What will the Manchester Arena massacre mean for live music?

There must have been times when everyone has thought about the potential for an act of terrorism at a venue they are attending. It might be brought about by an incident, such as at the Bataclan in Paris or, now, the Manchester Arena, or by evidently lax security, or the lack of alternative exits in the venue being visited, or even the realisation that venue is located close to a dodgy suburb where extremism has been known to breed.

Like it or not, music venues, and the people in them, are sitting targets. It isn’t even necessary for a terrorist to be able to breach security. The events of Monday night proved that there is a direct correlation between airports and entertainment venues. Just as terrorists realised they no longer need to go through any sort of airport security control to commit their atrocities, only to pitch up kerbside and walk inside the crowded check-in area, those targeting places of entertainment have come to understand they need only wait for mass crowds to exit the venue to wreak carnage. (The Arena has gone out of its way to point out that the attack took place in a ‘public area’ and it could just as easily have been on Victoria Station concourse.) It was perhaps surprising that – mercifully – there was only one bomber, unlike the three at Brussels Airport, and no shooters, unlike the three at the Bataclan.

In any case, what is the point of ‘security’ if the personnel are unarmed, as they must be under British law?  Whether or not they’re dressed in hi-viz jackets, is anyone doing a part-time job as a customer service representative going to tackle someone armed with an AK47, or wearing a rucksack with wires sticking out?

To continue the airport analogy, on several occasions atrocities have been carried out, or enabled, by airport personnel. Which raises the question of Eagles of Death Metal’s Jesse Hughes’ allegation that six security guards failed to show up on the day of the Bataclan massacre, and the implications thereof (they knew what was coming). That is not to impugn security personnel; only to emphasise the concerns which will, henceforth, occupy the thoughts of many when considering whether or not to attend a concert. As Donald Rumsfeld realised, though he was pilloried for it, there are the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns.

The Eagles of Death Metal frontman claimed Bataclan security ‘may have been in’ on Paris attacks

Finally, it must be acknowledged that the Manchester attack, as dreadful and catastrophic as it was, was not particularly sophisticated: early reports suggested a potentially unstable device which could have gone off on the journey to the Arena, or not at all. There is no comparison with the sophistication of the Paris attacks. One of those would have resulted in many more casualties.

So these are the difficulties that British venues now face, irrespective of their size. Right now many events are being postponed or cancelled. At the Arena, Take That’s remaining shows (four were held immediately before Ariana Grande), and which should have been resumed this week, will take place at a later date while at the time of writing it is unclear if the Kiss event on 30th May, the next one after Take That, will go ahead. But all that is only to be expected at the Arena; after all, it is still a crime scene as well as being bomb damaged.

Elsewhere in the city small venues such as Soup Kitchen and Night & Day, both in the Northern Quarter, said they would go ahead with concerts on Tuesday and following nights. The spirit of defiance seems to be strong.

But it is the public reaction that is telling. Simple Minds, scheduled to play at the Bridgewater Hall on Tuesday night, put out a statement to the effect that “the feeling in our group was entirely unanimous. More than ever, we all want to go out tonight and play our music.”

While Jim Kerr and company might want to do that the reaction on Facebook – from their fans with tickets – was generally negative. Several said “the city needs time to heal and reflect on what has happened”. The impression is that the Bridgewater Hall was likely only to be half full.

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There is probably no ‘right and wrong’ in this; there are arguments both for putting off the performance and going ahead with it. The problem is with the ‘reflection’ because if you let that drag on and take control of you, not attending events starts to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So these are testing times, not only for Manchester but for other cities and towns around the country where events are being rescheduled (including Ariana Grande’s performances at the O2 Arena in London) and where music lovers are reassessing the risk of attending public events.

Can anything be gleaned from what happened in France? Unfortunately not. While attendance at live music shows fell by 4% in 2016, those at festivals grew (by 9% though that was in 2015, no statistics were available for 2016). There is no way in which a festival is safer than a fixed venue; indeed they might be worse as fences can easily be breached, so the contradictory statistics are meaningless.

Meaningless or not, though, statistics like that are going to take on a far greater significance in Britain in the coming months, and years.

In the immediate days ahead, with the revelation that the bomber was “probably” not working alone and with troops on the streets, the acid test for Manchester will be the biennial International Festival commencing on 29th June, which features over 20 musical performances in its extensive programme. Traditionally it attracts tens of thousands of visitors from outside the region and from abroad. Will they come this time?

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