“Who is it that’s going to take the chance to go back on tour?”
The question, voiced by a prominent music booking agent in the U.S., captures the sentiment of roiling uncertainty across the music industry right now. When President Joe Biden said this week that America will have enough Covid-19 vaccines for every adult by the end of May, it signaled that the pandemic’s end could finally be in sight, and for major players like concert and ticketing giant Live Nation Entertainment — which expects to host outdoor amphitheater shows by mid-summer, CEO Michael Rapino said on an earnings call last week — the news jumpstarted bullish talks about a quick return to full-scale indoor and outdoor shows.
“All signs point to 2021 getting back to the summer concert season we all know and love,” Bob Ruox, Live Nation’s president of U.S. concerts, tells Rolling Stone in a statement Thursday. “With vaccines being available to everyone in May, we’re confident events can return to regular capacity soon after.” Live Nation says 83% of fans have opted to hold onto tickets rather than ask for refunds, reflecting widespread fan demand for the return of shows. Last week, following the U.K.’s announcement that shows could come back there in June, Live Nation also sold 170,000 tickets in three days for its Reading and Leeds and Creamfield festivals.
But despite the enthusiasm from concert-promotion giants, major shows in summer 2021 still aren’t a lock.
For most other players involved in booking and coordinating shows in the live music business — which has been fighting a global year-long concert shutdown, massive revenue loss, and mounting debt since March 2020 — Biden’s words aren’t considerably changing their plans. That’s because live music, with its high-density indoor audiences and complicated group logistics, cannot be profitable unless the whole system whirls up at once. Many music insiders say a full-scale return to concerts and tours is not feasible until the fall or even early 2022.
“You get one event that’s a super-spreader, and that can still happen — you want to be far away from that.”
“You get one event that’s a super-spreader, and that can still happen — you want to be far away from that. I still think on a national touring level, no, wait until next year,” the agent, who works with several major artists and requested anonymity because of the financially sensitive nature of the discussion, tells Rolling Stone.
Live Nation and its competitor AEG have said they are both unwilling to resume indoor concerts unless they can operate at close to full capacity. And despite the news of a May vaccine timeline, Taylor Swift still canceled her postponed tour, citing uncertainty: “Many of you hung onto your tickets and I too hung onto the idea that we could reschedule,” Swift said in a tweet. “This is an unprecedented pandemic that has changed everyone’s plans and no one knows what the touring landscape is going to look like in the near future.”
Sources say even the biggest artists are unlikely to embark on full national or global tours until they can guarantee it is safe to perform from most of the markets they’d play in a usual touring cycle — which means the U.S. doesn’t just have to have vaccines available, but widely administered. “There’s going to be one-offs, last-minute bookings, there will be some limited capacity shows, there’s going to be things we book in the fall, and small events in the summer. It’s all going to be regional,” the agent says. “I’m confirming dates for the fall and summer right now.”
Another high-ranking live industry executive says Biden’s vaccination timeline “increases optimism that there can be shows, and it feels like there’s a path.” But because summer and fall shows are not guaranteed, the executive is holding backup plans for his roster for 2022 — and wary of announcing any 2021 tours too soon.
“I’m optimistic that if if the vaccine rollout does go forward on this new timetable, we should be able to have shows by August, September, October in the amphitheaters at least,” the executive says. “But the variable in all of this is what happens with these variants. And that’s the big concern for everybody.”
“For the business to truly come back, we really need to have the ability for full capacity shows around the country.”
The executive adds: “You can’t do Swiss-cheese routing. If it’s got holes in it because certain states haven’t opened up, it’s generally not going to work. Now, some artists that tour on more of a weekend to weekend basis — which is really more of how the country business works — they could actually play some of their weekends. And an artist that could sell 4,000 or 5,000 tickets could go into a 20,000-capacity amphitheater and do a socially distanced show and potentially be okay with that. There is some business that can happen without having a full green light for full-capacity shows, but for the business to truly come back, we really need to have the ability for full capacity shows around the country.”
Rob Light, head of music at booking agency CAA, told music industry insiders in a chat on Clubhouse in February that he was confident in a wider return for late summer or fall of 2021, adding that he expects the industry to have a clear timeline by April. He added that he expects shorter lead times on ticket sales, reverting to older decades in the live industry, before tickets went on sale months in advance.
The U.S. festival circuit seems to be moving toward the fall, as well. Las Vegas’s Life Is Beautiful recently announced mid-September dates, and Milwaukee’s Summerfest, one of the largest music festivals in the world, said it will take place over the first three weekends of September. (Coachella, however, moved its spring 2020 dates to fall, then to spring 2021, then scrapped those plans as well; it has yet to announce new 2021 dates.)
Yet health experts say guessing at a reopening timeline is no easier now than it was a year ago — especially with newer variants of the virus floating around.
“If the variants don’t circulate widely, we can do okay. But the second condition is what percentage of the population will ultimately get vaccinated,” says Dr. Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “If we see up to a third of the population refusing to get vaccinated, that could still cause enough individuals to get infected and transmit the virus to make ongoing occurrence of cases something that would happen with some regularity throughout the country.”
Osterholm hesitates to say any form of mass-scale live music could be safe, since researchers are still studying the vaccines’ effectiveness from the new variants.
There “could be a situation where the variant can get around your immune protection,” he points out, adding that he “wouldn’t recommend [any live events] until we better understand what this means.”
Live music leaders are particularly stymied by planning tours in the U.S., where vastly different rules govern different states. While the federal government has issued a set of safety guidelines, states like Texas and Mississippi have opted to reopen and remove their mask mandates. Some individual cities may also be much more lax about gatherings than others, making it difficult to know when certain markets will open for tours. (The scattershot reopening stands in contrast to plans in the U.K., where the government laid out across-board thresholds and timelines that are “very helpful” to unlocking a “big burst of consumer demand,” says Live Nation president Joe Berchtold.)
“Texas has allowed for a lot of the club shows, and a lot of the country artists down there have done shows. That’s existed and has been just part of doing business in Texas,” they say. “But it’s sort of one-off stuff and it doesn’t really help a large scale national tour.”
In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo said music venues can begin to reopen at 33 percent capacity on April 2nd — but with a maximum cap of 100 people indoors, making it financially pointless for many venues to even try. “For most independent, GA music venues, 100 percent is probably where you need to be [to profit],” venue owners told Rolling Stone last week.
Zach Ernst, a talent buyer for Antone’s Nightclub in Austin, Texas, says he’s felt hopeful from the dropping cases and heightened vaccine rates. But even though Texas is “opening,” he doesn’t foresee jumping immediately back into shows.
“I think we’re all hopeful that that kind of vaccine news will positively affect all the sectors. And that’s really some hope to look forward to a few months from now,” Ernst says. “It’s tricky because you’ve got to put shows on sale anywhere between a couple of weeks [beforehand], a month, six weeks or longer — typically much longer. We’ve all had the rug pulled out from under us so many times and moved shows so many times and all of that, that all of us are a bit calloused.”