Sam Fender & The World’s First Socially Distanced Gig in Newcastle
This week Sam Fender made history by performing the first socially distanced gig at the Virgin Money Unity Arena, in Newcastle. I’m sure if you’d said to anyone at the start of the year this is how music concerts, festivals and gig would need to be performed in 2020, and for who knows how long nobody would have believed it. I’ve tried to get tickets for Sam Fender for a long time, and managed to get some for this. I thought it would be an experience if nothing else, and aside from how good he actually was which I will come on to, I’ve had a lot of questions on the social distancing aspect of the night, so thought I’d share my experience.
Buying Tickets & Info Pre Show
The Virgin Money Unity Arena began promoting their presence on social media a while ago, announcing acts like Maximo Park and The Libertines amongst others. You can follow them on Instagram here. I didnt take much notice of the set up and how they would do it until Sam Fender’s name appeared in my feed. Someone I’ve wanted to see for ages and who better to kick off the history making event than a local lad himself. Alarm set I signed up as interested and was sent a link to buy a couple of days before hand.
The ticket experience was like most others, a bit of a queue ten minutes before tickets went on sale to get into the site, but once in the tickets went live bang on 10am and go through the process. You have to buy the number of tickets you want at cost price – and I think it’s up to 6, then an additional charge for the podium which is a flat fee of £20 regardless of how many of you there are. I only wanted two and with booking fees and ticket distribution charges the total came to £97.50.
You cant arrive on foot, so if you plan to take your own car you have to provide your registration, and via taxi you just put TAXI so they can plan the arrival times and monitor the volume coming in.
Once sold out and about a week before the show I received another email giving the opportunity to add people to our podium, as we hadn’t filled it with just the two of us. I think this is a really good idea and we did add someone on to come with us.
The week of the performance you also get a couple of extra emails, one with a link to FAQ’s and the full information on how to distance, reminding you to bring a mask, and a link to put your details into track and trace. We were also given a time frame to arrive between, as they try to stagger the arrivals into the event.
Drinks packages are also emailed to you, and cover beers, bottles of wine, cans of cider and pitchers. We decided not to bother with them, and just risk the bar queues on the day. We weren’t sure if this would be best, but the email said there would be info on our podium for everything so we thought we would just risk it. I’m glad we did as on the night the queue for the pre ordered drinks collection point was huge (but distanced so probably looked longer), and the bar queue was very short.
Arriving at the Virgin Unity Arena
Our arrival slot was 6:20-6:40pm, so it wasn’t big but they have 2500 people at capacity to get in before the support act at 8am. We got a taxi and would have arrived during the window but we found as soon as we got there it was exactly like a Newcastle race day. The car and taxi queue to get in were huge, and arrival times kind of just went out the window. I’m sure it was staggered overall but we had a bit of a wait to get to the drop off point, no more than ten minutes though.
When you get out of your taxi/lift/car in the car park, there’s a bit of a walk down a wide dirt path to the actual entrance. There were people but not huge crowds packed in, and it was very easy to maintain the distance. Plenty stewards about to point you in the right direction, remind you to get rid of any of your own alcohol, and to show you which queue to get in through the security check.
I wasn’t sure how they’d do the bag check and metal detectors contactless, but it was fine. You go forward in your party as you have to all arrive together, they searched my bag with a stick so they didn’t touch anything, and waved the metal detector across us all front and back without actually touching us.
Past this point you come to the ticket check where you are given a podium number. I dont think it makes much difference what time you get there, or how early you get your tickets they just hand out a number from the top of the pile and let you in to the huge big field filled with podiums.
Viewing Podium, The Bar and Facilities
Walking in it felt like arriving at a festival and it was really exciting. I didnt realise how much I missed events like this until it felt like I was going to one again, and despite being a drizzly socially distanced night in Newcastle it didn’t spoil the atmosphere.
We found our podium which was one of the raised ones, and they come with information attached to them about the rules of the venue and how to buy drinks. They also come with plastic chairs if you prefer to sit down, but have to say a few people were being cheeky and stealing them. We only had one for the three of us on ours but it didnt matter we just used it to dump our stuff.
