What will change when concerts and festivals return? Everything

Singer-songwriter Mads Langer is shown performing a drive-in concert in Aarhus, Denmark.
Singer-songwriter Mads Langer is shown performing a drive-in concert in Aarhus, Denmark, on April 24, 2020. In the age of coronavirus, drive-in concerts are now proliferating in Europe and the United States.
(Courtesy of Camilla Lundby)

Reduced seating capacities, temperature checks, face masks and social distancing, on stage and off. It won’t be the same old song and dance


When will live concerts and festivals return?

No one knows for sure.

But the coronavirus pandemic has led to a constantly growing number of spring and summer tours falling through or being rescheduled for fall or next year. Such major festivals as Coachella and Stagecoach, which were both postponed from April to October in Indio, could be pushed back to 2021.

One of San Diego’s biggest music festivals, November’s Wonderfront, has been postponed until 2021, while the producers of September’s KAABOO at Petco Park will announce by June 15 if they are going forward, postponing or canceling. The Shell, the San Diego Symphony’s new, year-round, $45 million outdoor concert venue, has pushed back its July 10 opening — and its nearly three-dozen concert opening season — to next year.

Live Nation, the world’s largest concert and live events promoter, in late April began offering ticket refunds, exchanges and credit options for more than 30,000 canceled or postponed shows.

As of Wednesday, Ticketmaster — which is owned and operated by Live Nation — has thus far processed more than $600 million in refunds, according to Ticketmaster President Jared Smith, an amount that is growing by the day. On Friday, Billboard magazine reported that Live Nation has furloughed approximately 2,100 of its 10,500 employees, as part of a plan to reduce the publicly traded company’s costs by $600 million.

Venues of all sizes have been shuttered and many music industry members are now unemployed, from band members, talent agents, stage crew staff and audio engineers to tour bus drivers, box office employees, security guards and backstage caterers.

The Observatory North Park, which is closed during the coronavirus pandemic, displays a message of hope on its marquee on May 14, 2020 in San Diego, California.
(Jarrod Valliere / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

When concerts do return, because of social-distancing restrictions they will be held for much smaller audiences in venues with greatly reduced capacities. To make up for diminished attendance limits, many ticket prices are likely to rise — a potentially controversial move when surging national unemployment rates now rival that of the Great Depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s.

“The impact is devastating,” said Vans Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman, who is now an associate professor at USC’s Thornton School of Music. Earlier this month, he joined the CEO Advisory Board of FlipTix, the web- and app-based ticketing platform that enables concert and festival attendees to sell their tickets when they leave an event early.

“If you’d asked me in mid-April, I thought maybe the country could pull it together and do (live) stuff by the fall,” Lyman continued. “But now, I don’t think we’ll be ready until next year. That’s my gut feeling.”

What will be different when live music events do return?

At least until an effective vaccine for COVID-19 is developed and widely available, a more pertinent question might be: What won’t be?

“My take is everything will be different, at least at the start,” said Dave Shapiro, the co-founder of the San Diego-based Sound Talent Group. His company represents more than 200 international bands and solo artists, including Duff McKagan of Guns N’ Roses, the Mexican rock band Kinky, the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra and San Diego’s Pierce The Veil.

“Until there is a cure or a vaccine, there won’t be a return to what we consider to be normal. Until that happens, the ‘new normal’ will be very different. And I think it’s probably accurate that concerts won’t really resume until next year,” Shapiro said.

“But, literally, every person in the music industry has a different opinion and everyone has the same information. I talked recently with a promoter in South Carolina who said: ‘There’s no way any shows will happen this year.’ Five minutes later, a promoter in Ohio, who works for the same (concert production) company, told me he’s proceeding with shows in August, because he thinks they’ll happen.”

Why so much confusion?

“There is no factual information out there, which is what is making this so difficult,” Shapiro replied.

‘Red’ states vs. ‘blue’ states

The exterior of the House of Blues, which is closed during the coronavirus pandemic, on May 14, 2020 in San Diego, California.
(Jarrod Valliere / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“We’ve been re-booking tours, several times, nonstop. At this point, a lot of them are being re-booked for next year. And what was a safety issue has pivoted and become a political issue, with ‘red’ states trying to open sooner than ‘blue’ states. So it’s possible some bands might do tours of just ‘red’ states later this year, but it will be very difficult. Can a band play a show in Arizona if they can’t play shows in New Mexico, Colorado and California? Probably not.”

Regardless of the city or state, the new normal at live-music events could very well include requiring each attendee to register for contact tracing and to undergo temperature checks before being admitted.

Plexiglass shields will abound. Hand-sanitizing stations may be nearly as plentiful as red plastic beer cups. The number of people allowed in the restrooms at any one time will be strictly limited.

