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The Ethics of Concert Presentation During a Pandemic

I have never sat down and asked myself about the ethics of putting on a live concert and the responsibility that I, as someone putting on an event, have for audiences. Yes I know I have a responsibility for trip hazards, injury and many other things that come under health and safety but what I’m talking about here is when is it right to offer a risky activity to people. And this blog is what I am trying to work out how to do. 

The Covid 19 situation has closed concert halls, recording studios and rehearsal rooms. We are still mostly locked into our homes in Scotland largely due to the UK Government’s poor handling of the epidemic. But even if the Government says things can open up again I have to decide if I feel that offering an event where people gather, even with any additional safety requirements, is the right ethical choice. 

Audience memebrs
The Hug and Pint before a THe Night With… concert

In the coming months, until a vaccine or effective treatments are found, gathering in a group will be a risky activity, gathering in a concert hall will be even more risky and gathering in a small underground pub venue, the kind I favour for The Night With…, will have the most risk. In normal times across the world every day there were people offering risky activities to willing participants – skydiving, abseiling, racing experiences. But these are very obviously risky and anyone taking part in them knows that. I scuba dive and any time I go on a dive charter I sign a form acknowledging that what I’m about to do is risky. A concert is not something we have ever thought of as risky but it will be for the foreseeable future. 

I don’t want anyone walking away from a concert less healthy than they were before, I want them walking away feeling better, entertained and more fulfilled. So, given concerts will be risky, what responsibility do I have to audience members in putting on a risky activity? 

When I started researching this post I thought the easiest comparison was probably that of selling alcohol. Alcohol is a substance which most people in the UK at some point in their life will try and safely enjoy. However, if someone has never tried alcohol, they may have a severe intolerance to it or might suffer from alcoholism. In 2018 there were 7,551 deaths registered in the UK in 2018 that related to alcohol-specific causes according to the Office of National statistics, this is about 1.2% of the total deaths in the UK. This is actually lower than the current estimated infection fatality rate for Covid 19, currently sitting at about 2% based on information from Our World in Data on the 10th June, or at very least almost exactly the same of 1.3%, based on a study from May. However, once I started to dig into the numbers a bit more alcohol is not the right comparison, it is smoking. 
In 2018 smoking accounted for 95,600 of deaths in the UK or roughly 16% of the 616,000 deaths recorded. Assuming death numbers for the UK will be comparable to 2018 and adding on the additional deaths from Covid 19 that gives us a total of around 393,000 for the first 6 months of 2020 (Jan to June deaths UK from National Records of Scotland, Northern Ireland Statics and Research Agency and Office of National Statistics). That means the 63,000 additional deaths so far account for roughly 16% of deaths. Exactly the same as smoking in 2018

I realise that the 16% of UK excess deaths figure takes into account the spike and the, thankfully daily, falling excess death rate but throughout that time the lockdown has been in place along with social distancing and encouragement to wear face masks. There have been no concerts and no gatherings of people from outside of your house. Though that is set to change this month the virus has not gone away. As I’m writing this on the 10th June, there were 245 deaths and 1,003 new cases in the UK an no vaccine or effective proven treatment, though there any many clinical trials ongoing. That means that gathering in a group will still be a risky activity into the future. I do hope there isn’t a second spike but we will just have to wait and see.

Taking a brief look at the alcohol industry. All alcohol makers, distillers and brewers accept there is an inherent danger with drinking alcohol. This is where Drinkaware came from, setup by the Portman Group in 1996. Many companies across the world have comparable statements to ‘As a leading global brewer, we understand we have a critical role to play in encouraging consumers to enjoy our products responsibly’ from Anheuser-Busch InBev. However, this quote goes on ‘The issue of alcohol abuse also poses significant business risks for us, and we have to tackle it’. What that suggests is that the supply of alcohol is never thought of in just ethical terms, the ethics are always tied to the business implications. In other words, the brewers are just supplying a demand that is there within customers and if it wasn’t for legislation against things like drink driving or pressure from press and Government to create Code of Practice, they would have no problem encouraging people to drink more and more. Within that quote as well there is an implication that if you kill your customers demand will go down.

To return to tobacco, in the 1950’s they knew tobacco caused cancer, manipulated the nicotine content to increase addiction (and so increase demand) and conspired to negate the ‘bad publicity…[and develop a] strategy to twist science and mislead the public about the dangers of smoking’. The quote is from this article in The Atlantic which goes into a lot of detail about it. It shows that even when your product is inherently mortally dangerous but there is a demand, even a false one, then no matter the cost that demand will attempt to be fulfilled. But that is because corporations are psychopaths

I would never contemplate being a cigarette maker or supplier but I might contemplate opening a bar. In fact part of The Night With…’s draw is the ability to have a drink while listening to music. There are no health benefits for smoking but there are some health benefits for drinking a glass of red wine occasionally.

