Locked down and staying home | How will SA's entertainment industry survive Covid-19?

South Africa's nationwide lockdown and social distancing in the US as a result of the coronavirus pandemic have dramatically changed the fortunes of John Cena hitmaker Sho Madjozi and her band of 14 dancers.

Before the global economy came to a near grinding halt, Sho was looking forward to 16 more days of globe-trotting in a US tour. The income from her now cancelled US tour dates across different states and 15 scrapped gigs in SA - including a Durban July performance - would have sustained them well past the winter season.

"Our dancers, our DJs also rely on her. Some have to pay rent. We now have to sit down as a team and say; 'do we now pay it on their behalf' because this is not something we can control right now," says Sho's managing agent, Shaun Nkuna.

The next confirmed booking for Sho, whose real name is Maya Wegerif, is now on 9 August. And that's only if gathering of large crowds will be permitted by then.

"We can't rely on gigs. We have to rely on other income that doesn't need us to be on stage," says Nkuna. 

It's a predicament facing entertainers and other performers across the globe as everything from concerts to conferences get cancelled and venues reel from the impact of the pandemic.

Big Concerts, one of the biggest organisers in the country, only has two events scheduled on its website - for 25 July and 10 September. The Tsogo Sun owned Sandton Convention Centre's next scheduled conference, meanwhile, is in June. The Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC) is eyeing July, if regulations governing the number of people that can attend social gatherings are relaxed by then.

Currently, the only gathering allowed under the lockdown regulations is the attendance of funerals, where no more than 50 people can congregate. 

The recent Easter weekend would usually have been abuzz with big acts and expos. All were cancelled. And SA is no different from the global trend. In the US, Broadway has been shut for a month due to bans on large gatherings, while India's Bollywood film industry has been brought to a standstill

Long road to recovery

Organisers are wary of committing to a date when venues will be reopened. 

"I think it is too early to make forecasts into the future as you know everyone is in a holding pattern during lockdown. We will follow and be guided by the directives of health professionals and then take our lead from them in terms of how one is allowed to operate," says the CTICC's head of marketing, Olivia Bruce.

Local ticket issuers, Computicket, TicketPro and Webtickets, meanwhile, are also processing refunds of cancelled events while reschedules aren't taking place anytime soon. Big Concerts declined to comment.

Analysts say that of all sectors that have been brought to a standstill because of the coronavirus, the entertainment industry is the one that may have one of the the longest roads to recovery.

"It's very different compared to going to a mall where you are going in there to buy something and leave. You are there for an extended amount of time and your risks of contracting something are much higher in a concert or conference environment," says Nolwandle Mthombeni, investment analyst at Mergence Investment Managers.

With social distancing guidelines calling on people to keep a metre or two apart from each other, Mthombeni says social gatherings like concerts would remain impractical for a while, even as other sectors of the economy attempt to go back to "normal".

"In a concert environment, it's very hard staying far apart from the next person."

The industry needs to adjust

Because the notion of what's "normal" is going to change drastically in the era of Covid-19 – at least until a vaccine is found – performers are starting to realise that they need to generate most of their income by other means, while conference and concert organisers need to embrace the same approach, says Xhanti Payi, economist and founding director at Nascence Advisory and Research.

"The world has changed now. There's no going back, at least not in the medium term," says Payi, pointing out that more celebrities are now doing online performances, virtual conferences and book launches.

"If they really think of themselves as part of our economic construct going forward, they are gong to have to rethink how they do things," adds Payi.

He says everything from negotiating contracts to advertising gigs and social media promotions will have to change. For artists, negotiating ownership of royalties and how sponsorships should be structured will become more important as income from live events evaporates.

"The pandemic has pretty much made the playing fields level...There is no doubt that live events will return. Real life will never be replaced by a digital life," says Rick Taylor, founder and CEO of The Business Tourism Company.

He said research indicates that an hour of face-to-face personal interaction is worth five hours of video conferencing, 10 hours of phone calls and 20 emails. The big thing of course is the added focus on providing health safety at events, he added.

The Events Industry Council values the size of the global sector as large as $1 trillion, and estimates that, due to the pandemic, about 23% of the market has dissipated. 

Adapting

Some event organisers, like Pick n Pay-linked Webtickets, have started follow the trend of moving online. Webtickets is selling tickets ranging from webinar talks on how to cope with working from home to online exercise classes and tickets allowing customers to livestream their favourite artists performing from the living rooms. Computicket, meanwhile, has opted to diversify by selling online Shoprite and Checkers' vouchers.

As for Sho Madjozi, monetising her online presence is what makes sense right now. "We are trying to learn to use social media as the only income right now. In the States they monetised this a long time ago and we are only learning now that we have to monetise this because it's the only way," says Nkuna.

Update: TicketPro, a subsidiary of Blue Label Telecoms, has launched Covid-Zero, a platform for musicians, comedians and other artists to stream their acts online. All ticket sales will be donated to support these artists during the lockdown, and fund community care packages.

Additional reporting by Carin Smith

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