When Will Live Music Return?

Ever since Covid-19 brought concerts and tours to a crashing halt this spring, the global live music industry has been in a bind: It was one of the earliest industries forced to shut down, and it will likely be one of the last to reopen. In the meantime, promoters and booking agents have lost jobs, venues have shuttered, artists have been cut off from one of their most reliable streams of income, and thousands of tour crew members have faced a financial and existential reckoning.

The global concert business, which was poised for a record year when 2020 began, lost $9.7 billion in ticket sales alone, according to Pollstar, with another $30 billion lost in sponsorships, concessions, merchandise, and other ancillary factors. Many expect the concert industry will eventually return to its lucrative pre-Covid era — former WME music exec Marc Geiger said he predicts a “Roaring Twenties” when shows return — but it will be a long, complicated climb back. And the eleven-figure question still remains: When will shows, as we knew them, finally come back?

Today, 10 months into lockdown, and with international vaccine distribution finally beginning, many in the live industry — from powerful giants like Live Nation to smaller independent venues — are eyeing late spring and summer 2021 for a return of amphitheater shows and festivals. The most optimistic insiders hope that something close to normal touring will be able to resume by the fall. But medical experts emphasize that those scenarios are a long way from coming to fruition.

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A lot would have to go right for that timeline to stay on course. That isn’t impossible, but so far, the country’s track record fighting the virus hasn’t given much reason to be so confident.

“No one really thought back in April that we’d still be in such a dire situation by the end of the year,” Dr. Dean Winslow, an infectious diseases expert at Stanford, tells Rolling Stone. “A vaccine is a huge proponent of getting us through this. When a large number of Americans have this vaccine — we’re talking late spring, summer, maybe even early fall… It’s very optimistic we’d be back to full-venue outdoor concerts perhaps by next fall with social distancing and mask-wearing, but the indoor environments are high threats. I don’t see us filling concert halls or theaters until maybe even early 2022 before people can feel safe indoors.”

Major tours are usually planned out months or years in advance — but in this case, much about the 2021 live music season is still unknown. Live entertainment will rely on a large proportion of the mass public getting vaccinated, and it isn’t clear yet when the vaccine will be widely available. In the U.S., states and local jurisdictions will be in charge of administering the vaccine. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top epidemiologist, has laid out a broad timeline for when he thinks the U.S. could have enough people vaccinated to reach herd immunity — as soon as late spring, or as late as the fall. Winslow affirms that estimate, telling Rolling Stone that about 60 to 70 percent of the 328 million people in the U.S. will need to be vaccinated before cases begin to significantly decrease. Even then, it will be several months before new cases cease.

In either case, the concert industry won’t be able to snap back to normal immediately. Booking agents, managers, and tour promoters say that next year’s landscape will likely be a mish-mash of one-offs, outdoor events, half or three-quarter capacity concerts, and shorter runs, eventually ramping up to lengthier treks. That uncertainty makes navigating these next few months difficult as artists and their teams try to prepare for concerts under tight budgets and shifting safety guidelines.

“We have to plan for the best and expect the worst,” says Greg Horbal, a booking agent for indie acts like Alex G and Beach Bunny at APA. “You have to be somewhere in the middle, where it’s like, ‘The news has changed so many times, I expect it to change again, but given the information that I have, I’m making this assessment right now and we’ll keep monitoring the situation.’ Nothing is set in stone. Nothing’s going to be set in stone until we have this thing 100 percent under control.”

The inability to open doors at full capacity — or even near it — is a major problem for venues. That’s because even a room capacity as high as 80 percent often isn’t enough to put on a profitable show. The 25-percent-capacity limits that some localities have considered is infeasible for many players. Even higher-capacity shows with mask mandates make venue owners wary, from a business perspective: Venues rely almost entirely on food and booze sales for their profits, and many aren’t sure how masks and other regulations will impact those parts of their business.

It’s also unclear how potential vaccination requirements could fit into the plan. Billboard reported in November that Live Nation-owned Ticketmaster was considering linking vaccination or negative test verification to fans’ ability to attend shows, but such measures are still still in the discussion phase. Ticketing company AXS, owned by rival AEG, told Rolling Stone it is not considering such options because of logistical difficulty and muddy safety benefits. Instead, AXS is focusing on managing to identify its customers and develop well-organized socially distanced pod systems at shows to minimize exposure and make contact tracing easier.

“It takes one super-spreader event to ruin it for everybody, so we’re really focused on the vaccine and how that’s getting rolled out, and what that does to case counts and positive rates,” AXS CEO Bryan Perez told Rolling Stone. “That’s what’s going to dictate the reopening of the business.”

