Inside the Making of the U.K.'s First Socially Distanced Arena Venue - Rolling Stone
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Inside the Making of the World’s First Socially Distanced Venue

“Like everybody, we didn’t really understand it at first, but if this is the first thing we can legally do, then, yeah, sign us up,” Libertines co-frontman Carl Barât said of the show  

‘Erin McDougle/Vida Creative

Following a months-long hiatus after wrapping up a European tour, beloved English rock band the Libertines are once again readying a live gig, but the environment couldn’t be more different. With band members sequestered in different countries since the pandemic started, the first time the Libertines will see one another again in person will be onstage in England for their first socially distanced concert.

“The lack of human connection has been hard, and we wanted to be at the forefront of finding ways to safely go around to let people do what they love,” Libertines co-frontman Carl Barât says. “But the method of it is fucking bizarre, man; it’s telling of the way things are right now. The fact that we’re at a place where people have to sit in their own bubbles to go to shows is mental. Like everybody, we didn’t really understand how it could work at first, but if this is the first thing we can legally do, then, yeah, sign us up.” 

Since the pandemic struck, artists, concert promoters, and venue owners have been experimenting to find a potentially viable stand-in for axed concerts. Their efforts have yielded several innovative ideas with varying levels of success, although the traditional experience — and its finances — have been missed. Artists have fled in droves to virtual livestreams, and while those arguably have carved a place in the business for well after the pandemic, they’re no replacement for an in-person show. Promoters and venues of all sizes have adopted drive-in shows — which have grown increasingly common and made some money — but haven’t proven nearly as profitable as a typical live event.

And now the latest experiment: the world’s “first dedicated socially distanced music venue.” Regional promoter SSD Concerts and Newcastle, England’s Virgin Money Unity Arena revealed its first slate of artists last week, announcing shows that start in August and include bands like the Libertines, Two Door Cinema Club, and Supergrass. 

Conceptually, the experience isn’t dissimilar from Live Nation’s recent spate of drive-in concerts, which finds fans parking their cars facing the stage, with their own socially distanced pod spaces to lounge in. But attendees for the U.K. shows will instead park farther away and walk in socially distanced queues to their own separate viewing platforms. The “arena,” formally a horse racecourse, can fit 20,000 people, but the venue will allow a maximum 2,500 people to uphold safety standards. 

“We tried looking at the car option, and we all thought collectively that you just couldn’t get the same atmosphere if there was a car between every group,” says Steve Davis, director of SSD Concerts. “But if the car isn’t there, all of a sudden you get more of a gig atmosphere. We tried to get as close to the old gig experience as we knew it. We had to jump through a lot of hoops with the local council, but we made it work. So we were conscious to remove the car from the scenario and try and make this new type of music venue that’s still COVID-friendly.” 

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 19: Pete Doherty of The Libertines performs at O2 Academy Brixton on December 19, 2019 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Matthew Baker/Getty Images)

Pete Doherty of the Libertines performing at O2 Academy Brixton in London on December 19th, 2019.

Matthew Baker/Getty Images

SSD has been planning for the shows since April and seems to have taken into account most of the measures needed to safely pull off this type of concert. Along with segmented entry into the venue, fans can receive preordered food and alcohol to pick up as they enter, to avoid lines; the port-a-potties at the ends of platform rows will be cleaned after every use; and attendees will be given lanyards with their specific platform numbers on them to mark their places.

Organizers are keeping track of how many tickets have been designated for each platform to keep attendees within their own groups, and while Davis acknowledges it’s difficult to completely stop people from visiting other platforms, those who do risk getting kicked out of the venue. And to limit the number of workers going onstage to move equipment, only headlining acts will be performing with full bands, while opening acts will play solo acoustic sets. (Members for individual bands get their own separate dressing rooms.)

Live Nation U.K. recently canceled its ongoing Live From the Drive-In U.K. shows over spikes in cases that have led to localized shutdowns. “The Live From the Drive-In concert series will no longer proceed as planned this summer,” the company said in a statement. “We received huge support from artists, the live-music production contractors, our headline sponsor Utilita, and, of course, you, the fans. However, the latest developments regarding localized lockdowns means it has become impossible for us to continue with the series with any confidence.”

