Liverpool Digital Music Festival 2020

TPi’s Jacob Waite meets the socially-distanced production crew, volunteer technicians, student photographers and touring engineers involved in Liverpool Digital Music Festival – a free online festival in support of Claire House Children’s Hospice, Mary Seacole House and Merseyside Youth Association, bringing grassroots music to four otherwise empty venue spaces across Liverpool.

Taking place over the bank holiday weekend, on 29 to 31 August, Liverpool Digital Music Festival (LDMF) 2020 transformed empty city centre independent venues – Jacaranda Phase One, E.B.G.B.S and The SAE Institute – into livestreaming spaces, with a headline stage at the region’s largest indoor venue, M&S Bank Arena, Liverpool. The free online festival raised funds to support three local charities: Claire House Children’s Hospice, Mary Seacole House (Granby Community Mental Health Group) and Merseyside Youth Association, with donations for the organisations handled by Ticket Quarter.

Following a successful inaugural ‘lockdown’ event in May with 10,000 online viewers, which raised over £2,000 for the NHS and The Music Venue Trust, Liverpool Digital Music Festival Director, Ben Roberts of Polyphonica, set about creating the region’s first free, multi-venue livestreamed music festival. To deliver this ambitious project amid the COVID-19 crisis, Roberts enlisted the services of SAE Institute Liverpool, Adlib, and Luminous TV, as well as a band of volunteer technicians, student photographers and touring engineers – spearheaded by Production Manager, Mike Prosser of BOOM! Production Services.

Performers included a host of emerging Merseyside talent including: Zuzu, Natalie McCool, The Peach Fuzz, Tokky Horror, Phil Jones, The Merchants, Ask Elliot, The Heavy North and Lauren Lo Sung. “This is a celebration of Liverpool’s music scene, bringing together artists for a unified good cause as well as delivering a fresh perspective to live music during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis,” Roberts began. “At any other time, there’d be 10,000 people in this arena, but they can’t be, so we’ve created an engaging production which presents live music to fans in lockdown.”

Digital Marketing Executive, Ian Duke was among the M&S Bank Arena team involved in the project. “Live music helps us connect, celebrate and enjoy ourselves. As the largest music venue in the city, it’s great for us to host this and say ‘look, we’re still here – we still love live music and entertainment – and we’re doing all we can to make sure that stays’,” he expressed. “The arena has been operating as a food and PPE distribution centre for Liverpool City Council during the past few months, and so with their support, we were delighted to have been able to give access to Ben and his team over the bank holiday weekend, making the M&S Bank arena the heart of the festival. It’s great to see local talent showcased this way, creating a platform for them to flourish.”

The resulting production was fairly stripped back for both COVID-19 management and budgetary reasons. “Although the setup is very different to a typical arena show, the feedback regarding the production values from the performers has been excellent – they’re really pleased, and in some cases, overwhelmed with the opportunity to perform in the region’s largest indoor venue,” explained Roberts, recalling the “massive team effort” involved in proceedings.

“As soon as we discovered that we had access to the M&S Bank Arena, we realised a traditional arena stage setup wouldn’t make sense given the context. To look at a stage and production and act like everything is ‘normal’ felt false,” Prosser commented.

The PM went on to explain that by setting up the stage in the centre of the arena and harnessing the curvature of empty seats as a backdrop, the team were able to create an aesthetic reflective of the uncertain climate, while still looking and sounding “fantastic”. He added: “It has boosted the confidence of performing artists and the young crew involved. We were half an hour late getting out of the venue on the first day because the headline artist sneaked off to the dressing room to watch their stream back – praising everyone involved.”

Alongside the main stage, Jacaranda Phase One functioned as an acoustic stage and the SAE Institute Liverpool’s recording studio was transformed into a ‘live lounge’ setup, with the live performances staggered between the three live stages, while the DJ stage at E.B.G.B.S ran non-stop throughout. The PM explained: “It’s a virtual festival in the sense you can jump into any stage at any time, although we have chosen to stagger them to avoid clashing sets – resulting in an exhausting amount of prep in the pre-production.”

In fact, the most important aspect of Prosser’s workload in the PM seat, leading up to the festival, was implementing a thorough risk assessment and COVID-19 risk management policy to ensure the safety of the crew and performing artists.

The crew operated in ‘bubbles’, and maintained a 2m social distance, as well as donning masks, with hand sanitiser stations implemented across all four sites. Schedules were designed to allow for an hour-long changeover time for each artist. “We’re cleaning down every touch-point on and off stage, as well as using two full sets of vocal mics rotated between acts to be cleaned and sanitised.” Prosser reported. “We’ve encouraged artists to bring their own mics wherever possible.”

