Despite the return of gigs and festivals, the UK live music industry is still full of uncertainty due to a lack of clarification from the government about vaccine passports and an events insurance scheme that’s been described by some major concert promoters as unfit for purpose.
In July, Boris Johnson said that by the end of September only those who have been double-vaccinated would be allowed entry to nightclubs and other venues “where large crowds gather”. However, those working in live music have not yet received confirmation of the plans. On Sunday, a letter leaked to the Telegraph written on behalf of health secretary Sajid Javid confirmed that “no final policy decision has yet been taken” on the issue.
Julian Knight, chair of the digital, culture, media and sport select committee, told the Guardian he wasn’t aware of any imminent U-turn on the vaccine passport plan. “I think in these circumstances, it’s best for venues to prepare for their introduction as the costs of not doing so could be terminal.”
But Greg Parmley, CEO of live music trade body Live, confirmed that he has yet to see any details about the new entry plan. As a sector, Parmley said that the UK live music industry is “fully behind” the vaccination drive so that events can reopen as quickly as possible. However, he also said the current entry requirement for most venues and festivals – which allows the choice of providing proof of double-vaccination or recovery from Covid-19, or a negative test – is preferable.
Steve Sayer, vice-president and general manager at the O2 Arena in London, said he’d be surprised to see the vaccination or no entry rule come into play because “it goes against everything the government have talked about in terms of ensuring that any mitigations are fairly applied and don’t discriminate against one group or another”. Michael Kill, chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association, has pointed out that strict entry measures could reduce spontaneous customers, cause enforcement problems and put venues at a competitive disadvantage to pubs and bars.
He also warned that mandatory vaccines for events would be counterproductive. “Contrary to popular belief, much of our core market and workforce will not accept being coerced into taking the vaccine. The workforce is shrinking and illegal events are being organised today in light of the impending restrictions.”
In the US, global music promoter AEG, which operates festivals including Coachella and Desert Trip in California, recently announced that those attending its events will need a vaccine from 1 October. Fellow promoter giant Live Nation has said that all performing artists can start asking for proof of vaccination or a negative test for entry to events in the US from 4 October, which is when all of its employees will be mandated to be vaccinated.
In the UK, Toby Leighton-Pope, co-CEO of the UK arm of AEG, said he thinks the “industry standard” of entry with either vaccine, recovery or negative test is likely to remain the case, as long as it’s what artists want. There’s evidence that this is supported by the general public, too. A recent Music Venue Trust survey said that just 2.1% of live music fans wanted to see certified double vaccination as the sole mandatory condition of entry. A mix of mandatory certification options displaying vaccination, testing or immunity was more strongly supported. (Perhaps this could change following the recent Boardmasters festival in Cornwall, where a predominantly youth demographic with low vaccination levels has been linked to 5,000 new cases.)
One industry source suggested that Johnson’s speech in July intended to encourage young people to get a vaccine by saying they’d soon need it to go clubbing, and that the government is waiting to see what the take-up rate is before announcing any further plans. In the UK, nearly 77% of the adult population have been double-vaccinated, as of the latest update; the Music Venue Trust survey said that 91.6% of live music fans will have been vaccinated by the end of September.
The uncertainty around entry is compounded by the government’s long-awaited Covid cancellation insurance scheme for live events, announced at the beginning of August, which is said by some in the industry to still have gaping holes ahead of its September launch.
The scheme covers costs incurred if events are unable to happen due to government Covid restrictions, such as a local or national lockdown.
However, Stuart Galbraith, CEO of promoter Kilimanjaro Live – which was behind the O2’s two comeback shows with Gorillaz earlier this month – said that it doesn’t cover cancellations if an artist or crew member contracts Covid-19 and tours have to be cancelled. He also said that it doesn’t cover lost income due to local councils imposing social distancing rules. “From my point of view, where the majority of our business is indoor touring, there’s no point at all in taking out the Covid insurance policy,” he says. “As we head through autumn and into 2022, we’re still going to face the risk of running events that are uninsurable.”
Leighton-Pope said that rescheduling shows is not an easy option. “If an artist gets Covid and can’t perform for 10 shows, then what happens to those 10 shows? There’s little to no [venue] availability next year.” If a tour is 20-30 dates, with 10 dates lost in the middle, he says an artist can end up losing money. The insurance policy is “better than nothing”, added Sayer, but agreed that it “doesn’t deal with the key issues that we’re going to be hit with over the winter”.
While Knight conceded that the government should have introduced the events insurance scheme “several months ago” in order to have saved some major events (Shambala, Boomtown and Kendal Calling were among festivals to have cited a lack of insurance as the reason for cancellations this year), “my view is that the events insurance scheme is about as good as could be expected under the circumstances and is more extensive than many other international schemes”. Full details of the scheme are expected to be published in early September, which is when the cover can be purchased.