We just got through an absolutely grueling year for the events industry. All top tier events got cancelled, with an online, streamed edition taking place instead of the real, physical one, and smaller events had to be cancelled as well, or take very strict measurements in order to be able to take place. This is the reality we face… But for how long? What perspectives do we have for the future of live events?

The first signs of alert that the pandemic was going to hit us hard started back in early March, with events like Ultra, Tomorrowland Winter and Don’t Let Daddy Know being scrapped. As the days progressed, a few big events still took place, such as Reverze on the 7th of March, but shortly after, a wave of cancellations surged: Rampage, which was on the following week, on the same venue, got canned, and everything fell like a stacked deck of cards. At this point, the electronic dance music community saw their festival season starting to fade away, and sure enough, in mid-March events like Qapital were canned, with summer being officially cancelled shortly after with REBiRTH being canned, and events like Tomorrowland, Defqon.1, Rampage Open Air, Decibel and Awakenings being shutdown.

If I knew, I would have given it all… but I didn’t. I did not know that would be my last event for the foreseeable…

Posted by Wide Future on Saturday, May 16, 2020

We all know the story… So where exactly do we stand now? And where can we go to from here?

The pandemic just got worst as the time went by since earlier in the year. Despite the government’s best efforts, many people decided to disregard basic sanitary rules and general advice. Strict lockdown measures had to be put into place in the last few months, grinding the event industry to a halt, along with many other industries that had to shutdown or stop almost entirely.

Our insolence has caused us major issues in almost everything, and we are now paying for our own mistakes. People are getting infected, and many dying. We’ve overflowed hospitals everywhere in the world, leaving thousands or perhaps even millions conditioned in accessing healthcare because we’ve had to shift focus to COVID-19 patients. Lockdown left us on all time lows, both physically and mentally. Economy is at one of its lowest points it’s been in decades.

In a constant push to position itself ahead of the pandemic, the events industry took risks and shifted its focus towards streaming. But it is completely impossible to recoup what was already spent preparing 2020, and very difficult to keep the lights on with revenues from paid or freemium streams.

ID&T in particular went above and beyond with some of its brands, such as Q-dance, who’s blown everyone away with the special Defqon.1 stream, and the audiovisual experience of Qlimax’s stream, and Tomorrowland with the unique, almost virtual reality-like experience. Perhaps they still had some cashflow to prepare these things… But let’s face it – while they might be big earners in the industry, they spend money proportionally, and things aren’t easy for anyone, at all – they’ve had to cut 40% of their staff.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg that’s visible above water. Backing these organizations up there are thousands of workers. People that assemble stages, light and audio technicians, staff for events, logistics, tent assemblers, catering providers, creatives, marketing teams… You name it. We don’t often think about it, but before the music starts and after it ends there is A LOT of work to be done. These are the unsung heroes of our festival seasons and they are now struggling to pay bills, pay their mortgage and feed their children. The same applies to the artists themselves who are relying on their revenues from music sales and plays (and we all know only top tier artists can go by with just these fees, as the money is made mostly on shows, and sometimes, merch)

To make matters worse, governments in general aren’t making it easy for these people to be able to work, with artists stating that these restrictions are in place due to irrational fears and not necessarily scientific reasons.

To bring awareness to this struggle, many movements have been created worldwide. In our home country, we’ve recently had key players from the restaurant industries in a hunger strike, with many key players from the events industry supporting them, namely DJ’s and producers. The Netherlands and Belgium also have the ongoing Sound of Silence campaign, aiming to sensitize public opinion about their struggle and attempt to get their governments to support these industries.

From what I can see, and specifically in the case of the Netherlands event industry (one of the biggest in the world), is that their government somewhat seems to distrust this industry with their measures. It’s simply a matter of giving them a fair shot to prove they can do do events safely, whatever format these events may take… While in Germany some things like drive in events were allowed, it seems that some governments prefer to err on the side of caution and stop everything entirely.

Some of the best creative minds in the festival industry are in the Netherlands, and it is possible that if they were given the chance, they’d likely be able to do events safely.

On the other hand, this is a huge risk. And no government or municipality wants to be blamed if a big outbreak happens to occur… But with that being said it is legitimate of organizations to ask why restaurants, theaters and football stadiums are now open (with some not really keeping up with distancing measures). The differences between the two things are obvious, but I think it is still fair of organizations to ask why they’re not being given equal opportunities.

So what can they do? Is there any prospect of events being done?

Unfortunately, there aren’t many prospects of events being made in the near future. The 2021 summer festival season is still at stake. However there are good signs that give us some hope.

