Culture: Reset!

Barcelona-based promoters recently joined forces to organise a concert experiment. A step towards a return to live music across Europe.

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A partnership between promoters in Barcelona recently opened the door for a return to live music across the continent. Among the actors involved in this “Festivals per la cultura segura is Sónar, one of the We are Europe partners. We are presenting this initiative, which took place in late March, just before its results are published on 27th April.

Photo credit: Edu Morato

On Saturday 27th of March 2021, 5000 odd residents of Barcelona collectively turned back the clock 13 months, attending the first concert of this size to be held in Spain in over a year, and one of the first in Europe to be carried out without social distancing. While the music was provided by local pop-rock act Love of Lesbian, the real star of the show was the reality of just being at a gig again. Who would have thought that underneath all the nostalgic pining of 2020, what we really missed about live music was being stuck behind a really tall guy, queuing for the toilet or bumping into friends in a crowd.

“Festivals per la cultura segura”

Those in attendance were not the only ones coming together thanks to the magic of live music.  Created by a consortium of Barcelona based festivals and promoters, including Sónar, Cruilla, Vida Festival and Primavera Sound under the banner ‘Festivals per la cultura segura’, the event was conceived as a way to place the focus on an industry that has been decimated by the pandemic and largely ignored by public legislators throughout the past year. Faced with the ongoing uncertainty, a lack of communication from the Spanish government and no-end to the crisis in sight, the festivals put aside their differences in favour of providing, if not a way out exactly, then at least a possible escape route.

Safety was at the forefront of the organizer’s minds: if the event was to prove that shows of this size posed a negligible infection risk, then it would require a testing infrastructure to be built in – a challenge not faced by promoters under normal circumstances. To make this possible, the organizers enlisted researchers from AIDS charity FLS and the autonomous Catalan Department of Health to conduct same day testing in two of the city’s most iconic clubs: Razzmatazz and Apolo, both closed since the start of the crisis, and emblematic of the toll the shutdown has taken on nightlife.

A viral initiative

According to the organizers, this, coupled with mandatory facemasks and further sanitary measures, potentially made it “Safer inside the venue, than on the terrace of a bar in the street”. The truth of this statement is due to be confirmed on the 27th April, when the organizers release the results of a comparative study comparing the rate of infection among concertgoers to the general population.

And even if, as predicted, the rates of infection at the event are proved to be negligible, the virality of the initiative itself is without doubt.

As an example of a collaborative solution to holding events safely and securely in the current environment then, the event has served as an example both for the industry and governments around the world.

As reported in El Nacional.cat, the media impact was unprecedented, with reports cropping up in The Washington Post, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, Australia’s Herald Sun and the Guardian. As an example of a collaborative solution to holding events safely and securely in the current environment then, the event has served as an example both for the industry and governments around the world. Although with some caveats.

Photo credit: Jordi Costa

Asked about the practicalities of the event in the New York Times, Sónar’s Executive Director Ventura Barba highlighted that the event was “Not a commercial project, nor could it be replicated for festivals that operate over several days and with other financial constraints“. The event may not be a silver bullet then, but it has encouraged others to at least pick up the gun.

Return to noisy reality?

As vaccination rollouts continue to gain pace (some at a faster rate than others), similar events have or are being planned to take place in Amsterdam, Luxembourg, Germany and the UK. In the latter case, a collaboration between the UK Government and Festival Republic, 5000 people are due to gather in Liverpool’s Sefton Park for a show by indie band Blossoms, while DJ Yousef’s long running Circus event will host two smaller, 3000 capacity shows indoors. Both events will not require social distancing or facemasks to be worn, but attendees will be tested before entering the venue. Details about the financial viability of these events have not been publicly released, although UK Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock has stated that the pilots “Will inform our approach to ensuring future big events can take place safely. By trialling a range of measures to reduce transmission, we are able to gather vital evidence to inform our plans for allowing events in the future.

The overarching hope by all in the industry is that these kinds of initiatives amount to more than an easy PR win for the powers that be. If shows of this size can be held safely, then they should open the door for gigs, clubs and performances of all shapes sizes to follow through behind. If this happens, thanks to the perseverance and support of promoters, fans and institutions big and small, then a return to reality; in all its noisy, sweaty, crowded, chaotic glory, may be around the corner at last.

Update: In a press conference held on 27th April, Festivals Per La Cultura Segura announced the results of the trial. Of the 5000 attendees, a total of 6 tested positive in the 2 weeks following the event. 4 of these were able to trace their infection to a source outside the festival, leaving 2 possible contagions at the event, a rate far below that of the general population, confirming the organizers hypothesis that a safe event without social distancing is possible.

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