Photo by RUKES – Sunset Music Festival
SAME AS IT EVER WAS: Sunset Music Festival in Tampa, Fla., got things back on track over Memorial Day weekend as the U.S. concert business reopens at a frenetic pace.
With COVID restrictions easing at a frenetic pace across the U.S., it’s easy to look back and say in-person concert events taking place in March and April were a foregone conclusion. Easy to say that now, that is. “Put yourself back basically about three months ago and it was a totally different world,” says James “Disco Donnie” Estopinal, Jr., founder and CEO of the now fully independent Disco Donnie Presents.
He just put on two major outdoor EDM music festivals – one in Texas in late April and one in Tampa, Fla., over Memorial Day Weekend, with a combined attendance of more than 124,000 between the two events. “I didn’t take the decision lightly,” Estopinal adds of going ahead with the Ubbi Dubbi rave in Ennis, Texas, April 24-25, which had between 8,000 and 9,000 ravers camping onsite and 30,000 fans per day. “Trust me, there was an immense amount of pressure, not only put on myself but that I was getting from everyone else.”
Heading into April, the U.S. vaccination rollout was well under way but some pockets in the U.S. had seen COVID spikes and many in the concert business had become fearful of another shutdown or delayed reopening. “I knew there was a lot riding on it, not only for electronic music but also for all live music,” Estopinal adds. “That was added, extra pressure. There were a lot of naysayers and a lot of people basically hoping that I failed. It was a struggle, internally and externally.
“I couldn’t sleep at night, there was lots of crying – and I’m not a crier – I had to work through all the different emotions, questioning was I doing the right thing? Was I putting people’s lives in jeopardy? Was I putting my team or their future in jeopardy? I did say it was the hardest thing we’ve ever done, but in the end it’ll probably be the most important thing I ever did.”
Although Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on March 2 opened Texas 100% and lifted the mask mandate, much remained in flux heading into Ubbi Dubbi. Many artists on the lineup – which had been booked starting in fall of 2019 – still were unconfirmed to be playing the 2021 edition, with fans set on seeing major EDM headliners like Kaskade, Illenium, Destructo and Carnage. Social media commentary, national press inquiries and unsure artists added to the stress. Compound that with young, rowdy fans who had been cooped up largely for the last year or longer and a whole lot could go wrong at Ubbi Dubbi.
Tyler Church – 1st Festival Back
Sunset Music Festival
“In the end, even though we had some weather issues and a little bit of traffic, it was just an amazing festival, one of the best events we’ve done,” Estopinal says. “Everybody was so excited just to come together.” Estopinal freely acknowledges a lot of naysayers – industry and fans alike – who thought Ubbi Dubbi might have been too big and too soon, but says the response after the event was overwhelmingly positive. “In the beginning, people were calling me and texting me concerned that it might be early and were worried, asking what I was doing on the COVID side and how I was doing it, and that sort of thing,” Estopinal says. “Everyone was worried how it would look to the outside world and how people would react. But after, when almost all the comments and info-flow was positive, for the next couple of weeks my text messages were full, some from promoters all over the world. I didn’t know how they were going to react. I was scared, really. But in the end, it was pretty much all positive.”
Surveying The Rave
What Estopinal was doing on the COVID side was no small feat, with masks required at Ubbi Dubbi, testing onsite, COVID-sniffing dogs (which generated a “handful of alerts” according to DDP) and other sanitization methods that may become standard practice for anyone putting on any kind of event going forward. But, after the event, Estopinal felt the need to try to quantify the impact of going to a largescale outdoor event during COVID.
Enter Dr. Daniel Carlin, aka “Dr. Dan,” CEO and Founder of JobSiteCare, a telemedicine practice and who has experience with touring productions, events and venues. He was brought on to conduct a survey post-Ubbi Dubbi to see what COVID impact the event presented.
“When I was talking to Donnie about this, I said what if the results aren’t positive? What if it’s dangerous to go? He says, ‘No, write it up, we’re doing the story. I want people to know. Is this safe or not?’ That’s the right attitude to have. That made it easy for me as a physician to say, ‘Good, you’re not going to eliminate data that doesn’t fit your narrative,’ because there’s a lot of that going on.”
Carlin was quick to note this was a voluntary, self-reported survey rather than a scientific study. It was completed by 2,000 fans, which Carlin said was a large, significant sample size. For completing the survey, fans were incentivized with the chance to win tickets to Disco Donnie’s Freaky Deaky Texas event at Halloween. The results showed 16 attendees reporting testing positive for COVID within 14 days of the event, which Carlin says was actually lower than the general positivity rate in the state of Texas.
With mosh pits and crowded bathrooms being his most obvious pain points at an outdoor rave, although the toilet count was doubled and bathroom lines were staggered, Carlin says the results show the event was as safe as generally existing in Texas.
– Daniel Carlin
DR. DANIEL CARLIN, whose JobSiteCare conducted the post-event COVID survey for the Ubbi Dubbi festival in Texas.
“We did better than the rest of the state of Texas. Honestly that’s about all I can say conclusively as a physician-scientist,” Carlin says. “I couldn’t tell you what it would like at an identical event in Florida or Massachusetts or anything like that, but for an open-air, three-day festival, camping in tents and sharing bathrooms, it was no more dangerous than being anywhere else in Texas, and maybe slightly less dangerous.”
With most of the world – and all concerts, essentially – shut down for the last 15 months, the question, then, is why? Why or how was this event somehow safe enough to put on in the middle of a pandemic when people in many states haven’t been allowed to get a haircut or eat indoors?
“It’s two-fold,” Carlin says. “Vaccination, no doubt about it, distancing and masks and that, but also the weather.” Carlin notes the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which largely died out the following summer, he says thanks to the outdoor, free-flowing-air environment of summer. “When people open their doors and go outside, the virus never really gets the critical atmosphere it needs. The fact [Ubbi Dubbi] was an outdoor festival was a major factor.” Also factoring in were fans who recently contracted COVID, which provides immunity.
“Now, is it safe to go back inside? I don’t think we’ve answered that question. I think we’ll have answered it by September, when we see incredibly low incident numbers. But for now, summer time, outdoor festival? Fantastic.”
Estopinal says the survey was an important way to really understand the current landscape.
“It wasn’t an easy conversation to have with my legal team, but I thought it was important,” he says, adding that similar studies and trial events have taken place in Europe but largely not in the U.S. “If we’re doing the event, we might as well do the study and help other people around the world.”
The results also helped further the cause of his own follow-up event, the Sunset Music Festival (co-produced with John Santoro) at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., with another 30,000 fans per day Saturday and Sunday. With the venue already having played host to the recent Super Bowl and WWE events during COVID, and the landscape already changing since Ubbi Dubbi, Estopinal says Sunset was another safe, successful event, welcoming 60 international artists and dozens of local electronic musicians. DDP also teamed with FEMA to do onsite COVID vaccinations during the event.
Estopinal says a new DDP festival has been announced in El Paso for September, with Freaky Deaky Texas taking place on Halloween, along with DDP’s full run of club shows with top electronic talent.
“Ticket demand is really high right now. Artists want to play, fans want to get out and see them,” he adds. “There was some worry that when we opened back up people would be scared to go out, but it’s been the exact opposite. We’ve been lucky to operate in some of the first places to open back up, but it’s getting a lot more competitive real fast as everything else opens.”