Reflections On 2020: Letter From Ray Waddell, President Of OVG Media & Conferences

Ray Waddell
– Ray Waddell

How does one begin to sum up 2020? Lots of folks, particularly media pundits, are going to try, coming at it from whatever lens through which they view the world. My view, as ever, is through the lens of live entertainment, colored by personal experience, flavored by peers I love and admire, colleagues, acquaintances, heroes, legends, and barroom banter, and propped up by hard data, projections, statistics, conjecture, guesses, and no small amount of BS. In the end, I can come up with one word that sums up this year like no other: loss.

We lost irreplaceable artists, particularly on the live performance front. I won’t list them all, but from my personal perspective, artists who influenced my own life and career will inspire audiences no more, among them Eddie Van Halen, Charlie Daniels, John Prine, Billy Joe Shaver, Kenny Rogers, Neil Peart, Jerry Jeff Walker, Little Richard, Justin Townes Earle, Peter Green, Paul English, Kenny Rogers, Dave Olney, and Joe Diffie. Entertainers, all, silenced forever. That’s a lot of performers representing thousands of shows, and this is by no means an all-inclusive list. 

In 2020, we, as an industry, lost money, we lost business, we lost opportunity. Ten solid years of a Golden Era, of consistent growth in the double-digit percentages, and unprecedented global expansion, came to a screeching halt. One can almost hear the silence. Since the Great Slump of 2009/2010, a period marked by economic downturn, cancelled and reconfigured tours, massive discounting, and at least some degree of consumer revolt, the live entertainment industry has been on a hockey stick growth chart. 

With the aid of collaboration, technology, and lessons hard learned, I’ve watched an industry get its collective shit together in terms of next-level strategies around pricing, scaling, packaging, routing, producing, managing, ticketing and promoting, engaging fans like never before, developing careers, sustaining others, and creating an experience that sells tickets and ignites passion. Intelligence, work ethic, innovation, talent and technological advancement together create a formidable force when put behind brilliant artists, and we’ve witnessed the fruits of this combination for a decade straight. 

Clubs, ballrooms, theaters, performing art centers, amphitheaters, arenas, stadiums and festivals have all been doing solid business, with limited cannibalization. It has been a joy to cover. With new venues opening around the world, and new markets developing to give artists virtually unlimited touring options, an eager audience exposed to all sorts of music through streaming, and new marketing tools making tickets readily available, priced to sell, these were the best of times…until they weren’t. 

Back in February, the industry gathered in L.A. for another record year of the Pollstar Live! Conference & Awards, patting each other on the back and shaking hands (the horror!) as we blithely discussed our embarrassment of riches, how to build on our successes, and make this strong business even stronger. The challenges we batted around at Pollstar Live! 2020 paled in comparison to what was to come, as little did we know that we were on the precipice of the biggest challenge this industry has ever faced.

Beware the Ides of March. Over two days, I personally watched as, one after the other, more than 50 tour buses came in off the road, to be parked and shut down just prior to what is normally the busiest part of the year. It was a visual manifestation of an industry shutting down, the death spasm of live music in 2020. 

Stunned, we all watched April go away, then June, then July, and then there seemed to be a collective sigh of resignation as the unthinkable became increasingly apparent: 2020 would be a wash in terms of live concerts. 

The ripple effect of a massive touring machine grinding to a worldwide halt was astounding. When the music is silenced, the first impact is on the artists, but that’s just the beginning. The revenue spigot that feeds agents, promoters, venue staffs, bus and truck drivers, travel agents, touring professionals in staging, lighting, video and sound, and many more, suddenly was turned off. Thousands of hard-working people who have been making a good living in this wonderful world of live suddenly were faced with hard facts and tough choices. 

The fans felt it, as well. When we needed it most, with the nation divided over a bitter election, with shouting in the streets and social injustice persistently raging across America, there were no concerts 
or public sporting events to unite us in common experience and shared passion. While I am convinced that shutting down mass gatherings in a pandemic was the right call, I am equally convinced that a lack of live music and sports as an outlet made a toxic environment even more so.  I, for one, am pissed that I didn’t get to go to Bonnaroo this summer for the first time ever. What did you miss most? What did that do to us?

