Is an entirely new entertainment typology the only solution to saving an industry fast running out of time and ideas?

You’ll probably have seen images this week of US band The Flaming Lips playing to a live audience, with small groups and couples each encased in a plastic bubble. These sci-fi-surrealist scenes are a great fit with the band’s own musical ethos, but they also tell a story of where the events industry is currently at. According to PWC, the global live music business was projected to have lost $18bn in value in 2020. A survey by U.K. Music found that 65 per cent of music creators’ income disappeared last year compared to average earnings, rising to over 80 per cent for those most dependent on live performance or studio work. 

With the pandemic still setting new records, this year might not much prove any better. Organizers for highlights of the live music calendar, such as those for the Glastonbury Festival, are already looking to 2022 for their return. In this context, standing stock-still inside a rapidly heating orb, your view obscured as condensation builds up on the plastic (attendees were given towels for intermittent mopping) might still seem like a worthwhile compromise. But if there are to be any musicians left to headline next year’s festivals, the industry will need to come up with a more effective interim solution. 

The entertainment architects at Stufish (you can watch our panel on the future of entertainment with their CEO here) believe they have a workable alternative. Along with a range of leading figures in the industry, they developed a concept they dub The Vertical Theatre. This freestanding and mobile event venue is intended to host a varied programme of performances, from theatre and live music to comedy, circus and television broadcasts. The open-side structure balances providing adequate protection from the elements with maximizing airflow, while a continuous wraparound ramp removes pinch points. 

Perhaps most importantly, ensuring safety doesn't appear to come at the expense of achieving a sense of density – crucial for atmosphere. The audience is arranged across a series of balconies, with each unit intended to accommodate a group of between four and 12. Modular construction means the entire venue is equally adaptable to scale, shifting between 1,200 to 2,400 capacity as demand (and social distancing rules) allow. The interior of the edifice can be arranged with a proscenium or thrust stage, or set up with traverse or in-the-round layouts. Food and beverage, as well as broadcast and streaming infrastructure, have also been accounted for. The Vertical Theatre Group says they're already in discussion with partners (reported to include record labels and streaming companies) willing to make the concept a reality, with plans to role out at least one example this year. 

Of course we’ve seen attempts to make preexisting venues viable in the last half year, from car-based concerts to individualized outdoor podiums. The question remains whether, with increased set-up costs and significantly reduced capacity, such initiatives are more than an exercise in futility. That’s before you even consider the qualitative deprecation of such compartmentalized events. There are also efforts to see whether the problem can be overcome simply through better organization. The team behind Spanish mega-festival Primavera Sound has just run an experiment with a Barcelona hospital in which 1,000  members of the public were given rapid COVID-19 tests. Half were then invited to a gig at Sala Apolo, a Barcelona venue that can hold 1,600 in its bar and 900 in its performance space.

Guests had to wear masks, but there was no social distancing. The other half of the group acted as a control. None of the concert-goers subsequently tested positive. A success, but also an indication of the fact that, in the medium-term (accounting for a wary public even post-vacation, as well as seasonal returns), most existing venues will long find it hard to square the equation between safety, capacity, finances and experience. Consider that a venue like London’s Royal Albert Hall only breaks even when its around 80 per cent full. As Stufish’s endeavour suggests, it might be time to stop trying to find a fix and simply start again.