The very first concert I attended was America, and I sat with my high school sweetheart in a crowded theater in 1977, occasionally holding up my cigarette lighter as they sang “A Horse With No Name.” The audience stood shoulder to shoulder for an encore. In those teenage days we went to a crowded beach by Lake Michigan, enjoyed our favorite pizza parlors as we crowded into the booth (and occasionally snuck in a bottle of rum to pour into our pitcher of Coke), and we would sometimes have eight or nine people in my ’63 Impala as we spent evenings cruising around the city.
I still think of that concert and others I attended throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, the sheer joy of being part of the undulating crowd of fans and the physical human contact that naturally came with it. Alas, such things are no longer to be.
Even when live concert venues, Broadway plays and celebrity appearances are once again on the schedule, they are not likely to be the same. Perhaps not ever.
Entertainers and promoters are gearing up for a fundamental change in how they do business. Remember drive-in theaters? They have long since gone out of style, but they make more sense now than ever. Robbie Kowal, CEO of San Francisco-based HUSHConcerts, understands what the entertainment industry is going through, and helps people around the country put on drive-in events. And not just movies, either, cities around the country are using HUSHConcerts technologies for concerts, graduations, church services and even conferences. “There will certainly be permanent changes,” said Kowal. “The event industry was the first to be impacted by the economic effects of COVID. The majority of venues that are independent may not have the cash to weather this downturn. Then even if and when things open up the question is, will people feel safe to go into venues? Also, with unemployment and underemployment heading to historic highs will people have the disposable income to spend on things like shows? I’m guessing this is the worst hit our business will ever take and it will last until 2022 sometime. Only the bigger and public firms have the financial strength to weather it and we may see them scooping up distressed assets leading to even further consolidation of our industry.”
What the industry folks are saying
Bob Lord, CEO of PARMA Recordings, says “What I believe we will see is a switch to “safer music,” where certain types of engagement are less dangerous than others. Choral music, for example, will have a harder time existing than music for string quartet, simply because the former has the potential to create super-spreader events right from the stage. Similarly, large festivals and small clubs share a common problem: insufficient bathroom facilities and tight quarters. It is hard to imagine people packed in chest to shoulder in any environment at all, be it outdoors or in.”
Jaime Rodriguez, music journalist and concert photographer, hosts a popular rock podcast on Apple Music, Spotify, and on Instagram at @jrodconcertspodcast . Jaime has talked with many folks in the music industry, and has been able to compile some great insights and see a few interesting patterns emerge. “Whether its Tour Producers like Jake Berry (U2, Metallica and Madonna) or artists ranging from up and coming bands like The Foxies to Rock and Roll Hall of Famers (John Oates, Mary Wilson) the prevalent belief seems to be: nothing is certain, except the certainty that music/live entertainment will prevail. On one hand, you have promoters and agencies trying to see if any of the pandemic ideas like Drive-In concerts are a novelty, or could be a long term solution, while others seem more convinced that the only long term solution is massive vaccination. For some artists like Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters, nothing will ever replace the sweaty one on one contact of thousands of people, so everything is a band-aid until we return to that point. But the positivity is inspiring. As Jake Berry says: “Live music has survived 2 world wars, recessions and crisis. We will survive this as well.”
What musicians and performers are saying
I am just a short train ride away from Chicago, where I go often to get my fix of theater, live entertainment and good restaurants on a regular basis (at least when I’m not in isolation). Angie McMahon, a Chicago-based performer who also teaches sketch comedy, writing, stand-up and storytelling at The Second City, says a lot of shows have gone online. Angie told me recently, “It is especially hard for a comedy to translate into a Zoom call where the response is silence and a chat is scrolling alongside your face while people have random side conversations.” Angie’s solution is a virtual interactive live streaming comedy game show called Wisecrackin’, which pits eight comedians in a challenge to write a punchline to a set-up they have never seen. The audience gets to watch and vote live on their favorite punchline, while also interacting live in the chat, and doing audience challenges throughout the show. I love it!
Singer-songwriter Natalie Gelman tells me she usually tours from May through around October, but the pandemic has changed all that – but she’s still keeping busy and staying in touch with her fans. “Mostly I’ve been doing online performances to maintain a connection with the fans I already have and keep growing my fanbase as well. Usually when I’m touring new listeners are discovering my music from my live shows. But thankfully because of the sharing aspect of livestreams, people are finding me when their friends share the performance. I do think this will change the industry for some time, and at a minimum, make online concerts more commonplace.” Natalie’s soulful music should not be missed! She’s a wonderful storyteller who writes honest and deeply meaningful lyrics, and she has a voice that is simply captivating. I’ll be tuning in to her next livestream for sure!
Spells and Curses: My new favorite group
Musicians who depend on live shows see big changes coming, but some have adapted already and continue with a successful new model. I talked to theRave, who tours with his band Spells and Curses. TheRave told me, “As you can probably imagine, live entertainment is essential to my line of work. But since the COVID outbreak, all live events have been put on halt. This has significantly impacted my main revenue stream, live performances. Believe it or not, I’ve actually had to turn down some shows,” he said. “I was offered a chance to play some one-offs in South Carolina as they seem fairly lax with their lockdown efforts there. But the chance of re-infection traveling from New York is not something I think is worth getting sick again over. As someone who actually got infected with COVID myself two months ago, I can tell you it’s no walk in the park, so I feel very adamant about taking every precaution to lessen its spread. This means not going out myself and not scheduling any live shows or studio sessions, likely for the rest of the year. I wouldn’t want someone getting sick after coming out to my show on my conscience.”
But theRave hasn’t let the pandemic put a stop to his creative efforts, pointing to websites like JamKazam, which allows multiple musicians to jam together online, as a sort of “new normal.” theRave is doing livestream performances on YouTube every Saturday at 8:00 pm. THE VIVANT highly recommends you give a listen to this uniquely powerful and very original alternative rock experience. Spells and Curses really stands out in today’s music scene with outstanding lyrics, a sweet voice with tremendous range and power and a musical sound that will definitely leave you wanting more. I can’t wait to be able to see them in person!
Dan Blacharski is editor-in-chief of TheVivant.com.