Concert season is coming at the worst possible time this year. As the global coronavirus outbreak creeps into major cities across the U.S., the music business — which depends on large-scale festivals for billions of dollars in annual profit — is weighing the costs of canceling lavish events against the economic and medical risks of forging on.
Goldenvoice’s two flagship music festivals, Stagecoach and Coachella, are, as of press time, still a go. But a number of smaller events, from individual artist shows to philharmonic performances to Los Angeles’ The Korea Times Music Festival, have been either canceled or postponed indefinitely, with organizers citing the safety risk of gathering tens of thousands of people during a time of possible contagion. And on Wednesday morning, Los Angeles county declared an emergency with six new cases reported.
“We’re in this gray area right now where events are getting canceled preemptively — before we know how widespread the problem is,” Aaron Goldstein, a Seattle-based partner at the global law firm Dorsey & Whitney, tells Rolling Stone. “Events like major music festivals usually carry some kind of insurance. But I can definitely see insurance companies pushing back if a festival canceled, then the situation got less severe the next week, or it turned out the illness wasn’t as dangerous as people thought. Yet there’s also a phenomenon with decision-makers where no one wants to be the one person who underestimated the risk. No one wants to be the person blamed for spreading coronavirus to thousands.”
SXSW, the global music-and-tech conference that kicks off in Austin, Texas, in two weeks, is “proceeding as planned,” organizers said in a statement, but more than 20,000 people have called for the event to be canceled via online petition and companies including Facebook, Twitter, and now TikTok have pulled their employees from the event. On Tuesday, the conference said that it is “working closely on a daily basis” with local, state, and federal agencies to “plan a safe event,” and that it has the green light from Austin Public Health to proceed. K-pop festival and convention KCON USA, scheduled for June and August, is still on track to take place as planned.
Organizers of tours and festivals say that until there’s a concrete update — such as the U.S. Surgeon General issuing a warning against concert attendance, for example — it’s difficult to comment on any possible course of action. “It’s changing hour by hour, day by day, so I’m afraid anything we say will just be outdated soon,” a representative from a major talent agency, who requested anonymity due to lack of authorization to speak for the company’s plans, tells Rolling Stone. Goldenvoice did not respond to request for comment.
Meanwhile, as the world waits out the outcome of the virus outbreak, large-scale music events are scrambling to set up extra health measures. Several third-party emergency medical services companies, which provide paramedics staffing and other on-site services at public events, say they have seen an uptick in interest from music festivals in recent weeks. CrowdRX, one EMS service that works with major festivals, says it is implementing “fever screening” — which involves technicians checking out attendees via thermal imaging cameras at the door, and turning away any concertgoers that show a high temperature and other “exposure risks” — for several of its music clients. “We’re not being secretive about it,” says Conner Fitzpatrick, executive director of CrowdRX. “Our recommendation is for the festivals to have signage at the door telling people they’ll be going through the screening. It’s been very well received by attendees, and people are thankful to have it there.”
Alex Pollak, CEO of Paradocs Worldwide, another EMS company, notes that his team is already prepared to address various emergency situations at festivals, from potential bioterrorism to active-shooter scenarios. “It’s just that, now, [the need for medical services at festivals] is much more visible, and we have to reinforce to our clients and production staff that we do have these capabilities and do train for it,” Pollak says.
But Celine Thum, the chief medical officer of Paradocs Worldwide, adds that music festivals, especially ones with outdoor campsites or heavy drinking cultures, pose an inherent risk of virus transmission that wouldn’t be reduced by extra medical staffing. “We don’t particularly add resources for something like the coronavirus because it would be speculation, and because it wouldn’t necessarily change the outcome,” Thum says. “For the virus, you’re going to have the same risk just because you’re with a lot of people. These hazards are present at every festival.”
Research has found in the past that pathogens can transmit at a much higher rate than average at music festivals, and in 2016 the British government warned citizens that events like Glastonbury were the “ideal place” for measles to spread, after England confirmed 234 cases of measles linked to festivals and other large public events in a six-month period.
If organizers don’t cancel the events, there’s a chance artists could begin dropping out individually — in 2016, Rihanna brought upon the cancelation of Lollapalooza Colombia when she pulled out of her headliner act out of concern about the then-sweeping Zika virus — but so far none of the headliners for the major U.S. festivals have spoken out about the situation. Whereas other global events such as the Geneva International Motor Show have gone virtual, a days-long Coachella fest with no audience is harder to imagine.
On a call last week to present its quarterly financials, concerts giant Live Nation tried to assure investors of “minimal” show cancellations and the company’s “flexibility to reroute,” should the global outbreak worsen or escalate. Global markets have plummeted recently, and in the past month, Live Nation shares have dropped 14% in light of the coronavirus scare. And though cancellations in Europe and the U.S. have been scant, several major artists, including Green Day and Avril Lavigne, have scrapped their upcoming Asian tours.
“Movie theaters, travel, sports — any time there will be large gatherings of people in one place, there’s definitely going to be an issue,” Goldstein says, adding that if the cases of coronavirus in the U.S. begin to tick up, “the common theme will be that people don’t want to be in places with other people.” A breaking point for organizers could also come if the U.S. Center for Disease Control, which has finally started rolling out testing kits nationwide after weeks of delay, reveals that the virus has actually infected “not 100 people but 10,000,” he says.
Ethan Millman contributed reporting.