The PLASA initiated #WeMakeEvents was created a year ago to coordinate the industry response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Recently, the organisation gave evidence to a DCMS Select Committee inquiry into the future of UK festivals, represented by the leader of the campaign’s political group Duncan Bell who detailed the ongoing challenges faced by the live events and entertainment industry. At almost the same time, the organisers of the Glastonbury festival announced cancellation for the second successive year.
On Tuesday 2 February, #WeMakeEvents gave evidence during a DCMS Select Committee inquiry into the future of UK festivals, represented by the leader of the campaign’s political group Duncan Bell who detailed the ongoing challenges faced by the live events and entertainment industry. When asked if there is a problem with people leaving the industry due to COVID-19 Duncan answered that:
“Freelancers have been forced to find work elsewhere. In a recent survey of 2,800 people over 30% of freelancers said they have had to leave the industry, and 20% say they hope to come back but are very unsure whether they are able to because of the lack of certainty.”
One of the central aims of #WeMakeEvents is to get government-backed cancellation insurance for events, and following a question on the financial processing Duncan explained:
“In many cases there will be payments in the planning stage but the majority of funds will not be paid until the event has gone ahead…It’s one of the reason the insurance discussion is such an important discussion for us.”
“Conversations have been going on for some time and we have put forward various schemes. We think the urgent requirement and benefit of the insurance is to bring certainty to being able to plan and book equipment, making it the first link in the chain, not the last.”
The problem of course is that insurance is all about assessing risk- not the certainty that the pandemic will continue until an efficacious vaccine is truly ubiquitous. Consequently, a road map still has yet to be presented by government on how and when the events industry is likely to re-open.
Duncan commented: “We need the clarity and engagement. It’s not about a definitive date, it’s about a plan of what the picture could look like – how do we think a safer event could happen, how does insurance allow that to happen, how does rapid testing fit in to that process?”
“One of the points that is missed in many conversations is that unlike certain sectors we have not been forced to close legally and therefore many support systems aren’t triggered. Many businesses in our sector have been operating on 5-6 percent income over the past 10-11 months.”
In addition to the huge loss of earnings throughout 2021, Duncan also raised crucial points regarding Brexit and the future potential for loss of work: “There is a fear that technicians and crew will come in from the EU because of their passport status…We will see UK companies being less favourable and staff will be sourced from the EU and therefore will only have one country to work out for their work permit.”
Later in the inquiry, Duncan got to the crux of why the events industry has struggled to receive adequate government support: “One of our biggest frustrations is that we represent the hidden bit – we are invisible and go out of our way to be invisible. People go to the theatre or a festival and take for granted that it happens magically. People are not aware of the thousands involved over a period of time, in many cases for festivals it’s a year-long process.”
Following the inquiry, the BBC reported on the future of festivals, quoting Duncan and his fellow witnesses: tour manager Tre Stead, Notting Hill Carnival chief executive Matthew Phillip, and Wild Rumpus director Rowan Cannon. Moreover, this crucial evidence will be evaluated and considered by top-tier government officials when developing safety procedures for live events in the future.
Meanwhile the debate rages over the precise nature of the risks to attendees. Rowan Cannon, director of festival organisers Wild Rumpus, said that while large events like Glastonbury have been cancelled, smaller-scale shows could go ahead with the right measures in place. “The idea that the festivals can’t go ahead and be socially-distanced is inaccurate,” she told the House of Commons Culture Select Committee, which is examining the live music sector. Cannon urged MPs to consider the diversity of the UK’s festival scene, which includes everything from boutique, location-specific events to “80,000 20-year-olds in a field”. She noted that the two festivals she organises – Just So in Cheshire and Timber in South Derbyshire – could easily protect their audiences amid the pandemic. “They’re both a capacity of around 5,000. They both have vast sites of about 100 acres,” she explained. “We can absolutely adapt our programming, put infrastructure in place, [and] change the way that we do things, to enable something to happen with social distancing in place.”
Scale and format
One of the primary issues for the live events sector is the diversity in scale and format of events, which ranges form theatre and cinema at one enc of the spectrum, through museums and galleries, to sports and festivals at the other. During the pandemic, we have seen considerable technological innovation in conferencing and streaming. Formats have either been adapted or recreated. Take for instance, drive-in cinema and music experiences, which have undergone something of a resurgence.
