When it’s a socially-distanced concert

I’ve been guilty of it myself, proudly trumpeting “this concert is now sold out!” for the events I have been promoting over the past two months (I work for a London-based arts organisation and a local concert series), and I know I’m not alone. For those of us who have been so bereft of live music this year – musicians, venue owners, promoters and of course audiences – the fact that live music, with audiences, has been able to resume is something to celebrate.

Government restrictions in response to coronavirus mean that venues cannot operate at full capacity, whether this is a church (capacity c80) or a major London venue (capacity c3000). Social distancing regulations require a certain amount of space to be allowed between audience members and in order to adhere to these regulations many venues are operating at less than half their normal capacity. Obviously, venues must be safe for audiences – if audiences feel safe they will come to events – but the maths is simple and very stark: fewer “bums on seats” means lower ticket revenues. And venues and concert promoters rely on this revenue in order to pay artists and cover the other costs of putting on concerts and running a venue. Additionally, venues are restricted regarding F&B service (Food and Beverages), in normal times a significant income stream.

So what to do? Obviously, venues and promoters, and of course musicians, are keen to welcome back live audiences – a concert is not really a concert without a live audience – but balancing the costs of presenting a concert against reduced ticket and other income is a significant headache.

If your venue is less than half full do you charge more than double the usual price for the tickets? Of course not. This would be unfair on audiences, and while a few would be prepared to pay more, to support venue and artists, many would be deterred by a hike in ticket prices and would choose to stay away. With current restrictions in place, many venues and promoters are struggling to break-even.

But for those of us who give or promote concerts, to be able to welcome audiences back through the doors once again is very important and I firmly believe that venues must, if they can, offer audiences something, within the limitations of coronavirus restrictions. Some venues are lucky to have generous patrons and benefactors or have benefitted from government handouts; others do not but are still willing to, in the medium term, take a financial hit and bring audiences back. But this scenario cannot last indefinitely and without proper ticket revenues, many venues and promoters will struggle, along with performing musicians.

The last properly sold out concert I attended before the first UK lockdown was at the Wigmore Hall at the end of February, when American pianist Jonathan Biss gave a thrilling performance of Beethoven Piano Sonatas (read more here). At the time, the coronavirus was not yet headline news; of course people were aware of it, and I recall a friend hugging me in the vestibule of the Wigmore before the concert and saying “oh, maybe we shouldn’t do that!” – and then we both laughed. The hall was full to capacity and the bars downstairs were busy and noisy as people enjoyed pre-concert and interval drinks and conversation. At the time, I didn’t know it would be the last live concert I would attend for seven months. When the Weymouth concert series, which I help to organise, resumed in October, we presented two shorter concerts to allow for a socially-distanced audience of reduced numbers (less than half our usual audience) and while the church looked sparse, it was wonderful to hear live music and also applause. We took the decision not to increase ticket prices and hoped to be able to at least cover our costs and pay our guest artist, without eating into our bank balance. We are fortunately in having low overheads, but we face similar difficulties to other concert organisers and promoters.

Times are tough once again for musicians as the UK is poised to enter another period of lockdown and live events must be suspended. Let us hope that the new year will bring more positive developments regarding the management of the virus, which will allow venues to operate more profitably.

Meanwhile, those of us who love live music can support artists and venues by buying concert tickets, to live and online events, and making a donation where possible.

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Header image by Kilyan Sockalingum on Unsplash

I was so cheered to read this thread of tweets from cellist Julia Morneweg, and I agree with her comment that it is those in the profession with a “Can do” attitude who are driving the return of live music to venues.

It’s true that London’s Wigmore Hall has done a great deal to bring live music back to audiences, first with its summer series of livestream concerts (albeit to an empty hall) and now with its autumn season of concerts with a limited, socially-distanced audience. Other larger venues, such as St John’s Smith Square, are beginning to follow suit, finding ways to manage the logistics of admitting living, breathing audience and performers within the constraints of government covid-secure guidance and rules, and its seems audiences are very keen to be back. It is well known that classical music audiences are generally older/elderly – the demographic which is most vulnerable to coronavirus – but these are also people who are well able to make their own judgements about levels of risk, without constant nannying and interference from the state, and it’s encouraging to see pictures such as those in Julia’s tweets of people enjoying live music again.

As I wrote on my sister site ArtMuseLondon back in May, the pandemic may have forced the closure of music and arts venues, but it has also presented musicians and concert organisers with an opportunity to innovate and experiment. Julia Morneweg is quite right when she states that it is the smaller venues and organisations which will rebuild live music. Musicians want to perform and with the support of such organisations, they can do so again. Smaller venues/organisations are often more adaptable – from how seating is arranged to managing overheads and other financial considerations (bigger venues have hefty overheads such as staff costs, property maintenance and rent).

