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The Cultural Implications of COVID-19 and its Impact on Live Music

Dang, we’re really coming out of the gate with a heavy one, eh?

This is something I’ve actually been thinking about for a while now. As someone who worked professionally in live music for years, and as the artist manager of a group of working artists, I’ve had a front row view of the impact COVID-19 has had on the music industry. Tours cancelled, tickets refunded, fans unequivocally disappointed. And in an industry where a good chunk of the business is seasonal (music festivals and concerts at outdoor amphitheaters), the window for business is already limited.

But that’s okay, right? It’ll be a tough year, but artists and concert promoters alike will get through it, and then everyone will prepare for a big comeback in 2021. Unfortunately, that’s not the whole story.

As artists prepare to step back into the spotlight, venues have started to explore new formats for concerts. Here are some of the things you can expect to see at a “socially distant” concert:

  • Reduced venue capacity
  • One-way foot-traffic
  • Temperature screening upon entry
  • Increased cleaning staff
  • Enforced distance in food and restroom queues

These measures dramatically impact the dynamics and economics of the concert experience, and if the pandemic continues for an extended period, it could have significant, long-term affects on the way live music influences our culture.

Artist Diversity Will Suffer

A tremendous amount of economic pressure will raise the bar for working artists. This subset of creatives often includes artists who reflect a life experience that isn’t so easily captured by a Taylor Swift ballad – no disrespect to Taylor. I’m a huge fan.

Reduced venue capacity and longer food and beverage line-ups will no doubt slash concert revenue, and the extra staff and cleaning supplies will similarly add pressure from the cost side. Small venues will struggle or close entirely, making it harder for these more diverse, working artists to make a living. Moreover, the venues that still operate will only book the upper echelon of working artists, maximizing their revenue potential to offset increased costs.

It’s a classic supply and demand problem. The supply of great artists will stay the same, but the number of venues that can book those artists will decline substantially.

Concert Demographics Will Stratify

In a world where socially distant concerts are the norm, there are two possible scenarios. One scenario is that concerts become associated with crowdy, dirty, un-clean environments, repelling any desire to see your favorite artists live. This would likely lead to reducing the average ticket price to generate sufficient volume, making concerts more popular to fans in lower income brackets. In the worst-case scenario, concerts truly do become a hot-bed for contamination, and propagate a form of structural discrimination.

A second scenario is that concert tickets become more expensive. This might happen to offset the reduced volume of tickets sold, and the increased costs associated with running a concert. If this were to happen, concert demographics would sway in the other direction: Concerts would become an exclusive experience, where only the wealthy can afford the privilege of seeing their favorite artist perform in the luxury of sanitized bleachers and personal breathing room.

Either of these scenarios would damage the role that concerts play in society today. Concerts are a common place where fans can escape to appreciate the music that has touched them in a personal way, regardless of their socio-economic background.

Tension Will Increase Between Governments and Promoters

Governments and concert promoters often work closely with one another, but usually towards a shared interest. Sometimes those interests are as mundane as public traffic; other times, they’re as serious as safety, security, and counterterrorism. In the case of COVID-19 however, the shared interests are not as clear cut.

Economically, promoters need to operate concerts to survive. Governments, on the other hand, need to keep their populations in sound health. As with everything, the reality is obviously more complex than that. Concert promoters don’t want their fans to get sick, and governments need businesses to stimulate the economy. But in either case, there’s a direct indication that the interests of these two parties are not entirely aligned.

What’s to happen when a promoter wants to run a concert, but a city is still in its early stages of relaxing quarantine protocol? Or when a concert operates with “social distance” measures in place, but those measures are loosely enforced, or even questionable?

Is There Any Way Around This?

Nobody really knows what the future has in store, but it may include an extended period where concerts are produced in a new, socially distant format. If that’s the case, a few things can be done to help manage the cultural impact:

  • Support local venues. If you have an opportunity to buy a gift card for a local music spot, do it. If your favorite venue hasn’t shut down, pay them a visit when they open back up, even if there’s nothing special going on.
  • Support local artists. Similarly, your favorite artist might be experimenting with virtual concerts right now to keep them in the groove, or releasing new merch to help keep the lights on. Check in on your favorite artists – the ones you don’t hear on the radio – and consider supporting them however you can.
  • Balance concert economics. If you’re a venue or a concert promoter, consider managing concert capacity by booking an artist over multiple days so they can play for their usual number of fans. I know there are only so many calendar days in a year, but perhaps there’s an opportunity to get creative with timing so that artists can play multiple shows in a single day. 
  • Make public health the top priority for all parties. If concerts become known as a breeding grounds for infectious disease, fans will stop attending concerts. If governments relax measures too quickly, a second wave of infection could occur, further halting the economy. The only sustainable, long-term solution is for all parties to prioritise the health of the public. It’s just good business.

Concerts have always played a meaningful role in our lives. Having that taken away in quarantine has been a special reminder about the privilege of participating in a live music experience, being surrounded by like-minded fans, and seeing our favorite musicians up close and personal. While the lockdown might be testing our patience, the eagerness to revert to status quo is a helpful nod to why we’re doing this. The more patient we are, the more likely it is that the future will look more like the way we remember it, as will our favorite concerts, venues and artists.

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