As the weeks go on, the summer season is slipping out of the events industry’s hands. The most profitable season for the entertainment sector has elapsed and frustration grows in droves.

The dust begins to settle from the All Ireland final and the scenes of 40,000 people crammed on top of each other before and after the match lives fresh in the minds of every single musician, promoter, sound engineer, stage manager, play writer, performer and so on. Several pubs surrounding Croke Park were closed due to breach of public health guidelines. This feels like a rather sizable slap in the face to the entertainment industry. Still awaiting a roadmap, the industry continues to make vast noise and demands a date to return to work.

The same weekend a protest of 70,000 people took place in the Netherlands on behalf of the entertainment and music industry. The protest entitled ‘Unmute Us’ took place in various cities across the country, including Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Eindhoven and more. Floats of live music and DJ’s occupied the streets while protesters danced down the street in scenes that could only resemble the ‘old normal’.

So, where do Ireland stand amongst all this? Calls for protest have been coming from all sides of the entertainment industry. Promoters and musicians amongst others, have been calling for action through protest. The question now looms, is Ireland ready for protest?

While dance music in Ireland is a genuine stronghold in our underground culture and has been for many years, our relationship with dance music does differ from the likes of Holland and Germany where it is very much backed and supported by the government. In Ireland we simply do not have these supports and the government’s view of dance music differs hugely from other European countries. While protest can be a very positive action we don’t want to jump the gun in terms of where we stand with the reopening of this sector.

We caught up with Sunil Sharpe of Give Us The Night to share his thoughts on protest and the reopening of the entertainment sector.

As the Irish music industry looks from a distance at protest’s in the Netherlands, can you give a sort of comparison between Ireland and Holland in respect to the history of music culture in both countries?

“Looking at the protests in Holland recently, Dutch music culture is very different to Ireland’s. They have welcomed, supported and recognised electronic music and club culture far earlier than we have. We’re still battling to reach this point in Ireland, to bring our industry up to international standards and to have our culture recognised in a similar way as other music cultures. The march that happened last week was very much capturing a national feeling around clubs. The club scene is still a living and breathing thing in Holland, whereas in Ireland we’ve been experiencing a decay of our club scene”.

“In Ireland a large amount of the population are into club music, but that doesn’t mean we have a huge clubbing community as such. Clubbing communities emerge from actual clubs, and it has been government policy, first of all with Fianna Fáil and in more recent years Fine Gael, to drive the club industry into the ground and shut them down. Any government that charges a nightclub over €400 a night to open is not on our side. They have broken down our communities, and we still need to recover and rebuild from this”.

“Covid for all the negative things that have come from it, it has also been great equalizer and has brought a lot of music communities together. Ireland is only so big, it’s not as big as the Netherlands, the UK or other countries that have seen these kinds of protests. If it does come to a time to take to the streets, I think the most logical way to progress is to actually join with other music communities who feel the exact same way as we do”.

“Our fight for the recognition of our culture is ongoing and it will continue to go on beyond the pandemic. It is always a work in progress. In terms of reopening, we have so much in common with other music communities now who feel the exact same as us. Again, it’s not an ideal situation, but I like feeling more unified as a community. It’s important”.

“Where we’re at with Give Us The Night is that we’re in the place that we need to be. We’re talking directly to the government and we’re now awaiting what their roadmap for us is going to be. We’ve been feeding back to the Department of Culture and we’re satisfied that the proposed plans are fair, appropriate and would give us a chance to return by the last quarter of 2021. It is now up to the government to decide to accept our proposals or not”.

The music industry and hospitality industry roadmap has been a hot topic of conversation in the past few weeks, but there has been little conversation of what the roadmap will actually entail. Do you see a phased reopening of nightclubs and venues?

“I would envisage that there will be some sort of phased reopening, but I’m unsure how many phases there will be for nightclubs alone. Whether or not they permit full capacity nightclubs straight away remains to be seen. I would be of the view that rushing into anything too quickly isn’t necessarily the best idea when it comes to indoor venues. I would be happy for indoor venues to open at 75-80% capacity, but obviously full capacity is the easiest and most straightforward option for operators. You have to have a certain level of capacity or it’s not financially viable.”

