Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.
When the pandemic hit and the music stopped, the hundreds of entertainment venues that housed live events went dark. Nearly a year later, there finally appears to be a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.
Like restaurants, entertainment venues rely on customers spending disposable income by treating themselves to a good time. The good times stopped rolling back in March 2020, and business owners scrambled to cobble together new experiences to stay afloat: drive-in events, “bubble” shows and socially distanced concerts, to name a few innovative ideas.
There is value in event organizers taking on new initiatives to keep their businesses alive during the pandemic, as inaction can have severe consequences. I am not convinced, however, that these approaches will last or have the best results. Social distancing at a music festival would require reducing capacity to a point where it wouldn’t be economical to operate. A few organizations could likely produce these just to keep their brands alive, but in my opinion, they wouldn’t be wholly profitable. There’s nothing wrong with drive-in parties either, but let’s chalk those up to being a new or reinvented type of entertainment option — not exactly a perfect permanent replacement for festivals or large-scale events.
A smart move for large-scale venues, producers, organizers and promoters will be to figure out how to make livestreaming work exceptionally well for their audiences. Even when large-scale, in-person events can happen again, it will still immensely benefit these stakeholders to connect with their fans and audiences more frequently. Large festivals typically connect with their fans and audiences only one or two times per year on average. If they can adopt engaging digital events and livestreaming ecosystems, they will be able to connect with their audiences as often as they wish — monthly, weekly or even daily — even when the pandemic is long past.
There are significant challenges in executing a digital streaming strategy, however, especially in terms of copyrights and quality.
At long last, the federal government has passed a stimulus package with $15 billion earmarked for shuttered venue operators (independent venues), but this will buy only a little more time. Ultimately, the key to success for venues and promoters in 2021 is simply remaining in business; relying on continued government grants and bailouts is not a viable business plan.
Warming to a New Reality
Much of the world cannot operate outdoors year-round. Big entertainment hubs such as Chicago, New York and Toronto require protection from the elements in cold winter months. I believe there will be a shift to warmer climates for many live events over the next couple of years. Cirque du Soleil has already done this: Even though its main website states all shows are canceled, its Joya show, which briefly shuttered at the beginning of the pandemic, reopened in July of 2020 in Mexico. I predict a continued shift in 2021 toward Miami, Las Vegas, various cities in Texas, Mexico and other places more conducive to outdoor events.
For those operators whose venues are in four-season cities, now is the opportune time to perfect a digital connection with their audiences. The benefit of doing so will long outlast the current pandemic. Thousands of venues and performers around the globe have already done this by:
1. Using the streaming service Twitch. Originally a gaming platform, it has been used by artists since the start of the pandemic to operate live shows for which they often charge a fee. The platform allows hosts to charge viewers for the content they stream. Just make sure not to run afoul of Twitch’s terms — Twitch is very sensitive to copyrighted content.
2. Using Party Royale mode in Fortnite. This compelling addition to Fortnite is all the rage. What’s unique about Fortnite versus Twitch is that its visual immersion and graphics help with some of the screen fatigue that people are experiencing. You can see your favorite DJs performing as gamified characters and interact inside the game. Some shows have even raked in record-breaking audience turnouts.
3. Utilizing traditional streaming. Enclosed venues remain closed, save for the performers themselves. Singers, comedians and artists perform on stage with the camera rolling. With traditional livstreaming, venue owners and operators can organize these events, which can be free, ad-supported, sponsored or paid.
4. Adding to their online communities. If you don’t have a web forum, create one. Add groups for your event or venue on all relevant social media platforms (e.g., Telegram, Messenger, etc.). Cultivate your digital community in more ways than just a single-direction stream. Make it cooperative.
Not all the above streaming approaches (and others similar to them) are solid replacements for live events. Fortnite is great for DJs but maybe not a Broadway show, which could still operate as a traditional livestream (and charge fees). Organizers need to identify and execute the correct digital strategy for their unique shows and events, understanding that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.
I believe live events will be mostly back to normal within three to five years, although there may still be a reduction in the volume of attendees to large-scale events. That is a small enough drop that venues can offset the costs by creating new pricing strategies, rethinking programming and adding revenue streams. In the meantime, organizers and talent will likely drift toward markets that appear safer to operate in (warm, outdoors) and easier to broadcast from (livestreaming platforms).
It’s not quite the same as feeling the pulse of the music and hearing the rush of the crowd in real life, but the show must go on.