Hope And Uncertainty: The Live Business Comeback

No Music, No Life
Christopher Jue / Getty Images
– No Music, No Life
A fan poses in front of a sign that resonates with many right now as she watches the star-studded livestream of “One World: Together At Home” presented by Global Citizen April 18.

“I wish I had a crystal ball,” said tour production legend Jake Berry during the April 20th “The Show Must Go On” live music industry town hall meeting featuring leaders of many sectors of the live business. “The great unknown,” Berry said, is when we’ll be back. 

It’s a question on the lips of the entire industry as COVID-19 has put a virtual stop on the concert business and the industry discussion has shifted from cancelations, postponements and refunds to how and when live events will return.
Berry, whose Jake Berry Productions works with Las Vegas EDM promoter Insomniac, said he’s only 50/50 as to whether the massive Electric Daisy Carnival, which draws up to 250,000 and was rescheduled for October, will take place. Live Nation execs are publicly saying it’s wholly likely this pause on the business could go six to nine months without the type of major tours the company puts on across the world. Simultaneously, various U.S. states and European countries like Sweden and Austria are readying plans to slowly start opening back up.
President Trump’s guidelines, announced April 17, gave conditions for “Opening Up America Again,” which starts with 14 days of a downward trajectory of documented coronavirus symptoms and cases, with hospitals able to “treat all patients without crisis care” and a “robust testing program” in place for healthcare workers. 
From there, a reopening phase one take place, which includes “Large Venues” such as movie theatres, sporting venues and restaurants operating although while still practicing “strict physical distancing protocols.” However, during this phase, bars (and, presumably, clubs) “should remain closed.” As states and regions show no evidence of a rebound, phases two and three would be entered, which include opening bars with limited occupancy and social distancing, while “large venues” see lessening restrictions.
The guidelines have led to government leaders in states including Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee and others announcing limited reopenings in their states, with Georgia apparently prepared to open movie theatres as early as Monday (April 27).
The industry Town Hall, a collaboration between Pollstar and Backstage Productions, discussed what could change when concerts start back up, from contactless ticket entry to clear bags (or no bags), to reduced capacity at general admission shows. But many on the panel, and surely much of the general public as well, have trepidation about reopening too soon and the pandemic potentially starting over again.
“The truth is, we’re talking about moving back into a house that’s still on fire,” said Artist Group International’s Adam Kornfeld, agent or co-agent for major artists such as Metallica, Def Leppard and others. “OK, so maybe the fire is a little more controlled but it’s still on … A lot of this seems premature. I think we’re unfortunately a ways off from large social gatherings, be it music or sports.”
The industry will need to get creative whenever things start to get back online, as Nederlander Concerts CEO Alex Hodges and First Avenue Productions President and CEO Dayna Frank agreed it will likely be necessary to put on one-off shows or mini-tours, which admittedly “will be different,” as Hodges noted. 
“The house is on fire but the whole neighborhood isn’t on fire,” added co-moderator Ray Waddell, president of Oak View Group’s President of Media & Conferences (Pollstar’s parent company). “When [things reopen] it will favor the nimble. … When it comes back and artists are ready to play, guys like you will be ready to present them. … I know people will be ready for live music.”
The developments have changed the mood of the conversation. Peter Gross’ Coalition Entertainment books festivals and venues in 10 states, and things are changing every day, with cities like Jacksonville, Fla., reopening beaches and other attractions. There’s even talk of venues in New York City hearing from city officials that they could reopen at half-capacity as early as mid-May, which was unthinkable just days ago, and of course very likely won’t actually happen. 
“So, in short, who knows!” Gross told Pollstar. However, “I just hope people will do it responsibly, and that’s how we are coaching all our clients on the measures and precautions that need to happen.” 
Markets opening up sporadically would present its own challenges, as noted by Montana-based Logjam Productions owner Nick Checota.
“We do feel that once we are allowed to begin operations, Montanans will likely be anxious to return to the live music scene,” Checota told Pollstar, adding that he is preparing to possibly “hibernate” all Logjam operations for the next few months. However, “We route with Seattle and Denver and need those music scenes to be healthy and active for us to be successful.”
It all comes back to not knowing what even the immediate future holds, a new situation in a business all about calculated risk and projections. 
“Being a concert promoter and talent buyer, our job is to predict and project future sales of an artist,” noted Patchwork Presents’ Dave Poe, who buys talent for clubs and theatres in multiple states, including the 3,500-capacity Criterion in Oklahoma City. “If we don’t know what the future holds as far as the economy, or regulations regarding mass gatherings, it’s really hard for us to predict what we should offer artists and that sort of thing. It’s all very new.” 
Other talent buyers have talked about working on brand partnerships as well as new ways of delivering content, although not overdoing it or forcing content that doesn’t ultimately resonate with fans. 
Although uncertainty still rules the day, it’s encouraging to be talking about something other than cancellations and postponements. Also encouraging are the efforts from groups like the 900-strong National Independent Venue Alliance, which just sent a letter to Washington pleading its case as a vital part of the economy that contributes $10 billion annually. 
This otherwise highly competitive business has put aside its differences to overcome crises like 9/11, the Great Recession, active shooters and more. This time, too, it will come out on the other side, it’s just going to be a (likely painful) minute before the dust settles. s