When asked about the Live Nation cancellation, Davis says in an email that SSD “will fully go ahead with our event. We are excited to welcome people to the venue. We feel it’s a different offer to the Live Nation shows.”

Dave Bianchi, who manages the Libertines and Supergrass, says SSD’s proposal stood out among other options both because of the planning behind the event and its unique individual-platform setup. His bands won’t make as much money — Davis says performers are getting up to 25 percent less than their usual asking price — but they’ll still profit, and their focus is on the quality of the shows.

“During the time of lockdown, we’ve been presented with a number of different ideas and solutions, and some were rubbish, some were OK, some are well thought through,” Bianchi says. “In the instance of the gigs we’re doing at Newcastle, they look very well-organized and well thought through. As long as people are actually making money, money is a lesser issue than if these shows will be any good or not. I don’t know because we haven’t seen it yet. I quite liked the idea of having separate little stages, but it still could be that the atmosphere is pretty weird for both the audience and artist. But this particular proposition is the best one I’ve seen.”

Whether the concept will pay off for the organizers remains to be seen. Davis says he expects the company to turn a profit from the gigs, but added it could take 45 nights to earn what the company can usually make in a week, and that’s with some promoter-friendly deals. Along with the hefty talent discount, SSD has also gotten some discounts for other concert expenses, like port-a-potties and lighting equipment.

“We do think it could be profitable, which is obviously one of the main instigators of why we’re doing it,” Davis says. “But in terms of the lens of the project, the scale is really good; it doesn’t cost much more than a three-day festival would cost. It’s not way over budget compared to a festival. Because it’s running for up to 45 nights, we have many chances to earn money from it. It’s four times the work than normal — the profit is there, we’re just going to have to work harder for it.” Still, it’s some income in a challenging period, and Davis says the company is prepared to extend for more shows this winter, assuming other live shows are still off the table.

BERLIN, GERMANY - JANUARY 17: Singer Alex Trimble of the British band Two Door Cinema Club performs live on stage during a concert at the Columbiahalle on January 17, 2020 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Frank Hoensch/Redferns)

Singer Alex Trimble of Two Door Cinema Club performs at the Columbiahalle in Berlin on January 17th, 2020.

Frank Hoensch/Redferns

Two Door Cinema Club’s Kevin Baird says it took some vetting before the band felt comfortable jumping on for the show. They needed to ensure they and their fans would be safe, and that the show would be substantial enough to feel similar to a more typical concert. “Initially, we had some reservations; the last thing you want to do is put on a concert and the experience for the fan is so far past being enjoyable that it’s a gimmick,” Baird says. “It was important that it was a proper stage [and] proper assigned system where it isn’t people sitting in their car tuning into their radio system.”

Baird sees performing as a statement that the live-music industry — which he says has been ignored by the U.K. government — can still function safely and give high-quality experiences. The U.K. passed a $2 billion bailout for the arts last week to give much-needed aid to institutions like museums and concert venues, and while Baird commended the government for earmarking a bailout for the arts, he said it only happened after the government was “dragged kicking and screaming by people in the arts knocking down their door.”

“We’re all standing here to say, ‘Look, we can do this, and we can do it safely,'” Baird says. “This is an important part of people’s lives, not just for the artists and people the live industry employs, but it’s important to people who want to go out and see live music. It feels like the priorities have been about certain industries coming back, so we’re trying to show the world we can do this, we can make it safe, and we can put on a great show and give people something to enjoy.”

Like many, Baird worries about making sure cash makes its way down to the upcoming artists who need it, and says he doesn’t think these sort of socially distanced shows can economically scale longer term.

“It would be very hard in the long-term perspective to make these kinds of shows financially viable for everyone without passing on a huge expense down the line to the customer,” Baird says. “At this moment, it’s about trust and about the fear fans have wondering if they’ll be OK if they go to one of these events. All these things already can put a doubt in people’s minds for if they’ll purchase a ticket, and if you make it so expensive it turns people away, it’s not a long-term viable solution.

It can’t be about penny-pinching,” he adds. “It’s more than that. This is a way to tell the world that we’re here, we’re willing to make compromises, and to get the live sector going again.”


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