A Q3 Like No Other: Pivots, Surveys & Tours Fixed In Amber

Cardboard Cutout fans
Ezra Shaw/Getty

RILING UP THE CARDBOARD: The San Francisco 49ers mascot, Sourdough Sam encouraging cardboard cutout fans at Levi’s Stadium to cheer on the home team against the Arizona Cardinals in a year like no other on Sept. 13, 2020 in Santa Clara, Calif.

What a time for a third quarter recap. For two exceedingly long quarters, not much “happened” – at least in the traditional sense of the touring business. In another sense, however, the live business didn’t stop for a nanosecond. Before we could say the words “socially distanced ticketing algorithm,” execs and businesses were already “pivoting,” the overused business term of the year. And why the heck not?

With no revenue or work, many have changed course, looked for synergies and sources of income and run at them. Some of our industry’s top execs and rising stars are already there and we’re seeing the nascent fruits. New businesses are launching like TBA, MINT Talent Group and Range Media Partners, formed in part by agents who until very recently worked for corporate entities. Guess what most agents do the day they are furloughed, laid off or have their salaries cut? They speak with their artists and/or managers, as they often do several times a week or more, and strategize for the future.

Meanwhile, a surfeit of safety, security, crowd management, concession and ticketing protocols are developing with each passing day. These inevitably lead to new businesses, products and opportunities coming to market. And there’s advocacy (thank you NIVA and NITO) for fighting the good fight with initiatives like the RESTART Act, the Save Our Stages Act and the Encores Act to support our industry in these unnecessarily divided and fraught political times. Philanthropy and relief efforts have seen Crew Nation, MusicCares, Just a Bunch of Roadies, Musically Fed and others snap into quick action early on to help those in need – we thank and salute you, too.

Artists also “maintained one foot having contact with the ground without changing its position on the floor and utilizing the other foot to rotate their body to improve position while in possession of the basketball,” (i.e. pivoted). Livestreaming, although not nearly as ramped up as it is now, was well underway long before artists like Timbaland and Swizz Beatz’ Verzuz battles, Ben Gibbard, Erykah Badu, The Weeknd, SOFI TUKKER and Q3’s Pollstar cover artist Norah Jones this year helped take the medium to extraordinary new heights. While platforms like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Twitch and TikTok are often the social media platforms of choice, there’s a number of music streaming companies battling in the marketplace, including many we’ve written extensively about, including LiveXLive, Veeps, NoCap, NoonChorus, Live From Out There, nugs.net, Maestro, LiveFrom Events, and many others.

Norah Jones
Photo By Victoria Will / Invision / AP

Norah Jones, cover of Pollstar’s Q3 issue and the No. 1 artist on the Top Streamers chart.

Jones, who is a nine-time Grammy winner and household name, is now Pollstar’s top streaming artist since the May launch of our Top Streamers chart. Jones, 41, who was set to headline a U.S. summer tour with the living treasure that is Mavis Staples at a number of iconic outdoor stages, including L.A.’s Greek Theatre, New York’s Celebrate Brooklyn in Prospect Park and New Orleans and Newport Jazz Festivals, also pivoted, to a weekly Facebook Live stream. In the process, she racked up 6.9 million views on Pollstar’s Top Streamers Chart (overall more than 18 million since March) while raising money for charities. Her informal, intimate and unproduced performances, primarily on an upright piano in her upstate New York home, often feature unique covers, from Paula Abdul to Guns N’ Roses, while showcasing her effortlessly impressive talents and generating unreal streaming numbers. She’s created a template for how the medium can be additive, even for a well-established artist.

The top streaming artist, Jones, is actually not at the top of the Top Streamers chart. That honor belongs to an historic, iconic and wondrous institution: The Grand Ole Opry, which will celebrate its 95th anniversary in October. Since our Top Livestreams charts began, the Nashville institution has hosted a number of country superstars, including Vince Gill and Reba McEntire, who drew the largest audience with over 2.6 million views on July 18 and hit No. 5 on the Top 100 Livestreams; Luke Bryan and Darius Rucker’s Opry show was No. 7 with 1.9 million views on Aug. 15, and a June 27 performance by Keb’Mo’ and Brad Paisley hit No. 8. The raw power and loyalty of country music fans is indisputable, and when tied to a tried and true historic multi-generational brand with copious cachet, it’s a streaming freight train.

