Festivals in these pandemic times and the future

By Anurag Tagat

August 11th in Newcastle saw indie rock artist Sam Fender level up in terms of not just playing the first socially distanced largescale gig in the U.K., but also gain one of the biggest PR boosts just by being the first one past the post.

Attendees were occupying separate platforms with chairs and their own little space that was well distanced from the next. The footage shows us that not many donned facemasks for the duration of the show, but perhaps the distancing in and of itself is a big ask from usually packed music festivals, which we might not see regularly for a while now owing to the coronavirus pandemic.

“There were 2,500 people, they were engaged and singing back at me, there was plenty of alcohol flowing, this was a gig,” Fender told Rolling Stone. “The fans were loud, I’m buzzing about it. The show seemed to run smoothly, and it seemed to be safe as far as Covid is concerned. I hope these can start happening all over the globe. I’d do a fucking residency at it if I could.”

This was a 20,000 capacity venue that amped up a big stage and plenty of space, but limited the audience to nearly a 1/10th of the intended space. In the post-COVID world, this is very much the norm and as we’ve seen in Europe, there are drive-in style concerts with an equally big stage but everyone in the audience drives in with their cars and stays there to tune in.

Sam Fender live at the UK's first socially distanced gig in New Castle

As detached as this may seem, those who are desperately craving the live music experience again, this is a fun but wholly stopgap measure. Selling the amount of tickets they do, music festivals and concerts of this scale are unlikely to recover most of their costs and are perhaps only testing the waters for now.

At the TempleLive festival in Arkansas in May, the barely occupied auditorium venue made hand sanitizer, social distancing and more measures fully necessary, but it certainly wouldn’t be economically viable to host it the same way twice. Given the apparent relaxation of pandemic-related regulations in the U.S., artists such as EDM duo The Chainsmokers and meme-worthy rock band Smash Mouth have, unsurprisingly, hosted large scale gatherings without any health or safety precautions whatsoever.

The Chainsmokers controversial concert in Hamptons

Of course, this has prompted officials to launch inquiries and express concerns publicly, but to the world’s music industry at large, what it does is send a message that gigs are entirely possible, but you can’t be myopic and ignorant about it. Where the virtual space has quickly developed and provided unique audio-visual experiences to people in the comfort of their homes, people are still more than willing to go out for a gig if and when it will actually be allowed here in India.

As far as protocol and regulations go, there should be a new handbook in the making for live events. After all, everyone needs solid guidance and enforcement of not just distancing, but masks, food and beverage sales, merchandize counters, contactless ticket sales, effective brand activation and safe entry and exit of what will still be a sizable gathering of people. We’re not just talking about temperature checks and handing out sanitizer or making face coverings mandatory to enter a venue space, but enforcement of measures that keep the health of every attendee known.

It might raise concerns about privacy and put some riders on free movement and gathering, but these are certainly for the greater good. If it means that we can all enjoy our favorite band in peace and at full volume, outdoor concerts – if executed properly and safely – will also ease people into the idea of being amongst crowds and it being reasonable once again.

As of August, a vaccine and questions of herd immunity are still far away prospects. Considering each country’s intention to restart all sectors of the economy (rather than address any voices demanding a relief package), the day won’t be far before a promoter or organizer in India jumps in on the opportunity to gain this PR-friendly distinction of holding the first large scale open-air gig in the midst of a pandemic. Given the sheer numbers in India, securing an eager band to take the stage is not a difficult hurdle either. Once that’s done, even a fraction of fans showing up will likely be a big number.

Following Sam Fender’s gig, the promoters SSD Concerts are about to host more big names in a similar fashion, including Two-Door Cinema Club. Elsewhere in the U.S., Metallica will film and host a drive-in concert and air it in theaters.

Are these disasters waiting to occur or will they be bright new examples of evolution? We’ll know soon enough.