Eighteen months, possibly two years.
Barring a successful and widely available COVID-19 vaccine, that’s how long several music business insiders say it may take for the concert and touring business to return to a modicum of normalcy.
“We are going to be the last industry to open and there are lots of reasons for that,” says Joe Spaulding, president and CEO of Boston’s Boch Center, overseeing both the 3,500-seat Wang Theatre and the 1,500-seat Shubert Theatre on Tremont Street. “We are an organization that has crowds and it is impossible in our theaters to self-distance. Period. And not only is it impossible for the audience members, it is impossible to lower the capacity to try to do that.
“But more so, and just as important, you can’t self-distance backstage. Putting lights up, readying to do shows, rehearsals, actors [or musicians] in the dressing room, all that goes along with it. That does not work.”
The Boch Center has been moving shows to 2021 and 2022.
A well-placed source at one of the country’s top music promoting company (who didn’t have authorization to speak on the record) echoes Spaulding’s thoughts. “I’m hoping over the course of the next 24 months we get a gradual return,” he says. “But from an industry perspective the big arena tours, because there’s so much more involved in that in terms of the inventory of the real estate, how do you move dates around, do the routing? The arena tours will probably be the last to come back because there are so many variables. Just the money it takes to get a tour up and running and the months of pre-production before that happens.”
On March 12, Live Nation and AEG — two of the world’s largest concert promoters — both halted all of the year’s arena tours. And as of yet, they have not announced any plans for future performances. (A Live Nation spokesman declined to comment.)
What about clubs? Club tours don’t require the massive amount of gear and set-up that arena tours do, but clubs are inherently social situations, with fans often in proximity to each other. (In what might be a harbinger of things to come, Allston rock club Great Scott announced on Friday, May 1, it would not be reopening.)
“Think about it,” says Steve Wynn, singer-guitarist for the Dream Syndicate, an oft-touring club band. “Stages, house crews, vans, hotels, gas stations, bars, liquor bottles and shot glasses backstage — how easy will it be to make any of those things be considered safe until we have a cure or a guaranteed treatment? I know it’s a logistical nightmare and a financial hit for many bands and agents out there. I’m nothing if not optimistic and resourceful by nature and I'd love to be optimistic, but it might be longer than we'd like to think.”
"I don’t see 5,000 people in arena or theater. I don’t think it’s possible to put on a rock ‘n’ roll show like ours, or any other."Joe Perry
Toby Mamis, a longtime management representative for Alice Cooper, says “I don't think anyone knows what the ‘new normal’ will be, and anyone who says they do, really doesn't. General admission standing shows? Reserved seats three or four feet apart in alternative rows? Restrooms? Lines to get in? The economic models are challenging to say the least.”
While an increasing number of artists are doing livestreamed shows online, no one is fooling themselves into thinking that’s an adequate replacement for live concerts. “There is a special thing about the live music experience that cannot be replicated in a livestreamed event,” says Mamis. “The shared communal feeling of the crowd, the artist playing off the crowd's energy. The people who love that will always love that, artists and fans alike.”
The pandemic has knocked every touring musician way off course.
Joe Perry, Aerosmith’s co-leader and guitarist, was in the midst of playing a string of Las Vegas dates with his band when everything got canceled. With there being talk of re-opening the city, Perry says in no way would the band return at the present time.
“It would take me a lot to even get on the plane to Vegas at this point,” says Perry, from his Sarasota, Florida condo. “I don’t see 5,000 people in arena or theater. I don’t think it’s possible to put on a rock ‘n’ roll show like ours, or any other. I know the band wouldn’t do it.”
The veteran Irish punk rock band Stiff Little Fingers were three dates into a four-week tour of the U.K. when the plug was pulled. Dates were re-arranged for the fall, but it looks like those will be scrapped. They also had 10 major summer festival appearances slated — those, too, are gone.
“Like a lot of other people, we are losing an entire year’s income,” says lead singer-guitarist Jake Burns. “Concert venues will be among the last things to re-open. Until this virus is contained, I believe there will be a lingering suspicion of your fellow gig-goers. At the moment, people are nervous around those without masks in public, but will we be confident that everyone around us is ‘safe’ in the future?”
Assuming the concert world does open up, likely in phases, there will be both psychological and physical barriers for fans aching to re-enter the fray. “There are those who are champing at the bit for this to happen immediately,” says Burns. “They will eagerly get right back to where they were. Going to shows regularly and hang the consequences. There are others who may well never go to another show again in their lives. I believe most folks will fall in the middle. It will probably take a recognized vaccine to get these people back to venues.”
“Even when venues open up again, many people will be loathe to be the guinea pigs,” adds Hugo Burnham, co-founder and drummer of Gang of Four and a former music industry executive.
"There is no best-case scenario right now that I can see for the live event world. I mean, the best-case scenario in the real world is that people stop dying from this thing.”Toby Mamis
In mid-March, Alice Cooper was in Germany, a guest star on a concept tour, with various other singers performing his hits with a band and orchestra. Then, COVID-19 hit Europe.
“As it became clear shows were being canceled, we had to get him home quickly,” says Mamis. (At 72, Cooper could be considered in one of the groups at higher risk of contracting COVID-19.) They’d done five of 14 shows and scrapped everything else on his docket from then through July 18.
Some of Cooper’s team are hoping to start up in September or October, but Mamis says, “It might have to wait until enough people have been vaccinated. And that could be a while because once they have the vaccine, then they have to make millions upon millions of doses, and then it's got to be distributed widely so that enough people can get it. That won't happen overnight…
“The worst-case scenario, though, is starting up too soon, and then having to pull back again due to a surge. …There is no best-case scenario right now that I can see for the live event world. I mean, the best-case scenario in the real world is that people stop dying from this thing.”
The adjustments for everyone may be jarring and they’re likely to vary from city to city and state to state. “The industry will have to make a lot of changes,” says Adam Lewis, a former Bostonian who helms the Planetary Group, a publicity and concert promoting company in Los Angeles. “If we’re able to come back, distancing will be the key. I believe venue capacities are going to be reduced to 25 to 50%. This will be easier to do in theaters and arenas in terms of seating.”
Burnham says even if there is a perceived level of safety — a big if — “so many people will need time to build their finances back to where they even have disposable income to go to shows.”
Tony Visconti, the famed producer of David Bowie among many others, has been touring and playing bass with a Bowie tribute band called Holy Holy. He’s optimistic — as well as a bit cheeky — about what has been and what may be.
“Of course, the concert industry will bounce back — with a big bang,” he says. “Fans used to catch the flu at packed concerts and sexually transmitted diseases afterwards. Once the vaccine is here and it works [concerts are] back. Humans love to congregate and sharing a musical evening with loads of ecstatic people is a way of life we’ll never get tired of. For now, we have to be careful and, above all, be patient until it’s time to safely go out and play again.”
Stiff Little Fingers’ Burns says, “We’re looking at probably another 18 months or so before it’s available on a scale to make a difference. By which stage, a lot of bands and artists, like a lot of enterprises, will have simply gone out of business, up to, and possibly including, ourselves.”
“Maybe we'll find ways to connect with people in outside settings before too long,” adds the Dream Syndicate’s Wynn. “I've been thinking it would be nice to just hop in a car and drive from town to town, show up on a front lawn or public park, play for an hour or so, hop back in the car and then drive off — it would be some kind of cross between traditional troubadours and the mark of Zorro.”
On Tuesday, May 5, ARTery contributor Jim Sullivan has an interview with Aerosmith's Joe Perry about life during the coronavirus.