If we sit on our hands and wait to be told when is the right time to resume live concerts, we could be waiting a long time. With this in mind, I and my pianist friend/colleague Duncan Honeybourne, who founded Weymouth Lunchtime Chamber Concerts which we run together, decided we would take the initiative and approach the church where we hold our concerts with a view to resuming our series with at least a handful of concerts before Christmas (our last concert before lockdown was in late February). We decided that before approaching the church management, we should formulate a plan about how we would manage the events (I’m the concert manager, so am responsible for ticketing and audience relations, amongst other things). We were delighted that our suggestions were met with an very enthusiastic response from our friends at the church, and we then met at the church to do a risk assesssment and discuss covid-secure arrangements.

Without the contribution of food and beverage sales, from which venues like the Wigmore Hall and Southbank Centre derive a sizeable income stream, smaller concert venues/organisations/music societies often rely on ticket sales alone for revenue. Smaller audiences due to social distancing obviously mean lower ticket sales – and it is not necessarily practicable, nor fair on audiences, to hike up ticket prices to make up for the loss of revenue. For our Weymouth series we decided, again with the support of the church and our performers, to offer two shorter concerts on the same day. All being well, we will be able to sell nearly as many tickets as we used to for a single lunchtime concert with the church at full capacity (c70 people). And to ensure that numbers are strictly managed, I set up an online box office so that people can book in advance, with the option to reserve a ticket by phone and pay on the door (for which I have invested in a neat little contactless card reader which can be run from an app on my phone). This also allows me to keep track of people’s contact details, which we are required to do by law for Track and Trace purposes. I have been delighted by the response so far – the many telephone calls I have taken from our regular audience members confirm my belief that elderly people are willing to venture out, and many told me how pleased they are that the concerts are resuming.

The most crucial aspect is making audiences feel safe and confident about returning to a venue (restaurants have already demonstrated that it is possible to do this). People have praised the Wigmore Hall for its sensible approach and the venue has more than demonstrated that social distancing and other safely measures can be implemented without audiences feeling they are being herded like sheep or subjected to unnecessarily bossy rules. (There is nothing worse than visiting a venue, restaurant or visitor attraction and being ordered around by some officious person on the front desk!). If we treat our audiences as adults, with courtesy and respect, they will respond by observing guidelines, one-way systems, use of hand sanitisers and face coverings, etc. For many, these are fairly minor irritations (and things which we have by and large grown used to this year) in exchange for the renewed pleasure of enjoying live music in the company of other people. And my goodness do we need it, after the year we’ve had so far!


Some tips to make concerts happen safely and successfully:

  • Be fully conversant with the government guidelines/rules on live performance
  • Liaise with your venue, and understand and respect their own covid-secure rules/guidelines, including maximum numbers permitted, the Rule of Six,  including Track & Trace requirements, green room arrangements, cleaning of venue etc
  • Consider using an online ticketing platform such as TicketSource or Billetto to allow people to book in advance. Easy to manage, such platforms allow you to track bookings, including customer contact details (necessary for Track & Trace), and produce sales reports/guestlists
  • Consider using a portable card reader to take contactless card payments on the door, to avoid handling cash. iZettle and SumUp are two such systems and are very simple to use via a smartphone or ipad app.
  • Make sure covid-secure guidelines are prominently displayed on your website (if applicable) and at the venue.
  • Make sure your performers and audience are fully aware in advance of the venue’s covid-secure arrangements
  • As printed programmes (and other printed material such as tickets or flyers) are not allowed, consider displaying the programme with programme notes on your website or send it to your audience by email. Encourage performers to introduce their programmes to the audience.

A postcript: on 21st October 2020, Weymouth Lunchtime Chamber Concerts, for which I am Concerts Manager, held its first concerts since late February. As described above, I and the Artistic Director, Duncan Honeybourne, together with our colleagues at the church where the concerts are held, had put together a plan to ensure the events would be covid-secure, safe and enjoyable for our audience and performers. We presented two concerts of the same programme to allow for a socially-distanced audience and welcomed a total of 50 people to the concerts. All the arrangements ran very smoothly, and the pleasure in hearing live music again, and the audience’s applause, after so many months was like being given water after a drought. But perhaps the best part was the enthusiasm of our audience, evident not only from their warm applause for the music but also the many positive comments we received, on the day and in the phone calls when people rang to book tickets. This gives me hope for the future of our Weymouth series and others like it, and with the support of both audience and performers, and our friends at the church, we are looking forward to our next concerts with excitement.

This site is free to access and ad-free, and takes many hours to research, write, and maintain. If you find joy and value in what I do, please consider making a donation to support the continuance of this site

 

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