2021 Year-End Great Return: Letter From Ray
As the live entertainment industry limped into 2021, at first, the best thing the new year had going for it was that it wasn’t 2020. Last year was The Year That Wasn’t, with touring on a global lockdown, sports teams relegated to determining championships in bubbles or greatly reduced houses, and artists and artist development left to less-than-fulfilling drive-in shows, streaming and social media. Fans largely did without the live thing, and we didn’t like it. As it turned out, many of the industry’s most beloved touring artists had toured their last, with 2020 seeing an inordinate number of our greatest performers passing on to that Great Gig in the Sky, leaving a big hole in our venues and our hearts. It was, to say the least, a tough year.
Though certainly not without its challenges, 2021 was much different and, as Pollstar data reflects, much better. We’re calling it The Great Return, because return we did, in droves. As summer turned to fall, fans returned to stadiums and arenas to watch their favorite teams. Venues from club to stadium levels hosted artists to packed houses, and even some festivals took the plunge and fans returned en masse (we see you, Lolla!). Venues went to great lengths to keep fans safe and, though challenged by inconsistencies in protocols from state to state and even market to market, artists and fans mostly gritted their teeth and dealt with the inconveniences in service of the greater good.
A marked difference this year was. When COVID-19 reared its ugly head, artists and promoters mostly canceled dates, not entire tours. And while not everything came off as planned, many things did. For example, with the support of our parent company Oak View Group, we were able to pull off a successful Pollstar Live! conference in June, followed by the fourth annual VenuesNow Conference in Seattle in October. OVG also opened two new arenas in 2021: Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle and UBS Arena in Belmont Park, N.Y. Both venues will serve as home ice for National Hockey League franchises, and both have already hosted sold-out, critically acclaimed concerts by some of the most powerful touring artists in the world. As a microcosm of the international sports and live entertainment industry at large, one could do worse than look at OVG as an example of the resiliency of this business we love. And even if we as an industry are still licking our financial wounds resulting from the shutdown of a roaring touring machine, it is now apparent that 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, has turned back on, first at a trickle, now looking toward 2022, at full throttle.
– Ray Waddell
The lingering impact has been astounding. Many of the industry’s most talented professionals were forced to take up other professions due to the shutdown, and more than a few of them are not coming back. And in addition to the personnel shortages that extend well beyond our industry, we are also feeling the impact of inflation, soaring gasoline prices, and supply chain issues that impact production necessities like staging, lights, sound, video, catering, and people to run them. If you do not have your gear and vendors and people squared away for touring in 2022, you’re going to have a very difficult time finding what you need. By the time we host Pollstar Live! and Production Live! in Los Angeles Feb. 7-9, it’s not a stretch to say there will be zero personnel or touring material available well into 2023.
But, as so many industry professionals tell me every day, this is a good problem to have. A year ago we were faced with uncertainty, and today the industry is confident that we will go on. At the least, we feel pretty sure that we will be working in 2022. And even as we struggle to get our financial legs underneath us, it is a testament to the fine people of this industry that we are not losing sight of the bigger challenges that the business of live entertainment is uniquely positioned to address. Social issues remain at the forefront, and our business still reconciles a woeful lack of diversity. As we return to glory, we need to remain focused on making sure that this great business is open to everybody, that opportunities exist across the spectrum, that the people backstage reflect the people in our audiences, the artists on stage, and the people who live in the communities we visit. Across the platforms of OVG Media & Conferences, including Pollstar, VenuesNow, and their flagship conferences, and with our franchises like Impact50, Women Of Live, All Stars and Impact: NextGen, we need to continue to push inclusivity in our pages and on our panels, and we need to tell stories about all of the people who are innovating and doing great things to make us better professionals and people.
One cannot attempt to take the measure of the year in live entertainment without addressing the tragedy that was Astroworld in Houston, in which 10 people were killed and hundreds more injured in a horrific crowd surge that will take its place among the worst incidents in live music history. Being a live music freak of a certain age, I was alive when 11 fans died at a concert by The Who at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum in 1979, I covered the Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, R.I., that killed 100 people who came to see Great White in 2003, and I’ve taken note of many more bad incidents than I care to remember before and since. Though every situation is different, and lawyers will ultimately write the final word on blame, what I do know that is always true about these tragedies: First, when things are sorted out, the tragedy was always avoidable. Second, we always emerge on the other side of the pain a safer, more secure industry. I stand firm that ours is a responsible industry that cares deeply about the safety of its fans, and few would disagree that it is the business of everyone involved – promoters, venues, staff, fans, artists and absolutely the media – to contribute to making every event safe. From the smallest club to the largest stadium and festival, every event is about crowd management.
