in Columns

How venues will cope depends on how they can adapt

by Annamaija Saarela

"The resilience of our industry has been weighed in the balance and found to be sound. We will pull through this, but it will require us to accept that the change is permanent and to respond to that change," writes Annamaija Saarela in her FMQ column.

The coronavirus pandemic dealt the performing arts a crushing blow, as events were curtailed in multiple ways. Restrictions on public gatherings brought performances to a halt in March 2020, and at the time of writing the entire performing arts sector in Finland is still in limbo.

My own venue, G Livelab Tampere, has survived these exceptional times with relatively little damage. We were able to resume gigs in mid-May, and throughout the pandemic we have only been completely closed to the public when all restaurants were shut down, for a period of about four months. Even then, we were able to present streamed and televised events.

We have been able to scale our operations with an agile response according to current regulations at any given time and to develop new business operations in the meantime; depending on the pandemic situation, we have been putting on anything from pure streaming to hybrid events and near-normal concerts with seated audiences. In February 2021, we were probably the only club in Finland with ticketed performances, using a hybrid model with a tiny audience on site and all performances streamed on our platform. The stream was available for viewing for a fee. Our streaming expertise has been much in demand for hybrid corporate events, meetings and other expert gatherings. In the course of the summer, there may even be professionally streamed family celebrations.

G Livelab Tampere is a non-profit limited liability company whose purpose is to operate a performing arts unit. Instead of maximising profits, we seek to run a healthy business where artists are guaranteed reasonable fees and diversity is ensured. Under normal circumstances, we receive practically no public funding; we cover our costs with box office and restaurant revenue. This is a common earnings profile among Finnish clubs, of whose budgets only about 2 % on average comes from public funding.

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The Year of the Coronavirus has demonstrated that the operating potential of the performing arts in Finland rests on structures that are really quite fragile. Freelancers in the events and arts fields were particularly hard hit, and many have fallen through every safety net that society provides. This came as a considerable surprise to a country that prides itself on its welfare state. There has been much political debate recently in Finland concerning what we should learn from these times so that such a catastrophe would never happen again. We may only hope that this debate will lead to permanent changes to arts support systems and the social security of freelance artists.

The impacts of the coronavirus crisis on venues have not been very much discussed in public, since the spotlight has largely been on freelancers and festivals, many of the latter having already cancelled themselves for the second year running. For venues, recovery mainly depends on whether the company has had a buffer for a rainy day and whether it has the potential to generate new business alongside its diminished box office revenue.

Public debate from the perspective of audiences has also been in surprisingly short supply in Finland, the focus being on loss of income by artists and on official regulations that foster inequality. However, since this business is targeted at the paying general public, and since the events industry is wholly dependent on the needs of audiences, it is high time that we took a look at the future outlook of prospective audience members too.

Enough Is Enough Demonstration Photo Martti Anttila
The events industry organised a safe-distance-demonstration "Enough is enough" in June 2021 in Helsinki.
Photo: Martti Anttila

G Livelab Tampere conducted an extensive visitor survey in February, aimed at our existing customers. The findings were comforting for venues: the majority of our audience felt music to be so vital to their wellbeing that they were willing to attend concerts even in the middle of the pandemic. They felt safe in a small venue such as ours, and our highly efficient safety arrangements further alleviated their fears. Customers’ confidence in our operations translated directly into business results: tickets sell well, and there have been very few no-shows.

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I am fairly sure that the pandemic will have a permanent impact on consumer behaviour. The importance of premium experiences will increase at the expense of mass events. The overall experience will increase in importance: people want to enjoy performances with their friends, near the performers and avoiding large crowds. What is more, customers are willing to pay premium prices for the privilege.

Ecology and sustainability will continue to grow in importance, and domestic travel will remain unusually popular for some time to come. This may be good news for a number of minor cultural attractions and events.

Digital services and platforms, such as hybrid concerts, are here to stay and will attract a regular audience base. People will gradually accept the need to pay for digital content. For venues whose pre-covid business depended largely on conferences and meetings, making the digital leap may be a prerequisite for survival. It is important to train personnel for delivering and marketing streamed events.

From the perspective of operators and artists in the arts industry, the importance of international networks will grow as event organisers migrate from one-off events towards residencies with longer-term working opportunities for artists from abroad, in the interests of sustainability. Equality and inclusivity will also increase in importance, leading to increased cooperation with artists from a variety of backgrounds and from special needs groups.

The pandemic has hit many people hard, particularly those who have lost loved ones to the disease and those whose income, and thereby their professional identity, has come under serious threat. Yet we have learned a lot from this episode. The events industry has come together like never before: I am still moved by how wonderful, impactful and solidarity-driven the demonstration arranged by the events industry in Helsinki in early June was – more than a thousand people simply standing still, all of them safely distanced.

The resilience of our industry has been weighed in the balance and found to be sound. We will pull through this, but it will require us to accept that the change is permanent and to respond to that change. Also, the events industry must continue to lobby for its interests in a broad-based and systematic way.

Annamaija Saarela is the CEO of G Livelab Tampere and a member of the FMQ editorial board.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo: Annamaija Saarela by ville piste fi