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The Week the Music Stopped

In March, COVID-19 wiped concerts and festivals off the calendar — and that was just the beginning. Inside music's unprecedented crisis
Pooneh Ghana for Rolling Stone

I t was the beginning of March when Don Smiley started planning for the worst. As the chief executive of Milwaukee’s Summerfest — which calls itself “the world’s largest music festival,” attracting 900,000 people over 11 days each year — Smiley was confronting a tidal wave of reports about the outbreak of COVID-19 in the U.S. With the news darkening, he began to seriously consider dismantling the event’s entire meticulous plan. In its 52-year history, Summerfest — which was set to include performances by artists from Justin Bieber to Guns N’ Roses this year — had never been canceled or postponed.

“The vibe was [like] walking on eggshells,” Smiley says. “I had my eye on it early, trying to convince friends of mine to keep their eye on it. Everyone’s phone was blowing up every five seconds with breaking news, breaking news, breaking news. Our entire company wasn’t sleeping well because of the uncertainty.”

In the first week of March, the novel coronavirus was not yet a pandemic halting the entire world in its tracks, but concerts across Europe and Asia had all but ceased, a number of upcoming festivals outside the U.S. had been canceled, and nearly 100 cases of the virus had been confirmed in the U.S., including in California. Then came a rash of new reported cases and revelations that the virus had already been spreading through American communities, undetected by nearly nonexistent testing, for weeks.

On March 5th, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez shut down the Ultra Music Festival out of “an abundance of caution,” while emphasizing that it shouldn’t be a “cause for alarm.” The next day, the city of Austin shuttered South by Southwest, one of the largest annual conferences in the world. The cancellation of SXSW, which brings in some $356 million for the city each year, was the first huge shockwave, triggering new urgency in conversations about other music events.

Seeing SXSW go down, Smiley knew things would only worsen. “We could’ve sat on those dates and hoped for the best, but hope wasn’t really a plan for us,” he says. The Summerfest team was faced with a $186 million question. Across the country, other concert promoters, including industry-dominating giants Live Nation and AEG, were scrambling as well. Artists, managers, tour crews, and others in the concert business sat nervously on the sidelines, waiting.

“It was still changing literally every day,” says Christian Coffey, tour director for Childish Gambino, A$AP Rocky, and Run the Jewels, the last of whom had planned to kick off a tour in March. “We were having calls every day with agents, managers, with tour managers out on the road. People were pulling information from every resource they had, taking 10 parts of a story to piece it together. No one had more information than another.”

On March 9th, rumors spread that the organizers of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival — a stalwart of the annual festival scene, drawing nearly 100,000 daily attendees, more than $100 million, and endless Instagram shots each year — were calling their headlining artists to ask about rescheduling the festival for the fall. By March 10th, Coachella was wiped off of the spring calendar and moved to October, and the nightmare kicked off in earnest.

Suddenly every giant tour — from Madonna’s to Harry Styles’ to Billie Eilish’s — was in limbo. “None of this was really taken seriously in the U.S. until the week of the 9th, where the words ‘cancel’ and ‘reschedule’ started to get thrown around,” says Trevor Albair, tour manager for King Princess.

Two days after Coachella rescheduled, North America’s two biggest concert promoters, Live Nation and AEG, made an unprecedented joint decision to suspend all artist tours under their purview until at least April, leaving everyone from executives to artists to independent lighting contractors quaking. The joint AEG/Live Nation statement “woke the industry up,” says longtime brand-partnerships executive Marcie Allen, who worked with artists such as Billy Joel to untangle the sponsorships for their canceled shows.

“I remember 9/11, the financial crisis’ tremendous impact — but in 25 years in the industry, I’ve never experienced anything like this,” Allen says. “The industry is hitting the reset button. It will be forever changed.”

Before the two promoters nixed shows en masse, artists’ teams were running around without any clear communication from record companies, organizers, industry bodies, or local authorities. “With our show coming up on the 14th, we were going to have rehearsals on the 13th, and crew flying in on the 12th,” says Albair. “On March 11th, there was still no word of cancellations, so our crew hopped on flights from New York to L.A. to make rehearsals. Of course, I received the call that morning that our show with the Strokes was canceled — so I had to put the guys right back on flights home.”

Britton Billik, a tour manager for Josh Groban, says Groban’s tour was pulled later than most others because the team was assessing the situation regionally. “We were down in Florida, and it had not impacted Florida yet,” Billik says. “As soon as it began to work its way in that direction, we canceled everything and went home. [Groban’s] demographic is an older audience, so we were monitoring it very closely. Not only are the cast and crew at risk, it’s tough to ask a room full of 60-plus-year-olds to sit in a theater six inches away from each other.”

