Note about COVID-19This article talks about the coronavirus pandemic, which resulted in a global lockdown in 2020. Please bear in mind that attitudes have changed dramatically throughout the lockdown period, and the content below may not reflect current views or practices.
Last week, on the 19th June 2020, Peter Nicholson and his team at Sound Level Events hosted what by all accounts appeared to be the first music performance in the UK since the coronavirus lockdown. The gig was held at Royal Victoria Country Park in Netley, Southampton.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the event took the form of a drive-in concert. We think it’s a really interesting example of how a bit of clever thinking and innovation brought people together to experience live music for the first time since the lockdown started. It also highlights the resilience of small businesses.
Listen to the full interviewThis interview was recorded for our podcast “Are We Rolling?” – you can listen to the full interview below.
About Sound Level Events
Peter Nicholson is one of the founders of Sound Level Events, a non-profit events company based in Southampton. They host intimate music performances in unusual places, which has included Lepe Country Park, Royal Victoria Country Park and Lexus Hedge End. Their mission is to create a sustainable opportunities for the local music industry.
In addition to running Sound Level Events, Peter is also one of the main organisers of Sofar Southampton.
The transcript for this video has been edited lightly for clarity in written form.
Obviously this is very different to how you’d usually approach an event. What challenges did you have to overcome with respect to dealing with COVID-19 and putting on an event during a lockdown – during the biggest pandemic of a generation?
Well this is the thing. Sound Level is really there to promote everybody involved in the music scene. So that was the goal; Try and put some money back into the artists’ pockets, put some money back into the sound guys, the stage guys… So we had to find a way of doing it.
So that was the goal; try and put some money back into the artists’ pockets…
We spoke to Hampshire County Council and Royal Victoria Country Park, who were both amazing. They did put this huge hurdle of the obvious risk assessment in our way, which we had to do – and finely tune to make sure everybody was happy. Including the police. And a couple of government bodies got involved as well.
I even had a call from an MP as well at one point, who started off a bit questioning of the event, but then found that she was completely on board with it. Actually I did a podcast with her prior to the event as well, talking about the event.
But it was really a case of… we had to make sure that everyone was safe on the night. And not only that they were safe, but felt safe to be able to buy a ticket. And we felt the easiest way to do that was the drive-in. It was the perfect solution in a way, because everybody is bringing their own social distancing barrier with them – their car.
We had to make sure that everyone was safe …not only that they were safe, but felt safe to be able to buy a ticket.
We’d originally planned for everyone to stay in their car but felt that that it would take away some of the experience. We wanted to get people back to feeling like they were at a live music gig rather than watching something and hearing something through their car stereo.
So we felt the best thing would be to set the rule that every car is parked at least two meters apart from the next one. And everybody can, when everyone is safely parked, get out of the vehicle on the left hand side.So everybody gets out of the car on the left hand side, then they have a car between them and their nearest neighbour. So it worked quite well.
The council again understood it. We had to draw plans of how it’d work, and carefully mark out the ground as to where people were going to be, but it worked perfectly.
We did tell people as well that there would be no catering, there was no bar on site. So anything they wanted to bring, they needed to bring it themselves. So it was far from a money spinner for us. But we were trying to bring the live music scene back and get it get it running again. And we were giving people something positive in all this negativity.
Regarding the safety of the performers, we had to pick the lineup quite carefully. Our opening act were a duo, who lived together as well. They were a couple on stage and off stage. So there was no issue with that.
Regarding the safety of the performers, we had to pick the lineup quite carefully.
Our final act, Sean McGowan, was a solo performer. Again, no issue with him.
We wanted to break it up as our usual ethos with Sound Level is to try and mix the genres up. We had a very harmony-folk opener for with duo. Sean McGowan – punk troubadour kind of thing – the sort of music he plays. Wonderful atmospheric songs. And we wanted to mix up completely, so we wanted to find a band to go in the middle.
We found a fantastic local band called BASH – they’re one of my favourites. They play high-energetic pop music that really gets everyone going. And they all live together, so it was a perfect solution. So we have a five-piece band who all live together and can share a stage safely.
We also had the entire chapel behind as a greenroom, as it were. The artists could prepare in that with huge amounts of space and never were they going to be crossing or putting themselves at risk in any way at all. So it was the perfect lineup for that. It worked very well.
As you got into the process of actually doing this… I appreciate there were lots of authorities involved. Were there any unexpected challenges that you didn’t foresee when you first set out?
