From the Outside Looking In: The Future of Live Music

About a month ago I received a direct message from one of LinkedIn’s Senior NewsEditors, Alexander Besant. This very obvious mass memo headlined, “Deja, how do music festivals and concerts safely restart?” The banner was followed by a brief plea for music industry professionals to provide insight on one of the most catastrophic deficits the industry has ever experienced. Hundreds of music-oriented individuals poured into the post’s comment section with stories of great loss, lingering curiosity, and heartfelt optimism. With COVID-19 cases fluctuating recurrently worldwide, the live music industry has been left in a stagnant state of uncertainty. With the bulk of the industry asking the same question as Besant, the world cannot help but wait and wonder if the future of live entertainment will soon exist as we once knew it.

Let me take you back to the dawn of 2020. Artists were rapid-firing albums in preparation for touring season. Festivals worldwide were releasing their spring and summer line ups. Frank Ocean was speculated to perform at Coachella. Frank Ocean was confirmed to headline at Coachella. The end-of-winter scramble to scrounger up enough change to pay for a 3 or 4-day weekend in a field with your closest friends and perfect strangers had just begun. Life had never felt so limitless and expensive. But by mid-March, those feelings and experiences became a mere blimp in our naïve and perplexing imaginations.

Today I write this from the comfort of my highly sanitized bedroom in the gloomy month of October. What has happened between March 13th and today can only be written by historians.Though through personal experience, I can attest that no industry has been threatened by this economic crash more than the music industry. As Coronavirus mania struck the nation, major festivals, tours, and booking agencies were forced to back out of million-dollar contracts. Live Nation’s stock dropped 17% seemingly overnight. Artists hastily lost a sizable amount of income from shows, followed by a natural drop-off in music production. Independent venues began going bankrupt. Booking agents, a once highest paid, vastly sought-after career became the tail-end of the industry ladder. Major ticket benefactors received harsh blowback for their resale and refund policy changes. Almost every sector of the industry was wounded in one way or another those first few months of the pandemic. As reported and estimated by the Wall Street Journal, the touring industry could face $8.9 billion dollars in lost ticket sales by the close of 2020.

Vickey Ford (Okayplayer)

From the beginning, independent and conglomerate corporations made the unfortunate realization that government entities were not coming to bail them out. Industry professionals shared feelings of desolation as they watched others under the entertainment umbrella (film, television, sports, etc.) prance around stealthily with their pandemic resolutions. Most companies have since been forced to find their own means towards remaining afloat. Donation sites like ‘Go Fund Me’ have become the saving grace for many venues, small businesses, and individuals who suffered this year. Unfortunately, this is a temporary solution to a long-term problem. As the year winds down, the live industry is running out of pennies and has started looking to trial new, COVID-friendly methods of entertainment.

From late night talk show appearances, to virtual performances paid for by sponsors and media outlets, to pricey drive-in concerts in vacant lots across the country, it seems booking agents have been doing just about anything to get their audience back. Die-hard fans have no problem guinea-pigging these tactics if it means suppressing their withdrawals. But for the vast majority, the execution lacks the vigor needed to classify itself as a live concert. Concertgoers tightly grip onto the proclamation that festivals and tours will start again in late summer/early fall of 2021. But, after taking a hard look in the mirror, industry leaders are reconsidering taking this postponement into the realms of 2022.

The music industry has always been one of the most unpredictable and competitive markets to work in. This pandemic is just another, rather large, attest for its instability. Looking ahead, there are a lot of changes on its horizon. From my most sincere perspective, the industry will never be what it was for a multitude of reasons. 

For starters, many patrons will have a general mistrust of tight, crowded spaces, for the next couple of years. 2020 has enlisted more germaphobia and disease-trauma in humans than ever before. With speculations of a mystery vaccine churning internationally, music professionals have hinted towards the general understanding that there is no safe way to return to live music without a cure. And with our current governing powers, how likely is everyone to trust this miracle injectable?

Firefly Music Festival

Additionally, as concerts return “back to normal”, administrators will be forced to jack up prices to level-out months’ worth of lost revenue. Predictably, most festivals will have the same level of inclusivity and budgeting as, let’s say, a Coachella. Social distancing precautions are likely to remain for the foreseeable future, so naturally, promoters and venue owners will shrink their capacity requirements, inadvertently hiking prices by the hundreds. Also, current venues do not adhere to the new capacity rules established across the country and are not subject to change any time soon; all the more reason to create costly restrictions. The live experience will be seen as a valuable and luxury concept only to be touched by those willing to pay the price.

I strongly believe the world is asking all the wrong questions. This is not an argument of when the live music industry will return back to normal/safely restart again. That idea no longer exists as far as I can see. A more productive conversation is how we can build new, treasured experiences with the cards we have been dealt. Despite the music industry taking the biggest hit in terms of finances, and general adjustments, the silver lining is that we have the ability to learn and adapt to these changes. This new model can present a more clean and equal-opportunity space most concerts and festivals greatly lacked before Coronavirus. On the precipice of a new generation of innovators, activists, and forward-thinking leaders, who says there isn’t room for a new beginning for the live entertainment experience.