Coronavirus crisis in the arts: What if concerts, theater and other live events don’t come back in 2021?

San Diego's House of Blues, like other concert venues across the city and the nation, is shuttered.
San Diego’s House of Blues, like other concert and live-performance venues across the city, nation and world, has been shuttered since March because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Significant re-openings may not come until next fall or even 2022, according to some industry experts.
(Sam Hodgson/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Projections forecast a $9 billion loss this year. Livestreams, drive-in concerts and hybrid events are surging, but seen as a stop-gap measure at best


Theaters from San Diego to Broadway are closed until at least next fall. Festivals have been pushed back to 2021, including Wonderfront and KAABOO here and Coachella and Stagecoach in Indio. The San Diego Symphony and other orchestras across the nation have been largely silenced. Cirque du Soleil has filed for bankruptcy protection and closed down all but one of its 40-plus worldwide productions.

The deadly coronavirus pandemic has led to these and other previously unthinkable situations becoming grim realities — from mass quarantines, plummeting economies and countries closing their borders to the shuttering of concerts, festivals, myriad other live-arts events and venues of all sizes that host them.

Now, as winter approaches and COVID-19 is surging anew in the U.S. and many parts of the world, another previously unthinkable situation could become yet another grim reality.

What happens if concerts, festivals and live arts events don’t return next year in any significant degree, or at all until 2022?

How difficult will it be for them to return at a time when health and safety guidelines vary greatly from state to state and county to county?

How big a factor will liability issues be for presenters and attendees alike?

“This is a crushing and crushingly complicated situation,” said Old Globe Artistic Director Barry Edelstein, whose theater — like other events producers — has embraced livestreaming and other new approaches.

Dave Shapiro, the co-founder of the San Diego-based Sound Talent Group, voiced similar concerns about how long it may take for the resumption of live events.

“Everything that has been scheduled has been pushed back, again and again,” said Shapiro, whose company represents more than 200 international bands and solo artists. “Unfortunately, this holds true in every territory in the world, from the U.S. and Europe to Asia, South America and Australia. The focus now is on fall of 2021 and into 2022.”

Related story: What will change when concerts and festivals return? Everything

For artists, fans and presenters of music, theater, dance, comedy and other live-performance mediums, it is intensely depressing to even contemplate the possibility such events may not be back for another year or longer. This holds especially true given the tens of thousands of live events postponed or canceled since March, followed by mass furloughs and layoffs across the arts and entertainment industry.

Makeda Dread Cheathom.
Makeda Dread Cheathom is the founder of Balboa Park’s WorldBeat Cultural Center, which she opened in 1989. The nonprofit center and music and dance venue has been shuttered since March because of the coronanvirus pandemic.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

‘We need help’

“The arts are hurting, venues are hurting, audiences are hurting,” said Makeda Dread Cheathom, the founder of Balboa Park’s WorldBeat Cultural Center and San Diego’s most veteran reggae and World Music concert promoter. “And nonprofits are really hurting. But we are are resilient and we will get through this.”

The live-music and concert industry in the U.S. is expected to lose about $9 billion this year because of the pandemic-fueled shutdown. That figure does not include such related businesses as production, marketing, concessions, corporate sponsorships, security and transportation. The most recent study by the San Diego Arts and Culture Commission found that $1.1 billion is generated annually here by arts and culture organizations and events. That was, of course, before the pandemic.

Further compounding the current situation, about 90 percent of the nation’s 12 million live-events workers do not qualify for government aid under the U.S. Senate’s stalled $10 billion Save Our Stages act. It was co-authored by Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) to help shuttered venues survive but has become mired in political quicksand. If passed, the bill would cover various expenses — including rent, insurance and utilities — that are not covered under the government’s Paycheck Protection Program.

“Small venues were some of the first to close their doors, and I know the prospect of re-opening is becoming even more difficult as this pandemic continues to grip the country,” Klobuchar told the Los Angeles Times this week.