The Allman Brothers tribute at Madison Square Garden in New York on March 10th was one of the last major arena shows to occur in the U.S. “The demographic of the Allman Brothers is kind of a prime candidate [for the virus], so that felt a little weird,” guitarist Derek Trucks told Rolling Stone shortly thereafter. “But information was rolling out at such a trickle that it was hard to make sense of anything.” By the time Trucks was expected to participate in the star-studded Love Rocks NYC benefit at the Beacon Theatre — just two days later — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo had announced that all events and gatherings of more than 500 people would be banned in the state. (The show proceeded as a livestream, with only select venue and artist personnel and media in attendance — at least three performers, including Jackson Browne and guitarist Larry Campbell, tested positive for COVID-19 the week afterward.)

While some festivals, including Firefly, Governors Ball, and the U.K.’s Glastonbury, had to outright cancel, others decided to push everything to later in the year — which is the option Summerfest chose. “If you have to shut down a festival completely and lay off all your people, that’s pretty traumatic,” says Smiley, who hires 2,000 people to work the grounds each year. Summerfest is now slated for September, after the team persuaded artists, sponsors, food vendors, and merchandise partners to agree to new dates. Smiley declined to comment on how much of the original lineup is still set to appear at the rescheduled festival.

Some artists, including Lady Gaga, delayed their album releases or announced suspensions of upcoming tour plans. Many sent personal apologies to fans. Even when Dave Grohl broke his leg onstage in 2015, Foo Fighters barely changed their tour schedule — but they didn’t have a choice this time. “Playing a gig with a sock full of broken bones is one thing, but playing a show when your health and safety is in jeopardy is another,” Grohl told fans. “We fuckin’ love you guys. So let’s do this right and raincheck shit.”

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SILENT AUSTIN: A skateboarder (left) passes the Scoot Inn; inside the Continental Club (right) , the barroom is empty. These once-lively legendary venues are closed until further notice. Charles Reagan Hackleman for 'Rolling Stone'

Meanwhile, the virus’ spread continued to worsen, leading to the first shelter-in-place order, in San Francisco, on March 17th, with entire states like California and New York following suit soon after. As cities quieted, the music did too, with even the smallest of venues forced to shut their doors.

The Bowery Ballroom in New York, for instance, had five to seven shows a week booked through the end of the year; now, multiple employees are left without work. “We’ve got six to eight security guards on a night, who are all on an hourly [wage], who will not be getting paid without these shows,” says Kieran Blake, the general manager of the venue. “Coat checkers, box office, and merch sellers are all people who rely on these — some of the younger kids work multiple venues, and all these jobs are gone for the foreseeable future.”

Behind-the-scenes workers and venue employees have been deeply affected, and times are particularly tough for touring crew members. Their work already occurs in spurts, and winter is generally considered the slower time for touring. With the start of the festival season, which gets going in spring, many were eager for gigs.

“You might make a bunch of money at one point, but then you disperse that money over a certain period of time until you’re gonna start working again,” says Run the Jewels tour director Coffey. “I know a lot of crew guys that had a great 2019, then they stopped working in October or November, and they weren’t gonna be working again until March or April. They made over the $75,000 threshold for these government checks, even though they’re technically unemployed and haven’t made money in three months.”

Making matters worse, the people who are eligible for unemployment don’t always have a way to collect. “I have people who’ve worked for a pretty big act for the past year and a half to two years,” says Coffey. “A new act they were supposed to work with has now canceled. These people can’t apply for unemployment because they haven’t started working for [the new act] yet, but they also can’t go and get unemployment from [the original act].”

Crew members are usually independent contractors, as opposed to salaried employees, which means they lack health benefits. Their life partners might not have insurance to cover them either, considering that plenty of roadies end up marrying other roadies. In those cases, entire household incomes rely on touring money.

For some tour directors, roadies, and independent artists, tens of thousands of dollars disappeared in an instant, leaving them suddenly worried about being able to make rent. It “went from manic to not a single email or phone call in the course of five days,” says Madison House travel agent Lisa Pomerantz, whose company handles tour planning.

Until the crisis hit, the live-music business was on track to generate $12.2 billion in box-office revenue in 2020, according to Pollstar. If concerts manage to start up in late August, Pollstar estimates that the industry will lose about $5.2 billion in potential revenue for the year — but if venues end up shuttered through December, losses could spiral up to $8.9 billion.

One impending challenge is the mass rebooking of concert venues for the fall and winter of 2020, with too many artists vying for limited dates, especially as America’s coronavirus-rescheduled sports leagues likely clamor for the same arena venues as well. At the same time, the music industry has no way of knowing exactly when the pandemic will actually slow down. Some festivals and individual tours have pushed their dates to as early as September, despite no real certainty that performances will be possible by then.

