Live Concerts in Fall of 2020

The Path to Reopening?

How far away is a return to normal for live music? It depends who you ask. On a recent earnings call, Live Nation’s CEO Michael Rapino assured investors that concerts will return in summer and fall 2021 “at scale” — but this optimism was belied by his company’s own unprecedented revenue drops and stands at odds with the opinions of many global health experts. In most major cities, like New York and Los Angeles, ordinances are still in place that prohibit mass gatherings, and music festivals like Coachella and SXSW have rescheduled multiple times, inching the needle a few months forward on the calendar each time.

The newly formed National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), a trade group comprising more than a thousand indie venues across the U.S. such as L.A.’s historic Troubadour, has focused its efforts on congressional lobbying and social-media awareness initiatives under the hashtag #SaveOurStages rather than trying to design a reopening.

“Fans are realizing they can’t take live experiences for granted”

“We said from the very beginning that, first, we’re going to make sure the industry survives, and then we’re going to help it thrive,” says Dayna Frank, board president of NIVA and CEO of Minneapolis music production company First Avenue. Frank and NIVA communications rep Audrey Fix Schaefer say that more than 2 million emails have been sent to Congress on venues’ behalf to express support for venue aid — which far exceeds the 500,000 emails that NIVA’s lobbyist said would signify a successful campaign.

Covid “has forced our industry to think out of the box,” Frank says. “And I think fans — they are realizing they can’t take live experiences for granted, they can’t take their favorite places for granted. There’s a real risk these things might not exist. It has inspired people to act.”

While venues and artists hunker down and wait out the pandemic for government clearance, a vaccine, or both, they are also using the time to experiment: New York’s Le Poisson Rouge recently started selling a livestream subscription, and superstars like BTS and Travis Scott have teamed up with tech platforms to offer premium digital concerts. To generate much-needed cash, lesser-known artists are toying with virtual-reality projects or putting on shows from their living rooms that allow fans to directly “tip” them for things like song requests, shout-outs, and special moments.

But music entrepreneurs and musicians alike agree that these are supplements for the hot, crowded concert hall — not replacements.

Joe’s on Weed and its sibling venue Joe’s Live are two stalwarts of the Chicago music scene and, though geographically far from Nashville, a major stop on the country-music circuit. Miranda Lambert, Jason Aldean, and Eric Church have all used Joe’s stage as a proving ground for their later careers.

“The clubs are the rite of passage,” the promoter of those venues, Ed Warm, says. “You’ve gotta make your bones in the clubs, and you’ve gotta learn to play to people.”

Right now, both Joe’s venues have empty calendars. Artists risk losing money by swinging through Warm’s part of the Midwest without so-called “anchor cities” where they can put on larger, more financially successful performances, and Warm isn’t sure how venues can effectively control crowds during a health crisis anyway.

“I don’t know how spacing works in a general admission place,” he says. “You could tell people you’re spacing all you want, but when the bass drum hits, people are going up near the stage.”

Perhaps the most ominous sign that sweaty indoor rock and country concerts won’t return anytime soon arrived on Wednesday with an announcement in the highbrow world of live events: New York’s Metropolitan Opera has canceled all performances through September 2021.

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