State of the live concert industry

Just two weeks ago, Pollstar projected that in its most pessimistic scenario for the post-COVID-19 concert industry, shows would resume in less than a year with industry losses around $9 billion. The live concert business is preparing for much worse.

In a recent report from top department staffers, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti suggested that “large gatherings such as concerts and sporting events may not be approved in the city for at least one year.” On Tuesday, Governor Gavin Newsom released a six-point plan for eventually reopening California’s economic and social life that would likely push any large gatherings, including concerts and sporting events, back a year or more.

Lollapalooza organizers plan to make a decision about the fate of this year’s festival by the end of May, but cancellation of the festival this year is almost guaranteed. The four-day fest typically draws about 100,000 music fans each day

Major promoters such as Live Nation have postponed or canceled all shows. AEG’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, still ostensibly on for October, is looking less certain by the day and could see 40% of ticket holders request refunds during a new 30-day window for fans to get their money back.

Some studies suggest that social distancing measures affecting gatherings like concerts may be put on hold into 2022. A vaccine for the novel coronavirus looks to be at least 12 to 18 months away. Like everyone else, shell-shocked music fans and the live industry personnel are asking what it will take to ever get back to normal. That is the million-dollar question.

For artists, industry professionals and anxious music fans, the concert business, like live sports, was among the first to be affected by COVID-19 and will be among the last to recover. A disease that looked like a vague disruption just a month and a half ago now could be an extinction-level event for the live business for at least a year to come.

“It’s my job to be ‘the glass is 3/4 full’ guy, but a lot of artists right now are like, ‘Not only is the glass half-empty, but it’s knocked all over the table’,” said Jonathan Daniel, the co-founder of Crush Management, which looks after major acts including Green Day, Lorde, Weezer and Fall Out Boy. He said that while some rap and pop artists (like Sia, whom Crush manages too) do fine on royalties alone, for “Weezer, Green Day and Fall Out Boy, they have lots of hits, but touring is the main part of what they make.”

“Most artists rely overwhelmingly on the live business for income, there’s very little being earned by recorded music anymore,” said Brandon Ross, a partner at the tech and media research firm Lightshed. The live music industry generates an estimated $12.2 billion annually. “But even more than artists, I worry about support staff behind the scenes. That’s why survival of Live Nation and AEG are so critical, because they are the backbone of the touring business, and thousands and thousands of people are reliant on that to make a living.”

While the stock of mega-promoter Live Nation lost, at one point, two-thirds of its value during the COVID-19 panic, the impact is already brutal on emerging acts and support crews.

“We’re a microcosm of society, and this showed how fragile the whole economy was,” said Kevin Lyman, founder of the stalwart punk roadshow Warped Tour and now a music business professor at USC. He expects that even with progress on a vaccine and testing, fans may be hesitant to return to concerts for a while, and the concert industry will have to re-earn their trust.

“Everyone’s talking about getting the country ramping back up, but there’s no flipping a switch,” he said. “The margins in this business are going to be the 20% of fans who won’t go back to shows until there’s a vaccine. We’re at a point where fans can really lose a lot of confidence, and it’ll take more than a vaccine to re-engage them.”

When shows hopefully resume in 2021, promoters will likely treat the disease like another security measure at the gates: temperature checks, mandatory face masks or even on-site COVID-19 testing are all potential measures in the future.

But as painful as it is now, fans should remember that the music will, someday, start again “I do think this will be an indelible moment in terms of how we interact with each other and our physical environment,” Martin said. “It’ll stick with people for a long time. It won’t have such major impact that we can never imagine concerts again, but maybe we won’t shake hands for 10 years.”

Most of my close friends are artists and crews whose livelihood depends on the live concert industry.  At the beginning of this year, I accepted the position as tour director for a stadium tour with Kayne West that covered several continents. I was in the process of putting together my usual team of some of the most skilled pros in the business until things went south, as the saying goes in this biz. It would have kept everyone busy for at least a year.

I must admit, the cancellation of the tour, due to the lock-downs around the world, was a shock to me and forced me to reevaluate, once again, my resiliency for the unexpected in this business, which seems to come with the territory. As a tour manager, it is my role to keep my head on straight while everyone is losing theirs and that is exactly, by God’s grace, what I am going to do. One of my favorite writers is CS Lewis, I was reminded of one of his quotes that has always been an inspiration to me: “We must try to take life moment by moment. The actual present is usually pretty tolerable, I think, if only we refrain from adding to its burden that of the past and the future.”

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