Letter From Ray Waddell: Moving The Business Forward

– Ray Waddell
This is bad. Really bad. But does it have to be this bad?

Let me start by saying that the personal safety of fans, artists and personnel is the priority for virtually everyone in this business. I would say that surviving is pretty high up there on the list, as well. Over the past six weeks, I have spoken exhaustively with scores of influential industry players, as well as the rank and file and those in the trenches, from virtually all sectors of the live entertainment industry: agents, managers, artists, production professionals, safety/security pros, ticketing, box office, association leaders, and top-to-bottom venue workers from club- to stadium- and festival-level, all over the world. Without exception, everybody wants the startup to be safe, and to suggest otherwise would be wrong. This is an industry with not only a moral compass, but also a healthy amount of CYA syndrome.

Where I find a lot of difference of opinion is the answer to the question of when can we start doing shows again? More than a few are ready to write off 2020 for any and all live entertainment. I am not one of those.
I’ve already stated that safety for all is the priority. But to say we’re dealing with a one-size-fits-all situation is inaccurate. And, for some markets and territories, I believe we are significantly closer to being able to have some live shows again than we are to the beginning of this scourge. I am not an epidemiologist (I can’t even spell it), and would never presume to offer medical or pandemic advice. We have the CDC and medical community and others for that. Politicians, too, but they’d be last on my list of people who know what to do. What I do know for sure is that New York City is not Seattle is not Nashville is not Amarillo, Texas. I also know for sure that today we are not the same nation – the same world – as we were in February. We have a better handle on COVID-19, how insanely communicable this virus is, and we are overly-familiar with the term “social distancing.” Six feet, wash your hands, we get it. What I mean is, the people are vastly more educated on safety in a pandemic (post-pandemic?) society. 
Venues, promoters and presenters of live entertainment owe it to fans, artists and staff to not put them in danger, of course that is true. But at some point, personal responsibility must enter into the equation. Say, simply as a hypothetical, that we had some shows scheduled in areas with lower levels of infection and/or stability in new cases, with new sanitization protocols implemented at the venues and throughout the tour, reduced capacity, trying out some of these great ideas we have been hearing about for the past six weeks or so. This industry has shown it can adapt post 9/11, and there are ways to make it safer, safe as a grocery store.
There are artists that can play all summer at venues in Texas and Oklahoma, as a hypothetical, and make a living (see Boxoffice Insider with Randy Rogers Band, page 19). There are acts, and we all know them, that were built that way, and a return to those roots, wherever they are, would be much appreciated. Artists that can actually play could go out with scaled down production, crew, buses and trucks or trailers, play outside (or inside, in the right situation), and earn some money, for themselves and their crew, and their transportation companies, lighting and sound vendors, plus the promoters, managers, agents and merch company, etc. Get the gears turning for the symbiotic touring economy even in a small way.
This situation favors the nimble. For shows to happen, the artists and managers would have to fully support it, and the agents would have to be agents, not just pushing paper but actually digging into the available markets and rooms and breaking out the trusty Dist-O-Map and finding out what works. They would have to give good phone again.
For this to happen, it would take courage. 
A lot of artists and those that work for them are well-positioned financially and can afford to wait this out. I commend them and I am not saying they lack courage. But for hundreds of people who work in and around live entertainment, this has become a survival situation. For artists that want to sit out 2020, nobody is going to force them to play. Nobody is going to force fans to go. Insurance would be unlikely. I’m no legal expert, but I believe there should be some legal safeguards in play, so fans who opt to go to a show in a reasonably safe environment, with all risks clearly stated, can’t come back and sue the venue, promoter, artist, or whomever, should they get sick. There needs to be some protection in place for all parties.
Again, personal responsibility, self-reliance, this country is kinda known for it, or used to be. If you don’t feel safe, don’t go. I know it’s tempting, but let’s not under-estimate the intelligence of our fans. Let’s communicate with them: “If you’re immune-deficient, if you have underlying issues, stay home. If you go, put off visiting dear old Aunt Martha. And she needs to stay home, too.” We are in a different world now, consumers know the risks, some will opt out. Some will scream bloody murder. And some would go if the building was on fire, too, so all safety precautions known should be taken. In the right situation, where it’s appropriate, we should think seriously about making our case to whomever will listen that it’s time to turn the lights on. Not for everybody, but for some.
This opinion is my own, and may or may not reflect the policy or beliefs of Pollstar, OVG or anybody else. This is me talking, and here is what I know: there is a huge thirst for live music. Some would call it essential. Streaming is a nice diversion and I applaud all who engage in it, thank you, but it ain’t live. There is a reason why live music is better and has been forever. Fans want to be in the same space as the artist, gathered with other passionate fans, though not necessarily shoulder-to-shoulder, in this case. This is also true: before permanent damage is done, the industry needs to earn. In some places, I firmly believe that this could happen sooner rather than later. If shows do happen, somebody may get sick. They may get hit by a car on the way home, too. The very foundation of this business is built on risk. If some pull it off successfully, others will follow. I am not advocating irresponsible or dangerous activity, but at some point, someone must have the courage to play, someone must have the courage to present a show. And, while I’ll probably get smacked around for it a bit, somebody has to have the courage to write about it, too. Our industry depends on it. 
Ray Waddell
President, OVG Media & Conferences