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.
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