“We have to recognise that there are difficulties and challenges associated with running events indoors. It’s not a walk in the park and we have to be mindful of this as an industry. If there was a large rise in cases linked back to nightclubs over the course of one or two weekends, we could be shut back down.”

Many countries that have begun to reopen their night time economy have taken different steps to ensure safety. What approaches do you see the Irish government implementing?

“We want to develop a number of best practices for venues, particularly for those that may not have as good ventilation and will have to improve that end of their operation. We also need guidance from the government on this and this questions whether venues will be given any training or funding to pay for these systems. We’re not only concerned about re-opening but also remaining open”

“For any late night venue to reopen that is in possession of a dance licence, they need their special exemption order fees waived and cancelled entirely. We’ve been calling for the abolition of special exemption orders for many years and now is the time for the government to just write the loss off as a bad debt. Our industry could get back on its feet and grow if those fees were abolished. The payoff for the government is actually much greater than the relatively small intake of SEO fees. These fees are primarily to fund the courts service, it’s crazy”

“Antigen testing needs to play a part in our future too. We need a flexible route into venues and don’t believe a Covid certificate on its own is a good idea. There have to be more ways that will allow someone enter a venue or feel safer going into one, and testing really has to be at the centre of that. Ideally we will have the government setting up test centres in central locations and this could be for the whole hospitality and entertainment industries.

So are we going to have a test event before we jump into running events indoor?

“There will be an indoor trial event and an announcement coming soon. For now it is just one, but we’re hopeful for some more follow up events shortly after. I know many people’s views on pilot events and we share a lot of those views, but they will build a lot of public confidence in our industry returning and there’s nothing wrong with that. The main factor is the length of time between doing test events and then the actual return of the industry. I would like to look at them as preliminary events so it’s more to put all different best practices into place over the course of a number of events but at the same time having a reopening date so we can be learning from these events as venues and promoters get ready to return. We also need to see how these events work with no social distancing, or how things would fare if there is any requirement in relation to mask-wearing”.

We seemed to have missed the chance to run outdoor events with no social distancing this summer. This is now two summers in a row that we have wasted an opportunity to collect data and give our industry a chance to familiarise themselves with running events during covid. Is outdoor events possible past early September?

“Outdoors does pose less of a challenge but again the government is very slow to respond to this. They were talking about an outdoor summer but what sort of outdoor summer was there for events and music? It practically didn’t happen and that’s two years in a row now that we’ve lost lots of opportunities, but there are ways to designate certain outdoor spaces for events even in the winter. BD Festival happened around Halloween and you can’t say for a moment that it was warm then but it wasn’t the worst of winter weather either. If a festival like that can happen outdoors then surely other events can happen outdoors throughout the winter. In the way that the use of outdoor areas were put to greater use for pubs and restaurants, this should apply to night time venues where it works. These types of conversations about music events outdoors haven’t advanced as much as they should have”

“If the government were as serious as they should be at this point they would have had more direct conversations with the industry. The Culture Department have been great to communicate with but other departments haven’t got involved, with the obvious one being the Health Department. The shutdown of Dutch clubs and a lot of music events in general was unexpected. Their reopening just went too early, it was a risk and it backfired. At the same time we need to learn to live with Covid, which is one of the government’s own mottos. Businesses and organisations have to stay active for a number of reasons, remaining inactive for this long has not been good for anyone. Music is part of the fun industry and is always seen as the danger industry to authorities, but nobody knows how to manag crowds like the event industry and that’s been a very frustrating part for everyone concerned.

“The health authorities don’t fully trust the events industry to be responsible enough to reopen without anything going wrong and similarly the event industry don’t trust the health authorities to care enough to help us reopen. They’re experts in health and we are experts in running events. We need to meet in the middle and communicate a little bit more and the government needs to facilitate those meetings. We’re nearly 18 months into this pandemic and the fact that no serious conversations have occurred between NPHET and health authorities with the events industry is quite extraordinary.”

“It won’t be good enough to publish regulations that are both not fit for purpose but also very hard to enforce as well, and expect people to just go along with it. We need a roadmap that works and to strengthen the links between the health authorities and the events industry as soon as possible”

Photo credit: Paul O’Connell

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