Rockin’ in the land of limbo

Features

Mayo’s entertainment sector still in the dark on reopening roadmap

Analysis
Anton McNulty

The pictures of thousands of Limerick and Cork hurling fans congregating outside the pubs around Croke Park ahead of the All-Ireland hurling final certainly lit a fire under the thousands of people involved in the entertainment sector around Ireland.
Since the Government announced the first of the Covid-19 restrictions in March 2020, the entertainment sector, the live music sector in particular, has been in limbo.
While the likes of the hospitality, education and religious sectors have been banging their drum and getting some leeway from the Government, the entertainment sector had been relatively quiet.
That was until last Sunday and photos of the fans in their thousands started to go viral. Artists and others in the sector started to raise their voice as one. Almost all of the contributors for this article commented on the All-Ireland final and questioned how it is okay for 40,000 fans to go to a match and congregate outside the ground while having more than 50 at an indoor venue is off limits.
“I am a huge GAA fan. The idea of 40,000 people at the hurling was brilliant but why could there not have been a stage in the middle of that pitch instead of 30 guys running around?” asked Brendan Hurley, one of the organisers of the Claremorris Folk Festival which takes place next weekend (See Living, page 38, for more).

‘Nightmare’
Having found their voice last week, the Government and the decision makers have started to make some compromises, with live music and performances permitted in hospitality settings – but they must be outdoors and with capacity limited to 200.
The comments by the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Tony Holohan, that he would be happy to see festivals like Electric Picnic go ahead if everyone attending were vaccinated has given rise to increased optimism that restrictions will be eased further.
While no official announcement has been made, there is speculation that a roadmap for a phased reopening of the sector will be published soon.
Finbar Hoban, the Castlebar-based music promoter, described the last 18 months as ‘an absolute nightmare’, saying artists, technicians and all involved in the sector have to get back to work soon.
“The sooner we sort this out the better because people have to get back to work,” he told The Mayo News.
“Sound engineers, musicians and promoters like myself just have to get back to work. We have been treated very unfairly especially over the last two months or so. We were the first to close originally when this all kicked off, and it’s looking like we will be the last to reopen if they don’t get their act together.
“There are a couple of outdoor events, and it is great to see something [happening], but the whole indoor scene is a no-go area at the moment. We cannot plan at the moment. I can’t plan to book a gig in the next two or three weeks for an artist or a band because I am not sure if it will go ahead. It is difficult to promote and push stuff for the indoor scene.
“There is talk of opening up at the end of September, but whatever decision is made it can’t be six weeks from now. Leaving it till October is a joke. It needs to open up as soon as possible.
“That is the way most musicians and venues think about it as well. We need to be able to open up and put on gigs and start entertaining people again.”

‘Not viable’
Presently attendance at outdoor music events is limited to 200 people, while the number who can attend indoor events is limited to 50. Those numbers are simply not viable, according to people involved in the entertainment sector. A number of outdoor events are scheduled to take place around the county in the next couple of weeks. Many have received funding from the Arts Office of Mayo County Council to put on the events. While this funding is extremely welcome, many in the industry still wonder if entertainment events will be viable going into September and October.
Westport Town Hall Theatre is organising ‘Outdoor Live’ shows towards the end of September. While the venue’s manager Rosaleen Heraty is delighted to be able to put on these shows, she believes it is time to increase the capacity for indoor shows. The current limit of 50, she believes, is viable for neither the artists nor the venue.
“In May, I had Seán Keane booked in to start with us for one night a week for July and August and into September. We had thought in May we would be at capacity for 50 percent, which would be the 100 [seat] mark for us. It would have taken a big sting out of it, but when we were told it wasn’t going to increase from 50, it wasn’t viable for Seán Keane or other artists we had booked in.
“It was hugely frustrating and disappointing. We are open but we are not viable. That is the bottom line, and it won’t sustain us into the long term. When you see across the border in Belfast and in the UK, theatres and art centres are all open and we are still limited to 50…. Nine out of ten acts are not going to pay to an audience of 50 because it is not viable or enjoyable for anyone. We are a 225-seater venue, and if you are on stage looking at 30 or 40 of an audience it’s not very heartening when you know you can fill it.”
Due to the uncertainty of whether they will be able to host crowds indoors this winter, Rosaleen explained, the venue has not been able to announce indoor performances.
“We have built up a good reputation with acts over the years, so a couple of weeks would get us booked up ’til the end of the year. We already have things in the pipeline, and they are all [scheduled] provisionally [depending] on whether we get our capacity increased.
“The bottom line is we need our roadmap, and we need to know where we’re going. A decision needs to be made as soon as possible.”

Long-term support
As a promoter for the last decade, Finbar has seen his fair share of the rough and tumble of the entertainment industry. In the last 18 months he has seen musicians move away from the scene due to the lack of certainty. While he remains positive that better days await, he believes that the Government has to back people working in the sector financially long after they open up again.
“For this industry to continue into the future we need the support of the Government right now, and for them to continue to support the artist for as long as it can to get this scene up and running again. It is a viable industry in Ireland and needs to be pushed and supported by our Government.
“Artists need the support, bands need the support, venues need the support, promoters need the support, they need to keep supporting us. Not a six-month plan, it has to be long term and even last a couple of years to support the live industry.
“We were the first to close and will be the last to reopen, so now is the time to show us some support.”