It’s been more than eight months since the Covid-19 outbreak saturated America in panic. The live events industry is still in a chokehold — and concerts, which are pivotal parts of musicians’ album cycles and livelihoods, have yet to return in force. Some have tried to expedite the process, looking desperately for workarounds; earlier this month, some in the music industry began discussing the idea of linking test results to ticketing accounts so that only those who were deemed negative could go to future shows. Last week, Billboard reported that Live Nation and its ticketing arm Ticketmaster were considering such options.
But the idea is not without its pitfalls, others caution.
“We’re not headed down that path right now,” AXS CEO Bryan Perez tells Rolling Stone. Because so much comes down to a variety of state and local regulations, Perez says it’s hard to tell whether or not a testing-based ticket system could work for a nationwide company. “And then we feel like there needs to be, in some respects, a clearing house for the types of tests you administer, because not everybody accepts every type of test,” he adds.
AXS — which is owned by Live Nation competitor AEG — is also concerned with the protection of customers’ data and medical records, Perez says: “It’s not entirely clear if [ticketing companies] are the best suited to be in that game.”
Even if a customer gets a negative test result, it doesn’t always mean it’s accurate. “We haven’t been convinced that it’s effective from a safety standpoint,” Perez says. “People can get infected in the last 48 hours. People can get false negatives. And to the extent that it’s not coupled with additional safety restrictions, we think there’s a lot of risk involved. You want to fill a building with 10,000 people without any kind of physical distancing because you believe that you’ve gotten everything under control with testing? You don’t.”
His reasoning is shared by some government officials, including those in the city of San Francisco, which this week rejected the Gold State Warriors’ plans of providing testing to all attendees ahead of games. The basketball team had intended on putting in $30 million of its own money into the operation and using PCR testing, which is considered “more reliable” than antigen testing — but it still “creates too much risk of widespread transmission in transit and while visiting San Francisco,” the city’s health officer Tomás Aragón wrote in a letter to the team. Like Perez, Aragón notes that the risks “remain high even with pre-event testing” due to false negatives and what can happen in a 48-hour period.
Linking test results to tickets could also hamper the resale market, at least for large-scale events. If a customer wanted to resell a ticket, they would need a large enough window to allow for the new buyers to get tested. “The two biggest times for resale are as soon as the show goes on sale and the last three days before an event, so you’re completely wiping out that run-up to the event,” Perez says.
When asked if AXS has considered offering rapid Covid tests at the door, Perez says it’s a logistical nightmare. He suggests imagining the process of loading an arena for a show with 15-16,000 people: “If it takes you a minute for everyone to administer tests, you can just do the operational math and realize it will take you four hours to load a building. And, in the meantime, you have people queuing up for miles while six feet apart from each other.”
“It takes one super-spreader event to ruin it for everybody, so we’re really focused on the vaccine and how that’s getting rolled out, and what that does to case counts and positive rates. That’s what’s going to dictate the reopening of the business.”
“It takes one super-spreader event to ruin it for everybody, so we’re really focused on the vaccine and how that’s getting rolled out, and what that does to case counts and positive rates,” he says. “That’s what’s going to dictate the reopening of the business.”
In the last two weeks, drugmaker Phizer and biotech company Moderna revealed that the potential Covid-19 vaccines they’ve been working on were found to be 90 and 95 percent effective, respectively, based on early trials. Perez is optimistic about those trials — and thinks full or nearly full concerts could come back in 2021. “If those start getting distributed in December to frontline workers and people at risk, and then you move to the general population for six months, the back half of the year is not out of the question,” he says.
But even if pharmaceutical companies roll out a vaccine, Perez says that concert organizers should continue to incorporate distancing regulations. He believes it will take a while for comfort levels to rise again, and argues that organizers won’t suddenly be cramming as many people into a room as the fire marshal will allow. “In five weeks, we’re going to be doing NBA games at up to 50 percent capacity — and there’s no reason why the music events can’t follow suit as long as they can adhere to the same rules. I think there will be at least a six-month period where we’re doing distanced events.”
Would it be profitable, though? Perez says it depends on operating costs.
“It doesn’t work for arena tours, but you can get away with it in smaller-capacity venues, because the operating costs just aren’t as extreme,” he says. “You’re not mounting a 40-city tour with tractor trailers and huge fixed-costs in every single arena along with a patchwork of different regulations and different jurisdictions. The smaller, theatre-type events are much more compatible to that interim period.”
Even in a post-Covid world, Perez says the need to identify everyone in the building is going to be critical. He says AXS is already well-positioned because his team has used identity-based ticketing for the past decade, calling the company a “pioneer” of the model. “We’ve got a patent on it. Others are coming to market with their own versions of it — but we’ve really been at it the longest.” Over 95 percent of all of AXS’ tickets are already distributed in a digital format. Now, according to Perez, the company is working on aligning tickets with socially distanced pods, and being able to restrict transfer rules around the pods — so that if there is an outbreak at an event, organizers can have an accurate attendee list and communicate with those concertgoers immediately.
“We’re leveraging the existing technology we have to put the safety-oriented restrictions around the ticket itself,” Perez says, adding that AXS’ priority is making sure that “everyone feels comfortable with attending events” and just not rushing to get back to a full-capacity business.