Artists, fans, and industry professionals have wondered for months when the music industry can return to what it does best — performing concerts in front of live crowds. While I don’t have the answer to the question on everyone’s mind, I have some thoughts on what needs to happen to get us on the right track to begin resuming in-person performances. To start, Covid-19 vaccines need to be widely distributed. Do we really need 80-plus percent of the population to get vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity? I’m afraid so. While some states will likely soon begin to permit reduced capacity indoor and outdoor concerts, audiences must feel safe in order to attend. At the same time, bands, promoters, and venue staff will want to be free from liability and confident that no one’s health will be put at risk.
The past ten months have been devastating for the live music industry, but bands have done a great job figuring out innovative ways to reach fans and earn a living. The streaming of live performances — from house concerts to personalized music lessons to full length concerts — has been the most consistent way that artists have been able to develop and share live content. This fall, Trey Anastasio performed an eight-week virtual residency at the Beacon Theatre and donated all proceeds to charity. My band, The Avett Brothers, is offering a New Year’s Eve webcast through nugs.net, a live music streaming platform launched in 1993 by Brad Serling — tech guru and Deadhead. Others have capitalized on Zoom and other video conferencing platforms to offer more personal fan experiences, like live private concerts. One platform, Lively, was started in the early weeks of the pandemic by Disco Biscuits bassist Marc Brownstein and serves as a virtual school of rock. Patrons can take lessons from musicians with wide ranging backgrounds like Brownstein or Oteil Burbridge, cooking lessons from well-known chefs, yoga lessons, even golf lessons. I taught bass on the platform for a while. But while virtual activities and streaming concerts are fun ways to interact with fans, there is no substitution for the real thing.
Many bands pulled off successful live drive-in and outdoor pod concerts in 2020. Others are working on special events for 2021, like The Flaming Lips’ upcoming space bubble live concerts in Oklahoma City. The band and one hundred fans will each be ensconced in their own inflatable bubble throughout the duration of the performance. In the midst of a pandemic, when we are all cut off from normal human interaction, many of us living in near-total isolation, these concert experiences help soothe our souls. However, for big promoters like AEG and Live Nation, they cannot be scaled large enough to support an industry that was worth roughly $28 billion in 2019. Additionally, there have been a number of drive-in concert disasters — see The Chainsmokers in the Hamptons.
The stimulus bill passed by Congress and signed into law this week by President Trump includes $15 billion for live music venues, art museums, and Broadway. That money is hard-won. It is the result of unprecedented organization efforts by independent music venue operators, talent buyers, managers, and booking agents. Two new industry lobbying groups, National Independent Venue Association and National Independent Talent Organization pulled off a bipartisan inside straight, gaining support from Republican senators like Marco Rubio of Florida and John Cornyn of Texas, and Democrats Chuck Schumer of New York and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, to make sure they were represented in the final bill. The money will help keep some in the industry afloat for a little while and perhaps also keep the doors open at famous venues across the country like Minneapolis’ First Avenue or The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y. The industry needs this money and more while it waits on the only hope for real revenue — the vaccine.
The good news is that the vaccine is here and beginning to make its way into the arms of medical professionals and nursing home occupants. But with the full roll-out still many months away, researchers have been studying how Covid-19 spreads in the live music setting. The Fight AIDS and Infectious Diseases Foundation and Primavera Sound music festival recently sponsored a study of 500 concertgoers in Barcelona to see if same-day antigen screening could be used as a bridge to make live events safer as the world waits for widespread vaccine distribution. Another study this fall by Stanford examined Trump rallies and discovered that the president’s campaign events between June 20 and September 22 were responsible for an estimated 30,000 infections and 700 Covid-19 related deaths. While this study of 18 campaign rallies, including three indoor rallies, is yet to be peer-reviewed, the findings offer insight to the dangers of hosting large unmasked gatherings amid the pandemic.
These studies are fascinating, but I doubt their conclusions will allow us to get back to a beautiful summer night at Red Rocks surrounded by 9,000 of our closest friends any sooner. In my opinion, there will be no substitute for the vaccine. I also believe that even with herd immunity, the industry will never be like it was before the pandemic. Promoters are already talking about no longer offering bands guarantees, an essential part of getting tours on the road. I’m afraid Covid-19 fears will linger in the air long after the virus has been expelled. Fewer fans will attend shows, resulting in less money in the industry, leading to lower production budgets and smaller crews. I believe if the vaccine can reach the general population by May or June 2021, we can be back in the music venues that we love by September or October. But this will require a near flawless execution of the vaccine distribution.
At the end of the day, going to concerts is not nearly as important to a society as opening schools or guaranteeing the safety of essential workers. I love my industry. Bands get to ride around the country as part-politicians, part-traveling salespeople, but what we are selling and bringing with us is community — something this country is sorely lacking right now. As society recovers, live concerts will be the last to return, but when they do, it will be one hell of a party.
Bob Crawford, is the Bassist for The Avett Brothers, Co-managing Partner for the Press On Fund, and Co-Host for the Road to Now podcast.