‘Our industry has been made a sacrificial lamb’ | Howard Keith Debono

The Malta Entertainment Industry and Arts Association has existed for just over a year now: partly as a response to the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. But as its president HOWARD KEITH DEBONO warns: the industry needs a proper, long-term roadmap, if it is to get back on its feet

Howard Keith Debono
Howard Keith Debono

Before turning to the latest regulations, announced this week: as a spokesperson for the arts and entertainment sector, what can you tell us about the situation faced by MEIA’s members right now? How have they been impacted by the crisis… and how – if at all – are they actually coping?

Let me start with this: setting up MEIA was not an easy task. The idea was to organize, and structure, the various sectors of our industry into a single umbrella organization, and to give it a common voice. But that involves getting competitors to work together; and as we all know, the arts and entertainment sector is a highly competitive industry. There are, of course, ‘egos’ involved… not to mention a little ‘drama’, here and there, as you can probably imagine…

All the same, however: I must admit that the response was amazing. The industry is, as you say, facing a crisis; but it is also more united, and stronger, than it ever was before. Ironically, the pandemic itself helped achieving that unity; in the sense that it required stake holders to forget any differences, and get together for a common goal.

But that, of course, is poor consolation for all the other ways the pandemic has impacted our industry. Apart from the obvious – i.e., that people in the arts and entertainment sector have basically been out of work for over 18 months - it has also impacted people psychologically.

Some have left the career of their dreams, to take up a safer job somewhere else; and those in the industry who employ others, are now losing their employees to other industries, for the same reason.

So there’s that; and also, the fact that the professional stakeholders in our industry – the ones who have invested in the sector; who have taken risks; and for whom this is not a ‘hobby’, but their full-time job, their daily bread-and-butter – those, obviously, have been impacted the most.

But what a lot of people out there might not realise is that – on top of all the other problems caused by the pandemic – these people are also impacted by unfair competition coming from illegal, amateur events.

And this is one of the issues that we are concerned with, at MEIA. We feel that a distinction has to made, between the professionals who are involved in the sector… and the amateurs, who are endangering the livelihoods of others by breaking the rules.

To give you an example of how it works in practice: people who do things properly, and professionally, have to abide by all the regulations; the amateurs, on the other hand, don’t. It’s as simple as that, really…

This naturally brings us to the regulations themselves. MEIA has expressed ‘disappointment’ that the restrictions on standing events were not lifted, as expected; but what were you proposing yourselves?

First and foremost, our proposals were based on two particular pillars of science-related understanding. One of them is herd immunity; and the other is vaccination.

Herd immunity, as you know, is achieved either naturally by the immune system, working on its own; or – as in this case - with the help of a vaccine. Now: we do have a vaccine: Malta is, in fact, the most vaccinated country in the world. So, on that understanding: we expected a situation which – slowly but surely – would open up in a way that lets us operate… in the same way that other industries can operate.

So first of all, there is an issue of discrimination between different industries. Take the example of factory, in which there are 500 people all working together. Those people don’t live together; they don’t all come from the same household; yet if one of those 500 employees gets infected… he or she could potentially spread the virus to 500 other people.

Yet factories – to stick to that one example - are allowed to operate; while the entertainment industry is not... even with gatherings of a lot less than 500. Clearly, something doesn’t add up…

So, bearing all this in mind: in our previous meetings [with the health authorities], we had proposed a staggered approach: with both seated and standing events starting immediately from end-July.  The original aim for seated events was to begin with clusters of 100, gradually increasing to 500: and this is, in fact, what Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne announced this week.

As for the standing events; we had suggested a similar approach: gradually increase from 100 to 300 by the end of August.  But this [standing events] is the part that has been put on hold – temporarily, we hope – because of the recent increase in new cases.

And to be fair, this was always on the cards. All along they had told us: ‘Look, if things change, we will have to revisit’. And that’s perfectly understandable…

And yet, MEIA is still complaining about the new regulations: even though you yourself seem to be admitting that the health authorities’ decision was justified on public health grounds. Isn’t this a contradiction?

Let’s be clear: we’re not scientists. But we have no difficulty understanding why scientists, worldwide, argue that seated events are less cause for alarm [than standing ones]. This is true, even from our own experience. In a seated environment, people can congregate in an organized manner; and you can apply mitigation measures. In standing events, however, all those mitigation measures immediately go out of the window.

What normally happens is that, once you open the gates, everybody rushes forward, right up to the stage. And that is obviously a problem, from the perspective of trying to control the spread of an infectious disease.

So yes: of course, we do understand that there are health concerns. We are certainly not proposing just opening the floodgates to mass-events, or anything like that.

But we do need to agree on a way forward. This is why, for instance, we originally wanted more than just a plan that takes us only to the end of August. We wanted a roadmap until the end of the year.

Why? Because this is an industry based on planning. If you want to organize an event in two months’ time, you need to know certain things from now. You need to contact the musicians; organize rehearsals; decide on the repertoire programming; market the event; sell the event… get all the suppliers, and everyone else on board… and that all takes time…

It needs to be also mentioned that, considering emerging variants, we were hoping that herd immunity and vaccine would benefit us to the full, and help get our lives back.