As always, the industry adapted. Drive-in concerts became a thing, and most all performing artists found a way to reach fans via streaming. Pollstar reacted by creating and publishing the Live Stream chart 
to chronicle what was going on in the absence of live concert data and boxoffice charts. When we couldn’t gather together to brainstorm and network, we Zoom’d. Boy, did we Zoom. Digital video content 
exploded, even at Pollstar, where scores of industry thought leaders and artists like Brad Paisley, Dave Grohl, Jimmy Buffett, Steve Van Zandt, Sofi Tukker, Gary Rossington, Patterson Hood, Big Tony,  Carlos Vives and many others participated in our Pollstar Live! Digital Sessions. (To toot our own horn just a bit, it’s a pretty phenomenal slate of interviews, if you haven’t seen all of these check it out on Pollstar’s Facebook page.)

Ours is a business of heroes, and they emerged, philanthropy still abounds as this industry witnessed untold generosity of all sorts, much of it not publicized. The live entertainment industry has always been the first to step up in times of need, and this has been true of 2020, except much of the need was by this industry itself. We needed each other. Mountains have been moved by many people, whether in terms of political advocacy, financial aid, or fighting in myriad ways to preserve a vital piece of our culture, the industry continues to rise to the occasion and we try to make you all aware of what’s out there.
For that, in the end, is Pollstar’s role as the Voice Of Live. We will continue to advocate for this beautiful business, make you aware of what is going on, help you if we can, sing your praises if you if you’re newsworthy, call you out if you fall short, let you know what is coming, and critically look at ourselves to make sure we’re doing what we can to affect positive change. I’ve seen enough to have faith in this business. 

Because one other word rings true when assessing this year: faith. 

I have faith that the live industry will return to glory, sooner than we might think is possible. I have faith that we will realize again this Golden Era. Packed houses will come back. Epic onstage chemistry will spark and then roar again. We know what to do. The collective industry did not suddenly forget about pricing, scaling, packaging, routing, producing, ticketing, promoting, and engaging fans. We still have passion and smarts and work ethic. We will need all of these traits in spades to navigate what I predict will be the busiest time this business has ever known by this time next year.

While it’s easy to be morose when considering the loss of 2020, let’s remember who we are. We are coming off a decade where Pollstar data shows the average gross per show grew by 87% between 2010 and 2019, and average tickets sold per show grew 36%. The industry has never been better at doing what it does. Let’s call it a pause for the cause. I know that, despite the very real pain, in other ways a break from the road and the grind, for many people the first time in decades, did us some good. Many artists, executives, and road personnel reconnected with their families and themselves, and are coming out of 2020 in better physical and mental shape than they went in. I know that’s true for me.

I hope you’re all well rested, because the pause is coming to an end, it’s about to go down. Intel points to live shows picking up substantially in April, and a full slate of concerts and events in all venues by summer 2021. The fall should be insane. Holds are firm, deposits are down, equipment is booked, personnel are being confirmed. We’re getting the band back together. 

The return will be challenging. Beyond the new protocols and best practices in the pursuit of safety, we must remain cognizant of a shell-shocked fan, many with limited resources, and what promises to be a packed schedule of events. Most of you know that as you route and strategize, you must communicate and stay out of each other’s way as much as possible, not just for play dates but for critical on-sales and even announcements. Today’s music fans cast a wide net, and we can’t force them to make difficult choices about what to attend, we need them to attend everything. They need our shows, and we need them, too. Artists want to play.

This business will figure it out. We will be there with you. Pollstar data and tour histories can inform your strategy. Soon, you will be reporting your grosses, and by all means, report them. For posterity’s sake, just as we chronicled the crash, we must chronicle the return.

We wish you a new year and a shining new era of peace, love and packed houses.

Ray Waddell, President Of OVG Media & Conferences