The Barcelona concert comes as several European nations, including France and Italy, have recently put citizens back under strict lockdown to help contain a third wave of COVID-19 cases, which has led to a new round of live music cancellations. In Germany, the government announced an extension of the country’s lockdown, until April 18, as promoter CTS Eventim canceled six festivals in Germany and one in Switzerland.
In Spain this week, Sonar became the latest major festival to postpone its signature event, which had been scheduled for June, until 2022. Sonar instead plans to hold two smaller events in October. Spain's virus caseload has been rising again this month, prompting authorities to forbid travel across the country ahead of the Easter vacation and local administrations to impose a series of curfews and other restrictions.
Against that backdrop, the organizers of Saturday’s concert insist it should be viewed as a medical experiment rather than a commercial endeavor.
“If you just look at this as a normal concert, of course it doesn’t seem to fit in well with the current pandemic context,” says Laura Costa, a spokeswoman for the ministry of culture of the region of Catalonia, whose main city is Barcelona. “But this is not a normal concert. It is really an investigation into how post-COVID society can return to normal life.”
During Saturday’s event, the audience will occupy the dance floor without having to maintain social distance. They will, however, have to wear face masks at all times and remain within one of three sections of the dance floor to which they will be assigned -- as well as respect social distancing while getting a drink in the Palau’s catering area.
In order to attend the show, which costs €23 ($27), concertgoers must also sign a waiver, and they are free to use public transport to reach the venue. The medical team will administer rapid antigen tests to all attendees before the show.
Promoters and researchers in other countries, including the Netherlands and Germany, have held similar pilot concerts in recent months to try to chart a path for a safe return to live indoor shows. Earlier this month, organizers in Amsterdam invited 1,300 clubbers to dance for four hours at the Ziggo Dome to sets from Sam Feldt, Lady Bee and Sunnery James & Ryan Marciano.
In Germany, university researchers last August staged a concert for singer-songwriter Tim Bendzko as a controlled scientific experiment that lasted 10 hours and involved multiple scenarios, including using a fog machine to measure audience exposure to aerosol droplets. They concluded that proper ventilation was the key to keeping the risk of virus spread low.
Saturday’s concert is a follow-up to a test concert held last December in the Sala Apolo, a smaller Barcelona venue, which about 500 people attended. Organizers there tested a separate group of 500 people for COVID-19 on the day of the show but used them as a control group.
When all 1,000 people later got tested again, the 500 actual concertgoers all tested negative for COVID-19, while two people in the control group tested positive, according to Dr. Josep Maria Llibre, a specialist in infectious diseases from the Germans Trias hospital in Barcelona, who will monitor the Palau concert.
This time, however, organizers will not test the audience after the concert. Instead, the medical team will keep track of public medical records to see whether any of the concertgoers later get sick from COVID-19. Llibre acknowledges it will be a less-rigorous tracking method than that used at the Apolo. But, he says, “What is important is to demonstrate that this is not a super-spreading event, which is how concerts have been characterized.”
Ticket sales for Saturday’s event will cover 36% of the budget of about €250,000 ($295,000). Another 30% will come from public authorities, 24% from private sponsors and 10% from the promoters organizing the event. Ventura Barba, the executive director of the Sonar music festival, forecasts the concert will break even.
The 5,000-capacity limit of about 30% is in line with what officials have allowed at similar venues in Spain recently. In December, about 4,300 people attended a concert at the Wizink Center in Madrid by singer Raphael, which generated significant criticism on social media, even though the seating plan respected social distancing rules.
Promoters hope the Love of Lesbian concert proves to be a litmus test for indoor shows, as well as for music tourism destinations like Ibiza. Still, Barba says it was not designed to be a precise model for reopening clubs or relaunching festivals that operate on different scales and with different budgets.
“If this goes well, it doesn’t mean that festivals will then be held using the same methodology,” Barba says. “It’s about taking it one step at a time and not about going from zero to 100.”