A week or so ago we put up an image we found on Twitter which purported to show the UK’s first socially-distanced gig. It was at Gosforth Park racecourse on my native Tyneside and featured the headliner Sam Fender.
Only it wasn’t the first socially distanced gig put on post-lockdown in the UK. Not by a long shot going by the messages we received! While many of those gigs were small (and we’ll cover some of them in upcoming articles), others were of a decent size. Not the scale of Fender’s with its interesting “boxing rings on stilts” to keep the bubbles apart, but not far off it in some cases. On the other hand, as I kept trying to tell my ex, size isn’t really that important. The fact that some people were claiming Fender’s was the first with a “known” or “name” act galls, frankly. Up until finding out about the gig, I’d honestly never heard of him (no offence to him or his fans), but that’s a slap in the face to the smaller acts who are every bit as important to our struggling music industry.
Ben Nigh hosted one such gig, with more coming up. His main focus up until March was the Palladium Club in Bideford. This is a 150-capacity venue, but as he explained to me it’s down to 44 at the most under current guidelines. Including staff. And the bands playing. And their crew. In other words, if he opened up and the gig sold out then the fans would have to pay a stupid amount of money for him to break even – or he runs at a loss. This is a problem facing most, if not all, indoor venues small and large.
A fortunate encounter with his venues beer supplier led to a conversation with the owners of The BIG Sheep, a working farm / theme park and great day out for all the family… that also just happened to have a field with a slope and a rise at the end. Which would be a perfect location for a stage. Almost like a natural amphitheatre. So Ben used his promotional expertise, the venue owners their logistical links and the stage (the “Baa-lladium”, oh dear!) was constructed. If you build it (as Wayne and Garth were promised) they will come, so the next step was to ensure that when “they” arrived they didn’t stand too close together!
Keeping with the farming theme, the venue mowed 82 circles in the grass. Each is large enough for a maximum of 6 adults and 2 children (2 household bubbles or so) and separated from other circles by an appropriate distance. Tickets are sold on a per-circle basis. The first gig featured local bands Spaced Invaders, 9 Yards and Maybe Naked and pulled in 350 fans (maximum attendance is 500 at present) for a great night’s entertainment. This was August 1st, so definitely predates the “UK’s first socially distanced gig” as reported by The Mirror. Tut, tut.
To further ensure the distancing measures, markings were put on the ground on all walkways to ensure people queuing for beer and the loos were separated (stewards assisted also). For collecting beers, each circle was supplied with an old fashioned milk churn with a sealable lid. One designated booze-buyer treks to the bar, gets it filled and comes back with glasses – reducing the number of people walking around.
With the bonus of the farm park already having its own measures in place (temperature checkers, one way system, and so on) a lot of what was needed was already there. In fact, this was a project just waiting to happen. It’s gone so well that several gigs are lined up until October when the stage will be closed for the winter, and reopened in May. Plans are afoot to add booths (the equivalent of the posh boxes at the theatre), and once lockdown finishes the capacity increases significantly. There’s already room and facilities in place for 2000 campers and 1200 in dormitories. We’re talking festival territory!
A big selling point is the location. As well as the stage area being well laid out, there’s sheep shearing, duck walks, animals you can pet… all while enjoying a beer and some music. This could end up being a good thing that’s come out of this bad situation, and putting on large gigs here will help Ben bankroll his smaller venue so he can afford to put on bands that only pull in 30 mates. Everyone has to start somewhere, and it’s venues like the Palladium that give them that start.
Huge thanks to Ben for chatting to me and answering all my questions, and Chris Cornish for putting us in touch. Hit up the venue pages linked above for upcoming events, and keep supporting live music!