Sleigh Bells, the veteran noise-pop band, is at a crossroads. The band is preparing for a grand fall tour — but with each day of grim news about surging Covid cases and the virus’s Delta variant, the pros and cons of the plan shift further, says the group’s manager Will Hubbard.
The band can’t risk an outbreak right now; after so long without putting on shows, a few missed tour dates could be the difference between profit and a huge loss. So the band will most likely require all fans to be vaccinated to attend their shows, if they proceed at all, Hubbard says, and all attendees and staff will have to wear masks when not eating or drinking. Sleigh Bells are the latest among a growing set of artists that includes Phoebe Bridgers and the Killers who have instituted the strict vaccine requirement. (In the Killers’ case, the band required proof of vaccination and a negative Covid test at a show in New York and will institute the same policy at a September show in Augusta, Georgia — by far the most cautious policy in live music to date.)
“I expect pushback in certain places, but my feeling is we need to take as stringent a policy as possible,” Hubbard says. “We believe people should be getting vaccinated. My feeling is that you need to start with the most stringent policy possible and then make accommodations based on potential local guidance or case by case exceptions rather than allowing all the exceptions right away. It’s a slippery slope from there.”
Considered a drastic measure just over a month ago, Covid vaccination verifications and/or negative tests are becoming industry standard for live music. Major concert promoter AEG Presents announced earlier this month that all shows at its venues and festivals will require proof of vaccination starting in October. Independent venues and concert promoters across the country began instituting proof of vaccine or negative covid test requirements as early as the start of August. AEG’s rival Live Nation, which had originally left the decision to artists, recently changed its policy: It now requires proof of vaccination or a negative covid test at all its venues and events, also in effect starting October. Local governments are following suit, with cities like New York and New Orleans along with the entire state of California installing similar policies.
These measures come at a crucial time. As summer nears its end and more artists hit the road for fall tours at indoor venues, shows take on more risk, given the higher transmission rates indoors. It’s a volatile landscape. Bridgers ruled out indoor shows for her upcoming tour altogether this week and moved all her upcoming dates outside. But even as promoters and artists tighten their safety policies, some other artists have decided that playing a show at all is too risky, since just one positive Covid test can derail a tour for days. Fall Out Boy missed three shows in Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. after a member of their touring team tested positive for the coronavirus. (The entire band and crew, including the infected worker, are fully vaccinated.) Country acts Garth Brooks and Florida Georgia Line canceled their tours last week over the rising cases; so have artists like Nine Inch Nails and Stevie Nicks.
“When originally planned, these shows were intended to be a cathartic and celebratory return to live music. However, with each passing day it’s becoming more apparent we’re not at that place yet,” Nine Inch Nails said in the tour cancelation announcement.
Singer-songwriter Amber Coffman, whose father was admitted to the ICU because of Covid despite being vaccinated, has been vocal about the need for the industry to reconsider its reopening plans, heralding Nine Inch Nails’ decision on Twitter while also calling on show runners to stop concerts. “Smart move, but it’s not cool that it’s being left to the artists to decide whether to pull out or not,” she tweeted. “Promoters should be canceling like crazy right now. How can people just accept death as collateral damage for a show?”
“We have to make hard decisions, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that we need to keep shows going, or I don’t know that the business will survive” — Ryan Matteson, manager for Japanese Breakfast
But the live music business, clawing desperately for money after a year and a half of shutdown, largely prefers to have the show go on as long as it’s allowed and deemed a low enough risk by health officials.
“It’s an individual artist-by-artist decision of what they feel comfortable with and everybody’s going to be different,” says Ryan Matteson, manager of Japanese Breakfast, one of the first artists to announce a vaccination mandate or negative test policy for shows. “If at any point it feels like doing this isn’t the responsible thing to do, then we won’t. But my intention is to continue to monitor this and do whatever it takes to keep our businesses rolling. We have to make hard decisions, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that we need to keep shows going, or I don’t know that the business will survive.”
Vaccines have proven to be an effective means of limiting the spread of the virus at mass gatherings. Lollapalooza, which hosted 400,000 people over three days in July, said it managed to contain infections to just over 200, as 90 percent of its attendees were fully vaccinated. While some attendees experienced breakthrough cases, those numbers have been encouraging to promoters across the country. They’ve helped both upcoming major outdoor festivals and indoor venues — which face higher chances of infection — to follow suit.
Danny Zelisko, a longtime concert promoter based in Arizona, promotes for venues across the state that announced last week that vaccine or negative testing requirements will be required for entry. “As far as I’m concerned, this announcement is overdue. It should have been made weeks ago by everybody, not not just by a few people,” Zelisko says. “I was getting pushback about the prospect of these requirements a couple weeks ago, but now with rising cases and others doing it, I’m not hearing it as much. Lollapalooza is a bright big spot that shows that this works. It’s a winning formula for us to retain some semblance of normalcy in our lives.”
Touring acts are buckling down beyond the requirements too. Most artists have halted backstage passes and meet-and-greets, and have barred friends and families from joining as they look to keep in a tight bubble around them. Artists are taking on considerable risks getting back on the road, both for their health and financial security.
