Sheryl Stone winced when she gazed at the capacity crowd cramming the Knitting Factory for a sold-out Alter Bridge show in late February. “I looked at this sea of people in the audience, and I just knew that these people were super-spreaders,” Stone said.
The FOB producer and talent buyer was well aware of the potential of the novel coronavirus, which shut down Spokane and the rest of the country less than three weeks later. Since Tool packed the Spokane Arena on March 9, most venues have been dormant.
More than six months have passed since the live music industry has been on hiatus thanks to the crippling pandemic.
Unlike Stone, OVG Media and Conferences President Ray Waddell never foresaw complications courtesy of the coronavirus. “The only thing that we thought could halt touring is a string of terrorist acts,” Waddell said. “That was the biggest fear. A pandemic never really crossed our radar.”
Since musicians make little from recorded music, the lion’s share of their income is from touring. Business has been booming over the last decade. Waddell, who presides over Pollstar, a trade publication for the concert industry, witnessed much of the growth over the last decade as the executive editor of the music magazine Billboard.
“Ever since 2010, it was a golden era,” Waddell said. “The code was cracked on ticket pricing and VIP sales. Touring went from being the stepchild of the business to the leader. Tours used to support albums, and it became the opposite. Everything was strong from clubs to halls to arenas to stadiums to festivals over the last decade.”
According to the database company Statista, live music industry revenue worldwide was a staggering $27.95 billion in 2019. The projected take for 2020 was $28.83 billion.
However, the future is uncertain for the music industry. One can speculate what will happen in 2021. Waddell recently conducted a state of the industry survey, which is the largest live industry study of its kind. A touch more than half of all venue respondents, 54.8%, believe the industry will return to full capacity in 2021.
Brian Ritter, general manager of the Fox Theater, concurs. “I think we’ll be back to normal by July,” Ritter said. “I’m hoping it will be sooner, like April. We do have some shows scheduled for March, such as the Flaming Lips, but we’ll see what happens.”
Stone isn’t as certain as Ritter when it comes to local venues reopening. “We have shows scheduled for 2021,” Stone said. “Will they happen? I don’t know. It’s hard to know what will happen since there is no vaccine. I think we have to look at what will work in 2021 and beyond. Look at what happened recently in Connecticut with Warren Haynes. He sold out (five) shows in front of fans in pods.”
Fans attending Haynes’ concerts purchased an 8-by-8-foot grid and were socially distant. “We may have to make changes to get things going,” Stone said.
The survey conducted by Waddell believes change is on the way. According to the data collected, more than 80% expect an increase in cashless/touchless technologies.
Ticket prices have been climbing over the years during the industry boom. However, with so many devastated economically, what will it cost to go to a show? “When you think about the costs for sanitation and new technology, tickets might cost more,” Ritter said.
Stone stresses that ticket prices will depend on what recording artists demand. “Ticket prices depend on the cost of the act,” Stone said. “If the artist’s fee goes down, the ticket price goes down accordingly.”
Waddell believes the differences between the best and worst seats will be more extreme than ever. “I imagine that it will be worked out so that it’s scaled to what the market can support,” Waddell said.
Matt Meyer, the director of entertainment at the Spokane Arena and the First Interstate Center for the Arts, agrees with Waddell.
“I think the VIP tickets will be higher and the prices upstairs will drop,” Meyer said. “The tickets upstairs (at arena shows) were $50 to $75, but I imagine they will be lower. Regarding concerts, I’ve had conversations with Live Nation and AEG, and they believe outdoor shows will be back by July.”
However, Meyer is hoping sporting events with fans will happen much sooner than summer. Meyer is crossing his fingers that the public will be admitted to Spokane Chiefs games as soon as Dec. 4. “That’s what we’re shooting for,” Meyer said. “We’re working with the governor’s office to get guidance to see where the state is at.”
If Gov. Jay Inslee gives the greenlight, the arena would still need time to make the necessary changes to follow the eventual protocol.
“There’s a lot of infrastructure that has to be put into the building,” Meyer said. “We’re looking at digital ticketing. The system we’ll put in place will be completely contactless. We’re looking at POS (point-of-sale) systems that will allow everything to be completely touchless. We’ll go with Google Pay or Apple Pay as opposed to cash.”
Since there is no vaccine, patrons will have to sign off when purchasing tickets that they are taking a chance entering the venue.
“When people click through while buying tickets, it will explain the procedures and that they’re taking the risk showing up, and that if they have symptoms, we won’t let them in the building,” Meyer said. More than 72% of the survey respondents expressed concern about their company’s ability to survive COVID-19.
“It’s tough,” Ritter said. “We still have bills to pay without any shows. We still have to pay the electricity. It’s rough. We’re fortunate that we have good community support and some generous supporters. We’re good until the end of the year thanks to the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program loans).
“However, once January arrives, we’re going to need more support, or we’re going to have to make some drastic decisions. I hope we get back soon since we’re going to be one of the last industries to reopen.”
Local venues have rescheduled dates, but no new shows have been announced since the pandemic altered life dramatically.
“We haven’t been selling tickets or spending money on marketing since people have decided to have a wait-and-see attitude toward concerts,” Ritter said. “The public is not thinking about buying tickets since everything is shut down. That’s understandable, but we’ll be back.”
Waddell agrees. “The concert industry can’t be shut down forever,” he said. “The good news is that shows are being scheduled in places like Florida, Texas and Oklahoma.”
However, restrictions in Washington are much different than the Sunshine State.
“That’s the way it is,” Ritter said. “There are different schools of thought on the matter. We, as an organization, don’t want to become the next coronavirus hotspot. We have to maintain a certain level of responsibility since there is no viable vaccine. The pandemic has been devastating for a lot of families. We want to be conservative.
“But at the same time, the restrictions are a bit uneven. There isn’t much difference between a church service and a live music gathering. What is the difference going to a restaurant or going to a comedy club and seeing one comic perform? It’s a very difficult time for us and the whole industry. Let’s hope things change in 2021.”
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