But why is so much importance given to stand-up events, anyway? Given the circumstances, can’t the industry adapt to a new reality: for instance, seated only for the foreseeable future?

Let me put it this way: it would be very selfish of me [to accept that], because I myself, and others, can easily work with just seated events. But not everyone else can. It is ultimately a genre-related issue: of course, you can have a seated audience for a Classical orchestra. In fact, it probably wouldn’t even work any other way.

But by the same reasoning: you can’t have a heavy rock concert – or, even less, an electronic dance-music, or Hip-Hop event – with a seated audience. It just doesn’t work…

Is it wise to allow such events at all, however? This week, for instance, a planned summer party – which has now had to be cancelled – was sold out within literally minutes of being announced. Clearly, then, there is a very high demand for such activities, among the public at large…

But with caution. Sorry, I had to stop you there… because, whilst you are absolutely right, that events of a certain number – basically, less than 1,000: because anything more than that, for me, is a ‘mass event’ – would ‘sell out fast’… it doesn’t mean that things are simply going to go back to how they were before.

To use myself as an example: if, in 2019, Earth Garden had attracted crowds of up to 24,000 people… there is simply no hope of returning to those numbers today. Forget it. It’s not as though the demand is so high, that people would just flock to mass-events like they used to.

There is now an element of uncertainty… even the restrictions themselves don’t make it easy.  People are potentially a bit scared; but they have also changed their lifestyle habits, over the past two years… including, for instance, how they spend their money.

So while I agree with you, that the demand for smaller events is very high… when it comes to mass events, however, it’s a whole different ballgame today. And we certainly don’t expect to just snap our fingers, and suddenly return to way things were before. It’s just not going to happen…

All the same, people might be justifiably concerned that – by opening up to stand-up events today – we might end up with Covid cases once again sky-rocketing…

That is why I earlier mentioned the vaccine, as such an important pillar of the re-opening strategy. Another of our proposals was, in fact, to make a distinction between vaccinated, and non-vaccinated audiences.

To explain it in a nutshell: if government wants to encourage events, as much as possible, for vaccinated audiences… then it has to also give organisers an incentive. So if someone wants to operate as he wishes – in total freedom – without a vaccinated audience… let that be, for example, capped at a maximum of 150 people, at an occupancy of 1: 4 [100 people for every 400 sq m].

Those who, on the other hand, would like to take the option of organizing events for vaccinated audiences only… we suggested giving them 1:2, at a higher capping: so they can have 500 people, for example, spaced out at 200 per 400 sq m.

In the case of seated events, on the other hand: what we’re experiencing is quite an over-cautious approach. Let me explain: a restaurant’s patrons are not required to be vaccinated; they can sit at a table - which can be 90cm square - face to face, without masks, for three hours.

But then, a seated event has to have its audience vaccinated, spaced out with 2 metres on either side, face to back of the other person, and all wearing masks.

I mean: surely, everyone can see how our industry has been the sacrificial lamb of pretty much all other industries…

Earlier, you mentioned ‘unfair competition’ from illegal activities: which is not, in itself, a Covid-related issue. This is also a reminder that your industry faces challenges, even at the best of times. What would you say is the biggest, non-Covid problem facing the arts and entertainment sectors right now?

As I said before: ours is a competitive industry. But not all the ‘unfair competition’ comes from amateurs, or illegal events.

Our major problem - that a lot of people may not be aware of – is that ours is also the only private industry which has to compete directly with the government.

If you look, for instance, at tourism: the government does not have ‘hotels’ of its own. It doesn’t own and operate its own restaurants. No; there’s the private sector, which government ‘enables’ to operate. It gives them the tools to work with; they can apply for certain government incentives… but that’s as far as it goes.

In our industry, on the other hand: 60% of the public events, held in Malta every year, are both fully subsidised, and produced, by the State itself: not too differently from state-controlled countries, in fact…

I mean, don’t get me wrong: it’s perfectly OK to have, say, 20% of annual events held under the auspices of the State. But 60%? That’s not OK at all. And it is certainly not OK – very far from it, in fact - for the government to be producing those events itself.

What the government should be doing is ‘enabling’ our industry, in the same way as it does with others. If, for example, the government feels we should have a ‘Folk Festival’… then it should set aside a sum of money; draw up its proposals; send out a public call, so that the professionals involved in the sector can apply, and deliver the goods… that is how it should really work, in practice.

But for government to actually create these things on their own, and have total control over them…  that is clearly not right.

And it also gives rise to other problems. There’s also this mentality, going on here, that if someone does well in the private sector… but someone else doesn’t feel ready to take the same risks; or, for some other reason, can’t really compete with that person… they simply knock on government’s door, to have those kind of events ‘created’ for them… so that, eventually, that same fully-subsidised event, will compete against their main competitor in the private sector.

This happens so many times. It’s sad, really… because, instead of ‘enabling the achievers’ – which is what we really should be doing – we are only enabling those players in the industry, who might not be ready to go all the way.

And to be perfectly honest: it’s not the way to go to further improve quality. That said, the government has also helped substantially. We just need to tweak the mindset and approach; just as much as we need to have better efficiency in terms of response…