“But we can’t let the music die. Save our Stages has growing bipartisan support and was included in the latest relief package that passed the House of Representatives. Senator Cornyn and I continue to work with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to ensure aid for small venues is included in any pandemic relief package.”

The National Independent Venue Association, which counts the Casbah and Belly Up among its nearly two-dozen San Diego area members, has been lobbying for federal aid for concert venues since April. It issued a statement on Oct. 7 urgently pressing the government to provide assistance.

Without funding, a recent NIVA survey concluded, 90 percent of the nation’s independent venues will have to permanently close their doors within the next few months. Sadly, several such venues in San Diego have gone out of business this month, including Bar Pink in North Park and Martinis Above Fourth in Hillcrest.

“This is real. We need help,” NIVA’s statement said. “We urge Congress and the White House to continue negotiations and reach a deal quickly or there will be a mass collapse of this industry.”

The outlook for next year is as challenging for huge international companies like AEG and Live Nation as it is for independent promoters, venues and the nation’s approximately 100,000 nonprofit arts and cultural organizations. On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Philharmonic announced the cancellation of its 2020/2021 season at Walt Disney Concert Hall through June 9, 2021, “in accordance with current guidance from public health officials to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

The Old Globe’s Edelstein and most of the experts interviewed for this article agreed with Sound Talent honcho Shapiro’s assessment that live events seem unlikely to return, at least in any significant way, before late 2021 or early 2022.

They are not alone.

A late-summer survey by the concert-industry magazines Pollstar and VenuesNow found that only 16 percent of the 1,350 live industry professionals who participated think non-socially-distanced live events will return in the first half of next year. About 36 percent predict the second half of next year, while more than 30 percent don’t think it will be until 2022. Nearly 15 percent responded that they “have no idea.”

Lollapalooza festival co-founder and former UC San Diego student Marc Geiger.
Lollapalooza festival co-founder and former UC San Diego student Marc Geiger has been a major force in the concert industry for the past three decades. “Right now, there are four economies and we’re in a ‘germaphobia economy’,” he says. “We stay home and can’t go out because it’s not safe.”
(Courtesy photo)

‘Follow the science’

“There are a multitude of variables on every level, but I would say it will be somewhere between January and April 2022,” said Lollapalooza festival co-founder and concert industry powerhouse Marc Geiger, a former UC San Diego student.

Baja Beach Fest and Collectiv Presents co-founder Chris Den Uijl is a bit more optimistic, but not by much.

“We’re anticipating that the ‘four walls’ (indoor venues) scenario won’t be available until the fourth quarter of 2021,” said Encinitas resident Den Uijl, whose company this year began producing drive-in concerts in Atlanta and Chicago. (The 2020 edition of Baja Beach Fest was pushed back to next August because of the pandemic and expanded to two consecutive three-day weekends.)

AEG Worldwide CEO Jay Marciano stressed that accurately pinpointing when live entertainment can safely resume is impossible. His company is the second largest concert, festival and live-events producer in the world, second only to Live Nation.

“Anyone you ask can speculate and we all have different crystal balls,” said Marciano, whose company owns and operates such venues as Staples Center in Los Angeles and 02 Arena in London. AEG co-owns ASM Global, the company that is part of the development team chosen in August by San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer to create an enormous entertainment district on the city’s 48-acre site that now houses Pechanga Arena San Diego.

The AEG-owned Goldenvoice exclusively books Humphreys Concerts by the Bay in San Diego and produces Indio’s annual Coachella and Stagecoach festivals, both of which were pushed back this year from April to October and then next April. The 2020 Humphreys season, which was set to open in April 3 with rapper Lupe Fiasco, was canceled in its entirety on June 12. The 1,450-capacity venue, which hopes to re-open next year, has been repurposed for now as Humphreys Concerts Bayside Café.