For the moment, the eyes of the concert industry are on the Arkansas city of Fort Smith. There, at a venue called TempleLive, blues-rock singer Travis McCready is set to perform a solo show Monday. It may well be the first ticketed indoor public music event in the nation to take place since the coronavirus-fueled shutdown of concerts.

McCready’s performance had been scheduled for May 15, but was pushed back three days after the concert’s promoters received a cease-and-desist order from the Arkansas state government. If McCready’s TempleLive gig does take place Monday, its 1,100-capacity venue will cut down to 229 and the entire venue will be sanitized prior to the doors opening.

Masks will be available for concertgoers to purchase, after they undergo temperature checks at the entrance. The bathrooms will have a 10-person limit. Seating will be divided into clusters to keep all individual attendees and groups of attendees who came together at least six feet apart.

Mads Langer's April 24 drive-in concert in Aarhus, Denmark, drew a sell-out crowd.
Mads Langer’s April 24 drive-in concert in Aarhus, Denmark, drew a sell-out crowd.
(Photo by Mikkel Berg Pedersen / Ritzau Scanpix / AFP, via Getty Images))

At the drive-in

Improbably, drive-in movie theaters could become re-purposed for concerts, as has already occurred in Scandinavia and Minnesota, where music fans listened to FM transmitters on their car radios for a decidedly low-fidelity experience.

On May 11, Live Nation announced a “Drive In — Live” tour that will include dates in four Danish cities this month and next. Capacity will be limited to 600 cars per show, with no more than five passengers per vehicle.

On Tuesday, the Texas Rangers baseball team announced a four-night “Concert In Your Car” series of socially distanced drive-in performances, which will kick off June 4 with the Eli Young Band. VIP tickets, priced at $80 each, are already sold out, while $40 general admission tickets are still available. “Concert in Your Car” T-shirts and posters cost $30 each. The performances will be held in Tundra Lot B, adjacent to the Rangers’ Globe Life Field in Arlington, near Dallas.

Could drive-in concerts happen here? In a word, yes.

“A couple of booking agents have approached me about doing drive-in concerts, but I just don’t know if it’s feasible, financially or practically,” said veteran concert promoter Tim Mays, the co-owner of the 36-year-old San Diego nightclub the Casbah.

“A drive-in concert doesn’t provide any type of live-music experience. You might as well be watching a movie of the band. You’ll be parked far away and there’s no interaction. Plus, there are the logistical challenges of bringing in a stage, a generator and a sound system.”

‘Have to adapt to the times’

A moped rider wearing a mask drives past Soda Bar in City Heights, one of the many music venues that will be closed for the foreseeable future due to COVID-19 on May 14, 2020 in San Diego, California.
(Jarrod Valliere / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Perhaps the most dramatic change of all will be the heavily reduced capacities at large and small venues alike. Seats and entire rows may be removed to provide safe physical distancing between concertgoers.

Make that a greatly reduced number of concertgoers. Safe distancing means venues will only be able to admit a fraction of the people they previously could accommodate — likely, as in Arkansas on Monday, no more than 15 percent to 20 percent.

Consequently, it could be very challenging economically for some smaller venues to continue, assuming they don’t close permanently during the current shutdown. And famous and lesser-known bands and solo artists alike may find that the financial guarantees promoters used to pay them for their concerts and tours will shrink considerably, even as some ticket prices may double.

“Bands will have to adapt to the times,” Sound Talent Group co-founder Shapiro said.

“They’ll have to make concessions and have smaller stage productions and reduced touring crews. Instead of using two tour buses, now they’ll just have one. All those things will have to happen, because the economics are different. And we haven’t even addressed if people will have money to spend on concert tickets. Can people even afford concerts now, with 30 million people unemployed?”

Aesthetically and financially, concerts and festivals won’t be remotely the same, at least not in the short term. Some industry veterans predict it may take several years before such events can again take place in a way that recalls what concerts and festivals were like in the era BC (that is, Before Coronavirus).

In late April, Gov. Gavin Newsom specified that concerts in California will not be permitted to resume until a vaccine or other therapeutic treatments for COVID-19 are developed. He also singled out “mass gatherings,” which include festivals, live sports matches and events held at convention centers as being part of the fourth and final phase of events that will be allowed to resume.

On May 5, Gov. Newsom released an updated six-point plan that appears likely to push back any large gatherings, including many concerts, for at least a year.

Until then, will it be feasible for smaller venues to resume operating with dramatically decreased attendance?

That depends on the venue.

