For a potent dose of coronavirus reality, follow the music.
Many of the biggest music festivals in the nation — Coachella, Lollapalooza, Stagecoach, and JazzFest — won’t happen until (at the earliest) the spring or summer of 2021. Meanwhile, massive, medium-sized, and smaller tours have been rescheduled, many for a year from now. This includes the likes of Mötley Crüe, Lucinda Williams, Taylor Swift, and Weezer.
Such is life with a new contagious pathogen that’s substantially more deadly than the flu, and has no proven vaccine nor medical cures. The resulting respiratory disease, COVID-19, isn’t just a disease for the old: The virus recently ravaged an otherwise healthy, young woman’s lungs so severely, doctors had to remove and transplant both of them. Our altered reality for the next year, and the 114,000 dead and counting in the U.S., is a price we’ll all pay for the U.S. government’s failure to contain the spreading virus back in February and March (states are now largely on their own to curb the spreading disease).
So it’s little surprise that local governments, venues, and many artists aren’t keen on holding or participating in big gatherings or crowded events, especially those flooded with people from around the nation, anytime soon. Festivals are particularly problematic. Even during “normal times” there have been disease outbreaks like hepatitis A at concerts.
“You have challenges with sanitation even in the ideal conditions,” said Brian Labus, a public health expert at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “So when we add an outbreak on top of that, it makes [a festival] very difficult to do safely.”
And critically, it’s impossible to keep all infected people — who either don’t have symptoms or don’t have them yet (presymptomatic individuals) — out of any show, big or small. The new coronavirus, an insidious microbial parasite, will inevitably come in. “There is no realistic way to keep it out,” said Labus, who added that he had planned to see several concerts this year that got canceled.
So while restaurants, gyms, and other businesses gradually or carefully open up, there likely won’t be a true return to many shows until there’s a proven medical treatment or widespread immunity in the U.S. population from a vaccine (though the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Tennessee and Austin City Limits Music are still on for the fall, as of June 12 anyway). In heavily populated California, a state struggling with rising infections, concerts will be the last thing to come back: These bigger shows won’t happen without a vaccine or effective cure (infectious disease experts emphasize that it’s unlikely there will be a reliable and safe vaccine before 2021). Even when live music does return, however, it’s likely going to be different — if not dystopian.
“When large concerts do come back, expect smaller crowds, higher ticket prices, and more outdoor events,” said Jennifer Horney, the director of the Epidemiology program in the College of Health Sciences at the University of Delaware. She noted that attendees may be required to share more personal information than usual with venues in case there’s an outbreak and they need to be contacted.
“However, for fans of live music, all these additional precautions just might be worth it,” she added.
What this means for music
There’s plenty of bad news for the present and future of live music, but some rays of brighter news, too.
Music venues, both legendary and new, are getting hit hard by the protracted shutdown. “A lot of them will be out of business,” said Rich Barnet, a professor of music business at Middle Tennessee State University who teaches concert promotion and touring.
Take the Troubadour in Los Angeles, the historic club played by the likes of Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, The Pointer Sisters, Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Metallica, No Doubt, Fiona Apple, Lana Del Ray, Bad Religion, and Tom Petty. The venue’s operators now say they need donations to stay afloat. Meanwhile, the National Independent Venue Association, a new lobbying group, is urging Congress for money to keep these venues alive.
The extreme minority of wealthy musicians can ride the pandemic out, some collecting royalties from decades-old hits. But most bands rely on live music today. “I feel horrible for the up-and-coming and mid-level artists,” said Matthew Donahue, a senior lecturer in the Department of Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University, noting they need to sell merchandise and tickets in a world where streaming pays peanuts but accounts for a whopping 75 percent of all U.S. recording music revenue. “They’re the ones who are really affected.”
So, all you Absolute Monster fans. Recent events have had me re-thinking things. Communicating directly with y’all in the Quarantini happy hour has inspired me and I’ve decided to start a Patreon site, will you follow? The music must go on…
— jon cleary (@jonclearymusic) June 1, 2020
As for the corporate live music juggernauts like Live Nation and Ticketmaster, which together employ some 17,000 people, “they’re going to have to do something fast,” said Barnet. “I don’t think they can exist too long without doing some shows. They’re bleeding.”
Concert promoters are going to have to be innovative, Barnet emphasized. “I like the drive-in concert,” Barnet said, as it allows artists, venues, and promoters to get paid — all without inviting large crowds into confined spaces, the environments where this coronavirus likes to spread. Garth Brooks, for example, plans to play a one-night drive-in show that will be broadcast at 300 outdoor theaters in late June.
(The promoters for Coachella and Lollapalooza, Goldenvoice and C3 Presents respectively, did not reply to requests for comment.)
Yet, live music isn’t completely beholden to an industry ravaged by a new pathogen.
“Not all live music in America is filtered through the music industry,” explained Nick Spitzer, a professor of anthropology at Tulane University and host of American Routes, a public radio show about American music. He references how more musicians are playing live via online concert platforms like NoonChorus and the likes of Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube. Some small clubs, like The Baked Potato in Los Angeles, have been streaming live jazz shows for around $8.
“This is a new interesting reality,” Spitzer said. “The listeners are really into it. It doesn’t keep the little guy out — if they have Wi-Fi and a Facebook page.”
“Not all live music in America is filtered through the music industry.”
A good example is New Orleans legend Jon Cleary. Cleary is promoting and playing live shows on Facebook. It’s like bringing live New Orleans piano into your home. “Contributions from $0 to $1,000,000 gratefully accepted,” Cleary writes. (Any income here, however, almost certainly won’t make up for what he earns as a regularly working New Orleans musician in “normal times.”)
“I think it’s a restoration of the intimacy and the power of live music,” said Spitzer. “It brings live music to lots of people.”
It’s an adaptation to the worst pandemic in a century. Artists are accepting reality and evolving. And over the coming year, more and more people may realize that supporting musicians from afar isn’t too difficult. “Perhaps it’s one of the easiest art forms to support,” said Bowling Green’s Donahue. If the budget allows, you can still buy musician’s music (as opposed to only streaming it) and a T-shirt or two.
When the national tours resume, however, that’s when you’ll know states have a grip on containing this novel contagion. That won’t be soon. “Some cities are going to have worse disease outbreaks than others,” said Labus, the public health expert from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Trying to plan the logistics of a national tour is difficult when everything is going right.”
So tune into music online. Perhaps pay for the art. It’s still live, if sometimes slow to load.
“It’s not perfect — but that’s life,” said Spitzer.