“First, we need a vaccine,” AEG’s Marciano said. “Second, we need to have the number of COVID-related infections and deaths be significantly lower before we can safely reopen. I’m not smart enough — or knowledgeable enough about the field of medicine — to put a date and time on it. But I do know those steps will be necessary...

“If I was to look at our pacing reports, which tell us how many artists are holding (dates for) how many shows in each of our venues before the fall of 2021, it’s the busiest calendar I’ve ever seen. That indicates to me that artists are eager to start touring as soon as it’s safe to do so again.”

In a separate interview, Geiger invoked a recent interview with National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci.

“The answer is to follow the science,” Geiger said, noting that Fauci cited 2022 as “a pretty good bet” for American life being able to return to pre-pandemic normalcy.

That prognosis appears to be shared by Los Angeles Dodgers’ co-owner Todd Boehly, who does not forecast a return to normal attendance at Major League baseball games any time soon.

“I think we’re looking for 2022 to start to feel normal again, while we work through this in 2021,” Boehly told the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday. “How can we have have testing protocols that get people safely back into the seats, even if we have a vaccine?”

While agreeing that health and safety are paramount, some music industry veterans have a comparatively more upbeat outlook. These veterans include La Jolla Music Society Artistic Director Leah Rosenthal and Live Nation California and Nevada Regional Talent Leader Rich Best.

“We feel really confident that we can return in some capacity next summer,” said Best, who booked what is now North Island Credit Union Amphitheatre in Chula Vista between 2009 and 2014. Live Nation’s other San Diego venues range from House of Blues and Observatory North Park to El Cajon’s Sycuan Casino and Magnolia Performing Arts Center.

“Eighty-six percent of our fans have held onto their tickets (for postponed concerts), as opposed to asking for refunds,” Best continued. “We’ve seen incredible numbers for the shows we put on sale this year for 2021 and many have sold out in 24 hours. So, we know the demand is there.”

“People can say nothing will happen until 2022, but I’m not willing to go there,” said Rosenthal, who is the vice chair of California Presenters, a coalition of more than 130 nonprofit live-events arts groups in the state.

“I am part of Californians for the Arts’ re-opening task force. We are working on the best ways to inform our state officials about how different, as arts groups, we all are — and to get ourselves to the table to talk about reopening as quickly and safely as possible.”

Grammy Award-winning Encinitas band Switchfoot did the first drive-in concert in San Diego.
On June 7, the Grammy Award-winning Encinitas band Switchfoot performed the first drive-in concert in San Diego. It was held in a parking lot at Petco Park and drew a capacity audience of 250 cars (and their passengers).
(Photo by Eric Scire / Courtesy San Diego Padres)

Livestreams, drive-ins surge

Currently, private gatherings with people from more than three households are prohibited by the California Department of Public Health.

According to a spokesman for the County of San Diego Health & Human Services Agency, “live performances with in-person audiences are not permitted either indoors or outdoors. Band members or musicians performing for an online audience, or for an audience in cars, must physically distance from each other. The state is working on guidance for live performances which will be issued when finalized ...

“This guidance is not intended for concert, performance, or entertainment venues. Those types of establishments should remain closed until they are allowed to resume modified or full operation through a specific reopening order or guidance.”

With live shows at a standstill since March, livestreamed performances and arts events have surged around the world while drive-in concerts have grown exponentially. Locally, drive-in concert series are being presented by pop-music promoters, performing arts centers and Mainly Mozart. Last night saw the San Diego Opera, accompanied by 24 members of the San Diego Symphony, open a full-scale, socially distanced drive-in production of “La bohème” in the parking lot of Pechanga Arena. The novel production continues through Saturday.

“I think we all quickly pivoted to some kind of virtual platform because of the pandemic,” said San Diego Symphony CEO Martha Gilmer. “Now, we’re seeing things evolve into more of a hybrid.”

