The Drive-In Concert Evolution: Tours, Bands And Pods As The Business Parks And Revs Up
– Billy Strings
HOME: Billy Strings, who has shown he will play (and can sell tickets) anywhere, opened up the “At The Drive-Inn” series at the McHenry Drive-In in McHenry, Ill, Sept. 16-17. Promoter Collectiv Presents has been one of the most active drive-in concert producers, expanding to multiple cities and states.
While comedians and solo artists – notably the “Loop Daddy” Marc Rebillet, the shirtless wonder Bert Kreischer and this week’s cover subject, comedian Iliza Shlesinger — have done extended drive-in tour legs, it’s been less common – and more difficult – to make the full band or musician drive-in show work. Until now, that is.
“They’re an undertaking to say the least,” says Michael Berg of Chicago-based Collectiv Presents, which kicked off its “At The Drive-Inn” series at McHenry, Ill., in mid September with full-band productions from Billy Strings, Jeff Tweedy and Trampled By Turtles and has expanded to additional shows at Seatgeek Stadium in Bridgeview as well as the Atlanta Speedway, which will host a multi-night Halloween run with Deadmau5, and kicked off with Mt. Joy.
Berg stressed the importance of safety at the events, with podded “quaranteam” areas for fans who are instructed to not leave their group of four unless they’re headed to the bathroom, extra portable toilets, which are cleaned between uses, and more safety measures.
“But it’s been fulfilling in a lot of ways, to put people back to work – ourselves included — and to also be new leaders of the safety protocols and systems put in place.”
Berg, along with Collectiv partner Chris Den Uijl, have been at the forefront of the drive-in concert emergence at a time when many promoters and managers say the drive-in model simply doesn’t make sense for their artists — logistically or financially. This makes it extra important to choose the right artists – relationship- and fanbase-wise.
“The appetite is absolutely there on the fan side, and the more that happen successfully and, the more comfortable people are that they’re going to be safe at an event we’re doing ,they’ll be more willing to take that customer journey with us – but they are expensive tickets, compared to a regular four-wall situation,” says Berg, also known for producing the Suwannee Hulaween festival in Florida. “That’s why some of these fanbases with mabe more affluent communities may at this juncture be the right ones to focus on. “Our venue in Chicago was stuck at around 400 cap, which is priced out for 1,600 patrons – but there are others around the country that are more like 150-200 cars and the margins are just impossible to make work at that level. The smaller you go, the harder it is to make the ends meet on every side.”
Den Uijl says while they have communicated with agents and other drive-ins to anchor tours to their events, he says they’re offering true multi-night, multi-city runs as destinations of their own.
“Yes, we’re kind of coordinating but also trying to be a one-stop shop for multi-night runs and gain their trust to do it again in multiple cities,” Den Uijl says, noting jam band favorites Umphrey’s McGee doing two nights in two cities with Collectiv as their only drive-in shows. “Ultimately, artists are looking for routing, but the differences for us are we have focused on meaningful artists that can do business on multiple nights. We have long-term relationships with bands who trust what we’re putting together from a COVID protocol. There’s a lot of risk with artist doing these events other than the promoter getting shut down, there’s things these artists are very careful about and considering before they partner.”
One artist making it work is Billy Strings, the immensely talented “jamgrass” guitarist singer/songwriter who had been on a tear selling tickets before the pandemic hit, and continues to do so with livestreams and drive-in shows.
“It was fun, it was rewarding, it was exhilarating, but it was also terrifying,” says Billy Strings manager Bill Orner with a laugh. Along with the logistical challenges of travel, selling tickets and producing shows in a somewhat unorthodox environment, Orner repeatedly stressed the importance of safety and taking the pandemic seriously.
“Putting the show on isn’t the hard part, all the variables of this new world is the hard part. Every single thing goes through your mind, like the normal stuff — ‘Are the cars getting in fast enough, is there enough fuel for the generators, is security in position what about this and that?’ And then there’s this global pandemic. ‘Is it too soon [to be doing shows?], is it too late? What are we doing?’ it’s a mindfuck, to be perfectly honest.”
Pod People: The re-configured Yarmouth Drive-in on Cape Cod, where Innovation Arts CEO Adam Epstein has built out an active, dedicated drive-in concert venue – and is building additional dedicated “cove” seated venues in other states for winter and spring events.
Billy Strings’ kickoff shows at the McHenry drive-in moved 3,458 tickets and grossed $176,006, while another two nights in nearby Peoria’s Exposition Gardens Sept. 18-19 grossed $213,605 on 4,308 tickets. Orner says Strings sold out four of his seven shows, with multiple dates added and good “drive-up” ticket sales to the ones that didn’t sell out.
The shows went off mostly without a hitch, with Strings himself enjoying the experience and few incidents of fans misbehaving, but Orner wasn’t going to take chances.
“The biggest takeaway from it is that you can’t control what people want to do,” Orner says. “I think sometimes they just got up and were so starved for human contact and for a minute it was like things were normal. So you have to send security and ask people to go back to their area. The wind blows one way and literally something can happen.”
Bands are announcing drive-in tours seemingly by the day, now, with Christian band For King & Country announcing a whopping 20-date Christmas tour that starts in November, and Nederlander Presents announcing a six-date, multi-city West Coast run with Andrew McMahon after success at the City National Grove of anaheim.
Going forward, it’s hard to bet on anything, but Innovation Arts & Entertainment CEO Adam Epstein has been bullish on the outdoor concert, erecting the Yarmouth Drive-In in a matter of days on a previously unused plot of land on Cape Cod in Massachusetts.
The site has gone from hosting a simple movie screening of “Jurassic Park” in July to live shows by Iliza Shlesinger, Bert Kreischer and more, remaining active with more from Goose, Marcus King Trio, Allman Betts, Mt. Joy, and Disco Biscuits, who are doing four nights after selling out two shows in less than an hour at the previously-nonexistent venue.
Although the Yarmouth site will be shutting down for the winter, Epstein says more venues, built from scratch with podded “cove” seating in mind and without space for cars at all, will be coming online for the fall and winter months.
“We are definitely not done, we got the site in Columbia (S.C.) that will be open in the first week in november, and we got two in Texas,” Epstein says. “We are actively investing and finding opportunities because we do believe this will be with us through next summer. we can’t sit on the sidelines.” Epstein adds that he feels a little guilty to “be having such a blast” right now, but the work is paying off.
“We’ve committed to make sure it is the best of what is out there right now,” he says. “And we’re always improving on it. We want people to feel like they got a little bit back of that thing they lost, that we lost.
“Anybody who comes to our site and experiences our shows can tell how much care we put into all of it. We’re really busting our asses.”