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  • Writer's pictureJim Douglas

Call It A Comeback: The Concert Industry Looks To 2021 With Hope

After a number of agencies and promoters agreed to cancel all shows for several weeks on March 12 to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, there have been strings of hope that the pandemic might last only a few weeks, a few months, or maybe just the year.

Agents’ attempts to keep holds on dates through multiple time frames for a possible return have been mostly for naught, though. While places like Taiwan have seen arena shows return and Australia is proceeding with confidence into what looks to be a busy 2021, the specifics of what a comeback might look like in the U.S. still remain largely unclear.

The most promising news for 2021 comes in the form of multiple vaccines, two of which have been developed by Pfizer and Moderna, two more of which are being developed by Johnson and Johnson and AstraZeneca. A government advisory panel said vaccines would first be provided to health care workers and nursing home residents, on Dec. 1, and the Associated Press reports the vaccine is expected to be widely available to the general public in the spring.

2021 does offer hope. Live Nation president Joe Berchtold recently told CNBC he expects “major outdoor shows” to return to the U.S. by summer and AEG Presents Chairman and CEO Jay Marciano was recently quoted in Rolling Stone saying he expects a reopening by the fall.

Much will revolve around major festivals like Coachella, which give structure to many artists’ touring schedules. Amy Madrigali, who books the Troubadour in Los Angeles and previously worked as an agent at The Billions Corp, told Pollstar in June: “If you’re a band from Baltimore like Future Islands, for example, Coachella is a big highlight of your calendar that’s going to kick off your year. So you route from March through May and then you make sure you get to California in time for your festival play.

Then it’s two weekends, you get in there and work with the promoters to do your Coachella play, you throw in a Pappy and Harriet’s, you do the week in between. Let’s say then you go up to Seattle, you zip into Canada, you dip back down for Chicago and then you get yourself back to Baltimore going through New York. There were patterns that everybody did around anchor dates, they’re financial anchors, they’re tentpoles of your year as you release a record or whatever your assets are for that year.”

With the vaccine likely not available to most of the concertgoing public until spring, it is unlikely that a full-scale version of Coachella can stage in April, as is the current official plan.

Courtesy US Cellular CenterTurner-ing the cornerJosh Turner’s show at US Cellular Arena in Iowa on Sept. 18 may have been the first U.S. COVID-era arena show, as different markets have reopened – and re-closed – to different degrees at different times across the country.But some festivals like Rolling Loud, Bonnaroo, Outside Lands, Riot Fest, Lockn’ and Osheaga plan to stage next summer or even spring, and Andrew Lieber of the MAC Agency recently told Pollstar he is hopeful for a robust European summer festival schedule.

Promoters Brett Herman and Timothy Monkiewicz put lots of work into making COVID testing a part of their business model and will be using that knowledge in 2021. They have already staged retreats and are working with others to put on small COVID-safe events. They told Pollstar they expect the return to live to start with outdoor shows that incorporate numerous COVID protocols, and they do think steps can be taken to ensure a gradual return to business.

“How long do we passively wait to resume business as usual? A year? Two years? … Most businesses will go bankrupt or collapse in the next few months if there is not some sort of relief. We might be in capacity restriction for the foreseeable future, which is why we decided to design a system that can safely put on limited-size events. As far as figuring out the metrics for when things are safe, I think our experience can provide insight on how live events can begin to resume safely.”

Some measures are already being taken to stage in-person concerts, whether it is Travis McCready’s scaled-down show at TempleLive in Fort Smith, Ark., thought to be one of the first and taking place in May; Zach Heckendorf’s traveling tent and stage; drive-in concerts like the comedy and music tours from Hotbox and Outback Presents; or podded concerts, such as those hosted in Texas at Emerald Point Bar And Grill in Austin or White Oak in Houston.

American Airlines Center in Dallas somewhat quietly put on 13 “Disney On Ice” shows at 3,604 capacity in early November, moving 31,244 tickets in perhaps the most normallooking Boxoffice report since spring.

Currently some venues cannot operate, some operate but are unable to host music, others are able to host music but only to limited capacity, and others are able to host music but only outside. The speed at which live events come back is thus affected by restrictions at the local level.

Prior to the announcement that a vaccine would be made available, Hotbox co-founder Matt Feldberg told Pollstar a key to navigating the following months would be the ability to be flexible and find out what was possible in different markets, while still using what we’ve learned to keep events safe.

“You have to get over the fact you’re not going to make 2019 money, as an artist, venue and promoter. And you’re gonna have to put in just as much if not more work,” Feldberg said of his recent shows. “Some people have taken the approach to book as many shows in 2021 as possible in theaters and work backwards once they have the shows confirmed. Which is a great strategy. We’ve taken a different approach: Let’s get as much stuff on the board between now and summer 2021 and then work on our club stuff.”

The drive-in concert will hopefully be mostly a stop-gap measure to keep the live business moving toward normalcy, but the show remains the closest thing to a regular outdoor performance, with fans (or cars) into the low thousands.

“They’re an undertaking to say the least,” says Michael Berg of Chicago-based Collectiv Presents, which kicked off its “At The Drive-Inn” series at McHenry, Ill., in mid-September with full-band productions from Billy Strings, Jeff Tweedy and Trampled By Turtles and has expanded to additional shows at Seatgeek Stadium in Bridgeview as well as the Atlanta Speedway, which will host a multi-night Halloween run with Deadmau5, and kicked off with Mt. Joy.

“But it’s been fulfilling in a lot of ways, to put people back to work – ourselves included – and to also be new leaders of the safety protocols and systems put in place.”

Erik Selz of the newly formed Arrival Artists told Pollstar he feels package tours will be an important part of 2021, saying: “I think the live business will bounce back with strength, but I think we have to be respectful of the damage to the economy. You can’t expect people to go 31 shows a month. I really feel like creating robust packages, especially in the first 6-12 months when we go back to business, is going to be key. … To be clear, that will require financial sacrifice on the part of artists who have been off the road for 18 months. And that’s going to be a tough pill to swallow but – for the health of the business – instead of beating the shit out of each other with 10 awesome shows a night in Chicago, if there could be some creative packaging, I think that will in the long run benefit everyone.”

Jon Ollier, who recently broke away from CAA to found One Fiinix Live, told Pollstar he expects a comeback to happen gradually at various levels until it does eventually return to 2019 metrics.

“No one thing is going to be a solution in the sense that it will replace touring. But all of those things, whether it’s the online virtual stuff, the socially distanced shows, the Unity Arena shows they did up in Newcastle – which were fantastic by the way – they are going to be the building blocks with which we can get back to normality. The next 12 months, probably, are going to be a case of trying a bit here and trying a bit there. Those individual things are not going to be the answer, but collectively they’re all tools that we can use to build our way out of this.”

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