Much will hinge on the safety thresholds of individual artists. Henry Cárdenas, CEO of the Cárdenas Marketing Network, which books Bad Bunny and Marc Anthony, says of some of his biggest artists: “If they know five, seven thousand people [in the audience] could be without the vaccine, they’re not gonna go on stage.” Horbal adds, “If my artists don’t feel comfortable, they’re not gonna tour. You gotta feel safe out there, that’s the most important thing.”

Other acts may be willing to be more flexible — and some were already willing to take the stage before the first successful vaccine trials were even announced. Back in October one of 2020’s biggest breakout stars, Rod Wave, played a limited-capacity show at the Orlando Amphitheater in Florida. His booking agent, Andrew Lieber, founder and CEO of MAC Agency, puts it bluntly: “A few shows are happening, and when my artists want to be out there doing shows, if there are certain spots that allow it, it’s happening. The venues, they’re taking precautions, making sure everyone’s wearing a mask, there’s sanitizing stations all over.”

Examples from other industries may pose path forward. The Metropolitan Opera in New York canceled its entire 2020-2021 season and won’t play another show until September 2021, and highly anticipated pop culture conferences like Comic-Con were also pushed far down into 2021. Sporting events in 2020 have for the most part been played in empty stadiums. The NBA, which played the remainder of its interrupted season in a bubble at Disney World in Orlando, lost 10 percent of its revenue, ESPN reported. Major League Baseball, which played a shortened season over the summer and fall after the pandemic interrupted spring training, took on $8.3 billion in debt and will lose between $2.8 and $3 billion, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred told Sportico. “The economic losses [this season] have been devastating for the industry,” Manfred said. “You’re seeing the ramifications of that in terms of decisions clubs are making with respect to [laying off] baseball operations and business employees. I mean, you’ve never seen those type of decisions, at least since I’ve been around.”

The NBA will be one of the first sports leagues to come back as the season begins today, December 22nd — and some music business insiders have said they’re looking to the sports leagues to set the tone for how public events can come back.

Yet those plans aren’t certain yet, either: The Golden State Warriors proposed a plan to bring fans back at 50 percent capacity by using rapid testing for fans on the day of every game, but it was rejected by officials in charge.

“You really can’t afford to take a hit at this stage when you first open up.”

Independent artists face a particular challenge as they assess when and how to return to the road. Mike Scrafford, who manages Car Seat Headrest, Beach Bunny, and Gia Margaret at Salty Management, notes that in the indie world, artists don’t typically get guarantees for whole tours, but individual shows.

As such, there’s a wariness of jumping the gun too soon — and also of being caught off-guard. “We all have this hope that [audiences] will want to go out the second that they can, but no one knows when we’ll actually be able to,” Scrafford says. “Ideally, shows are being booked four, five, six months early; now people are grabbing holds 12-plus months in advance without knowing when things are actually going to start up. And if they start any sooner than we think, I don’t think people are going to be able to get their tours on sale with enough notice. I think there’s going to be this gray area for about a year.”

Max Gousse, manager for Saweetie and CEO of the Artistry Group, is among those optimistic for next year, especially when it comes to outdoor shows and events outside of the U.S. He says he’s fielded offers from Dubai and has high hopes for Europe’s summer festival circuit. But with things so up in the air in the U.S., he says he plans to focus primarily on booking one-offs for his artists.

“I’m not really gonna try to route any major tours until 2022,” he says. “We’ll just keep close tabs on these markets to see what the CDC guidelines are.”

Whenever tours do come back in full force, the live music industry will face another trouble: a glut of artists all eager to hit the road at the same time. Competition has already been fierce for dates and venue holds as the industry has repeatedly re-adjusted over the past year. (One booker says some people are already seeking holds for 2023.) Those at the top are, understandably, the most confident about their chances of securing the tour itineraries they want. “We’re all going to be focused on fall 2021,” Lieber says. “So it’s a matter of, are fans going to buy tickets to see you, or are they gonna see another artist? I feel very strongly that the artists on my roster are some of the hottest in the business, and we won’t come into that problem. DaBaby, NBA Youngboy, Rod Wave — none of those guys are going to have a problem selling tickets when we launch these tours.”

Even A-listers may experience some hiccups. Cárdenas, who works mainly in the Latin market, says his artists prefer to book shows over the weekend, as the blue-collar audience is busy working during the week. “But being that it’s so crowded, we’ve got dates on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and we’re gonna have to try and see if people will go out on those days,” he says. “We feel confident that they’re going to because we’ve been locked up for so long, so hopefully those weekdays will work for us.”

Ryan Matteson, manager for acts including Black Pumas, Mountain Goats, and Bully at Ten Atoms, is also hopeful that shows will return next year — but the idea of all the competition keeps him up at night. “The artists that have used this time to strengthen their audience and get closer to them, they’re going to fare better than those that are just like, ‘Well, it’s open, we’re going to go out,’” he says. “Well, the bad news is, that’s what every other artist on Earth is going to do. And it’s going to really separate the pack, I think, from artists that can tour successfully and artists that can’t.”

