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THE CONCERT BIZ PONDERS THE ROUTE FORWARD

 As the concert industry waits to turn the lights back on, the #1 concern is how will the economy affect the ticket-buyer. Once the all-clear has been sounded, will fans be rushing to get into confined spaces to hear music?

“This economy is going to impact people in ways no one's ever felt in our lifetime, ever,” one industry executive says.

“This business has been good to all of us,” reflects one of the most influential execs in the sector, “and now we need to take care of all the part-time contractors and other hard-hit people who make this industry work.”

This same exec expressed surprise—and dismay—that some big companies were moving so quickly to reduce staff. The first casualties on the white-collar side of the biz were at Paradigm, which announced what it called “temporary layoffs” on 3/20. But there’s talk that the situation at the agency is much more dire than this.

One scenario is that the festivals and tours planned for March into June will be sandwiched into an August-October timeframe.

It’s possible, too, that postponed shows will result in billions of dollars being refunded to ticket-buyers. Danny Wimmer Presents became the first promoter to pull the plug on 2020 festivals on 3/23, canceling Epicenter in Concord, N.C, 5/1-3, Welcome To Rockville in Daytona Beach, Fla., 5/8-10 and Sonic Temple Art + Music Festival in Columbus, Ohio, 5/15-17.

DWP announced, “Before accepting this fate, we worked really hard to try to reschedule the festivals. Unfortunately, scheduling conflicts, venue availabilities and a number of other factors out of our control made postponing impossible.” The three festivals will return in May 2021.

The encouraging sign, multiple execs note, is that everyone sees the issues clearly.

“There's a real industry understanding right now by the leadership of all the big agencies, the promoters and a lot of the managers that we're all in this together,” one music exec offers. “Everyone's going to have to make compromises to get us through this.”

One step, another executive notes, is that nearly every deal will need to be renegotiated as promoters across the country ask talent to accept lower guarantees.

Then there’s the issue of ticket pricing. Promoters will need to offer refunds for any new dates, which will create new inventories for thousands of concerts. (We’re guessing anyone who has a ticket to see Billie Eilish or Harry Styles is going to find a way to make it work). Will promoters be able to scale the ticket prices at or close to the initial face values? Whose shows will need to be deeply discounted?

Fears about the pandemic lingering will, at the least, be in the backs of venue managers’ and promoters’ minds. The industry is already wondering if new demands will be placed on venues. Will capacities be reduced? Will there be longer gaps between events to thoroughly clean the venues? And when will the sports leagues wrap their seasons or start new ones?

The artists, too, may want reassurances they aren’t walking into an infected building. KISS was the first to cut out meet-and-greets when the coronavirus struck; if that element of a VIP package is cut out, how might that affect an artist’s take?

“The tragedy,” says Irving Azoff, “is the touring personnel and musicians that can’t exist losing a year’s pay. If we are lucky to be able to restart, there will be a mad scramble for dates and limited dollars.” 

While every show is cutting into the anticipated income of roadies, crews, promoters, bookers and venue employees, the situation affects the artists in a myriad of ways. Spring has been a great time for artists on the verge of breaking out—and, for many heritage acts, a way to keep food on the table and pay the mortgage. David Crosby was the first to speak up—without summer tour income, he stands to lose his house.

Then there are the pop stars.

“There are artists getting ready to start major tours that were in rehearsal that now have to shut everything down,” one promoter points out. “It's not unusual that it's a $10 million expense to put an arena show on the road by the time you rehearse; you get your production together, you build your stage, you pay for everybody, during all of the preproduction. So they're sitting on a lot of expense that often the promoters have funded.”

There is no single remedy for the industry and with thousands of artists touring in the spring, summer and fall, it calls for a lot of artist-specific solutions.

Take the artists who will be forced to embark on “Swiss-cheese tours,” the sort that begin as block and then gets holes get punched into them. How many lost dates can they afford to lose and stay on the road? In one extreme example, a promoter asks: What happens when  a planned New York stadium date on a Saturday becomes Tuesday in Madison Square Garden and the next stop is three days away?

“Across the industry, the majority shows have come to a halt selling tickets. And what happens if you have to move a show twice? That’s asking a lot of fans,” one promoter says.

Any acts that planned to use a collection of festivals as a tentpole will have to regroup, especially as so many are flocking toward October. The fall, assuming shows are back on track by then, is likely to be packed.

“When you spend a year planning for these major events, you've got the luxury of long conversations with artists, representatives—you're navigating through all of that,” says one major concert promoter. “Now, they just can't go for one show that is not cost-efficient. They need to be thinking about other things to put around it. So all of that needs to be in place. When you're moving these massive festivals, it's not easy.”

The artists who planned tours connected to album releases—and in many cases, ticket bundles—need to reexamine the entire playing field.

“An artist that had reasons for a spring/summer tour will have to look and say how do I fit?” one executive notes. “How do I draw attention? Venue size? Ticket price? Maybe it’s better to wait until 2021.”

In early March, concert-industry executives were looking at a variety of scenarios. At best, they were hoping to have shows and festivals being staged around Memorial Day. The second-best scenario had amphitheaters up and running by mid-July, and the worst-case scenario was October—to which Coachella, Shaky Knees and Bottle Rock have all been moved. (JazzFest has October penciled in as well).

By the third week of March, at least one concert promoter was thinking we may as well move to 2021.

“What does the all-clear look like? Is there a siren that goes off? Federal government says, OK, everybody go back to work. But because our geography is so large, you could you have clusters get cleared—it's OK to play Denver and Chicago but San Diego and L.A. are on lockdown.”

“Another issue is tours and festivals that had not yet gone on sale,” adds a top player in the space. “With no late-night TV, awards shows or the like, how would you announce a tour or festival? And in this moment of no one working, could you even sell tickets? So any move of a tour (even ones on sale already) has to account for a window to go on sale or relaunch. For the last few years. Long-lead on-sales have been the norm; can we go back to a time when eight-to-10-week on-sales were the norm? And will the public be listening and reacting, with all the other noise?”

Sports, on more than one level, will play a significant role in the return of live entertainment, numerous execs agree.

For starters, NBA and NHL teams get first dibs on dates in arenas. Major League Baseball is a big question mark  in terms of when their season will start, and it may be adjusted in a way that make shows at Fenway Park, Wrigley Field and other ballparks untenable. The NFL, with stadiums that are much easier to schedule in the summer, may have question marks regarding its season as well. Will they really start their pre-season in August?

“Nobody can confirm a new routing yet for tours in arenas and artists like The Stones in stadiums,” one promoter said. “In a perfect world, we'd do a carbon copy of what we've done. What was months in the  planning becomes a scramble in more challenging circumstances.”

On the flipside, the return of baseball could be a healing balm for the country the way it was after 9/11. Games would be televised nightly, viewers would see crowds enjoying themselves and how players interact.

Plus, it would mean the all-clear is nationwide: They can’t play the season and avoid coronavirus hotbeds such as Seattle, the Bay Area and New York.

“At the end of the day, the instinct and desire of young people to be in a dark room with hundreds or thousands of their peers listening to amazing artists and sharing a communal emotional experience is not going away,” says attorney Jeffrey Light. “That, and it’s all about the bass.”

 

 photo credits: Josh Sorenson, Maria Tyutina

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