Astroworld was the low point of 2021, but really is an anomaly, and by and large we “returned” in 2021 on a positive note. But one thing will forever separate 2021 from all previous years and will have, for me anyway, a lasting impression: We will never, ever, take “the live thing” for granted again, and I believe that’s true for both the fans and those of us privileged to work in and around live entertainment. There truly is no substitute for being in the same room as the performers, be they athletes, musicians, or even the roadies who make the magic happen. For one glorious weekend in October here in Nashville, I was able to catch live shows from Pitbull, Alan Jackson, and the almighty Rolling Stones on successive nights. I’ve seen some rapturous crowds in my day, the Grateful Dead’s “Fare Thee Well” at Soldier Field in Chicago, Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at Fenway Park in Boston, My Morning Jacket at Bonnaroo all quickly come to mind. But each of those three disparate audiences in Nashville in October of 2021 were quite possibly the happiest fans I’ve ever been fortunate enough to join. In addition to the passionate connection these fans all feel to their respective artists, I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that much of the rapture and over-the-moon joy permeating the October air was all about connecting with each other, the shared experience and commitment that was sorely missing from our lives in 2020. No doubt, similar emotional explosions were occurring around the world as artists returned to stages and fans to seats by the thousands. Check out any YouTube video of Lolla ‘21 in Chicago, for example. Those fans were lit.
If we needed any more proof, the Great Return shows us conclusively that we need live music. This is not something we can do without. We need to gather to support our teams, we need to be together having a good time singing along, experiencing the moments. We need it as a civilized society, we need it as a glorious profession, and artists simply must play in front of crowds to survive. We must do everything we can to keep the live thing thriving. Anything less safe and sold out is not an option.
I’d like to think we are better than we were, once we knocked the rust off. I know we have great things in front of us. On our little island of M&C, we have big plans that were put on hold for the past two years and are now moving. Internally, we have been able to elevate some of our dedicated personnel, notably promoting Ryan Borba to Managing Editor of VenuesNow and Pollstar after 17 years with Pollstar, and Sarah Pittman to Senior Editor of Pollstar who, after 15 years in a variety of posts in Fresno, is now making the trains there run on time. We’ve rebuilt the foundation of Pollstar Data Cloud to offer the industry an unparalleled information tool for making critical strategic decisions. We plan on launching a new Pollstar chart in Q1 that will provide the industry with a new picture of an artist’s popularity, demand and viability. We have more box office reporters, both in the U.S. and from an international perspective, than ever before. We are reaching out to you every day to find the best stories out there. As the Voice Of Live, Pollstar chronicled the pivots and grit that characterized the shutdown, as well as courage, innovation and fortitude that exemplified the return. Now we will tell the story of Golden Era 2.0.
One year ago in this space I predicted packed houses for 2021, admittedly not much of a stretch. As I said then, the collective industry did not suddenly forget about pricing, scaling, packaging, routing, producing, ticketing, promoting, and engaging fans. You persevered in 2021, now is the time to be better in ’22. Let’s get consistent about protocols so that an artist and crew can be confident they will load-in to the same environment in Atlanta that they loaded-out of in Austin, that they can feel just as safe and secure in San Francisco as they felt in New York, and vice versa. We must be consistent with our messaging from coast to coast, even country to country, and we cannot leave it to the artist to take the heat about protocols and safety measures. We need to have the artist’s back here, never leave it to the artist to take an unpopular position with their fans. Without the artist, and the artists’ fans, there is no business. And I know this business will figure it out.
We will be there with you. We will tell the stories of the people who are doing it right and, every now and then, the people who did it wrong. So do it right. Report your box office data so the people in 2032 who are researching our current world will know you were getting it done back in theday. Be safe, be sustainable, be sold out.