Christine Karayan, owner of the famed Troubadour in Los Angeles, has similar potential concerns. She still isn’t sure when shows will come back, but artists are holding a significant number of dates toward the end of 2021, and when concerts can return, she expects L.A. — one of the world’s most popular touring destinations — to be a particularly competitive market with several great shows happening on any given night. Any scenario that keeps venues in a more financially precarious state would also mean they’d be less able to take risks on the artists they book.

“Is a September return an actual reality? We can all hope and we’ll see, but if none of that happens, then chances are the lesser-known artists, unfortunately, may not get [booked],” Karayan says. “You really can’t afford to take a hit at this stage when you first open up.”

Marko Shafer, co-founder and co-owner of Los Angeles’ Hotel Cafe, which has helped break artists including John Mayer, Katy Perry, and Adele, is trying to stay ready for anything. He’s confident outdoor gigs will be more feasible next summer after the City of Los Angeles turned down the idea this year, and he expects a busy fall so long as people get vaccinated in a timely manner and shows can be at high-enough capacity. At the moment, the Hotel Cafe’s autumn 2021 slate looks similar to previous years, but with so many artists pushing to the fall, it’s shaping up six months sooner than usual.

“My October and November, I’ve got multiple holds on a lot of the months,” he says. “A lot of those will pull out, but in the next six months, those will fill up to seven or eight holds on each date. It’s a wacky puzzle, working with agents and figuring out the routing. There’s going to be traffic, but we’ll figure it out. If we have to do two, three separate shows in a night, we can do that.”

This, however, is one reason the impending touring glut will likely hit newer and lesser-known artists hardest. If venues start hosting two or more gigs a night, that would likely only allow for two sets per show, making the classic three-band gig lineup impossible. And that first-of-three slot has been a time-honored space for baby bands to cut their teeth.

Additionally, the lack of federal aid has devastated the foundation of the live music ecosystem, forcing a number of small clubs, where younger bands thrive, to close. In the U.S., Congress finally passed a long-awaited Covid-19 relief bill this week that includes targeted aid for venues, but many venues were unable to survive while legislators spent months quibbling over the matter. For instance, Boston, a major stop for any band doing an East Coast tour, has no 300-capacity venue at the moment, since the long-cherished Great Scott shuttered. (Luckily, the owners raised enough money to lock down a future new location, but a timetable for its opening remains unclear.)

“Like all things, this keeps the haves in control and the have-nots in a position where they’re pretty screwed,” Scrafford says. “How many DIY artists can do a tour where they thought they were going to make this much, have zero money guaranteed, and two of their nights get canceled? They’re losing money on hotels, because I assume people are going to be more cautious about staying with strangers. Maybe we can get back to in-city DIY scenes, but of course that also requires venues being available.”

One possible new idea has popped up from the recently-formed Union of Musicians and Allied Workers. Sadie Dupuis of Sad13 and Speedy Ortiz, who sits on the union’s committee, says they’ve spoken with artists from other countries where smaller events — even pre-Covid — are regularly held with government support at libraries and local parks. While booking a show with a fair ticket price for 50 people at a 250-cap room next summer would likely be too cost-prohibitive, such a show at a park could work.

Dupuis thinks the pandemic can open new fronts to push for changes that would make touring more equitable and safe by negotiating contracts that cover things like standardized pay for local support and safer-spaces training for staff and security.

“I think a lot of us have been in the Stockholm syndrome of touring for years that we’ve just accepted what’s offered to us and not seen another way.”

“I think a lot of us have been in the Stockholm syndrome of touring for years that we’ve just accepted what’s offered to us and not seen another way,” Dupuis says. “Typically, I’m on tour 10 months of the year. I’ve been in the house for 10 months this year. It’s a lot of time to re-envision what I’m willing to suck up and deal with, and what is actually a horrible practice. I think we can all be more discerning with our contracts, what we’re able to share and use our work to put forward. I think a lot of folks have been using their platforms from home to do education, advocacy, activist work, and hopefully that enters into the work sphere and for live music.”

In many ways, the live music industry is at the same limbo place it was at the start of the pandemic — when the industry was confident that shows would be back by fall 2020, only to have its plans wrecked again and and again. (Coachella, for instance, rescheduled its whole festival lineup not once but multiple times.) With vaccine distribution in the works, the outlook for 2021 is certainly rosier than it was a year ago. But Geoff Gottlieb, interim chair at the University of Washington’s Advisory Committee on Communicable Diseases, urges caution.

“Based on how poorly we’ve performed over the past nine or 10 months, I’d be surprised if we were in shape come the spring,” he says. “A lot would have to go perfect. It’s an optimistic scenario. But we should strive for that. Because the sooner we get there, the happier we’re all going to be, and really what it means is our hospitals won’t be full of people dying of Covid.”

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