By Kitty Cooper
As the world retreated into their homes at the beginning of the pandemic, so too did the artists, production teams and freelancers.
But research from the Office for National Statistics shows that while more than 80% of arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation and food businesses were temporarily closed in the spring lockdown, just 55% closed in January 2021. The changes, they state, “are likely to be a result of businesses adapting, such as arts organisations streaming performances online”.
Liverpool has always appealed to creatives as a mixing pot of live theatre, dance, music and events. So when that had to stop, Liverpool’s creators had to change tac too.
We spoke to some of Liverpool’s events organisers, venues and artists about whether the future of culture and events is destined to remain online.
“Over the past year we have worked with artists to challenge the concept of what a virtual event can look and feel like.”
FACT, an art gallery, cinema, bar and events space in Liverpool City Centre closed its doors in March; just two days away from the launch of a new exhibition. However, by May, they had set up a digital artist remote residency and now have all of their artworks available to experience online.
Jess Fairclough, Marketing and Communications Manager at FACT said: “As restrictions are lifted and we navigate between the physical and virtual space, we are planning a programme that will happen inside and outside of FACT, and online.”
Despite looking forward to eventually “wandering through Bluecoat’s garden and galleries” and “basking in the sunlight and buzz on Bold Street”, Jess said the use of the virtual space helps to remove certain barriers, including financial hurdles and accessibility issues.
“As much as it was stressful to organise, once it was happening we felt such an overwhelming feeling of connection.”
Mooncup Theatre are a womXn led collective who use theatre to broadcast their political voice. Prior to the first lockdown, their “scran n scratch” project was running monthly and attracting a community of regulars they didn’t want to lose.
Mooncup said they were eventually able to carve out a virtual space to continue their project, which was essential for their mental health and wellbeing at a time when they had to “be separate from the people that you love and the ones that normally care for you.”
Producers of Mooncup Theatre, Rebecca Clarke and Martyna Puciato said the gradual use of technology had actually allowed people to “dip their toes in” from their own room. “You do have an outreach that you can’t normally have, the accessibility of the online world is unbelievable.”
However, despite the benefits of the virtual space, Mooncup said they are looking forward to getting back into the rehearsal room. “Get some sweaty humans in a room – that would be great!”
“When it is safe to do so, it will be wonderful to have a hall that is full to capacity.”
For many venues and companies, lockdown meant grappling for grants and government support in place of revenue. Liverpool Philharmonic Hall usually presents 400 concerts and events each year. However, after their last concert on March 16, they were forced to close.
Luckily, through a range of funding, they were able to hold online ‘In Conversation’ events and curate a series of On Demand performances for audiences to purchase and watch at home, allowing them to have unlimited capacity and interact with people all over the world.
For the time being they are planning a blended programme of live and On Demand performances but Head of Communications and External Affairs, Rachel Gaston, said: “When it is safe to do so it will be wonderful to have a Hall that is full to capacity and see a full Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir on the stage.”
“We had to lose 95% of our team as our income was wiped out overnight”
Despite the success of many organisations in utilising virtual platforms to generate income during the pandemic, some event organisers were hit with further stumbling blocks. Bongo’s Bingo, who describe themselves as a “wild shared social extravaganza where everyone from 18 to 92 plays bingo and parties together” were hit particularly hard at the beginning of the pandemic, losing 95% of their team as the income from their events was “wiped out overnight”.
Licensing issues prevented them from delivering bingo to an online audience. Jess Helliar, Operations Director, said: “We have been in the process of applying for this licence for 6 months now and it is still ongoing.”
Irrespective of these setbacks, they did host some online events to continue engagement with their regulars. Jess said: “I’d like to think that there is room for them to continue but in the initial phase of restrictions being lifted, I think there will be a decrease in attendance.”
However, with restrictions easing and dates provisionally set for reopening, their in-person events are “selling out faster than they ever have before” which Jess said is “incredible to see.”
“We’re really proud of the live events industry we have in the UK and it’s just been a really tough time across the board.”
Sound City, the leading independent festival showcase for new music in the UK had to postpone their yearly event three times this year due to the pandemic. Turning their attention to a new initiative, a live streaming platform called GuestHouse, they were able to help over 300 artists reach fans and raise an income.
Becky Ayres, Managing Director of Soundcity said: “We’ve managed to innovate out of it to some extent but there’s a lot of people that work in the freelance live industry that are highly skilled professionals that have not been able to access any support.”
Turning to online and hybrid events allowed them to continue to attract audiences and promote artists at a time when many were struggling. Becky said: “For people to be able to access things online and be able to engage with it not just physically is something that needs to be considered really by everyone that runs events. I think it’s really at its early stages and I think there’s a lot more development to come really.”
However, there is no doubt that they are looking forward to the future of live, in-person events. “It will be great for people’s mental health and also for the live industry to continue to do what they do best which is to put on really amazing shows.”
Liverpool Arts Bar
“If arts venues aren’t thinking of continuing online events, they should really reassess.”
Despite partial, gradually increased support for some venues and organisations, funding sources weren’t accessible for everyone in the industry. The Liverpool Arts Bar, a venue on Hope Street focussed on showcasing the arts, had only opened their doors nine months before the lockdown. This meant that they did not have a full years’ accounts to make them eligible for any schemes.
Director of the Arts Bar, Alex Medlicott said: “We just missed the cut off. What we had to do instead was keep ourselves going online, try and sell things like merchandise online and try and do events.”
Despite a seemingly desperate situation, Alex said that not having access to the grants meant they had to become creative and rather than close up and wait, they took the opportunity to grow their social media. “People have said “you’re killing your own audience off”, but you want to catch those people who are sitting at home on a Friday night, seeing that the gig is on, seeing that the place is buzzing and wanting to go there next Friday because it looks great.”
Far from shutting their laptops as soon as pubs reopen, the Arts Bar said: “It’s the one thing we’d take away from this, if arts venues aren’t thinking of continuing online events they should really reassess.”
Though utilising virtual spaces in some cases is not practical, possible even, in many others, it seems the possibilities of hybrid events are only at the beginning. What the future of the entertainment industry will look like is unclear, with many factors affecting the industry as we once knew it. One thing is for sure though, the industry innovated its way out of a desperate situation, evolving into something new and exciting and those boundaries will surely continue to be pushed.