In what could prove to be a model that gets the live music industry moving again this summer, the creation of the UK’s first purpose-built outdoor venue to accommodate social distancing has gained international media coverage and enquires from interested potential partners ranging from local concert promoters to Hollywood studios.
The brainchild of SSD Concerts MD Steve Davis, in partnership with sponsors Virgin Money, the 2,500-capacity temporary Virgin Money Unity Arena will be constructed at Newcastle racecourse Gosforth Park. It will host a series of shows by acts including The Libertines, Supergrass (pictured), Two Door Cinema Club and Maximo Park over an eight-week period from 14 August.
Davis says that one of the most satisfying results of working on the project is the benefit it is bringing to all involved: “Not only are the artists earning from it but it is bringing work for the site and road crew; the income passes down the chain and will circulate around the industry.”
The concept involves the audience being spread across 500 viewing platforms situated two metres apart. Each platform is able to accommodate up to five people, who must arrive in the same car.
Exclusively an e-ticket event, ticket buyers must submit their vehicle’s number plate. They are then allocated a time slot for arrival and once at the venue they will gain entry once their number plate has been scanned.
Tickets, which go on sale on 10 July, vary in price but no less than two can be purchased for each platform. There is a £20 surcharge per platform booked, which Davis says covers the cost of supplying and constructing them.
Food and beverages will be available to pre-order via a dedicated app but once on site attendees will be able to order further items via the app or from PPE-clad staff circulating the venue.
“We are all used to working in high-pressure environments but none of us have worked on an event with social distancing.”
“The field is able to accommodate 20,000 people but with 500 platforms the capacity is limited to 2,500, we are looking to achieve attendances of 2,000 upwards,” says Davis.
One of the North East’s most active concert promoters, SSD was behind the launch of the 15,000-capacity This is Tomorrow festival in 2018, which takes place in Exhibition Park near Newcastle city centre. The next edition will take place from 28 to 30 May, with a line up including Gerry Cinnamon and Royal Blood.
Davis says that despite the issues involved in constructing a venue able to accommodate social distancing on a large scale, working on the Unity Arena has been a breeze compared to festivals: “The show is pretty straightforward compared to what we are used to dealing with: one stage with the crowd segregated on 500 platforms is a lot easier than a five-stage festival where people can run all over the site.”
He says the biggest challenge was convincing Newcastle City Council that the event should go ahead against a backdrop of the ever-changing Covid-19 crisis: “It was a matter of making them believe in the concept, that it would be fully safe, and it was the right thing to allow it to happen.”
Aside from keeping the audience safe, Davis has worked closely with the production team to ensure the safety of crew and staff. That has involved partnering with Manchester-based event production company Engine No.4, security provider Showsec and the team at staging provider ES Global.
Says Davis, “We are all used to working in high-pressure environments but none of us have worked on an event with social distancing.
“For the staff it is about having all the correct PPE on site and creating designated shift patterns, so when we are building the stage we will only have a couple of people working at once and then the lighting guys will come in. Normally everyone piles in and works simultaneously, so instead of a one-week build we have a three-week build; we have to do it very gradually.”
Davis says he has hired the biggest stage he could to ensure artists are able to socially distance while performing: “We went for a huge, 24-metre, stage; it spans the entire width of the site. We also have massive screens because people on the platforms at the back are pretty far away, but no further than at the back of a normal arena.”
Should the on-sale go well, Davis says he will look at rolling out the temporary venue format again for other shows: “We have the potential to do a winter offering under cover in a huge open-sided tent but anything we do will be in the North East.”
In the meantime, the Unity Arena is being made available to other promoters and Davis says he has received numerous enquiries, including Northern Pride, dance event organisers and even a leading Hollywood studio interested in using it for film events.
Despite the added financial strain involved in having to limit audiences to 2,500 at a venue able to accommodate 20,000, not to mention the added infrastructure and PPE costs, Davis says the project has not provided as expensive as he first feared.
“Everyone’s costs on this have been kept really lean, there is a real willingness among all the suppliers to make this happen so they have given us favourable payment terms. It has been a really positive experience all round.”