Virgin Money Unity Arena

TPi’s Stew Hume travels to Newcastle to meet the team behind one of the few socially distanced outdoor events to take place in the UK this year, discovering how the project came to fruition and reflecting on the lessons learned from the large-scale experiment.

At the start of the summer, it seemed that a number of events would take place, with professionals from across the sector offering innovative ways to socially distance crowds and keep people safe. Sadly, only a handful of these events made it out of the planning stage due to ever-tightening constraints as well as the feasibility of putting on an event during this trying time. As TPi rolled up on the Virgin Money Unity Arena, headed through the production entrance and looked up at the festival-sized stage setup, for a moment we were transported to a pre-COVID-19 world.

The day TPi was there, Van Morrison was set to hit the stage – much to the delight of the crowd. Sadly, a few weeks after our visit, and with just three more show days left on the calendar, new local lockdown measures in the North East meant that the final scheduled shows of Virgin Money Unity Arena could no longer go ahead.

Despite the slightly bittersweet ending to the project, it’s worth reflecting on the scale of this event, having welcomed over 50,000 people through its gates in August and September, employing a crew and staff of over 200 people along the way. Not to mention, giving artists a platform to perform live and provide their loyal crew a few working days this year. As we now live in a world with increased regulation, it’s important to take a look at the lessons learned from these large-scale live events and what conventions can be adopted for the months ahead.

Event Organiser, Steve Davis gave a statement following the cancellation of the last few shows: “It is extremely disappointing to have to cancel these final shows at the end of what has been an incredible six-week run of successfully socially-distanced concerts,” he commented. “We’re honoured to have been able to provide a little happiness and joy to thousands of music and comedy fans throughout the region and the UK in what has been such a tough 2020 for everyone.”

Greeting TPi at the entrance were Production Manager, Dave Weeks and Site Manager, Jim Gee from Engine No.4. Prior to the national lockdown, the Manchester-based production company had been prepared to take the trip up north to lead the charge on This Is Tomorrow – a festival organised by promoters, SSD. However, with that event suffering the same fate as others in 2020, both SSD and Engine No.4 put their heads together to devise a concept that would still enable a live event to happen within the city this year. Having thrown around the idea of putting on a drive-in show, eventually the team opted for a far more elegant solution, with groups of up to six patrons enjoying their own socially-distant pod to enjoy the event.

Having been operational from 11 August with an opening-night set from Sam Fender, the event continued for a five-week run, offering residents from the North East a wide range of entertainment, from musical performances from the likes of The Libertines, Frank Turner and Chase & Status, to comedy sets from Jimmy Carr and Bill Bailey and even sold-out nights of Bongo’s Bingo. Helping SSD and Engine No.4 bring the event to life were a number of long-time suppliers, including: Kingdom Services, R&M Productions, ESG, Arena Group and Dr Loo.

FESTIVAL SETUP IN A COVID WORLD

“Operationally, the drive-in concept proved to be somewhat of a nightmare,” explained Gee, while discussing the origin of the event. “We always planned to have the pods, which would have been situated next to each car, but the amount of space needed just wasn’t feasible. This system is much simpler and it leads to a much better experience for patrons.”

Gee went on to explain the process he and the team went through in the build-up to the show. “We were following each new announcement from the government on a weekly basis,” stated Gee, reminiscing how each of the organisers would pore over each new announcement, while simultaneously speaking to each other over WhatsApp ensure the event was up to date with all the latest COVID-19 regulations. “We ended up delaying the launch by a few weeks due to the limitations on ‘mass gatherings’,” he explained. It became a case of keeping up with all the regulations and adding them to the site plan. “Face masks are a good example,” stated Gee, “Prior to opening night, face masks were still not enforced in shops, but we knew that regulations were coming in so we opted to include them on our site plan.” Anytime a gig-goer was walking around the site, they were instructed to wear a mask and only remove it when they reached their designated pod.

Adding more information to the site’s infrastructure was Operation Manager for Engine No.4, Kate Doyle. “Key to making this event safe was having a solid ‘customer journey’ in place,” she began. “What I mean by this is taking into account everything that a customer would go through, from the point they leave their house to the point they leave the arena. Prior to their ticketed show day, before they even got on-site, we sent customers all the relevant track and trace information as well as everything they would need to know once they got through the gates.”

To ensure a smooth and safe ingress to the site, each attendee was given a specific arrival time so as to stagger the arrival of attendees. Each car parking space was set at 2m apart as well as the entire queuing system. “Another of our concerns were to keep people moving until they got to their individual pods,” Doyle said. “The last thing we wanted was people standing around creating a bottleneck, so as soon as they went through the scanners, we directed them straight to their pitch.”

During their time on site, all patrons are encouraged to stay in their pitch with individuals going to the bar or the toilets by themselves rather than in big groups. “In each of the pitches, we had signage stating the house rules, which were also repeated via a ‘voice of god’ before and after the show,” stated Doyle. “One of the major rules was that people could not go into another group’s pod – a rule we enforced strongly with a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ policy.”