Gilmer is confident that The Shell, the symphony’s new, $45 million, year-round outdoor concert venue will open by next summer — a year late, because of the pandemic — even if the seating capacity is reduced by social-distancing requirements. And she envisions that San Diego’s usually temperate climate will allow concerts almost year-round at The Shell.

In the meantime, she is excited that — just two nights ago — symphony members reunited on the stage of downtown’s 2,248-seat Copley Symphony Hall for their first orchestral performance since March. Friday’s livestreamed performance, led by Rafael Payare, featured works by Mozart, Beethoven, George Walker and Jessie Montgomery.

“In 2021, hopefully, we should be able to return to having live audiences present and also continue virtual sharing,” Gilmer said. “Because not everyone will be as as able to attend in person. The numbers will increase as we follow the guidelines of science.”

For some smaller indoor venues, such as the 650-capacity Belly Up, operating with a significantly reduced capacity is preferable to not being open to any audiences. The club, which has already done two dozen audience-free livestream concerts this year, launches a new 10-concert livestream series on Friday night. The series will continue through Dec. 18.

“The bad news for the big venues and tours is they have to punt until late next year or 2022, but at least they know,” said Belly Up Entertainment President Chris Goldsmith.

“In our case, we could reopen with limited capacity next month or not be allowed to open until next summer or beyond. So it makes planning impossible. The best-case scenario is we’re allowed to open at 20 percent capacity by January, it all goes well, and by spring, we can be open at 50 percent capacity. Worst case is we’re shuttered all the way to summer or beyond.”

But reduced capacity is an automatic no-go for major concert promoters, as Lollapalooza co-founder Geiger is quick to note.

“We have to be at a point where bands can travel, fans can travel and shows can take place in venues with at least 80 percent capacity, because none of this will work with anything less than that,” said Geiger, who in June stepped down as the worldwide head of music for William Morris Endeavor, the music industry’s biggest talent agency.

“Right now, there are four economies and we’re in a ‘germaphobia economy’ — we stay home and can’t go out because it’s not safe,” Geiger continued.

“Then, there’s the ‘hope economy,’ where promoters hope concerts resume next summer. But that’s not based on facts or what the scientists are saying; it’s based on hope. The third economy is the ‘open-close’ economy, which you see with colleges that open one week and close the next because hundreds of people contracted COVID-19. That’s a temporary economy that is prolonging the coronavirus pandemic.

“The final economy is the ‘claustrophobia economy,’ which will be when people want to get the f--- out of the house and live their lives again, post-vaccine. The science is clear. It’s a pain, but it’s also a fact. After that, there will be a big rebound for sure. Every artist will want to tour more than they ever did. Every consumer will want to go out more than they ever did. And every producer will want to produce a lot to make up for their losses. So everyone will be motivated.

“The big question is: Who will be participating in the rebound because they had enough capital to get through? Who will get through it and be able to enjoy the post-pandemic era? That’s what 2021 will be all about.”

By the numbers

How much economic activity is generated annually by the performing arts in San Diego? Here are the most recent figures from the city of San Diego’s Arts and Culture Commission. They were compiled prior to the coronavirus pandemic.

$553.6 million: Nonprofit arts and cultural organization spending

$546.4 million: Events-related spending

$1.1 billion: Total amount generated annually by San Diego’s performing arts

$894.4 million: Household income to local residents (supports 35,914 full-time equivalent jobs)

$116 million: Contributed to local and state revenues

Voices in the arts

More than a dozen concert, theater and live-entertainment veterans were interviewed for today’s article. Here are some of their concerns and observations.

La Jolla Athenaeum Jazz Program Co-Ordinator Daniel Atkinson, who is also the Western Jazz Network Presenters Alliance Executive Director: “We have 30-plus members, including the Vancouver Jazz Festival, the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, SF Jazz in San Francisco and The Dakota in Minneapolis. The consensus among this group is that indoor live concerts are not coming back any time before next June. And there is great concern that the restrictions will drag on through the summer and into the fall of next year. If that proves to be the case, even some of the larger organizations in our network indicated that their ability to survive is going be pretty tentative. A lot of that has to do with their annual schedules and when festivals take place or certain cyclical periods when they have intense (individual) concert activity. If they miss what will amount to a second round of festivals or series of events next year, which were cancelled or postponed this year, then it will become a dire scenario.”