Like I said we were pleased we hadn’t bothered with the drinks packages, the queue was far bigger and the bar Itself was massive, with plenty staff and therefore a much smaller queue. Despite being an outside venue, every time you leave your podium or viewing pen (the ones at the front aren’t raised), you have to wear a mask and the staff were enforcing this. Much more so than the metro might I add! There are hand sanitiser stations everywhere as well.
The queue for all the bars and food stalls are marked to maintain distancing and everyone was very good about it. I never once felt unsafe or like I was in a crowd of people with no escape or control over my own situation. I think that’s one of the most important things at the moment, feeling like you have that control and I absolutely did. Payment is contactless as well.
At the bar you can order everything that were on the drinks packages and more, including spirits. There’s a separate bar for Prosecco and Pimms too. Staff are great as they obviously would be in Newcastle, and you can have a laugh with them despite all the mask wearing. There were staff wandering among the podiums selling jäger bombs, obviously, and a bar cart with beers in too in case you didnt want to leave your platform.
There’s a merch stall as well and it did get pretty cold later on so I bought a hoody. There were all the typical Sam Fender merch but the Unity Arena stuff was slightly cheaper. £25 for a hoody, but it was worth every penny on a cold North East night in the rain waiting for the acts to come on.
Food stalls surrounded the podiums at the edges of the arena, and included things like the Greek stall, Indian, coffee and general festival food. I went for a Dirty Greek kebab and it was absolutely unreal. I think I paid £10 for it.
The toilets were the bit I was most hesitant about as they’re the typical portaloos you get at festivals. There were loads of them so queuing wasn’t really an issue, but I don’t really like using them at the best of times never mind when people are touching the door handles repeatedly. I only used them once, they did have toilet roll which was nice for a portaloo, and I did my best to barely touch anything. Head straight for the hand sanitiser just outside when you’re done.
The Sam Fender Gig Itself
Ahh it was class. I didn’t expect the first time I saw him to be a socially distanced gig but he was worth the wait and sounded brilliant. I’m no music reviewer so that’s about as much as I can tell you, but the distancing, the podiums and being outside made no difference to the atmosphere, sound or enjoyment.
I suppose it would be different if you usually throw yourself in amongst a sweaty mass of people, but if anything being 5ft 2 it was perfect for me – I could actually see, wasn’t bashed around and didnt end up with my face in someone’s armpit. I loved it and would happily have my own viewing podium at any festival in future.
He played a mix of old and new tunes, had a bit crack on with the crowd, and seemed like any Geordie lad you would meet in the pub on a Friday night. We quickly forgot the cold and the rain and for an hour and a half it and had a great night. Sounds cliche but being out like that listening to live music was just good for the soul.
Leaving The Arena
When I shared a pic on Instagram yesterday from the gig, someone commented and said they agreed it was all really well done except for the exit which is the same way out as you came in, but without the staggered timings. So essentially everyone is leaving together and she referred to it as a bottle neck.
Firstly to give you my experience, we were quite far back so didn’t experience this at all. We were straight out and you’re in a field, so it’s very easy to personally keep your distance from other people. I firmly believe that if you find yourself getting in a bit too close than you might like you could easily distance yourself from it.
Yes, everyone is leaving from the same exit and along the same path, but it’s wide enough to not be within 1 or 2m of anyone else at all if you take personal responsibility for yourself and have some patience. There are announcements clearly telling you to listen to the staff who are on hand to police it.
When you get to the car park, there was naturally a queue of cars to get out, and to the right of it there is a taxi rank of LA Taxis. There were at least four staff organising it and allocating you taxis. You’re in a big grassy open space so you can still maintain distance in the taxi queue.
Remember it’s outside and the North East weather is not predictable. It was bright sun one day and raining the next last week, so be prepared with warm clothing. You warm up quickly dancing about but if your arrival time is early you might have a bit of a wait standing around.
There was toilet paper in the portaloos but girls I’d maybe take a pack of tissues, definitely go before you leave for the event, and I took my own hand sanitiser too.
If you like the look of any of the acts or performers coming to the Newcastle Unity Arena over the next few months, and feel comfortable with the rules and regulations, can exercise your own common sense and self responsibility I would absolutely encourage you to go. There were families with kids, groups of friends, couples and all just looked so happy to be out. I know I was and Sam Fender was absolutely brilliant.
Socially distanced gigs are probably going to be around for a while yet, and I’m here for it.
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