Organized annually by the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) since 1977, the BRIT awards ceremony has provided the framework for some of the most iconic moments in the British music industry — especially in the 1990s.
These included an iced water assault on then-Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, the premiere of Spice Girl Geri Halliwell’s famous Union Jack dress, and several unpleasant exchanges between the two warring Brit-pop legends Blur and Oasis.
Generation X in the United Kingdom truly witnessed some of its defining moments in popular culture here. But in the past few years, the huge night in British music cleaned up its image, with the most recent live event being held in 2019 — and then came the pandemic.
The day the music died — and came back
After moving its home from the Earls Court Exhibition Centre in West London to The O2 arena in East London several years ago, the BRITs became one of the most sought-after tickets in the country. But for its 2021 ceremony, organizers at BPI had to scale the number of tickets down to a third of the normal allocation of 12,000. The O2 arena itself can welcome up to 20,000 concertgoers in total.
“But even 4,000 people is still great for the atmosphere, and not just in The O2 arena but also for the live TV event. It’s been over a year since people saw such a massive televised event,” Gennaro Castaldo, Communications Director for BPI, told DW.
“And we’re hoping that 4,000 people will make the same amount of noise on this occasion,” he added.
UK Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said that the BRITs always were a major night in the music calendar, but that this year’s awards will be particularly special: “Music connected us when we were separated by this pandemic, and now it’s going to help bring us back together again.”
And to that end, the organizers come up with a unique idea to tie the public into the event itself.
Key workers to the fore
This year, 2,500 of the 4,000 people allowed into The O2 arena for the BRITs are essential workers. Castaldo explains that they are mainly comprised of NHS workers, social care workers, and teachers. “This way, we can all pay tribute to them,” he added.
Geoff Taylor, Chief Executive of BPI and BRIT Awards, meanwhile said that there “could be no better way to celebrate music’s biggest night than with an audience present for the first live performances at The O2 in over a year.”
Tens of thousands of people applied for tickets, but in the end, the winners had to be picked by ballot. And their participation was only made possible after months of consultations with the UK government, as well as with the artists, their representatives and their teams.
“There were some limitations on who we could pick in order to minimize any potential chains of infection. They all have to come from the greater London area, so there’s no long-distance travel involved. Those who were picked to come to the BRIT Awards must also first submit a consent form to take part.
“They also have to provide a lateral flow test within three days of the event as well as a PCR test before and after the event. They must also sign up to partake in the NHS Track and Trace program,” Castoldo told DW, referring to the app-based system designed to reconstruct infection chains.
A coordinated effort for all involved
The other 1,500 people of the 4,000 will be behind-the-scene workers, such as arena staff, BRITs staff and artists’ teams. They all have to undergo strict safety procedures and will be staying in hotels local to the area in order to also minimize contact outside North Greenwich, which is were the arena is located.
But there are also countless measures enacted by The O2 itself to make sure everything adheres to protocol. “Everything is deep-cleaned, with antiseptic pads on doors and so on and a lot of communication with their staff about best practices. We have to have the right air conditioning, the right way of managing people as they come in and as they leave,” Castaldo pointed out.
“But once they’re inside the arena, they can take their masks off, though people will be advised to socially distance. At the same time, we also have to ensure the safety of the artists: All their microphones are constantly being cleaned, for example.”
Danielle Kennedy-Clark, deputy general manager of The O2, said that the venue was proud to have been selected “to host the largest indoor capacity pilot event with the BRITs. This scientific trial is an important step on the path to recovery for the live entertainment industry, and our operational teams are making the final preparations to be able to welcome people into The O2 again for the first time in more than a year.”
And some of the staff at The O2 should indeed be quite familiar with health and safety protocols, as the arena had been converted into an NHS training facility for six weeks in 2020 — at the height of the UK lockdown.
UK carefully returning to normal — for now
The BRIT awards ceremony could not go ahead in this form without the government giving the green light by including it in its research program into restarting events, also known as the “pilot scheme.”
“This program is an important stepping stone to get back not just for the live music industry, which has been decimated by the pandemic and the lockdown, but also for other live events and sports. The BRITs will also inform future policy on opening up other night clubs and smaller venues. That’s why we want this to be something to start bringing live music back to scale because only then is it financially viable,” Castaldo told DW.
The same scheme was also applied at a Liverpool nightclub that hosted 3,000 people last weekend and will also be trialed at sporting events like the FA Cup final at Wembley Stadium, which will host 21,000 outdoor spectators four days after the BRITs.
Toward a future without COVID
To speed up the return to some form of normal, the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) will also provide its own scientists, who will be on site to monitor the behavior of those attending the BRITs ceremony, measuring various patterns and aspects relating to the potential spreading of viruses.
But Castaldo believes that the UK’s recent success with getting on top of the COVID-19 pandemic also played a major role: “I imagine that the government would have felt it could not have developed the pilot program if it wasn’t this far along the vaccination program. But also, the rate of infections and transmissions is also going down. So, the two go hand in hand.
“The question is, how can we sustain this so we don’t have to go into lockdown again? As we go into autumn and winter, we’ll have to see if the vaccination program has managed to keep everyone relatively healthy to that point,” he said.
Next year, BPI hopes that things will be back to normal again, with the BRIT awards taking place in their home month of February. With other events also opening up as part of the pilot scheme and a hopeful return to most aspects of public life scheduled for May 17, Castaldo and his team have reason to remain optimistic:
“There’s just a huge sense of exhilaration to be involved in all this. We want it to be a great show, and a great night for the artists as well. It is ultimately about the music.”