AEG Worldwide CEO Jay Marciano: “Everyone has been impacted, whether you’re an artist, a spotlight operator, a sound engineer, a stage manager, a stage crew member, a concession vendor or a tour bus driver. It’s been very hard for the gig economy. That work force, and its size, is often overlooked. And it includes everyone who does live events, from Broadway to the people who put on conventions.”

Steel Wool Entertainment CEO Kevin Morrow, who headed Live Nation New York from 2007 to 2013 and co-booked the Belly Up in Solana Beach from 1985 to 1994, when he was hired to run House of Blues in Hollywood: “It costs $400,000 just to open the doors for a concert at Madison Square Garden. So, unless the unions, the artists and everyone else reduces their fees significantly, I don’t know how you can pencil out an arena show at just 50 percent capacity or a stadium show at 60 percent capacity. The problem with festivals is they are general admission. At least with stadiums and arenas, you can socially distance people by putting them in seats with gaps and rows in between. At festivals and general admission shows, kids will push up as close as they can, so that will be really tough to deal with.”

Nickel Creek guitarist/singer Sean Watkins: “It’s really tough, because you can’t base returning to doing live shows on geography or the kind of venues where you would play. It’s one of those things where everyone has to be on board to do it. Certainly, bigger venues will be the last to open. Or, maybe, they will be the first to open and have much smaller audiences. Those are the kind of things everyone is going to have to decide at the same time, so that we’re all safe. Everyone has shifted their touring schedules from this year to next year. I don’t know anyone who knows what will happen.”

Belly Up Entertainment President Chris Goldsmith: “We tend to look at things on a quarterly basis and we have punted everything into 2021. We have a lot of shows confirmed for the first quarter of 2021 that we don’t know what to do with yet. The good news is we don’t have to know until November or December. We try and look 90 days ahead and see what’s there, then look at the quarter as a whole. If we have to keep punting, we have to hope there’s another government aid package. And we have to hope, in the meantime, that what we’re doing with our livestreamed concerts is something people will value.”

La Jolla Music Society Artistic Director Leah Rosenthal: “We are not all one thing. Our Baker-Baum Concert Hall seats 513 people. We are not a Live Nation venue, or an arena or a stadium, and we need to make sure people understand the breadth of different institutions. Because a lot of what we do is with solo artists and small chamber-music groups I think I can be a little more optimistic because it gives us a little more flexibility to make things work. And because the climate in San Diego allows us to be outdoors, we will have more flexibility in the spring to have outdoor options for our concerts.”

Sound Talent Group Co-Founder Dave Shapiro: “The reality is that there may be places where we can book shows much sooner. I have concert promoters in Florida calling me up, every day, because Florida has no restrictions. But you can’t book a tour just in Florida; you need everything to open up across the country. And it’s the same with international tours. The other thing that makes international tours much more challenging is that visas are much harder to get these days and it’s much harder to get over to these places. Once you do, you’ll have to quarantine for 12 to 14 days. So, you fly a band over and they have to stay locked up in a hotel, for two weeks, with their crew. That two weeks could be their entire tour profit down the drain. How do you make that work? It means international touring will take longer to come back then domestic touring, because those numbers just don’t add up.”

Live Nation California and Nevada Regional Talent Leader Rich Best: “It’s a unique time, but I believe our future is unbelievably bright. And it’s going to happen; we’re going to turn the corner. Our artists are excited about it. And, clearly, the fans are; in every study we’ve done, 90 percent of fans feel confident about the return of live music. To quote (Foo Fighters’ band leader) Dave Grohl: ‘We’re coming back because we have to’.”