Aiding Doyle and the rest of the Engine No.4 team with their crowd managment plan was Showsec, who helped craft the effective egress plan. Doyle was keen to point out however that, despite the numerous measures to ensure the safety of the audience, the feeling on-site was very much that of a “proper gig”. She commented: “There will be a number of people who believe that half the fun of a live show is the chance to hug a sweaty stranger and be in amongst a lively crowd. But in this time, that simply is not possible.”

She added: “What has been interesting is that we’ve had some comments from attendees who say they prefer this setup for a live show. Perhaps they have just got fed up of being jostled around at a live show or standing on tiptoes to see the stage. We’ve had people come to this venue who have said they haven’t come to a live show in years, but they decided to come to this because the format was really appealing.”

It’s a statement that was echoed by Gee, who also commented on the response the live events industry had with the project. “Early on, we faced our fair share of negativity on social media, with people criticising the pod setup with disparaging comments referring to them as cattle pens, for example. But when you have 2,500 people in a field jumping up and down in a safe manner, it feels like a live show. Since the first performance with Sam Fender, we have seen a shift in the reaction now we have proof of concept and we’ve had very positive feedback from the people of Newcastle, which has been very much reflected in the ticket sales.”

PRODUCTION LOGISTICS

Aside from site planning, TPi made the trip backstage to speak to PM, Dave Weeks, who discussed some of the technical elements of the show. “As a team, we at Engine No.4 are quite used to working on shows that are logistically tricky,” he began, referring to the company that works on events such as Parklife, Kendal Calling and Lost Village, all of which present challenging noise restriction and logistically complex sites. To pull the pieces together, Weeks explained the necessity of relying on quality, local suppliers. “We have brought in Kingdom Services and R&M Productions to handle audio and lighting respectively,” he revealed. “The two companies often work together, which made it much easier to work out the logistics of putting the stage together. Matt Simpson has been acting as something of a Crew Chief – being the glue between the two departments.”

Each of the departments was bubbled for the run of shows. “Essentially, this meant we could plan a redundancy system, so if someone got ill in the bubble, a new team could come into their place and the show could continue,” Weeks explained. “We have done the same on the production side for Engine No.4. Anyone could step into my shoes and simply carry on with what I had been working on.”

Weeks, whose main responsibility was to liaise with artist management, explained some of the noteable changes in booking acts in pandemic. “With artists not having a show since March, we have found that all band management were almost over prepared with advances,” he laughed, saying how they were getting information for a September gig back in May.

He also commented how great it had been to talk to touring engineers and crewmembers coming through the site. “Although it’s been great to catch up with everyone who has been passing through, it has been soul-destroying to have so many talented people explaining that this will be their only gig of the year,” he stated. “One thing that can be taken from people’s reaction to coming here is that we need to be doing more than opening pubs – we need experiences within society.”

CONSISTENT SOUND

Moving across the festival site towards FOH which, due to site-lines and space issues, had been moved to the left from the traditional central position, TPi met up with John Smith of Kingdom Services, who oversaw the audio deployment for the site. Having been in the planning stages for three months out from the show, Smith discussed some of the considerations that had to be made with this particular PA setup which, due to safety measures, required a very spread out load-in. “We split each department completely, with rigging rolling in on the first day, followed by us in audio, with video taking day three and lighting setting up on the fourth,” said Smith. “With so much time on our side and not having to work over one another, we were able to be really methodical with this setup, with a team of four employing the whole system.”

The PA in question was a d&b audiotechnik KSL system comprising two hangs of 16 KSLs with a further two delay hangs of eight KSLs. For the low end, 16 SL subs were deployed along with eight Y7ps from front fills.

“ArrayProcessing has been essential in this project,” Smith stated, while nodding towards the stage and the custom underworld, which carried an impressive 42 D80 amplifiers. “The reason for the large quantity is down to what we were trying to achieve with the system,” continued Smith.

“The variety of performances taking place on the stage and the demands of the show meant that every single section of the site had to be covered by the system. At your traditional show – pre COVID-19 – the most dedicated fans tended to be those that ran to the barriers at the start of the show, whereas here due to the random allocation of pods, the most loyal fans could be at the back of the field. We wanted to make sure that even people at the back had the best audio experience possible.”

In the same way, with the FOH pushed to the edge of the site, the issue of sight lines also affected the placement of the delay towers. “Obviously, we would have preferred to have the delays right in the middle of the field, but instead we had to move them to the sides.”

That said, Smith was happy with the result they achieved with the system. “Even though timing has not been ideal with the delay setup, I think it sounded great. With us being situated on the left of the field, it’s 10dB quieter than in the centre, but most of the visiting engineers have been more than happy to work around that. As most of these days there has only been one act, they have plenty time to sound check while the site is empty and get everything sorted before doors.” The audio engineer also emphasised that that the overall dB of the site was much quieter than a standard festival show – around 88 dB – by design. “We have a lot of local residents around here and as this show was going on for such a long period, we wanted to ensure we were being respectful.”

For onstage sound, Kingdom provided a selection of M2 and M4 monitors along with V/B22 side fills, plus a Sennheiser 2000 IEM setup. Sennheiser was also the house microphone of choice, with the 6000 handhelds being made available for performers.