“I don’t know where [September] came from,” says Dennis Brennan, head of touring at Q Prime, which represents artists such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, Metallica, and the Black Keys. He is nevertheless hoping that the tour business can kick back into action as early as mid-July. “I think there’s a degree of everyone thinking we’ll figure it out by [September]. If the experts are right, and this does dissipate some time in the summer, it gives America and the world some time to catch up. … None of our artists are going to want to do anything until we know it’s safe. I’ve already had that question, ‘Do we think it’s going to be safe?’ Right now, we say we don’t know, but by the time it happens we will know. And if it isn’t safe, we’re not going to do it.”

As the industry waits, concerns are building. “It feels like the fall is just going to be a train-wreck of months and months of pent-up artists rescheduling dates, which will then trigger some bizarre issues,” says music manager and live-event producer Mike Luba. “Will people have their jobs back? Will they be comfortable gathering in large groups? Will they have enough money to go out to see the six shows that they had planned to see over the course of the year, but condensed into a two-month period?”

Scheduling overlaps are likely to hurt festival attendance, too. “Bonnaroo moved, and that’s now suddenly stomping on Lost Lands,” Luba says, adding that the very next weekend is ACL. “The people who would’ve gone to all three are like, ‘What do I do? Where do I go?’ ”

Again, though, that dilemma will only arrive when mass gatherings are deemed safe again. Widely praised plans such as the road map released by the American Enterprise Institute suggest a large gap of time between government officials allowing, say, restaurant dining and the resumption of concerts and other large events. Even when governments give their approval, some fans could be reluctant. “No one really knows how this is going to impact the overall business, even if it is safe to host a live event of any size,” adds Billik. “I think, especially for an older audience, there’s gonna be more hesitation going into one of these buildings with a large group of people versus a Billie Eilish crowd. That’s a younger demographic, and that’s something to take into account.”

For promoters, outright cancellations of festivals like Coachella represent revenue losses in the hundreds of millions, and pushing to October largely serves as a place holder while more data becomes available. “The release of information will prove whether the decision to have Coachella in October is practical or not,” says Kevin Kennedy, an industry analyst at the research firm IBIS World.

Promoters are highly aware of the potential dangers of relaunching too early, according to Kennedy. “There’s going to be a cultural and mental change in how people look at festivals,” he says. “Hygiene isn’t at its peak [there] is the most polite way to put it. If they jump the gun and there’s some sort of resurgence, it could come out of events like this, and that could be a huge liability down the road.”

As a whole, the concert industry may be particularly vulnerable to revenue losses, Kennedy adds, pointing out that even Live Nation operates at a two to three percent profit margin. “Anything disruptive,” he says, “is a lot more impactful compared to other industries.”

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COAST TO COAST: Historic venues — from the Roxy in Los Angeles (left) to the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York (right) — shut down, leaving staff and crew without work. Pooneh Ghana and Victor Llorente for 'Rolling Stone'

If its spread is not curtailed, COVID-19 could further consolidate an already lopsided concert-promotion business. Independent promoters may be in peril. “The important part to realize is AEG and Live Nation own basically all the other ancillary aspects of the business,” Kennedy says. “In terms of the bargaining power they have, that’s only going to amplify. These smaller players are going to die off. If they survive, what’s the competition going to look like? It’s going to be skewed for the bigger guys. They’re going to have a lot more leverage in signing artists.”

Plenty of agents and promoters are already out of work. iHeartMedia announced three-month furloughs for an unspecified number of employees, and near the end of March, major talent agency Paradigm decided to temporarily lay off more than 200 employees. The company estimated that this furlough period could last six months, with health benefits offered through June. Some affected employees are considering waiting it out, while others don’t have the luxury. “It’s been really shocking,” says one agent hit by the furlough. “We knew things were bad when festivals started coming down, but the layoffs were just not expected to be this bad in music.”

While times are bleak for the industry at large, optimists are seeing the challenge as a chance to innovate. The pandemic has highlighted the industry’s reliance on touring revenue, which became more essential to artists and their handlers as revenue from sales of music evaporated in favor of much smaller — for most — payout from Spotify and other streaming services. Hoping to fill the gap, companies specializing in livestreaming performances are seizing an opportunity to solidify their place in a post-virus music business.