I realise that the 16% of UK deaths figure takes into account the spike and the, thankfully daily, falling death rate but that whole time a pretty severe lockdown has been in place along with social distancing and encouragement to wear face masks. There have been no concerts and no gatherings of people from outside of your house, though that is set to change this month. 

To die of Covid 19 you need to first catch it. To catch it you have to come into contact with people who have it already. Unlike smoking or alcohol, where you actively choose to ingest the substance, catching Covid 19 is largely out of your control, though there are things you can do to limit catching it, like not going out. Passive smoking might be a good comparison where someone who chooses to partake in smoking can hurt people who don’t. 

This is where the main ethical conundrum comes in for me. A concert could be seen as a potential suppler of infected people. By putting on a concert I am offering a risky environment, comparable to smoking. However, I wouldn’t set up a company to supply cigarettes. This is not a question of whether people should or shouldn’t be allowed to go out and do with their body whatever they want, it is a question of supplying the thing or activity which potentially could cause harm. I know smokers who insist on doing it themselves knowing the dangers of passive smoking. If the mortality rate for Covid 19 turns out to be comparable to alcohol I would be comfortable with that but if it continues to be close or even half as bad as smoking, I really doubt I would be. 

Within concerts we have three different angles for discussion each with slightly different slants:

  • the publicly subsidised concerts (classical music, orchestras, opera etc)
  • small self promoting venues and acts (think your local pub putting on bands)
  • the for profit concerts (mainstream music presented by large promoters such as Live Nation)

Publicly subsidised concerts are the ones I’m most interested in and with the most experience of. The arts are always trying to do the right thing and are the first to implement any changes in Government policy because their money comes from Government (either directly or indirectly through the arts councils) and changes in policy reflect changes in funding. Classical concerts also have a generally older demographic and so more at risk from any respiratory disease. Though The Night With…’s average audience age is around 40, which I’m very pleased about, and that puts its audience into a less at risk category. Publicly subsidised concerts won’t want to open too soon but also cannot afford to hold off because they need ticket income. If they open too early they risk killing their audience members. 

Small self promoting venues and acts have a similar problem. They have a more direct relationship with their fans and customers. They aren’t caught up in a corporate structure and policies which encourage psychopathy in the same way Live Nation is. Even though their audience demographic is younger, the venues are smaller and more cramped. So much more of a risk of transmission. Also harder to have any social distancing and break even. 
For profit concert producers I think will act in a similar way to tobacco and alcohol companies. They will continue to manufacture the demand for new acts and push this in whatever way possible. Last year Live Nation admitted to placing Metallica tickets on resale sites to increase ticket income. This is just one example but doesn’t exactly fill me with hope that large promoters will care much about audience members unless they really have to. I would not be surprised if in a few months time, even without a vaccine, we see Live Nation starting to say their concerts are safe even without any evidence. I say the promoter will do this but the artists involved will also be the ones being manipulated, they will be music’s cigarette without the warning label.

The Scottish Awards for New Music in 2019 which I produced

And this is where I think we will need to be for the next year – concerts with a warning label. Even with individuals and organisations mitigating against risk in every way they can, I think the only right thing to do as a concert promoter is to remind people that they are coming into an environment which may contain Covid 19. Maybe audience members need to sign a waver at the door or promoters will need to have more explicit indicators of risk on their T&Cs. This is assuming the promoter and the musicians are comfortable taking part in the first place.

I was hoping that by the end of writing this I’d come to some kind of conclusion for myself as to when to act and how to act. I feel that at the moment, even if we are allowed to put on concerts, putting a concert on is not the morally correct thing to do. I have postponed The Night With…’s 2020 season to January 2021. At the moment I am trying to plan for some kind of hybrid concert with a small physical audience with an online element but even then, without a vaccine, putting on any kind of concert could still not be the morally correct thing to do. 

The other thing that could happen is a shifting of acceptable risk through shifting societal norms. Part of the reason for the smoking ban in pubs in 2007 was a mix of public health and social pressure but in the early 1900s smoking was a totally acceptable thing to do. The opposite is also true and possible, a risky activity becoming more socially acceptable. 

If there is a demand someone will fulfil that demand. But the person fulfilling that demand needs to ask ‘am I doing the right thing?’. Only they can decide it at the time given all the available information and advice.

Until we can meet again and return to live music, we have as much music as we want through streaming services and numerous free recordings being made available by the Royal Opera House, National Theatre and many smaller organisations and soloists.

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