In each venue, designated bays and load-in and out spaces were provided for artists to bring in kit to sterilise and remain distanced from the other artists on the bill. “We’ve limited the time artists can spend at the venue, with strict arrival and departure slots, so we’ve never got too many people on site at any given time,” Prosser underlined. “It’s all built around maintaining distance and hygiene standards.”

Marking her first foray into stage management for live music was Evelyn Ong. Typically involved in the business management aspects of the industry, such as organising conferences, she was pleased to assume the role of Stage Manager.

“Music is completely different,” Ong highlighted. “While the time management is similar, I’ve found working with creative artists to be very refreshing,” she added. “Everything has gone smoothly, which comes as a surprise given the level of organisation required across four venues.”

Ong dubbed the quality of the livestreams as “amazing”, believing that “it would take people months, I imagine, to call people out of lockdown to come together and achieve something like this, which takes a lot of work, but the end results are a reflection of that.” As with any production, Ong said, the first day was the toughest but most-rewarding on the job. “I’m thankful to be part of such a great team and I’m learning every day.”

 

View this post on Instagram

 

Taking place over the bank holiday weekend, on 29 to 31 August, Liverpool Digital Music Festival (LDMF) 2020 transformed empty city centre independent venues – Jacaranda Phase One, EBGBS and The SAE Institute UK – into livestreaming spaces, with a headline stage at the region’s largest indoor venue, M&S Bank Arena Liverpool. The free online festival raised funds to support three local charities: Claire House Childrens Hospice, Mary Seacole House (Granby Community Mental Health Group) and Merseyside Youth Association Limited (MYA), with donations for the organisations handled by Ticket Quarter 📹 ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Read more in the October issue of TPi 🗞 ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ 🔗 in bio ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ 📸: Lorraine Connor

A post shared by TPi (@tpimagazine) on

‘THE PERFECT GIG AFTER SIX MONTHS AWAY’

As a key partner for LDMF 2020, SAE Institute Liverpool supplied the majority of the technical equipment, as well as volunteer staff and an army of students to support the festival across all departments. “The students have had a great opportunity to learn how an event of this scale operates and to receive support and mentorship from the festival team,” Prosser explained. “We’re always keen to support young people breaking into the industry; show them it’s possible – nothing should be unattainable if you have the right attitude. With support and encouragement, they have walked into an arena gig and done a brilliant job. It’s a very vocational industry so getting hands-on is the best way to learn and, up to now, those opportunities haven’t been there for them this year.”

SAE Liverpool Audio Production Programme Coordinator, James McCormick commented: “This is a large-scale event that converges all of the subject areas we teach at SAE and applies them to a real, challenging and socially responsible project. It gives students fantastic work experience of festival infrastructure at venues such as the M&S Bank Arena, at a time when access to such venues and events is extremely limited.”

SAE Institute Liverpool students Joe Punter and Ellen McGovern were selected by McCormick to direct an army of fresh-faced technicians, answer questions and troubleshoot for visiting engineers. The students were able to get hands on at every venue, with the broadcast mix at M&S Bank Arena controlled by Sam Hepworth on a Midas M32R console with a DL32 stage box, and monitors mixed from an iPad at stage left by Reggie Sequeira.

Adlib provided a line system and cable package, with stage monitoring and microphones supplied by BOOM! Production Services. “It’s a novelty doing an arena gig and not having to put any points in,” the PM quipped.

With no audience, the team didn’t have to worry about a traditional FOH setup. The broadcast mix was monitored on headphones, with the L&R feed sent straight into the cameras. “Only the engineer knows what it sounds like, so that’s quite a daunting experience, but being on stage at some of the big festivals, you are just hearing monitors mostly, so I had faith in the sound, checking the streams, etc.” Punter noted.

As the proud owner of the Midas M32R console, Punter was happy to receive free lessons on how to use it from the audio veterans in Prosser and Head of Audio, Adlib’s Martin Kuchta. “The lessons I’ve received from Mike on festival preparation and people management can’t be taught in a classroom – you can only get that while working closely on site,” he supposed. “I didn’t think I’d be involved in another festival until next year at the earliest, so to work on this has been extremely rewarding. It’s great to bring music to people at a time when it’s not easy to do so.”

Kuchta has worked for Adlib for seven years and is also a lecturer in live audio at SAE Institute Liverpool. He headed the LDMF 2020 audio team, supporting the students working across the smaller venues and leading the team at M&S Bank Arena, Liverpool. “It’s been absolutely amazing to work with young people who don’t have too much experience in live sound,” he began. “I met these guys on site and they’ve blown my mind with their enthusiasm and willingness to learn. I’ve received a few comments from my mates watching the livestream, commending the quality of the sound. When I told them it was the students’ hard work, they couldn’t believe it.”

Away from home schooling his daughter during the COVID-19 crisis, Kutcha relished the chance to impart his knowledge and years of touring experience on the team of budding audiophiles. “Hands-on experience is crucial in the touring industry. You can read all the product manuals and books on live sound, but nothing can quite prepare you for a gig and how fast you need to make decisions, other than being on site,” he said. “There is simply no theoretical knowledge that can prepare you.”

