Effect of COVID-19 on Irish entertainment sector discussed at Oireachtas Joint Committee meeting

Groups including Give Us The Night, the Event Production Industry Covid-19 Working Group (EPIC), and the Irish Music Rights Organisation (IMRO) were among those contributing to an Oireachtas Joint Committee meeting yesterday, to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on Ireland’s entertainment sector.

The Joint Committee on Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht hosted the meeting to discuss “how the pandemic has impacted the entertainment community and what supports the groups believe are needed to keep the sector viable as the economy and society reopens,” according to committee chair Niamh Smith TD.

“Like the hospitality sector which the Committee heard from last week, COVID-19 has also heavily affected the entertainment sector with the closure of pubs, clubs and venues due to public health regulations,” she added.

As Give Us The Night’s Sunil Sharpe put it in his opening address, “The impact of COVID-19 has been swift and brutal on our industry. Jobs have been lost, businesses shut down and a way of life frozen until further notice. This is in marked contrast to many other industries that have continued on without too much disruption.

“To complicate this further, our venues are now under threat, as business owners and landlords consider more financially viable uses for these spaces, which may lead to changes of use and redevelopment.”

Sharpe added that in the absence of a clear roadmap, the government is “causing uncertainty for all types of venues and events, and the associated workforce”.

He pointed to trial events taking place in Liverpool and Barcelona, and added that the group has been “advocating since last summer that Ireland plans trial events, starts small, learns from the experience, and builds up to being ready for a workable reopening. A specific plan, including pre-event testing and the use of vaccine passports, now needs to be laid out.

“We acknowledge that a full reopening cannot happen until a significant amount of the population is vaccinated, but we find it hard to understand why no specific targets, dates or guidelines have been published by the Government to indicate to the whole industry what reopening may look like. Instead, we have a roadmap from last September that even at level 1 would not be sufficient to allow most entertainment spaces to reopen and stay in business.

“Given the amount of international best practice information that is at our fingertips, and the knowledge that exists within our domestic entertainment industry, it is frustrating that Ireland is lagging so far behind in terms of an actual plan.”

A realistic opening plan would also help to alleviate the cost of the live performance support scheme (LPSS), which while of benefit, is not a realistic long-term strategy, he added.

“It is imperative that we see investment come back into the industry and that existing operators do not leave entirely,” said Sharpe. “Community spirit has been crushed in the night-time industry in recent years and, needless to say, crippling insurance costs have been a big factor in this. Insurance for music venues and nightclubs is prohibitively expensive, far more than other industries, and some owners have described the role of running venues as feeling like they are ‘working for the insurance companies’.

“While we value the role of festivals and large-scale events, we also measure the health of our entertainment and night-life sector by the regular weekly offering in our cities and towns, and, in particular, our venues and cultural spaces. These are the incubation spaces for communities to grow and for independent spirit to thrive, and, crucially, where performers and workers of all types can learn their trade, as well as earn a living.

“These venues have been mandated shut for over a year now and will struggle to get back on their feet or to return at all.”

Give Us The Night has called for the establishment of stakeholder forums, to be established within every local authority and inclusive towards all parts of the entertainment, culture and hospitality sectors, which was also discussed by Sharpe in his address.

“There has been a general feeling since the shutdown of the industry that now is the best time to introduce a new way of experiencing our cities and towns that is less restrictive and more diverse,” he said.

His words were echoed by Liam Fitzgerald of the EPIC working group, who added, “Looking forward, there are many hurdles still to navigate as we contemplate the reopening of live events over the coming months. One of the most important concepts for us to convey is the potential for lag in our industry reopening.

“Over the cycle of planning, marketing, selling tickets, rehearsing and building, the time from the proverbial gates opening for our industry to meaningful income for our workers and SMEs will be between six months and year. It is vital that the planning starts in earnest as soon as possible.”

Adding that the industry is united in its commitment that it will only reopen when it is safe to do so, he noted, “We are an integral part of the cultural fabric of society. The live entertainment industry is an ecosystem and all of its aspects are needed for it to survive: the talent of the artists, the venue for the promoter, and the contractors and crew to pull it all together.

“Without the assurance of sufficient supports until the sector fully recovers, and with the delay in activating the expert working group, some of Ireland’s most iconic and live entertainment venues and promoters will be forced to implement plans to shut down entirely or for the foreseeable, long-term future, and to implement extensive lay-offs. This is an industry of entrepreneurs and businesses who have forged their own path. They are highly skilled and dedicated people who have invested their own time and money to create events and experiences to allow others to make memories that will last a lifetime.

“This was a thriving industry prior to COVID, and it will be again.”

The meeting went on to debate the reform of trading hours for entertainment venues, the role of online events, the potential role of ‘night mayors’ in cultural development, insurance reform, reopening strategies, changes to regulations and a lot more besides. You can read a full transcript here.

Since the Committee meeting took place, of course, An Taoiseach Micheál Martin has addressed the nation, with little visibility on when the entertainments sector will reopen. Hopefully the positive responses garnered during yesterday’s Committee meeting will ensure when it does so, it will have the full backing of those in power.

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