As Sunburn 2020 announcement faces flak, course for live music events in post-COVID era seems increasingly unclear

The idea that the Sunburn Festival could go on in this COVID-19 climate — albeit in a truncated avatar — seems nothing short of absurd. Or is it?

Lakshmi Govindrajan Javeri November 03, 2020 15:50:26 IST
As Sunburn 2020 announcement faces flak, course for live music events in post-COVID era seems increasingly unclear

Sunburn in previous years. Image via Facebook/@SunburnFestival

In a year that has seen us spend much of our time socially distanced, attending a live music event of considerable scale is the last thing on our minds.

Then again, forcibly spending time at home for months on end was hard to imagine in February 2020. We balked at the ludicrousness of it, but here we are. The idea that the Sunburn Festival could go on in this COVID-19 climate — albeit in a truncated avatar — seems nothing short of absurd. Or is it?

On Firstpost: Sunburn returns to Goa amid COVID-19 pandemic; announcement draws flak on social media

To start with, the final approval for the festival lies with a high-level permission committee. The Goa tourism minister Manohar Ajgaonkar maintains that if the Union Ministry of Home Affairs declines permission, then the state will have to cancel it. So, technically, we do not know if the festival is going to happen at all. And to be perfectly honest, neither do the organisers.

GO GOA GOVT:

Blaming the organisers (Percept) would be the easiest thing to do in this outrage-ready environment. How dare they go on with this when there is no vaccine in sight? What guarantee can they give to ensure the health safety of these revellers? How can they wilfully endanger so many concertgoers?

Nobody is being forced to attend the festival; therefore, all this outrage is typically misplaced. Look at it like alcohol and cigarette packets carrying health warnings. Nobody is forcing you to buy them just because they’re available. (Then again, alcohol and cigarettes cannot spread contagious viruses the way a congregation of people can.)

Yet, all these discussions wouldn’t have happened if the Goa government didn’t play its part. It has only given permission in principle. If the government simply declined permission on the grounds of health precaution, Sunburn would have no choice but to not happen in Goa this year.

Considering the massive revenue earned by the government from tourism, it is no surprise that it has already taken steps to open up the state for tourists in moderation. Goa Chamber of Commerce and Industry President Manoj Caculo, in a statement last week, had assessed the loss of revenue via tourism to be at Rs 1,000 crore since the start of the lockdown. The tourism industry taking baby steps back to normalcy, is just the shot in the arm that the state’s economy needs to kickstart its recovery process. Since 1 November, casinos are said to reopen at 50 percent capacity, while demarcations are already being made for beach shacks to maintain social distancing norms.

With these efforts slowly seeing fruition, the government is relying on the tourist influx to help it finds it feet. This may perhaps have been the rationale behind why the government has given Sunburn permission in principle to let the festival go on. Tourism minister Manohar Ajgaonkar on Sunday said that they don’t plan on holding the festival at a very large scale, with his assessment of restricted numbers being 12,000 people. Only a couple of months ago, he was clear about not being in favour of EDM festivals being held in Goa until a vaccine has been introduced, citing the safety of the people being a priority over a cultural event. What has changed in these few months is anybody’s guess.

PERCEPT-ION GAME:

Percept Ltd, a veteran in the live events space, is well-experienced with how even the best laid plans can go awry. Festivals get postponed, cancelled, buried…it happens all the time, and Percept is no stranger to such eventualities.

Unlike a lot of music genres that can still be experienced digitally and privately, the thrill for EDM has always been about being a part of a crowd. Trust, though, is a massive, unaccounted sentiment that would swing the audience’s opinion in favour of attending the event. What are the systems in place for the manpower that is helping the organisers build the experience ground up? Are they sanitising every item touched, ensuring that every crew member on ground is screened and sanitised multiple times a day? At the festival, what measures are being taken to ensure those selling F&B won’t be carriers of the virus?

One presumes that the organisers would’ve considered all of the above, as well as last minute licence cancellations, ever ready social media outrage, and obviously cautious audiences in their planning stages, to come up with what they believe would be a format that ticks all their boxes of precaution.

They have clearly listed what measures they’re taking to be careful in the time of the pandemic. The sales capacity is locked at 20 percent of the venue’s capacity, masks and Aarogya Setu apps are mandatory, temperature checks and magnetic security scanning at entry points, and above all, socially distanced layouts for the multi-tier ticketed event. Entry permitted into the event strictly as per time slots selected, and on-ground crew will ensure there will be no crowding at gates, toilets, F&B area or any other common areas.

In the general admission categories, each row has been marked separately with its own limited capacity. Every row will have multiple sections of 50 persons each with socially distanced marks. Upon entry to the section, the ticket holder remains there throughout the day. VIP categories have their own private and designated “pods” that are socially distanced. This pod remains the same across all three days of the festival. Other protocols, including a negative COVID test, may be required depending upon government regulations at the time.

On paper, the plans seem alright even though the virus looms and with it, our overwhelming apprehension. Sunburn has listed in its terms and conditions: “The event organiser and its subsidiaries and affiliates shall not be held responsible (legally, financially or otherwise) for any exposure to COVID-19 , or other virus, pandemic or epidemic, that may cause personal injury, illness, permanent disability and/or death.”

INDUSTRY IMPACT:

With a disclaimer so clear, the decision for the festival to go on lies with both the government and the audience. Percept, on its part, has put systems in place, but the final onus does not entirely lie with it.

How organisers plans their lineup — whether it’s a more local-heavy one or if they intend to do a combination of live streaming and live Indian DJs — will contribute to whether or not hosting an event of this scale in the world of today makes business sense. After all, brands are not clamouring to be the first to sponsor live events, wary of being associated with an occasion that has every chance of backfiring.

Bear in mind that the first few live events of scale to be hosted, no matter when in the pandemic cycle or its immediate aftermath, are bound to face the flak of those who think of this entire industry as an unnecessary indulgence. Whether the first major event happens in December 2020 or in June 2021, the criticism is par for the course. Percept may be willing to take some risks to have the first mover advantage in this post-COVID live events industry, but the point remains that despite every precaution taken, it will never seem enough.

When then is it the right time to take the risk? Is Percept simply testing waters of how far it can go with trying to organise Sunburn at a time like this? Are other organisers looking to see how Percept navigates these tough waters before finalising their own action plans?

The first mover, at this point, is severely disadvantaged. In the event that the festival goes on unscathed by health-related controversy, Percept would have pulled off the near-impossible. However, should it be riddled with disputes or worse, a COVID outbreak scenario, it’ll bode heavily on the rest of the live music industry, relegating it lower than it already is on the audience priority list.

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