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ISM welcomes government efforts to fully re-open concert halls, but warns financial support for musicians still necessary

By | Published on Tuesday 8 September 2020

Royal Albert Hall

The Incorporated Society Of Musicians has welcomed Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden’s article in the Mail On Sunday at the weekend, in which he enthusiastically discussed plans to get live music and theatre working at full capacity again as soon as possible.

However, the organisation says that his hopes to have theatre productions and concerts in the schedule over the Christmas period overlook the long lead times of many shows. And that moves to allow full capacity events to take place again should not be used as an excuse to ignore the financial support that will still be needed by many musicians.

Of course, indoor events have been allowed again in England since last month as the government lifted more of the COVID restrictions that had previously been in place.

However, social distancing rules remain, meaning that many venues – although they can in theory re-open – can’t afford to do so in a commercially viable way. Dowden’s article, therefore, was mainly focused on how capacities could be safely increased to allow the theatre and live music industries to start to properly re-open.

In his article, Dowden said that he is “keen to take some of the best experimental ideas for getting people into our theatres safely and put them into practice”, adding that the government “will throw everything at making them work”.

“We’ve got to consider every idea and back several horses”, he went on. “We’ll also need organisers who can take on this challenge. There are people waiting in the wings to get full performances back on during the crucial Christmas period – and I want to support them. My officials are working on ‘Operation Sleeping Beauty’ which aims to bring back some of the magic of theatre for families this Christmas, and I hope to share more progress soon”.

It is hinted that initiatives such as quick turn-around COVID testing – an area where Dowden says there have been “exciting advances”, although no such tests are currently commercially available – could have venues up and running at full capacity by the beginning of November. The issue, of course, is that it’s already September and COVID-19 cases are rising, which places many layers of doubt on top of Dowden’s apparent optimism.

ISM chief exec Deborah Annetts says in a statement: “It is encouraging to hear that the government has responded to the ISM’s relentless campaigning by announcing its intention to safely reopen theatres and other live performance venues without social distancing from 1 Nov. Many of our members are in despair, having had no work since March, and this news is therefore a welcome step for ensuring that venues can make a sustainable income and for freelance musicians to start earning a living through live performance”.

“However”, she goes on, “unlike other industries, the re-opening of venues and live performances cannot happen overnight. In fact, planning for the Christmas shows, often the most profitable time of year, began much earlier in the year and many venues have already announced their cancellation. While concerts typically take less time to prepare, this should still be a key consideration for the government”.

“That is precisely why we need a tailored financial support scheme for freelancers, who are the lifeblood of the performing arts, until venues can fully re-open”, she urges. “We urge the government to work with the ISM and other industry leaders so that we can make this proposal a success and see a return to incredible experiences for audiences, and prevent the devastation of our world-leading sector”.

There have been many calls for the government to extend financial support schemes for musicians and live music industry freelancers in recent months (many of whom have not actually been eligible for any support to date).

One consideration is that, even if venues are all able to operate at full capacity in less than two months’ time, if every musician starts performing immediately there won’t be enough audiences to go around. It will take many months to get live music back to anything live normal, even if it becomes safe for the industry to operate as it did pre-pandemic in the near future.