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When Will Live Concerts Return?

todayFebruary 26, 2021 5

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This was supposed to be the year live music made its comeback after grinding to a halt in the face of the pandemic.

So far, 2021 is not looking great either.

With COVID-19 vaccinations slowly rolling out, it’s projected most Americans will not be able to get immunized until at least the summer. That means large gatherings will remain discouraged.

Concerts and festivals, which traditionally gear-up in the spring and run through the fall around the country, are already making adjustments. The annual South by Southwest music, film and tech conference is going virtual this year after being completely canceled in 2020. The Weeknd’s After Hours World Tour will now kick off in January 2022 after the original 2020 start date was postponed for 2021. Coachella and Stagecoach, two massive festivals in California, have been canceled for a second year in a row. Summerfest in Wisconsin and Bonnaroo in Tennessee, two of the largest summer music festivals, have been postponed to September.

Dave Brooks, Billboard’s senior correspondent of touring and live entertainment, is optimistic live music will gradually return.

“I definitely think we will start seeing one-off arena concerts in a matter of months and the return of festivals in the fall,” he told USA TODAY.

South by Southwest, which was canceled last year, will be a virtual event in 2021.

Brooks points to New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo has given permission for arenas to reopen at 10% capacity, as a sign things are slowly getting back to normal. He anticipates many festivals that traditionally happen in the fall, such as Outside Lands in San Francisco, will go on, with some modifications.

“Besides being smaller with a lower capacity, there will undoubtedly be mask requirements and restrictions on some of the things we are used to — less food, more restrictions on drinking and more efforts to keep people from congregating too closely. Don’t expect any meet-and-greets with artists or any stage dives by the lead singer. Promoters will be operating in this middle area where most people are vaccinated but concerns about viral spread and safety and cleanliness are still paramount.”

USA TODAY checked in promoters, performers and venues across the country to get their take on the return of live music:

Tuckness anticipates attendance will be down in the short term — and not just because of restrictions on crowd sizes. Some people are legitimately scared to venture out.

“But I don’t see that for the long term,” she said. “I think we’re desperate to get back out there, to have shared experiences that move us.”

The Austin City Limits Music Festival, shown here in 2019, is scheduled to return this fall after the 2020 event was canceled.

The venues

It will likely be smaller venues that get back to normal before larger arenas, promoters say, because of logistics and cost. It takes more lead time and heftier price tags to sell out a 20,000-seat venue versus a 500-person-capacity club. That means it could be 2022 before A-list artists are back on large-scale stages.

“No artist is going to announce their shows until they are sure they can play out,” said Stephen Chilton with the Rebel Lounge in Phoenix. “For small venues, you can promote local and regional artists with just a few weeks’ notice and not the long lead times major concerts need.”

While many performers have turned to livestreaming, drive-in shows and alternative means to stay connected with fans during the pandemic, Chilton says nothing can compare to an in-person performance.

“Live concerts are where most artists not just make their living but connect most with their fans. As much as streaming and social media help them stay active in the meantime, they also remind us how far short they fall from real, in-person interactions and experiences,” he said.

But convincing everyone to venture out again could be a challenge, according to Adam Hartke with The Cotillion and WAVE in Wichita, Kansas.

“We most definitely will be facing a steep hill with consumer confidence, but I think some folks are ready for shows to come back and will jump at the chance,” he said. “As we have seen with other areas of this pandemic, public sentiment is all over the board. I do think once we have a large portion of the population vaccinated, people will feel more comfortable attending concerts again.”

The performers

Charlie Faye, a musician based in Austin, Texas, says she’s made “exactly zero dollars” this past year. Like many performers, her group, Charlie Faye and the Fayettes, hasn’t been able to tour.

She says wide touring in 2021 is out of the question. Some local shows in the Austin area might be an option, depending upon how the year progresses.

“There’s still so much we don’t know about how the virus works and how this is going to play out,” she said. “I would never want to put my family, my band, or my audience at risk unnecessarily.”

She anticipates most shows initially will be outdoors, to allow for more distancing and plenty of fresh air.

“I have no idea how long it will take for things to get back to what used to be normal,” she said. “At first, anyone with a healthy abundance of caution will be rightfully anxious about gathering in a large group. I know I will be. It’s going to take us all a while to walk ourselves back from this psychologically, even once things seem to be safer again.”

In New Orleans, it’s also been a year since Robert Mercurio, a member of group Galactic, has performed before an audience. He estimates they had to cancel almost 90 shows.

“It has been one of the strangest years of my 25-year music career,” he said. “One of the worst parts has been living in total uncertainty as to when you will be able to go back to doing what you do and what it will ever be like again. On the positive side, it has been nice to be home for a full year. I haven’t done that in 25 years.”

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