When can we go back to work?
That’s the question that the entertainment industry has been asking for just under 10 months. And the answer is…. Well, there isn’t one.
At least, not officially.
On the ground, however, there are murmurings.
Venue programmers are looking to the future. And the future they see is bright. Okay, we might not be heading towards the roaring twenties, as post-First World War Britain did. There’s been too much loss for that, though a scaled down version might just be possible.
Theatres, concert halls and arenas work many months in advance, typically, between six and 18 months.
So while most people in most jobs are wondering about what they’re doing today, in theatreland, programmers are planning for their 2023 pantomime. Yes, that’s right, 2023. The plans for 2022 have already been in place for quite a while.
It’s the same across most of the sector. In fact, the issue facing live entertainment this year is unlikely to be whether or not they can get back to work. The far more salient problem is this: how will the industry fare as supply far outstrips demand.
If we wind back to March 2020, the industry went into the deep freeze. Promoters were quick to reschedule shows. So tours planned for Spring 2020 were very quickly moved. The thinking back then was that Covid was a passing virus that would quickly be eliminated. Accordingly, most venues stacked their Autumn 2020 programmes with rescheduled dates from Spring, in addition to existing bookings. Except Covid wasn’t a passing virus, so shows from Spring 2020, Autumn 2020 and Spring 2021 were all moved – many to Autumn 2021. That means the coming year will be stacked in local theatres and at gig venues.
And the bigger question is this: will there be enough money to go round? Venues will be trying to sell shows on Mondays – not just Saturdays – in the middle of a rainy autumn and cold winter, will there be enough people with jobs able to buy all of the tickets?
Covid has been cruel to those who have worked in the industry for many years. The roadies, slugging it out on £200 a day, suddenly found themselves without any income. And as much as the community of artists, workers, promoters, managers and venues has come together, many people have slipped through the cracks.
There are countless, faceless workers – the backroom men and women who make sure shows go ahead – who now find themselves driving vans for Amazon and Sainsbury’s. A year ago, they were touring the world, staying in nice hotels, running line checks for big name rock stars. Having 30 years’ experience and being brilliant at a highly specialised job suddenly counted for nothing. Funny how things change. No back stage passes, no AAA, no pay check and no pension.
Curiously, lockdown has been treated with some degree of accord. Venues have known they wouldn’t be trading this spring – they’ve known that for six months. Now, thankfully, they have certainty, plus Government grants, as they plan for the end of this nightmare. So, for instance, they can look towards post-Easter as a return-to-work, or, certainly, by summer. By Autumn next year theatres and concert halls can expect to be full once again.
There are, of course, other issues. Selling a show takes time: unless you’re Take That, Taylor Swift or some other sell-out-in-a-minute artist who can fill concert venues the day you go on sale. Typically, a venue will need to market a show, with posters, programmers and plenty of press coverage in such newspapers as this. That takes time. So most tours will work hard to sell tickets during a three- or four-month window, at least.
That means shows for post-Easter need to be selling now, and, of course, nobody wants to buy a ticket for a show while we’re in lockdown. There are other issues. Shows usually take some time to get on the road. There are rehearsals, creative meetings, the procurement of stage and set. Producers usually fund such work with revenues from existing shows – but there are no shows and there is no money. So only those with deep pockets, access to loans or low start-up costs can get straight back on the road.
The industry will be messy for a while.
Don’t expect things to run smoothly and don’t expect everyone to survive the coming months.
Those who’ve made it this far, however, can see a huge spotlight at the end of the tunnel. It’s growing brighter by the day.
Shows are lined up for autumn and through 2022 and venues are licking their lips as they face a return to work. Lockdown is a nightmare – but it won’t be long. And when we unlock, we should unlock for good.
Good times will come back – times when people can once more see their favourite artists, watch a play, enjoy the cinema or go to a gig.
Those who had work in the entertainment industry in March 2020 might not make it back, but most will.
Actors and actresses who’ve had to make do with awful Zoom productions will once more be able to tread the boards. Theatre ushers who love to collect autographs and selfies will be able to stand smiling next to TV stars. And, most importantly of all, the fans who make the whole industry click will be able to get up close and personal with the people who make them laugh, cry and sing.
Nobody will forget 2020 or the early part of 2021. Every part of society has been affected, every part of business hit financially.
The entertainment industry has been left languishing as sectors like hospitality and sport have been more successful in stating their case.
But then, the industry can remember this: the darkest hour is just before the dawn. And the dawn will soon be here.