Overjoyed to be back on site, the audio veteran shared his closing thoughts on the project. “I was almost in tears when I first walked on site,” he said. “Being involved in something that’s got this great vibe, team and students surpassing expectations. This is the perfect gig to walk into after six months away.”

Jono Tringham of ALLO Sound, FOH Engineer for local band Spilt, summed up his experience on site: “Everyone from Liverpool dreams of playing in this arena and now we’ve done it. It’s a bit different without a crowd, but it’s still a tick off the bucket list. The band were really buzzing about doing it,” he said. “Spilt have done multiple video sessions and livestreams, and they play with the same intensity each time – the only difference is, there’s no crowd to bring up on stage!”

Tringham praised the crew of volunteer technicians. “They made it all happen. All I had to do was turn up, tune the kit, make sure the mics were sound and that was it,” he quipped. “It was less stressful than most jobs I’ve worked on!”

FOH Engineer, Adam Rice, who was mixing Ask Elliot’s first arena set just days after his 18th birthday, told TPi: “I had to swallow a bit when I first walked into the arena and take a step back. It was emotional to be back on site. It hit home how bad this crisis is. It’s a bittersweet experience because although it’s empty – it’s still an arena gig,” he added.

“I said to the lads ahead of the gig, this is probably the biggest and the smallest gig you’ll ever play. There’s no crowd, but you’re in Liverpool’s biggest venue and there’s nobody here to judge you, so just enjoy it. Most bands don’t get this chance.”

Commenting on the Midas M32, he said: “I spent half an hour before the set getting my bearings on the console and getting my mix to a point where the lads could jump in. They played like any other night – they’re solid players, so it’s a joy to mix them,” he concluded. “I’ve been sat in my room on Logic in front of a set of studio monitors for the past few months, so to get behind a mixing desk has been mint.”

‘A WORTHY PURSUIT’

Overseeing the look of the stream was Head of Video and Lighting, Ferdia de Buitléar of Luminous TV. “This is one of my first projects following the lockdown. We try to maintain a greater lead time on things, leaving us room to sanitise and prep kit long enough in advance, but the industry still works on a last-minute basis, so you have to ensure that the safety measures and sanitation are in place.”

Five cameras were deployed at M&S Bank Arena, with two cameras at each of the smaller venues. Each venue featured a video director mixing the live video, which was subsequently fed into a broadcast control room at the arena, where Polyphonica Broadcast Technician, Alex Coupland harnessed Vimeo Studio to mix the live venue feeds, presenter and additional VT content gathered by the on-site social media team.

de Buitléar explained: “For this project, we were aware that finances were tight so, from the outset, we involved SAE Institute Liverpool, who kindly provided us with a lot of the college’s own equipment resources – a mix of Canon entry-level professional kit and some Sony cameras. The route to streaming was navigated via Blackmagic Design kit.”

In the arena, five feeds were sent into a Blackmagic Design vision mixer for cutting. “We’re conscious of people watching on a computer or phone, so we hope that the live feed gives a sense of what we’re trying to convey, what this space is – an empty arena, which is still an entertaining view,” de Buitléar continued. “We’ve deliberately placed the stage in the middle of an empty arena, lighting the seats enough to show that, because it echoes to the people at home the landscape of live events.” A mixture of traditional tungsten lights presented a “nice, warm view” from the back of the performing artist, with LED systems on the front. “We’re also using some of the arena in-house lighting to bring up the level of the seats a bit,” de Buitléar acknowledged. “It’s a static lighting setup; it was a conscious decision to not make it look like a rock ’n’ roll show.”

To ensure the safety of the kit and video crew, de Buitléar adapted his workflow in line with and COVID-19 safety regulations. “We don’t have direct contact with the band, so the audio side have more of those issues with new gear coming in. For us, if we’ve got five camera ops and five cameras, each is designated to their own personal camera,” he added. “It’s easiest for us to assume everything is dirty and look after our own sanitation.”

Knowing that live music fans are yearning for fresh content, de Buitléar was keen to provide a way to deliver art in a safe manner. “This is people collaborating not for profit but wanting to make art and deliver live music to fans. This gig is important on several fronts – hopefully, this will give people experiencing a difficult time in lockdown an emotional lift,” he added.

“Secondly, musicians and venues have experienced a difficult time because their world stopped. And finally, this project is a way of exploring how we can move along in the future. If a financial model can be coupled on to this, or even if it’s just exposure for the local artists finding new fans and outlets for music, then it’s a worthy pursuit.”

This article originally appeared in issue #254 of TPi, which you can read here.

Photos: Lorraine Connor, Sarah Sidwell, Mike Prosser & TPi