Because I know from having been to some of your other shows before lockdown, they’re usually quite small, quite intimate, and obviously this lockdown gig was almost like a festival in the size of like the stage and the sound and everything.
Did you have any challenges with that? Or did it surprise you at all how much more you had to put in to keep people safe and to meet the requirements of Hampshire County Council and these really quite big authorities that took an interest in your your event?
Yeah, we did. I mean when I first thought of the idea, I thought… “How easy, we just drive the cars into a field, let’s put a small stage up, people play they go home. It’ll be a piece of cake.” Far from it.
I thought…”It’ll be a piece of cake.” Far from it.
We realised that when you’ve got cars parking up the standard stage of a meter high isn’t high enough. So we then had to get a stage built that’s two meters high.
We’ve also got the wind coming across from the sea because it’s right on the beach. So we then had to arrange for a cover to go over the stage.
We worked with a company called Lights and Beats who are a local stage provider. They’re capable of doing everything with huge tours to small events and they were fantastic. They turned up with a light show, the stage cover… Their team went above and beyond the call of duty.
And with the council as well, I thought it would be fairly straight forward but the the COVID situation added so many initially unforeseen precautions that we had to take. Looking back, understandable of course. But the council were really really helpful. They were on board from the start. They wanted to see this happen. Far from putting too many barriers in place. The barriers that were naturally there, but they helped us overcome them by finding a way around it.
We also spoke to Hampshire Constabulary. They contacted us because of their concerns about people social distancing and keeping the site secure from pedestrians. We went through all the details with them and they were again exceptionally helpful. We had a couple of police come on the night just to check everything was ok. They wandered around to make sure everything was ok, enjoyed a bit of music and went away again. But they were very, very helpful. I can’t praise Hampshire County Council and the local constabulary enough for the help that they they gave us in doing this.
I think everybody wanted to see something happen that was going to put a smile on people’s faces again amongst all the bad news that we’re getting, I think.
Everybody wanted to see something happen that was going to put a smile on people’s faces again
Yeah, I guess there was probably quite a lot of pent-up demand to go out and see some music again. I mean, being there myself, it was lovely to see actual performers on a stage again after three three months or so.
“Did the drive-in format work?” is what I’m asking.
Yeah, we did. We had lots of good feedback. The posts that we put up on social media sites, the feedback from that has been fabulous.
And also, as you say, the national press coverage we had. We had photographers there from The Sun, The Mirror, The Mail, who did big photo articles the following day. Very complimentary.
I was worried about press picking up on any negatives as certain aspects of the media can do sometimes – if there’s an event going on.
For example, some of the volunteers who helped put this on… There were a number of the volunteers who were who were couples. I pointed out to them at the start that normally you can stand next to each other, you can sit together on the grass, but if you’re wearing your high vis vest, please stay two metres apart. We were worried about someone taking a photograph that may have been of a couple who lived together and saying volunteers didn’t observe social distancing. So we had to make sure that we were seen to be doing the right thing.
But yeah, the coverage was very good. The feedback was excellent. I’m not aware of any negative comments with feedback. Anything like that at all. Everything has been so positive.
The BBC came along and did a live broadcast and interviewed some of the gig goers after the first act and it was lovely – smiles on their face. They were saying it was fantastic to be out see live music again. It was yeah – it’s really heartwarming that we’ve actually done something good and people warmed to it.
The feedback was excellent… Everything has been so positive.
Yeah, everything I’ve seen has been fantastic as well. It’s funny you say about the social distancing with your volunteers because everyone is on such high alert at the moment about that kind of thing. There are a lot of people who are calling out when it feels like there’s one rule for some and one rule for others. So yes, quite an interesting consideration that you have to think about.
Well that’s exactly it. Yeah, we had to be be very careful that there were no opportunities for anyone to give us any negative comments.
We want to carry on doing these. We’ve got other shows booked in the same format now. And we wanted this one to go so perfectly that Hampshire County Council would go “oh yes, those guys, they know what we’re doing” and let us get on with it. Which seems to have been the case.
A Little Something From Us…
Southpoint Films were invited to this event to capture some aerial video and photography at the show. Here’s one of our photos from the lockdown gig, taken during sunset. We can say from firsthand experience that it was an excellent evening. It was lovely to see live music again after so long. A huge congratulations to Peter and his team for pulling it off.
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