Ray Waddell, Patrick Whalen Host Second Live Event Town Hall

The Show Must Go On (Encore)
– The Show Must Go On (Encore)
broadcast live on YouTube

Backstage Productions’ Patrick Whalen and Oak View Group’s Ray Waddell teamed up for a second Live Entertainment Town Hall May 18, and once again brought together a cross-section of the business to talk about how to move forward from a state of suspension brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the conversation clearly has moved far beyond that of the debut Town Hall on April 20, with some concert re-openings becoming more than just abstract ideas from drive-in shows to the Gulf Shore Jam country music festival set to take place Labor Day weekend in Panama City Beach, Fla., which is blowing out tickets.

Looming large over the conversations was the fact that NASCAR staged a highly visible and, by all accounts very successful, return race the day before at Darlington, N.C.

Joining the industry pros for this session was James Fallows, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, based in Washington, D.C., who brought his insight into how governments and the media are viewing the concert industry’s dilemma.

Fallows stressed the need for adaptability given the rapidly changing landscape, both on Capitol Hill and in the scientific community as the race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine is in full swing. He pointed out that the political atmosphere in Washington is far different on the state and local levels, which tend to be less polarized and dysfunctional. And while the media can often play an adversarial watchdog role, “waiting for somebody to screw up,” Fallows said he believes that’s not the case in the current scenario in which too many people are waiting for the day they can safely attend a concert with their friends. 

Fallows brought up federal economic stimulus bills being written, including one expected to be introduced by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “It’s a tricky bill for you to navigate,” Fallows says. “That it’s called ‘the McConnell bill’ tells you it’s already on the political spectrum and likely to be opposed by Democrats. There’s going to be resistance to this bill [for reasons having nothing to do with the concert industry].”

Bandit Lites’ Michael Strickland has been working with Tennessee legislators on getting stimulus and other dollars directed to the live business. “They assure us it’s going to take place, but we stand alone in that we have 100,000 people in sports, large events with extreme liability,” Strickland said. 

Ascend Insurance’s Paul Bassman chimed in on the liability issues, noting that workers’ compensation for coronavirus exposure and liability shields to protect venues and others over potential lawsuits because of a communicable disease are new areas of concern.

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“We would hope that workers would be covered by workers comp. A liability shield is very important to our industry going forward because most policies would have an exclusion for communicable diseases,” Bassman said. “If you have an exclusion, liability won’t be covered. You still may open the door for litigation, which would not be covered by insurance.”

Many of the liability questions are the same regardless of venue size or whether the venue is in Wichita, Kan., or New York City. Fallows emphasized the importance of secondary and tertiary market entertainment venues to not only their communities, but to the wider ecosystem as well – and that point needs to be stressed to legislators as they consider further stimulus.

“Seeing how mainly small and experiment spaces, performing spaces, restaurants and so on have been on the frontier of making these towns lively places, they are disproportionally threatened right now,” Fallows said. “To make an appeal for legislation you need people to recognize that these are the places you need to be alive. Trying to be in touch with people to relate that smaller venues are important to the vitality of their towns, and to people across all the normal divides is uniting and that what your are doing is what America needs.”

While some markets are taking baby steps toward reopening, many eyes are on Las Vegas. ICM Partners agent Steve Levine points out that Caesars Palace and MGM are saying they want to open this summer and sees comedy as likely to be the first shows in the resorts’ smaller rooms as the shows don’t require a lot of back of house production staff.

Strickland said Bandit Lites has a tour going out July 1, but couldn’t yet name the artist. “Our bigger, wealthier artists are saying they’ll come back next year. But the mid-level and smaller artists are going to do something. If we have to play Montana, Idaho … we’ll do that. These people need the money.”

Electric Daisy Carnival was to have played last weekend but instead moved the three-day festival online. Rutger Jansen, Insomiac’s senior vice president of production and operations, said, “It’s going to be close to impossible to start up a 175,000 person event [this year]. We’re great at throwing the biggest fests in the world. The people who come to our events have the least amount of risk of getting this virus.”

Jake Berry, of Jake Berry Productions, pointed to two starkly different events over the weekend: the NASCAR race at Darlington and the opening of German soccer. “NASCAR was a giant step,” Berry raved. “I think they got it 100% right, they did a great job. No crowd, minimized pit crews, lot of lessons there. If it’s successful, I can see attendance starting in the seated areas, not the field.

“The sad thing was the German soccer league start up with no people was like watching a training session,” Berry continued. “To me there was some light shed this weekend, this was great. We are and always have been the angry stepchild in business and government; what we do is unique.”

Artist Management Group’s Rob Beckham said the Gulf Coast Jam festival in Panama City Beach, Fla., is going full steam ahead with Brad Paisley, Luke Bryan and Lynyrd Skynyrd headlining. Tickets went on sale and broke “with the biggest numbers we have had,” Beckham said. “Tens of thousands of tickets for Labor Day Weekend show. The idea of having live music coming is the most amazing thing. I think it’s very positive hearing about Las Vegas and hopefully going full speed by July or August, but it’s the idea of talking about the liability issue. We’re optimistic but the odds of touring for the rest of this year are pretty much impossible.”

The added costs of sanitizing venues, screening ticketholders and insurance increases are another concern. Red Light Management’s Stuart Ross says, “What promoters have to come to terms with are the new procedures, what they cost, will they be show by show. Agents and managers have to come to terms with what those costs are going to be venue by venue. What the testing is going to be, the number of bathrooms, we’ll make a decision at that point. As far as door deals, I’m fine with door deals but there’s two side to the formula and we’re not going to know until they get put on the table.”

Berry floated the idea of testing tours in New Zealand and Australia, where the virus has been well mitigated and are starting to open up. “Somewhere, somebody’s got to be first. With the NASCAR race on live TV, they had a race Sunday, a day off today, a race tomorrow at another venue. But if something happens, we’re going back 20 steps. Nobody’s right and nobody’s wrong. Nobody knows.”

Event Safety Alliance’s Jim Digby said, “I want to be the optimist in the group and I want to make sure the optimists willing to move forward have the best information so people don’t make up their own rules and potentially take the rest of the industry down. If we can test markets where the risk is less, let’s do it in a way we all agree on. We will couple with anybody doing the good work. I don’t want people making mistakes on my behalf.”

Conversation touched on how touring production will change, how much insurance will rise (as much as 50% on premiums), how tour bus use will rise not only because of social distancing but because artists who usually fly might have have a higher comfort level traveling in the same bus with the same people, and some debate ensued on opening sooner versus later.

Strickland said, “If you think you can or you can’t, you’re right. We need a positive attitude. If we don’t, we won’t get it done. People achieve magnificent things, but you have to give them hope. We will emerge from this.” 

Beckham concluded: “Nothing screams more ‘Spinal Tap’ than ‘tour isolation.’ Stay positive. There’s been a great depression in our companies across the board that the sky is falling. I don’t think that’s true. Maybe we can help guide you on the right path back and stay the course. These days of us siting around saying ‘I’m bored’ won’t last.”