The New Normal: Agents, Promoters Hurry And Wait As 2021 Concert Season Takes Shape

Louder Than Live?
Stephen J. Cohen / Getty Images
– Louder Than Live?
Louder Than Live?: Danny Wimmer Presents took the proactive approach of announcing it’s 2021 plans, which includes hopeful returns of major festivals including Louder Than Life in Louisville, Ky.

When speaking with anyone in the live entertainment business, the question still remains “when”? While still no one really quite knows what when the touring business will reopen, when, at least in some cases, is now

Touring artists are announcing in-person, non-drive-in shows for as soon as March, with artists including red-hot jamgrass strummer Billy Strings, Southern rockers Blackberry Smoke and even country star Miranda Lambert announcing socially distanced shows. Touring heavyweight Eric Church, who just performed the “Star Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl, publicly promised fans he will be touring in this year. 
A few major outdoor festivals have announced fall plans, and even an arena run has been announced – albeit for 2022 – in Super Bowl headliner The Weeknd’s 104-date “After Hours World Tour.” 
But the now has changed, and the process of getting from now to then is still a bit unknown.
“I’ve been talking about it for a while, and I still catch myself using the phrase ‘getting back to normal’– but I don’t know there is any going backward from what we’ve dealt with since January of 2020,” says Joe Litvag, president of live events at Danny Wimmer Presents. “There’s going to be changes to how the business is operated as a whole, in terms of safety and health protocols, for not just the working and touring personnel but the people coming to shows. I think anybody envisioning that whatever this virus is or will morph into being gone forever is probably kidding themselves.”
If Litvag’s take seems pessimistic, it’s contrasted with the fact the company just announced a full 2021 calendar, which includes major outdoor events such as Louder Than Life in September (Louisville, Ky.), Aftershock in October, (Sacramento, Calif.), Welcome To Rockville in November (Daytona Beach, Fla.), as well as a new partnership in the Inkcarceration Music & Tattoo Festival in Ohio, which takes place at the end of July.
“We’re trying to approach things carefully when it comes to the festivals,” Litvag says, adding that the company took the approach to inform fans and ticketholders of the 2021 schedule as soon as they could. 
“We’ve spent months and months talking through various scenarios with local officials, governors, mayors, county executives about what the sensible approach is, and what we decided for 2021 related to our festival business is we feel bullish on the fall and knew we wanted to bring some of them back, but had to be selective about which to focus on for 2021 and which we just wait on 2022.”
With so many moving parts and uncertainty related to the general state of business in the United States, it was almost a foregone conclusion that the major spring events including Coachella & Stagecoach, Ultra, New Orleans Jazz Fest and others would be postponed or canceled. But while 2020’s initial cancellation of all touring shows and concert events in March, then re-booking after re-booking to eventual cancellation, the situation heading into spring 2021 is vastly different. Multiple COVID-19 vaccination rollouts are under way, the federal government passed a major relief package over the holiday with hopeful additional stimulus in the works in Congress, and many markets are opening or reopening in various stages. 
With some semblance of what summer and fall could look like, concert organizers are now planning events with some confidence with the ability to scale up if things open further, rather than scale down or reschedule.
“In standard tour routing, you choose target markets and identify venues in each market. For social distancing touring, you’re finding a promoter or venue partner first – one that’s in the social distancing business – and then you take the city that venue is in and route the tour,” says CJ Strock, a talent agent and co-founder at the newly formed MINT Talent Group. His clients include Blackberry Smoke, which has the “Spirit Of The South” tour rebooked for the summer in amphitheatres mostly in the South and who since September have been doing quickly organized, socially distanced gigs in in the Southeast and Midwest.  The band was also just announced for a late April show co-headlining with the North Mississippi Allstars at the Columbia Speedway Entertainment Center in South Carolina, adding to a weekend that features Jason Isbell & Amanda Shires ( April 24), and Wynonna Judd (April 25). The shows are part of the recently formed Cola Concerts group, which in 2020 started from scratch to put on drive-in concerts in the Northeast and has now built out “pod” seated venues mostly in the Southern states.  

Star Spangled Summer?
Kevin Mazur / Getty Images / TW
– Star Spangled Summer?
Eric Church, pictured during the Super Bowl alongside Jazmin Sullivan, has publicly promised he will be touring in 2021.
“Who’s open? OK there’s The Caverns, a beautiful literal cave in Tennessee that has an outdoor amphitheater,” Strock says. “You do that one day, tie that with Avondale Brewing in Birmingham the next day, just for example. You know those places are open and doing a good job. You know the artist will be safe, the venue will be safe and it’s a great experience. That’s opposed to booking by taking the cities first – there just aren’t venue options in a lot of cities.”
Strock says it’s of the utmost importance to find promoters and venues taking social distancing seriously, and has relayed to his clients that shows will be safe when dealing with experienced and professional promoter partners.
“We’re not producing, booking or being part of, in any way, events that could be damaging to our progress here for everyone to get back on track,” Strock says, adding he’s booked more than 100 shows since June. “The bottom line is on both ends of the spectrum, the fantastic venues that are opening and giving it a shot in a socially distanced way, their livelihoods are relying on the fact that they have it nailed down.”
With venues bearing much responsibility in putting on socially distanced gigs and weathering the storm of empty buildings since March, Strock says it’s also important to help out festival producers, many of whom still aren’t sure if their events will take place later this year.
“The narrative with me and my clients is it’s an extremely difficult dynamic if you own or produce a festival, so we in the artist community need to be really sensitive to the work everyone is doing so take a shot and rebook. I commit as soon as possible so it’s one less variable for those folks to consider, and that’s what we’re educating our clients to do.”
On a more macro level, the full-scale touring landscape is still very much taking shape, with a fully routed post-COVID 2021 arena tour not being publicly announced yet. The deluge is surely coming, but will take a while to figure out as there are only so many dates and venues to play and fans to buy tickets, while every single artist has been put on hold. 
“I’ve said repeatedly to promoters and artists that nobody is going to make back what they lost over 2020,” Rob Light, head of worldwide music at Creative Artists Agency, said during the Feb. 9 “Thought Leaders: Reviving Live” Pollstar Live Digital Session. Although commending CAA’s music division for making major branding deals, livestreams and drive-in shows, “Nothing replaces the arena tour.” However, when things get going again, “There’s going to be so many shows and opportunities for fans that they will have to make some choices. If we all go into this as, ‘We gotta make it all back,’ we’re going to find ourselves in a tough position. We’re trying very hard to get people thinking about a two- to three-year window.” Therefore, a lot of 2021 may be feeling out the landscape, testing out new models, re-building goodwill with fans and taking things one step at a time. 
“I would still say the primary drivers for us as a company is getting artists back to work, crews back to work, locals back to work and doing something positive for the fans,” Litvag adds, saying 2021 will surely be a “transition year.”  
“That’s the reality, and reality is what we deal with, but we’re trying to be as proactive as we can in dealing with that transition, and not waiting around anymore.”