The Tupelo Music Hall in Derry, New Hampshire. for example, transformed their business operations and parking lot into the “Tupelo Drive-In Experience”, producing some of the first live concerts in the United States with the new social distancing requirements. The music venue’s debut shows in mid-May 2020 were powered by a LEOPARD system provided by Meyer Sound rental partner, UltraSound, showcasing one of the early innovations that explores new ways to deliver performances to a safely distanced live audience.
UltraSound’s Scott Tkachuk has been working alongside Tupelo Music Hall’s owner Scott Hayward and production manager Paul Higgins since the conception of the drive-in shows in March. “About a week or two after the shelter-in-place order was issued, we began brainstorming. When the first phase of re-opening New Hampshire included drive-in theatres, we thought why not concerts? It had to happen,” Tkachuk said.
Each “carload” is provided with two parking spots – one for the car and an adjacent space to stand or lounge in lawn chairs. The Tupelo Music Hall team implemented creative methods of enforcing safety measures, while Tkachuk worked on providing an audio solution that was right for the job. One challenge the audio team faced when setting up the audio solutions for the drive-in experience was addressing delay issues between the sound system and the car’s radio frequency. Although patrons had the option to sit in their car’s adjacent parking space, it was imperative that the PA system align with the local radio station’s output.
“We’re only about a mile from the radio station and are on the same network node, so we used a web browser extension, Cleanfeed, that transmits high quality digital audio. We managed to get the roundtrip, point-to-point audio measured to around 70 milliseconds and, naturally, matched the latency to the second row of cars,” Production manager Paul Higgins explained. “It is not possible to match exactly, but we could make it early for everyone else. So, if the radio is turned up and could make noise before the PA hits the audience, they won’t notice the latency.”
With the new social distancing format, the venue’s outdoor capacity holds about 75 vehicles. The UltraSound-provided system consisted of four flown LEOPARD compact linear line array loudspeakers per side with two 900-LFC compact low-frequency control elements ground-stacked per side. Two MSL-4 reinforcement loudspeakers served as L/R side hangs.
In response to a successful first weekend, the Tupelo Drive-In Experience now has events scheduled for every weekend through mid-June with more shows expected to be added. In addition to concerts, comedy performances and more are on the horizon for the summer. For those unable to attend, the venue livestreams each performance on their website. “The shows turned out fantastic and it’s really the best-sounding outdoor concert venue,” Tupelo Music Hall Owner Scott Hayward reflected. “There is something about going out and hearing live music. People were teary-eyed because it was a stress relief to sit in the sun and enjoy live music. It gave people hope and something remotely normal, so it was a big success.”
As the entertainment industry adjusts to the changing landscape of live performances, Tkachuk and the UltraSound crew plans to “collaborate with production companies, promoters, and artists. The good thing is we deal with very creative people who think outside the box and we will work together to think of solutions during this time.”
Opera in a new format with artistic integrity
When the Irish National Opera first started production of Least Like the Other, they had plans to tour the show around Ireland in August 2020. While the pandemic threatened to halt the production and performances, innovation through d&b Soundscape means that the show will go on — in a form unlike anything ever seen in Opera.
In March of 2020, with growing concerns about COVID-19, the show’s production team realized that they would not to be able go ahead as originally planned and like many around the world, they were forced to think of alternative ways to bring this show to audiences.
“It was critical for us to continue with the production in some capacity,” commented Gavin O’Sullivan, Head of Production, Irish National Opera. “We had been working on the show for months and at a time when the entire industry is being threatened, we wanted to continue to employ our hard-working team and find a way to share this spectacular show.”
For the performance to go on, health guidelines meant that the number of performers on stage would have to be dramatically reduced if audiences would ever be allowed to safely experience the opera. The production team had to find a new way to bring the sound of the live orchestra to the production, without having them in the same venue as the performers and audience. For sound designer David Sheppard, of Sound Intermedia, this was a concept he had been looking at for some time, long before COVID-19.
“As a touring artist working around the world, I had reached a point where I struggled to justify touring with the ongoing climate crisis,” commented Sheppard. “I began looking at new ways of how we can bring the experience of a performance to an audience without having to tour the ensemble with us.”
For Sheppard this was not simply a case of using a conventional system to pump pre-recorded tracks into the venue, they would need something much more sophisticated. “When we realized the orchestra couldn’t be in the room with us, we knew we would have to add an extraordinary dimension back into this production, to elevate it and bring it back to life,” said Sheppard. “d&b Soundscape was that lifeline.”