The Spreckels Theatre, pictured during the coronavirus pandemic, on May 14, 2020 in San Diego, California.
(Jarrod Valliere / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

For the 1,450-capacity Humphreys Concerts by the Bay, whose 2020 season was scheduled to begin April 3 with a show by rapper Lupe Fiasco, the answer is probably not. The Shelter Island venue is currently hoping for a mid-to-late summer opening, after postponing or canceling all of its April and May shows, along with most of its June and July dates.

“We’re referring to the social-distancing requirements set by the state and local authorities — the same thing everybody else is also following — and we don’t see how we could do concerts at this point with social distancing in a venue of our size,” said Humphreys Vice President Bobbi Brieske.

For the 600-capacity Belly Up in Solana Beach, the answer is definitely maybe.

“Overall, I’m very supportive of what Gov. Newsom is doing,” said Belly Up Entertainment President Chris Goldsmith, who takes issue with concerts in venues like the Belly Up facing the same restrictions as performances in arenas or stadiums.

“I hope we’ll be doing shows this summer; I’m sure it will be with a reduced capacity. If we can be open for 100 or 150 people per show, I’m confident we can provide a high-quality experience and we’re making those plans right now.”

So is Tim Mays, who — in addition to the 175-capacity Casbah in Middletown — co-owns the 230-capacity Soda Bar in City Heights. Both venues have been closed since mid-March. Both belong to the newly formed NIVA (National Independent Venue Association), an organization of more than 1,200 independent venues and promoters in all 50 states whose goal is to provide assistance to venues and their employees impacted by the closures.

“I’m concentrating on doing whatever I can to do any kind of live performances,” he said.

“But operating at 25 percent capacity will be really difficult financially, because our business is built on volume.”

‘We’re not going to go away’

The Casbah, the fabled music venue, is shuttered during the coronavirus pandemic on May 14, 2020 in San Diego, California.
(Jarrod Valliere / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

To follow the 6-foot physical distancing guidelines, Mays is considering bringing in seats and tables to the mostly standing-room-only Casbah. He is also looking at having local and regional bands perform two- or three-night stands for smaller audiences.

Until then, Mays said: “Our immediate future is to see — once it’s permissible to have gatherings of 10 people — how to livestream shows from the Casbah with a band and maybe two to three people to shoot the shows and run audio.

“We’ve already set up channels on Twitch and YouTube to facilitate that as a pay-per-view or with an online tip jar, so that we can share money with our staff and the artists, just to keep people working. We’ll do what we’ve got to do. We’re not going to go away.”

Neither is award-winning San Diego blues and soul singer Whitney Shay, whose U.S. and European spring concert dates were all postponed or canceled because of the pandemic.

“Seeing how enthusiastically people are reacting to concerts being livestreamed online, it’s clear there is a huge appetite for music,” said Shay, who applied for unemployment benefits in March, several weeks before her latest release, “STAND UP!”, topped the national Billboard blues album charts on April 14.

“Performing online is not something I really enjoy as much, because I like the connection of interacting in person with the audience. But I am trying to adapt to what might be the future of music for a while. Because, having so much of my live work canceled this year as a touring artist, we have to find new ways.”

In 2019, the 100 highest grossing worldwide concert tours together grossed a record $5.5 billion, according to Pollstar magazine, while the North American concert market grossed $3.72 billion.

An early April report by Pollstar projected possible losses this year for the global concert industry at $9 billion. But that was before it was clear that concerts as we know them — or, rather, as we knew them — will likely not resume until sometime in 2021.

“It’s crazy what the economic impact will be,” said Vans Warped Tour founder Lyman, who also sees a more personal cost for veteran concertgoers.

“My wife and I went to the two-day 25th anniversary Warped Tour show at Shoreline Amphitheatre near San Francisco in August. We’re both in our 50s and we’re thinking that may have been the last time we go out to an event with a large crowd.

“We still love music. But we have to start thinking that we might be more susceptible than the average person, and consider: ‘Do we want to go to large events when they do resume?’ I think there will be a segment of the population that will never want to return to any live shows again.

“But even at small shows, how will you keep equipment clean? Every microphone will have to be sterilized before the next person uses it. At USC, where I teach, they’re talking about ‘aerosol performers,’ which is what they now call singers, horn players, anyone who is using their breath for music. And when you go on the road, you live in tour buses, which are basically germ tubes.”

San Diego blues singer Shay shares those health concerns. But she is optimistic that music and the arts will endure, just as they did after the Great Depression and 9/11.

“The bottom line is, no one wants to social distance, wear a mask or have their temperature taken in order to go to a concert,” said Shay, who hopes her fall tour of Europe will proceed as scheduled.

“But, at the same time, these protective measures are a necessity, and we all have to figure out how to survive. Whether it’s a small venue, a large venue or a drive-in, even with reduced capacities, our job as performers is to entertain people and bring them joy. And that’s especially important right now. We have to do that. We need to show people how important the arts are.”