First to shut, last to open: The events industry protests post-COVID

By Helen Adams

In the summer of 2020, millions of people were due to attend festivals across the world. Cancellations due to social distancing have led to devastating redundancies in the events industry.

It’s not the flame fire column being wheeled across the car park which I notice first, but that everyone (except me) is wearing red. In the Sigma Sound Enterprises (SSE) car park, in Redditch, Arsenal and Liverpool FC shirts stand united among plain t-shirts, vests and sunburnt arms – to represent the RED ALERT: a call to arms of the events sector, to demand the government’s attention to their situation.

“We are wearing red, because we are on Red Alert,” said Amy Whatley-Hobbs, a fabricator at SSE, a company dealing in audio equipment rental and hire, as she exchanged her own face mask for one of the new ones being handed out, in pillar box red.

PPE is not on the vast list of equipment made by SSE, with their most popular items being flight cases for speakers, as well as cables. SSE trades internationally and the equipment made here is used to entertain music-lovers all over the world, having done tours for Bastille, Rammstein and Stormzy.

The Red Alert Campaign

Following the social-distancing measures enforced by the government due to Coronavirus, the events industry does not know when its employees will be allowed back to work. As a result, one quarter of the SSE staff have been made redundant.

The events industry is now calling on the government to extend the furlough scheme to protect businesses and employees. In solidarity, similar Red Alert events are taking place in London, Sheffield and Plymouth.

“All of these boxes should be gone,” explains Amy inside the warehouse, nudging one crate among many with her heel. “Everything should be heading out to festivals or returning for repair. Now, products just stay here, doing nothing. I have never seen this room full.”

This could be any events warehouse in the world right now. “Everything is made to specification,” Amy continues as we head to the empty upstairs offices. “We do really specific, odd jobs.”

Usually based on the first floor, the admin and finance teams are now working from home. But the one staff member who had to remain on site brought a Wilson ball in with him, made famous from Cast Away — who was already also sporting red.

“The manufacturing teams downstairs made most of the furniture for these offices,” says Amy. “The hand sanitiser stands too.”

Redundancies in the events industry

Outside on the lawn opposite the carpark, pizza had arrived. It was perhaps a strange backdrop for the SSE team, meeting for the first time since the redundancy emails were sent. The evening was peppered with gasps as workers discover which colleagues have been let go.

Yet, even those who had indeed been made redundant turned out for the event.

“I came straight to SSE from uni,” said Daniel James Finn, one ex-employee, as a drone murmured above, capturing footage to be used in a video documenting the event. “I worked in the cable department and when the guy who worked above me left, I became manager. I got the redundancy email at the beginning of this month.”

Redundancies handed out by SSE are just a drop in the ocean, a pixel in a screen, of the damage caused by Coronavirus. Since the crisis, there have been 750,000 redundancies across the UK.

Beside an ice box of beer, Dave, Josh and Jordan of the Electric Department discussed whether artists and performers should financially support the events industry during this time.

“It’s in their own self interests. They owe the industry, if they want to work again.”

“Absolutely! They can’t do it on their own; that’s how FYRE Festival happened.”

A quiet summer

In 2020 alone, millions of people were meant to be watching live performances at festivals, with more watching from their sofas. SSE themselves would have been responsible for equipment going to Reading, Leeds, Download, Radio 1’s Big Weekend and Cropredy.

Instead, would-be festival goers and viewers alike, watched the best sets from previous years at home in makeshift garden tents. It’s as of yet unknown how much the British economy has lost as a result because of the cancelled events.

Meanwhile, those employed by the events industry were anxiously waiting for news of wages. “In early March, I was told to work from home,” said SSE employee Steve Atkinson. “At the end of March, we were on 60% wages. Then, the government told us 80%.”

But the events industry would not go quietly and instead, it rallied together and did what it did best: create its own event.

#WEMAKEEVENTS

Once the sun had set, the garage doors of SSE lit up in the same emergency-tone of red, the flame fire columns burst upwards and the din was silenced as a video was projected onto the walls of SSE.

“#WEMAKEEVENTS. RED ALERT,” the wall read, interjected with footage of the SSE team. “THE UK LIVE MUSIC INDUSTRY SUPPORTS OVER 200,000 JOBS AND ADDED £4.5 BILLION TO THE ECONOMY IN 2019.

“OUR INDUSTRY WAS THE FIRST TO STOP AND IT WILL BE THE LAST TO START AGAIN. WE MAKE EVENTS HAPPEN. WE NEED YOUR HELP AND SUPPORT TO SURVIVE AND THRIVE IN THE FUTURE. #WEMAKEVENTS #AIDLIVE #LETTHEMUSICPLAY.”

As Queen’s ‘The Show Must Go On’ roared from the speakers, the crowd of electricians, drivers, fabricators, admins, financiers, security staff, site managers and more, cheered.

The new normal

Arguably, some of the most defining bands, artists and music in the world have been created by the UK. Concerts like Live Aid and events such as Princess Diana’s funeral and the 2012 London Olympic opening ceremony have gone down in history amongst the most iconic and highly viewed events ever.

The team at SSE feel the world is watching the UK events industry to see how it adapts to “the new normal”.

“The redundancy was not a shock,” continued Daniel. “But it’s like a family here. All I can do now is find another job and hope to be reemployed if things pick up.”

In the past week, images of a concert staged in a huge swimming pool at a water park in Wuhan shocked the world, despite claims it was safe as there had been no new cases in months.

Meanwhile, in Newcastle, the world’s first socially distanced concert took place, with the revellers dancing and drinking inside spread out frames. It is a stark contrast to those unable to go one summer without dancing in a field, with illegal raves organised across the UK showing the desire for music festivals has not faded despite the risks.

Like every other industry, events will have to adapt to post-COVID life — and that starts with ongoing support from the government.

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