Using Soundscape, the team was able to place the sounds of the orchestra’s instruments into different areas of the venue. d&b Soundscape is powered by the DS100 Signal Engine, a revolutionary audio system processor based on a powerful Dante enabled signal matrix and provides unparalleled creativity through its two software modules En-Scene and En-Space.
d&b En-Scene is a sound object positioning tool allowing the individual placement and movement of up to 64 sound objects. It accurately depicts stage scenarios so that each sound object corresponds both visually and acoustically. d&b En-Space is an in-line room emulation tool which creates and modifies reverberation signatures for any space. These reverberation signatures are emulations derived from acoustic measurements of nine internationally renowned performance venues and convolved within the audio processor.
Brian Irvine, composer of Least Like the Other, saw the challenge faced not as a barrier, but a new opportunity. “I’m a great believer that no matter what the restriction is, there is always a possibility for something new and adventurous,” said Irvine. “For years, I’ve tried to find new ways to connect people to Opera and make it more accessible, and with Soundscape we did just that”.
Irvine and the creators of the show understood the idea of Soundscape. For them it was not about taking away an element from the production, but instead adding to it. “We needed to think about the speaker system not as something that was helping the production be heard, but instead to think of it as a theatrical device, changing how the audience could perceive the show,” commented O’Sullivan. “The first time the entire team experienced Soundscape it was this wonderful moment, the speakers disappeared and suddenly we had instruments in the room with us.”
“Soundscape allows you to zone into different parts of the music because the depth and clarity of sound brings focus to each instrument and where it is coming from,” explained Sheppard. “I think if I was the audience, I would assume that orchestra was hidden in the room, that’s how immersive this solution is.”
While the production is hoping to open to an audience in Dublin, once Ireland reduces some restrictions, the team has already begun to film the show to create a fully immersive playback. While for Sheppard, the show has already achieved a great feat, transforming the minds of so many, even before its opened.
“Fingers crossed, this production goes ahead in one form or another, but if anything, it’s already achieved something in opening people’s eyes to Soundscape and a new way of approaching productions in the future.”
Streaming for large audiences
For other event organisers, streaming has provided the means of delivering cultural events to an impressive audience. An xR live stream was to bring a fresh way of broadcasting a show by Alok – one of the most prominent icons in the Brazilian electronic music scene. – to his large fanbase. Project Director Fabio Soares from OkeStudio along with TheForce invited Sao Paulo-based, full-service AV company Maxi to provide the xR workflow for the show, along with disguise workflow specialist Tito Sabatini on technical support.
The special immersed Alok in dynamic, ever-changing environments featuring colourful forests of stylised mushrooms and trees, galactic particle streams, synapses, shimmering ice shards, cities that build and dissolve. Support from disguise “was something we couldn’t live without,” Jose Augusto Martins, Executive Director at Maxi, reports. “With a big project like this and all the tech video crew learning how to use xR, disguise’s support was key. It gave us the confidence to run things properly. We wanted people to feel the energy of a real show and that was achieved.
“‘Alive’ was a huge xR project, from which we learned a lot during the process of making the project a reality,” Jose adds. Maxi was the only rental company with the toolset to deliver the xR production, he notes. As the technical brief required the use of all three key render engines, Unreal, Unity and Notch, plus multiple camera switching with four tracked cameras using the Estabili tracking system, disguise was the only tool capable of delivering the brief, Tito explains. “It’s render agnostic and could handle multiple camera switching, timecode following DJ cues and more.”
The team at Maxi were faced with a tight deadline to learn the pipelines for all three render engines and set up tracking for four cameras, while also helping everyone involved to understand the xR workflow and how it makes virtual production possible. “This was a huge production, and the dedication of everyone involved made it happen,” Tito notes. “After the show, Alok’s manager and crew were very emotional, relieved and happy. Public feedback was amazing as well; people from the industry in Brazil came to congratulate us, and that was a nice feeling to have after such a bad year for the music industry.” Jose believes that xR has a bright future in the live music market, bringing presenters and artists to any environment possibly imagined.
But what about live vents where the scale or format goes beyond our current technical capabilities? While the German government has initiated a £2.3 billion fund for supporting the live events sector, the UK has relied on generic measures like the furlough scheme. The problem here is that so many of those providing services in the live events and production sector are freelance or self-employed. Those affected are calling for a plan “How do we think a safe event happens? What does the insurance scheme allow? How does rapid testing fit into that process?”, argues Duncan Bell. Once those parameters are set, he suggested, organisers can arrange pilot concerts “o move towards safe events. The industry has been resilient… but that can’t carry on. And for most people, that point is absolutely imminent.”