For both ends of the system, DiGiCo SD10 was selected for control. However, a few of the touring musicians opted to bring their own desks. “Two thirds of the travelling engineers have been using the house desks. That said, since we’ve opened, we accommodated a whole range of brands, including Midas and for Van Morrison, they have brought their own SD12 here at FOH.”

VISUAL SUPPORT

Moving the chat over to the others in Smith’s fellow FOH bubble, TPi grabbed some time with R&M Productions’ Peter Shorten and Robbie Baxter, who oversaw the lighting for the Unity Arena.

“I remember when we first started hearing about this show; we were in the midst of quoting a few other projects – all of which sadly fell through,” began Shorten. “One thing that has been key for this has been Newcastle Council having been really on side and supportive with the idea.”

Even with the support from the council, Baxter expressed how during the setup, there was the worry that the event could have been pulled at any minute. But despite this fear, the duo explained how they endeavoured to make the environment as safe as possible for all those entering FOH. “We clean all the consoles regularly and have sinks throughout the site to wash after moving flight cases or working with cables,” expressed Baxter. “It’s the cleanest festival-style site you could imagine.”

Moving the conversation over to the lighting rig, the two highlighted some of the key elements of the design. “We were looking to create a standard festival stage with the versatility to deal with the range of artists,” said Baxter, giving the highlights of the spot, wash and beam setup. The stage held a traditional three-truss festival rig.

The top rig consisted of 18 Martin by Harman Viper Profiles, 24 Claypaky Mythos 2s, 26 Robe 600 LED Washes and 16 SGM Q7s. A further 20 SGM Sixpacks were spread across the video goalposts and front truss to frame the stage, with Mythos units placed on additional side trusses with drop bars for the LEDWash. The festival floor package included an additional eight Mythos upstage and 12 Colorado1 Quad Zoom Pars on mid and downstage towers.

“We wanted to put together a well laid out festival rig, that was easy to merge any show into, but with some extra fixtures in addition to the standard overhead offering. With most artists not currently touring a festival show, many are coming through without a floor package or with minimal kit,” said Shorten.

“As an LD with a show file but without a package, I’d like to take advantage of some floor fixtures. The extra floor Mythos, side washes and side trusses provide exactly that, and so far the response has been great.”

With the rig being in place for a number of weeks in the elements, IP65-rated Colorados were selected for a static side wash with their motorised zoom lens making them a “great choice for a budget-friendly wash fixture,” stated Baxter. Complementing the predominantly intelligent rig were 24 Generic 2 and 4 Cell Molefays and some traditional ACLs. Extra Q7s were also provided for audience lighting on the delay towers.

“The SGM fixtures are ideal for a festival scenario like this. LDs love them and their robust build makes them ideal for spending five weeks in all weather conditions,” added Baxter.

To rig the show, the lighting department made use of 40 Columbus McKinnon Lodestar hoists, with a custom 40 Way Guardian Control system. The entire rig was pre-rigged using Litec PRT to minimise load-in time and crew requirements, therefore reducing social contact on stage. Just like the audio team, R&M wanted it to be as simple as possible for any of the artist LDs to fit themselves into the system with their desk.

The data distribution for the rig was a full Luminex system, consisting of Gigacore 10 Switches, Luminode 12 XT Nodes and Lumisplit Buffers. Utilising the Gigacore switch at FOH, R&M are able to provide LDs with a temporary central FOH position for programming before shows by extending a further 80m Artnet multi-core, before returning to the main FOH to the left of the field. For their side, the lighting duo used an Avolites Tiger Touch to set up the show. Finally, completing the video package were two IMAG screens that were supplied by the promoter, SSD.

“There really isn’t a bad word I can say about this show,” concluded Baxter, reflecting on the past few weeks working on the site. “It’s worked really well and it’s been put together fantastically.”

Shorten added: “It’s quite intense in many ways as the whole industry has had its eye on us and are very interested in the project. I told people throughout the run how good it’s been; we have found a way to make an event happen and one that fans have really enjoyed.” Shorten also admitted that he had a number of “pinch yourself” moments during the successful run of shows. “The novelty never really wore off that we were back on a site, especially while walking onto the stage,” he remarked. “It’s an experience I’m very grateful we got to be part of.”

LESSONS TO BE LEARNED

Being able to attend a show like this in a time when live events are so sparse was a privilege and it certainly re-enforced the importance that live music has in our society. Not only that, it also showed why events like the Virgin Money Unity Area are going to be so vital as we head towards winter. With the live events industry looking at the guidance and regulation, showcasing how the industry can still band together to create elegant solutions during this trying time will be what sees the sector survive.

“From our standpoint, it’s been fantastic,” concluded Gee, clearly proud of what he and the team had achieved. “We’ve managed to create work for some of SSD and Engine No4’s regular suppliers, and local freelancers. Clearly, these are unusual times, but everyone has pulled together to support the project and deliver it on a budget that wouldn’t have been realistic in a normal year. It’s just been amazing to be out here and working in this industry.”

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

 

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