From bedroom-style concert streaming services like StageIT to larger streamers like LiveXLive, these companies are reporting more inquiries than they have ever seen. With festivals sidelined, LiveXLive, which partners to provide streams for major festivals, including Electric Daisy Festival and Lollapalooza, created content of its own, starting the My Home to Yours series from artists’ homes. LiveXLive aired 40 shows last year, according to CEO Robert Ellin, and with the surge of artists needing new performing options, the company expects to air at least 75 shows for the year ahead. “Livestreaming is just exploding,” Ellin says. “We’re beefing up our production team.”

With few other options for live music, promoters are already embracing livestreaming. The Live From Out There digital music festival started a five-week-long festival circuit in mid-March. In its inaugural weekend, with no nationally known artists, the festival still managed to pull in $100,000. Ben Baruch, who organized the festival with his company, 11E1even Group, said that while he doesn’t want virtual performances to outright replace live shows, he doesn’t see why the concept won’t grow past the COVID-19 pandemic. “There’s so much uncertainty, it’s hard to tell what the live-music landscape is going to look like even a year from now,” Baruch says. “But what we’re seeing is another stream of revenue that we can get for artists. If artists want to participate, I don’t see it as any reason to stop. These artists, some are making more than they would’ve made playing some of these shows because there’s no cost.”

Ellin says livestreaming had already been climbing for years, but the surge during the pandemic has been noticeable. “We’re seeing what this is doing for live shows. Live will come back and flourish, but in the interim, we’re developing a new revenue stream for artists and promoters,” Ellin says.

Some musicians and execs are also using their unexpected time of solitude to test out new sounds — or to perfect forthcoming releases. “For the developing artists that we have, everything is really digital anyway,” says Justin Lubliner, founder and head of record label Darkroom, which is home to Billie Eilish, Gryffin, Oliver Malcolm, and Max Leone. “I’m not going to put a priority single out right now when I can’t shoot a video, but this situation does kind of open the door to some more opportunities.”

“You can still release music, but maybe it’s a different song that you might not have put out,”  Lubliner adds. “With some of my bigger artists, it’s the same thing, actually. We’re not gonna go and put a huge priority single out when there’s no real marketing approach, but [we might uncover] a song that we wanted to put out but didn’t really have a good time to — maybe one that doesn’t need a video or a huge promotional push, but can still keep the momentum growing. I’m maintaining a consistent rollout strategy for all of my clients. The strategy has changed, but we’re not gonna delay the processes.”

Finding themselves off the road, artists of all stripes are seizing the opportunity to record. “While our management is working to reschedule the postponed shows, I’m going to finish work on my next album, which is nearly done,” Alice Cooper says. “At least now I won’t be squeezing in vocal recording sessions on days off, between shows. I don’t like a lot of time off, as anyone who sees my schedule already knows, but a little extra time at home can be re-energizing.”

Micah Nelson, an avant-garde musician and son of Willie Nelson, has turned to Isaac Newton for inspiration. “During the plague in Isaac Newton’s time, he had just completed study at Oxford,” Nelson says. “He was slotted to join faculty. The epidemic caused the university to shut down for two years. He went to a private cabin and created the foundation of what would evolve into quantum physics. Who knows what people will create when they are faced with four walls and the sudden contrast to an assumed freedom? When the beast gives chase, even the most numb of minds remember that they are alive.”

Artists and business executives are showing renewed camaraderie in an industry traditionally full of infighting. On March 20th, online music store Bandcamp, which has become a key ally for independent acts, waived its cut on sales made, and fans ended up spending $4.3 million — 15 times a normal day of sales. And musicians from a wide range of backgrounds and genres — Lizzo, Stevie Nicks, and Gwen Stefani, to name a few — joined industry figures to cheer the U.S. government’s passage of a multi-trillion-dollar stimulus package with provisions to benefit music workers.

The rise of livestreaming and other changes to revenue streams prompted by the pandemic are making some in the industry ponder their place in the future. “I want to believe that agents are valuable, and they are — who is gonna squabble over dumb shit like ticket comps for an artist’s grandma like an agent can?” the furloughed Paradigm agent says. “But even if a cure for COVID-19 comes tomorrow, we’re looking at smaller capacities anyway. I think people are getting used to the idea of live and virtual streaming. Right now, the idea of going to a 300-cap venue and pushing through some asshole crowd of kids to pay for an $18 beer, just to stand in a corner and nod my head to some music that is never as good as the record, seems just like hell to me. Maybe I’m the only one. Maybe I’m jaded, but I don’t think live music will be as important as it once was for a while.”

The music industry — uniquely pulverized by the pandemic — may have to reconsider its entire center of gravity. “So much of it is based on travel and gathering,” Luba points out. “It’s like a double whammy. We’re not making cars or running a restaurant. Our whole industry is based on the key things that are driving this nightmare. But I think we’re gonna make it through.”

Additional reporting by Patrick Doyle