The top-ranked individual event on the Top 100 Livestreams chart was actually an international event. Wacken World Wide, a virtual metal fest straight out of Germany is No. 1 with 11 million streams featuring performances by Alice Cooper, Anthrax, Sabaton, Kreator and Heaven Shall Burn. The stream’s massive success underscores both the popularity of the fest, now in its 30th year, and the genre’s massive European fanbase.

“It’s been so good for me, personally,” Norah Jones told Pollstar’s Sarah Pittman of her livestreams. “It feels really good to connect. I’ve appreciated the comments so much and it feels like it’s been really good energy.” But when asked if she’ll continue to livestream she’s not so sure. “Once things change, I would love for it to evolve into something like I had originally planned [with guest performers]. But I don’t know. I’m just going to do it until it doesn’t feel right, that might be next week, but hopefully (laughs) I’ll still feel good about it. I think I will for a while.”

Cowboys Fans
Tom Pennington/Getty

A PARTIAL VIEW: Some of the 21,708 Dallas Cowboys fans at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Tex. on, Sept. 20, 2020, to cheer on the hometeam against The Atlanta Falcons.

She is not alone in her ambivalence towards livestreaming. According to The Pollstar and VenuesNow State of the Industry Survey, the largest study of its kind, with 1,359 participants, only 7.9% believe livestreaming will continue to be a major way fans consume live music once shows return. 48.5% said it won’t be a major factor, while 43.6% believe the industry will return with a hybrid of live and livestreamed events. While it’s not clear which segment is correct, the seven-figure streams on Pollstar’s streaming charts would indicate that the medium isn’t going anywhere anytime soon – especially when it has the juice of the Opry, a brilliant artist like Norah Jones or an established German metal festival and everything in between.

This was hardly the survey’s only takeaway. While we are still amidst immensely challenging times for our industry, the tally indicated that many are relatively optimistic on the businesses’ return. A majority predict the industry will be back in full swing in 2021; most are ready and willing to safely return to work now; they are overwhelmingly in favor of sharing added safety and security expenses across the industry; and there is a consensus on the lack of racial and gender diversity in our industry and the need for change. These are quantitatively and qualitatively promising signs for all of us.

Perhaps the hardest part of the third quarter recap is the touring data, for which little has changed since Q1, which ran from Nov. 11, 2019, to Feb. 19, 2020. Reading the data is like looking at the first quarter preserved in amber with perennial Q1 holiday juggernaut Trans-Siberian Orchestra along with Elton John (who just announced “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” tour resumes in Sept 2021 in Berlin before heading stateside) and Celine Dion affixed to the top as a cast reminder for when the live music stopped. The only new additions were Queen + Adam Lambert, which played nine stadiums in Australia and New Zealand in February, that were just reported; and Madonna, whose eight-show run at Grand Rex in Paris drew 20,919 fans with tickets ranging from about $85-$390 for a gross of $5.1 million.

What has changed and is encouraging in that same period is the live market itself, which is slowly and steadily coming back with safety protocols front and center. Pollstar’s Top Streamers chart launched in our May 18th issue, significantly the exact same date as Travis McCready of Bishop Gunn played the first ticketed and socially distanced pandemic- era concert in Ft. Smith, Ark., at Temple- Live. Four months later, on Sept. 18, as this issue was closing, some 21,708 fans gathered social-distance-wise to watch the Dallas Cowboys beat the Atlantic Falcons at AT&T Stadium (capacity 80,000). A lot has happened between then and now, including a multitude of drive-in concerts and tours, outdoor festivals, club shows in international markets and the aforementioned safety protocols, which will help bring this business back. As these and other live event best practices prove efficacious, our industry will finally break out of this amber we’ve been preserved in for half a year too long and counting. Then, finally, we can get back to doing what we do best: create peak lifetime experiences for fans and artists alike to rap, rock, roll, groove, headbang, mosh, dance, scream and shout.