“If one person tests positive on the road, the entire touring party would have to be quarantined in that city for 10 days, fully paid, until they can safely fly home — and we lose the bus deposit for the entire run,” Hubbard says. “Our loss in that scenario would be devastating, and it’s probably 50/50 that something like that would happen.”
Yet a band can only exert so much control over their environment. Jam band Widespread Panic was cautious as they went back out on the road for their summer tour. Their tour manager Steve López became a certified Covid compliance officer to oversee safety measures for the tour, and everyone from the band to the crew was fully vaccinated. López even arranged for someone to spray the disinfectant fog Paerosol at venues before setting up for a gig. The band had just started requiring vaccines or negative Covid tests for entry in August.
But a few days after a show in Asheville, North Carolina, lead singer John Bell tested positive for coronavirus the morning Widespread Panic was set to play in Austin. Those Austin dates were shelved, and the band decided over the weekend to postpone upcoming dates in New York and Napa, California.
“It’s been in the back of everybody’s mind watching the numbers,” says López. “When you do everything in your power to fight the virus and some of your people get sick, it’s a big breakthrough — we definitely have to sit back and think about what we’re doing.”
Despite the setback, López says he hopes to have the band back on the road in the fall, and he and the crew are working out further safety measures now. They’ll institute a vaccine or test requirement at minimum when they get back on the road, and they’re prepared to comply with stricter policies if more venues or markets implement it. The whole band and crew will likely be tested every three days and will also get to cities a few days earlier so they can isolate themselves in their hotel rooms leading up to shows. The key, above all, is avoiding exposure to others outside the touring party — particularly unvaccinated people — as much as possible.
“People want to go to shows, we crushed every on-sale we put out, selling out in minutes with record-breaking numbers,” López says. “We don’t want to walk away from that if it isn’t necessary, we want to live our lives. But we know the vaccine is the way to go, we believe most of our fans will get a vaccine and we are encouraging everyone to get vaccinated. We’ll take what happened in Austin as a lesson. If the vaccine wasn’t available, this wouldn’t be a question, we would not be playing right now.”
López acknowledges the band can’t totally stop breakthrough cases. And no level of venue preparation can prevent the band from exposure at high traffic areas like hotels and airports. “We fly commercial. If a flight gets delayed and all of a sudden we’re in this big public space for seven hours, that’s a heavier variable of catching something. It’s the question we keep asking ourselves, what do we do about those things we can’t control? I wish there was a simple answer to that. We wear masks, we keep doing our part and believe it won’t happen again. But everything relies on people getting their vaccines,” he says.
Enforcing vaccine mandates, like the vaccines themselves and masking up before then, has become a political decision. Every artist and concert company has received some level of protest and online trolling from conservatives and anti-vaxxers following their announcements, but the number of actual refund requests appears relatively small, an encouraging sign of general acceptance from audiences.
Gary Witt, owner of Milwaukee show promoter Pabst Theater Group, says the company’s gotten around 700 refund requests among the 100,000 tickets covered in its recently instituted test or vaccine policy. Most promoters who spoke with Rolling Stone also say their refund requests haven’t been notable enough to cause a major dent in business.
“We’ll get emails and comments from people saying they’ll piss on our graves when we’re bankrupt, but it’s a nothingburger,” Witt says. “You want your staff to be vaccinated, our staff from front to backhouse are also all masked, and we want our fans to be safe. After we’ve been out of business for 17 months, we don’t see these requirements as a negative, it’s a necessity to keep moving forward. Last year we were all gobsmacked by what was happening and we’ll do anything we can to prevent that again.”
Most touring acts have supported the policy; some have even demanded further regulation. And artists, several promoters and managers say, seem relieved as more venues and municipalities begin instituting rules of their own to keep them out of the political crossfire that’s come with it.
“Right after Japanese Breakfast and Jason Isbell made their policies, at least 15 other artists came to me saying they wanted the same,” says James Carol, talent booker for Cleveland’s Beachland Ballroom. “But it got to a point where acts would specifically say ‘I don’t want to be Jason Isbell.’ They see the backlash of this could be devastating and something they may never rebound from. Bigger acts can weather that storm, but if you’re a band with a 500-person cap, it’s hard.”
Yet these policies are all considered temporary. Given how quickly the news can change, artists and promoters are keeping their plans fluid. “I’m not foolish enough to think that what we’ve put in place is going to be the end-all be-all for the rest of this pandemic,” Matteson says. “What we know helps is wearing a mask. It’s everybody being vaccinated. It’s staying in bubbles the best that you can.”
All the promoters who spoke with Rolling Stone say they will consider relaxing policies if and when national Covid cases ebb, or getting more stringent if conditions get worse.
Minneapolis concert promoter First Avenue was one of the first in the country to institute the proof of vaccine or negative test policy for its venues. Dayna Frank, First Avenue’s CEO and the president of the National Independent Venue Association, doesn’t know what will happen in the next few weeks, but more artists she’s booking are requesting the stricter vaccination-only policy for their individual shows at her venues.
“The trend is leaning towards vaccinations only from the artist requests we’re getting,” Frank says. “A month ago, the country was celebrating and no one thought we’d need to ask for proof of a vaccine. It’s impossible to predict what will happen and we’ll follow the data. Right now, I can much more easily imagine us going to a vaccination-only policy than I can see us getting to a place with no policy.”