The US has started vaccinating mid December. Europe approved the first vaccine late last month and most of the EU countries are already vaccinating (with the Netherlands starting early this month). This is just a glimpse of what is to come as more and more countries start vaccinating their populations. More companies doing vaccines against COVID-19 already requested emergency use authorizations as well. This will result in more people being vaccinated worldwide, and in more vaccines being available for populations, from different sources, at more affordable prices, with some of these vaccines being easier to store than the first big one being marketed as of now.

Don’t let people tell you otherwise: the vaccine IS a big part of what’s going to save us. For me, it is the silver bullet we’re all waiting for. It would be impossible to control this pandemic without it, as we all have been doing a terrible job controlling it, in general. It’s not hard to see people taking inappropriate behavior when you go outside, whether this is not wearing a mask correctly or distancing from people, even after all these months. Most of us have to take this vaccine sooner or later, period.

That being said, the vaccine will not solve our problems immediately. It is important we keep all sanitary measures for the unforseable future, while everyone is still being vaccinated. We need to achieve a high level of immunity in our population to be able to let our guard down, and that can take some time. In addition to that, we’re not even certain that someone who already took the vaccine can’t transmit COVID-19 to others…

So, as we ramp up vaccination, will there be a % of immune people at which we can safely do events?

I don’t think anybody knows the answer to that, neither to how much or when we’ll reach it. That’s dependent on herd immunity, which itself is dependent on many factors. So let’s focus on what we can do between now and then…

In early December, a group of 1000 people gathered in Barcelona for a test concert utilizing same day antigen screening. This study, promoted with the help of the organization behind Primavera Sound festival, was designed to understand what sort of infection rates we’d see in a concert hall. Social distancing was not enforced, but the use of FFP2 masks was mandatory everywhere except in the bar. The study concluded that no concert-goers were infected, with many of them stating they did not felt restricted during the event in any way.

Rapid tests may be our lifebuoy in 2021, despite their lower accuracy. They deliver results much faster than traditional PCR tests and, combined with other measures such as mask usage, may be effective in preventing infections at a large scale. It definitely isn’t a perfect solution… But it is the best we have. We can take this a notch further and combine that with things like a “vaccine passport”, giving a sort of a “approved for circulation” visa to people who are immune would greatly help us in having events at full capacity.

ID&T is already exploring some of these ideas together with Fieldlab Evenementen and uNLock. The test beds for this will be the Ziggo Dome and the terrains of the Walibi Holland that host Defqon.1.

The concept is actually quite simple to grasp, but requires many moving parts and staff in the background to work perfectly. When purchasing their tickets, people can schedule when they wish to be tested prior to the event. After doing so, and signing up on a specific app, they can download their data from their ID to it and it will be automatically synced with the service that will do the testing. When they are tested, and if they test negative for the coronavirus, they will be granted access to the event, which can be confirmed via the app I referred to previously when scanning a QR code at the entrance of the venue. This keeps the person’s ID private and avoids tests results being tampered with.

The aim here is not to have a 100% corona-free event, as this is impossible. However these methods promise to greatly reduce the possibility of a mass  infection. And to me, they seem to be good enough and I truly believe this can bring us a lot of safety at events.

Are we past the point of no return for some events?

Unfortunately, that is a fairly probable scenario, especially for smaller promoters. You can be sure some smaller parties and promoters will not be returning this year. The big players will of course carry on more or less as usual, but this will result in less variety in a market that could definitely use variety (and some more underground parties for smaller, but good, artists).

Some say this won’t be the last pandemic. How can we be ready for the next one?

Learning from this one is the first step. We cannot be slow to act if this happens again, we must immediately adopt masks and social distancing.

That being said, if this is to happen again it will still severely impact events as it did now. In my opinion, I feel it is important that governments, organizations and insurance companies coordinate efforts to distribute the impact of a pandemic evenly between them. This will skip lengthy court cases, getting the money to those in need faster, and given governments like the Dutch one are willing to assist this sector financially, arrangements between these three entities should be possible.

While I am not knowledgeable enough to provide a solution, I feel it would be important for a fund to be created in order for insurance companies to be able to cover a pandemic disaster. At least in the Dutch case, it should make sense for tax funds to partly cover this fund, given that the festival sector brings huge revenues to the country.

With all this in mind… What’s the bottom line?

Bottom line is, there isn’t much that we can do, beyond adopting the recommended sanitary measures, and wishing for a better future. The challenges that lie ahead are immense. But we, as humans, are resourceful, and resilient. We will always find way to change, adapt, overcome, improve. And we’re going to need a lot of that in 2021.

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