Saint Mark performs at Social Sanctuary
Photo by Dominic Palacios
How Social Sanctuary Reimagined Live Entertainment For The COVID Era
A 40,000 square foot warehouse in southeast Los Angeles has been hosting concerts throughout the coronavirus pandemic. The stage was created by the same company who built Coachella's main stage in 2019, the lighting and LED wall are a similar festival quality, and the sound is huge. Yet there are only a dozen people working the venue—all of whom are operating at a distance with masks—and while the band is performing at full energy, there's no audience.
This is Social Sanctuary: a venue/studio designed for COVID-19 risk mitigation by some of Southern California's top music industry professionals. Social Sanctuary has produced approximately 60 events since April, bringing bands, DJs and even comedians into a highly controlled space to record "safe at home" shows for streaming on social media. Their goal is to far exceed the traditional in-home production many music fans have become used to while viewing livestreams during the pandemic, and provide an outlet for professionals whose industry has been decimated by the coronavirus. Live entertainment will be among the last pieces of "normal life" to resume—with many experts looking toward 2021 to begin tours, festivals and mid-sized shows—and the industry stands to lose billions in revenue in the interim. For the expansive network of event production professionals whose work dried up following nationwide shelter-in-place orders in March, Social Sanctuary is not only a proof of concept for post-COVID event production, but a return to normalcy.
"The mental health of our community has been really devastated during this pandemic," said Gallagher Staging CEO Joey Gallagher, whose company was set to build the main stage at this year's now-cancelled Coachella. "We were in expansion mode, and then all of a sudden that work immediately stops. So it's been great to have a place for us to put some focus and take our mind off of the current situation. Showing up at Social Sanctuary or doing a changeover mid-week has really given the crew something to work towards."
Gallagher and partners Anaconda Street Productions, Red House Productions and Surface-US had been working on separate streaming efforts early in the pandemic but quickly combined forces at Gallagher’s recently purchased warehouse using equipment each had on hand. “We didn't want to just jump on the wave of live streaming. We really wanted to make an impact with our production,” said Jordan Hartman, whose Red House Productions handles much of Social Sanctuary’s business development. Today there are 10 companies with equipment at Social Sanctuary, including Canon, and 40 to 50 crew (though the majority work from home). "It’s really pretty amazing to see all these companies coming together to keep the community alive in a time of uncertainty," Hartman said.
No one has opened a venue during a pandemic and the crew behind Social Sanctuary see themselves as pioneers in the development of best practices—to that end, their protocols are strict and comply with the highest standards set by the CDC, OSHA and the EPA. Talent, crew and media are all registered in a database, must fill out a health questionnaire and undergo a brief medical screening prior to entering the venue. Personal protective gear such as masks are required, a seven-foot social distance actively practiced and common areas such as restrooms, green rooms and break areas are regularly disinfected. There are no shared microphones and equipment such as turntables, and mixers are disinfected after every use. Social Sanctuary’s policies minimize the number of people on-site (which means no large entourages or media presence) and the venue has distanced workspaces surrounded in plexiglass for those employees who are always on set, as well as separated viewing platforms. They're also following up with people who have been in the building to monitor their health. "No one's gotten sick. Everyone complies with the CDC guidelines; everyone's wearing a mask. If you go out for lunch, you have to check back in and your temperature's taken; you're asked about your personal protection equipment. Everyone takes it pretty seriously," said audio/video/broadcast supervisor Ernie Mondaca, who owns Surface-US. "We've had DJs show up and they don’t want to wear a mask. We don't let them in; we have to cancel their set."
Social Sanctuary shares these best practices with others in the industry through the Entertainment Industry Response coalition (which Gallagher co-founded in April) and associated organizations like the Event Safety Alliance. "It's not as simple as it seems to give somebody a new way of performing or a new way of handling production. You're constantly having to remind yourself and others, Hey, pick up your mask, wear it properly," Gallagher said, adding that while some risk-mitigating protocols may not last, regularly disinfecting a venue's communal areas will likely continue post-COVID. "We’re essentially trying to retrain everybody. It's gonna take time and every day is a challenge when you have new personnel or new artists showing up to the venue."
Social Sanctuary has done concerts with EDM DJ crew 40oz Cult, The Gaslamp Killer and GraveDGR, country artist Rob Staley Band, an album release show for L.A. locals Arise Roots and a multi-band Reggae Against Racism event on Juneteenth emceed by Fishbone's Angelo Moore. A variety of band managers are helping fill out Social Sanctuary's concert calendar, which usually features four events a week. "We've had artists that were very afraid to show up to the venue. But by doing the right thing, and making sure they feel that they're being taken care of and we're mitigating risk as much as possible, we really got to see a shift in their attitude—from being afraid to being excited and being comfortable," Gallagher said. Everyone who's visited Social Sanctuary wants to come back, added Hartman.
Because all shows are streamed, Social Sanctuary has tweaked its production to become less of a live music event and more of a television broadcast. While every day is a learning experience, there haven’t been many technical difficulties beyond minor issues with streaming latency—due in large part to the venue's reliance on a seasoned crew. Although 80 percent are experienced event production professionals, Social Sanctuary employs a handful of younger staff who are "learning on the job, on a festival level rig—something that people who have been in the industry for 15 years don't have access to," Hartman said. "We're trying to bring in people who are just starting out in the industry to learn on this real production, rather than…being 40 years old and finally get their first tour where they get to play with some fun toys. We have all those toys ready to go."
The partners are still trying to figure out how to increase viewership—thus bringing in grants and marketing dollars from major companies and larger band—though growth has been organic thus far. Much like a traditional venue, Social Sanctuary's streams have more views when a bigger artist performs or there's significant promotion. "We don't have a massive amount of eyeballs on us, but the eyeballs that we do have are very important to the world of music," Hartman said. "I think that the most important thing that is missing is how the end user receives it. How do we bring that energy [of a live show] into the user's home?" Until the space can be used as a regular venue, the partners envision small, VIP-only shows and renting the space out to corporate clients. Those special events, as well as potential partnerships with virtual ticket sales companies, could make Social Sanctuary more financially feasible. "A lot of people didn't get to use their fourth quarter marketing budget [because of COVID] and are trying to offload all this money so that their budgets don't get slashed next year. How do we bring them into our space to do that with us, that's what we're dealing with right now," Mondaca said. "The product is great, it works beautiful. You can come in tonight with Diplo and we'll put on an amazing show. That's how tight the crews [is] running. Now that we got the great product, we've got to figure out how to attract BMW, Toyota, Honda, Coca Cola, whoever."
Yet the partners behind Social Sanctuary have varying ideas about the role streaming will play in the world of live events after COVID. While Mondaca thinks an emphasis on streaming may be temporary, Hartman, Gallagher and the duo behind Anaconda Street believe virtual shows will augment live performances into the future. A handful of independent venues are equipping their spaces for streaming, while more than 12 million Fortnite players watched an avatar of rapper Travis Scott during a virtual concert in April and various companies have been experimenting with augmented and virtual reality performances since at least 2017. "Post COVID, this is definitely gonna be something that people look to for live entertainment. Maybe they didn't even know it was an option, but now their favorite bands are performing in a live, high quality audio production, and they're able to see bands that they never thought they could," Hartman said.
Although people are embracing streaming, Gallagher believes it will never fully take over the experience of being at a live performance. Once large gatherings are allowed again, "everyone is going to want to go to a live event, be with a crowd, get that experience because there's nothing like that. You can't duplicate it. No matter how hard you try, going to a live concert or show is the best thing in the world."