The UK is in the midst of a five-stage plan for the return of live performances amid coronavirus; they're currently in stage three, which allows for outdoor shows (with social distancing), and calls for the beginning of government-supported tests on indoor shows, as well. The first of those tests happened on Tuesday night (7/28), when Frank Turner played South London venue The Clapham Grand. As NME reports, the venue, which usually holds 1250 people, operated at less than 20% capacity, with only 200 attendees present.
Frank posted about the show on his Instagram, saying it was his first in four months. He also wrote a blog post about it. "Last night I played an actual, real-life, no-fooling, human-attended GIG," he wrote. The first one since March 15th in Southend-On-Sea. In the interim I’ve done 26 livestream shows, but this was the first one with people in front of me, rather than my phone, my wife and my cat. It was quite an evening."
After we’d agreed to the show, Ally then called me to explain the regulations and restrictions required for it to go ahead. Among many other things (reduced capacity, track and trace, one-way systems, table service, temperature checks and more), there was a requirement that the audience were not allowed to sing. That brought me up short, and nearly made me change my mind about the show. Getting the crowd involved in the performance is at the heart of what I do on stage, and the shows I play work towards a moment of unification, where the barrier between performer and audience breaks down. That wouldn’t now be possible (or at the very least would be much harder). The reason, of course, is to to with aerosol diffusion from people’s voices – and as part of that I had to be 3 metres back from the front of the stage. I get that, but it was still galling to hear on the phone.
Frank goes on to write about how part of his motivation for doing the show was to show how "this specific set-up doesn’t work":
The Grand was at less than 20% of capacity (around 200 people), but Ally had to double the number of staff working, to meet all the guidelines. There was no talent spend (I didn’t get paid), and no advertising spend (the show sold out pretty much straight away), and yet it still lost money. And the Grand is a versatile space, as an old music hall, in a way that many independent venues are not. We needed to show that this isn’t a complete solution or a workable model, that either restrictions need to change or more funding is required; essentially that fight is far from over.
A series of shows like this one would "bankrupt everyone involved," he said. "But it was, as I say, a gesture of cooperation, an attempt to feel out the situation with an eye to taking steps in a better direction. But most of all it was a fucking GIG. I have missed that, for sure. It turns out, live music really, really matters." You can read his whole post here.
Speaking to The BBC, venue manager Ally Wolf reiterated Frank's concerns, calling the pilot run "not a success." "It can't be the future for live music, it can't be the future for venues," he said.
While Frank's set was "great," Wolf continued, he couldn't get "caught up in the jubilation of finally being able to put on a show," given that it's "not a financial model that the industry can remotely rely upon to get to be sustainable," especially for smaller venues.