How we’re jump-starting live music again

Meet Steve Davis, the brains behind the world’s first series of socially distanced live music events.

Steve Davis, it’s fair to say, has had a pretty eventful lockdown. His job running SSD, a concert promoter based in the north-east of England, initially saw him having to deal with rescheduling gigs for over a thousand artists and furloughing large numbers of staff as the live music industry rapidly shut down in response to the Covid crisis, with no plans for a reopening in sight.

But then Steve had a stroke of genius: a plan for a world-first, socially distanced music and entertainment venue in Newcastle. Now called the Virgin Money Unity Arena, he hatched a vision for a series of gigs where attendees would arrive socially distanced in their own vehicles and watch the action from their own viewing platform – never needing to come into contact with anyone else, while still retaining the electric atmosphere that’s so crucial to a brilliant live event.

Somehow, in just a matter of weeks, Steve made this vision a reality. The events, sponsored and supported by Virgin Money, kick off this August with two sell-out gigs by local boy Sam Fender, and run through September with stellar names from the world of music and comedy, including The Libertines, Jimmy Carr, Two Door Cinema Club and Van Morrison. But what’s it really been like to build this event from scratch under lockdown conditions? And how do you convince top-tier artists to sign up to play a gig when all you have is an artist’s impression of the venue? Steve reveals all…

Two Door Cinema Club

Tell us a bit about your business, SSD, and how things have been for you during Covid.

We run several festivals and music venues across the North East, and coronavirus hit us pretty hard. We had the initial madness of rescheduling and ticket refunds, which came thick and fast. But as we gear up for the Virgin Money Unity Arena series of gigs things have got exciting: we’re all really keen to do something positive to kick start the industry again.

How did the concept for the gigs come about?

We realised that live music shows as we know and love them won’t come back in that form for a while, so we had to do something different. We have a proactive team and we all wanted to do something useful rather than just sit around waiting to be told the venues wouldn’t open.

Generally, it would take a year to plan a series of gigs like this, in terms of booking, promoting, advancing with artists and suppliers, but we’ve done it in just twelve weeks. So, we’ve been working round the clock, every one of the team going above and beyond.

What were people’s first reactions when they heard the idea?

They all probably thought I was crazy. But then when you think about the people we can bring back to work, and all the small businesses we can help – from the food stores to the sound engineers to the stage crew – and what that will do for the local economy, there’s a massive bonus. And even for the artists to get onto a stage, I’m sure they’ve been going stir-crazy through all of this, so it’s brilliant for them too. The local businesses we’re working with are thinking, ‘Oh brilliant, we can do a show’, and so a lot of them can pay their teams who might not have had any income over this time. It’s a really positive thing for everyone.

How are you trying to support local businesses?

Local street food traders will be available in each zone. It’s those people who support us year-round on festivals, all based within 30 miles of the event, who have also had the rug pulled from under them ¬– a lot of these guys are sole traders. They’re all buzzing to be part of it. And they get to see all the acts as well as serve their food so it’s a win-win!

Talk us through the safety measures you’ve put in place.

We’ve been through everything from a health and safety point of view. Everyone has their own viewing area. All the pods will have their own bins, no one will enter or go to other people’s pods, and we’ll make sure there’s enough security to monitor that. Drinks can be pre-ordered and collected on your way in, and your tickets can be scanned and checked through your car windows, so no contact there. We’re being so careful, even down to the site crew, who will work in teams of two. If one of them gets ill, both of them will have to leave the site, and we have backup crews ready to go.

What do you think will surprise people about the events?

I think just how normal the gigs are going to feel – how you walk in and see the stage and the production, which is massive. It’ll be like walking into any other music venue, which is what we’re trying to create. Although people are at a distance, there will still be two thousand people in an arena, all wanting the same kind of atmosphere.

Also, it’s going to feel like a VIP experience. Would I take my mum or my kids to a standing arena floor to watch a Libertines gig? Maybe not. But I would take my kids to stand on our own platform without anyone pushing and shoving and the mosh pit element. Normally, you’d be queuing for drinks and you’d be queuing for toilets, but this is all going to be slick, with no real queues at all.

What have things been like in the music world since lockdown?

In an industry that’s so fast-paced, it’s been a massive shock. We’re all used to going at a hundred miles an hour and we were kind of brought to zero in a pretty staggering way. I do think – hope – there will be positives that come out of this whole thing. I think there’ll be a lot of great songs written. And maybe there’ll be a load of stars of tomorrow who have sat in a room for three months playing guitar or playing piano…

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