The Year In Promoters: Layoffs, Pivots Mark A Year Like No Other

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– Couchella
A man wearing a mask stands in front of a poster of Coachella – called “Couchella” by some fans – on La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles April 15.

The year 2020 was shaping up to be one like no other for concert promoters, before it became a year like no other for a polar opposite reason. Ringing in the New Year, the industry was all but salivating for a year expected to blow through records for ticket sales and revenues.

What wasn’t to salivate over? The Rolling Stones were coming back to North America, Eagles was wrapping up its latest megatour, My Chemical Romance was to reunite with an outing, Paul McCartney’s “Freshen Up” tour and Taylor Swift’s “Lover Fest” were expected to reliably spin turnstiles. Country music stadium-filler Kenny Chesney was to open the new SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif., as a tour highlight. And Elton John’s “Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour” was tipped to continue the sales juggernaut that landed it at the top of Pollstar’s 2019 Top 200 Worldwide Tours. All were wiped off the calendar practically overnight. 
Most peg the date the concert business screeched to a halt at March 13. And not just for the blockbuster acts, either. Festivals like Coachella, Lollapalooza, Outside Lands and more fell by the wayside for a massive revenue hit. Virtually every concert venue in the nation, if not the world, closed their doors in the face of a deadly pandemic, leaving promoters to contend with mass cancellations and the issue of ticket refunds. 
Many festivals attempted to fill the gap with online versions of their events, sometimes livestreamed, some archived performances, and often a mix of both. Drive-in concerts became the live alternative of choice, with country and Christian music artists leading the pack. 
But with little or no income, layoffs ensued. Live Nation and AEG Presents, the two largest concert promoters, tried to stave off the bloodletting but eventually endured large staff cuts. In late April, Ticketmaster furloughed roughly 25% of its North American workforce representing “hundreds of employees,” and in mid-May Live Nation announced “cost reductions” including layoffs and/or furloughs of approximately 20%. Another round of reductions reportedly took place in September. AEG, whose Goldenvoice division was hit hard and most visibly with the postponement of its Coachella festival, announced it would be forced to enact furloughs in July, though a number of those affected weren’t made available. 
Cirque du Soleil Entertainment announced March 19 that it, too, was forced to temporarily lay off 95% of its employees, numbering 4,679, effective immediately. Feld Entertainment reportedly laid off more than 1,400 employees. City Winery was also forced to lay off an estimated 1,500 staff. 
“This was an incredibly difficult decision for the Group, but a necessary measure to stabilize the company for the future,” Cirque du Soleil said in a statement.
City Winery owner Michael Dorf called the action “the most painful I’ve ever experienced in my 35 years of … being a professional promoter” in an interview with ABC Radio. 
But with access to capital and deeper pockets, the largest promoters are expected to emerge on the other side of COVID. But the future isn’t as certain for smaller, independent promoters. 
Government assistance was unreliable at best, though many took advantage of SBA loans and payroll protection incentives to keep staff afloat. But with no return date in sight, the payroll protection loans – which required companies taking them to return staff to work by a deadline in order to gain forgiveness – meant little but more debt with no income to repay them for the foreseeable future. 
Even with a vaccine in view, hard issues remain. Social distancing and other safety protocols requiring venues to reduce capacities, and hence ticket sales, will force decisions on ticket pricing, artist guarantees and other bread-and-butter questions for promoters well into 2021 if not longer.