staggering that they can’t do it here in England.

“We seem to be left high and dry. What we need is for the government to support musicians financially, for the insurance scheme to come in and for the pilot results to be published for the industry to see if we can open safely and get back up and running. However, that’s not fitting with Number 10’s narrative so they’re not releasing it.”

Webster said that it was widely believed that the results of the pilot events so far had yielded positive results, and felt as if musicians were being treated unfairly.

“Look at the football where you’ve got hundreds of fans all singing their hearts out in the terraces, and you can’t even have a choir allowed to rehearse or perform in a COVID-safe environment. It’s just an insult,” he added. “We’re at a point now where we’re already seeing a talent drain in the UK. It’s frightening because the UK music industry is one of the best in the world, and it’s being hammered.”

Blossoms - Liverpool
Concert-goers are checked through security at the Blossoms pilot gig. CREDIT: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Dr Michael Head is a Senior Research Fellow in Global Health at the University of Southampton. Speaking to NME, he revealed that test events so far proved positive for a late summer of live music – but still advised caution in lifting restrictions.

“With all the pilots that have happened, the results so far suggest that in a controlled environment you can control COVID-19 quite well,” Dr Head told NME. “There haven’t been too many new infections as a result of these test events.

“In terms of scaling them up, it’s different to have a small sample who know they’re part of a pilot to just letting everyone go about their business in large gatherings. There are still a large amount of people out there who are susceptible to the virus, and of course the vaccines are not 100 per cent effective.”

He continued: “There haven’t been too many cases of COVID-19 from these events. As more and more people get vaccinated then any new cases should either be very, very mild in nature or asymptomatic, along with a much lower risk of transmission.

“What we’ve seen has been reassuring, and as long as this current COVID wave doesn’t get too big then I think we can look forward to seeing more events as we go through the rest of the summer, while hoping that the winter wave doesn’t get too big.”

While agreeing that reopening was “absolutely essential”, Dr Head is also confident in a return to full-capacity live events in the coming months.

“I think we will see very few restrictions in place from some point in the summer,” he added. “Whether that will be July 19, I’m not quite sure. The restrictions might go on a little bit beyond that, but I think we can look forward to some kind of normality later this summer.

“The vaccine roll-out has been contributing to that and it’s really heartening to see all age groups of the population going to queue up for their jabs in such large numbers. We have seen a brilliant uptake and that will help in easing the restrictions as soon as possible.”

Responding to NME, a spokesperson for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said: “We are continuing to work flat out to support festivals and live events including through our ongoing Events Research Programme.

“Festival organisers have received more than £34million from our unprecedented Culture Recovery Fund, with more financial support on the way after a £300million boost at budget.

“The Events Research Programme is part of four ongoing Government COVID reviews linked to easing restrictions. The others are the Global Travel Taskforce, the Social Distancing Review and the Covid Status Certification Review. Its conclusions will be published ahead of step 4 of the roadmap.”

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