The Year Without Concerts
8 min read

The Year Without Concerts

Hello readers, I hope y’all are staying safe out there. Tonight at 7:30 pm EST, I’ll be hosting the first Penny Fractions Readers Call, which you can still sign-up for here. I should send out an email with the link 30 minutes before the call gets started. Far more people signed up than I was expecting, so please forgive me if I’m a slightly strict moderator on the call! I didn’t mention it last week, but if you’d like to support the newsletter the best ways to do so remain recommending to friends or supporting via Patreon, if you’re financially able. Now, let’s get into looking at the live music business.

The Day the Music Stopped

The dominos fell fast. On March 4th, the Ultra Music Festival shut down over concerns about the coronavirus. Two days later, the city of Austin said to close the SXSW Festival and festival organizers heeded the request. Within a week, Live Nation and AEG followed suit by suspending all upcoming March concerts, and the spring American music calendar in a flash was emptied.  Last week, Rolling Stone reported on just how rapidly everything began to crumble that second week of March, with artists and roadies traveling the country only for concerts to be called off. Suddenly, an industry-wide scramble began to figure out next steps.

The impact of coronavirus on music streaming may be mixed, but its effect on the live music business is much clearer and sharply negative. There’s been a lot of great reporting on how this not only affects artists but much touring staff, record stores, marketing departments, ticketing companies, venue owners, bar staff, etc. In a way, this reflects the broader trend of over 22 million Americans filing for unemployment in the last month and nearly 10 million losing their health care, which certainly hits the live music industry considering many workers are labeled independent contractors. Last week, an increased sense of dread spread that live music likely won't be anyone’s top priority as people return to a semi-functional society.

The mayors of Los Angeles and New York City both strongly suggested there wouldn’t be any live events or mass gatherings in either city through 2020. California Governor Gavin Newsom suggested that there be no large-scale events until there is a vaccine for the coronavirus. Taylor Swift said she no longer plans to tour all of 2020. Even Facebook announced that the company plans to cease holding events until June 2021. Hits Daily Double reported on the increasingly desperate measures to keep the show going, including moving outdoor shows indoors, and whether Las Vegas might still put on the many shows that are on its summer schedule. Wishful thinking.

The overwhelming feeling that’s emerged from reporting around the live music industry is a sense of not knowing when things may open again. Most signs point towards a scenario in which events with 500+ people will not safely return to the United States till 2021; if any do emerge, they’d risk headlines proclaiming the events virus incubators. Professional sports owners are looking for any way to return so they don’t lose out on TV deal money and so they can keep racking in live concert money, which they aren’t forced to split amongst other team owners. Even if America’s least favorite set of billionaires are desperate for games to come back on, an April survey of fans showed reluctance in returning to events until there is a vaccine for the virus. A looming clusterfuck of concerts and sporting events is likely to happen even in 2021, as the tentative push of shows to fall 2020 is going to look less likely to result in any actual performances, as the virus continues to linger. Thus, the show could go on, but to a tiny audience that risked the health of their community.

What Is Next For Live Music?

There is no reason to expect live music to return (at the earliest) by the summer, so the industry remains in limbo. There have been few hints towards any kind of federal bailout for the industry; in fact, the government's consideration of live music has been limited to finger-wagging at Ticketmaster’s greedy ticketing refund policies. (Live Nation did attempt to improve its return policy slightly.) With reports showing people struggling to acquire small business loans and unemployment systems across the country overwhelmed, there’s little positive news in this space for fans or venues owners and staff. That’s why there’s been a rush to hope that live streaming could offer some relief. Yet, so far, there’s been very little concrete evidence that live streaming can represent a substantive replacement for live music. Instead, it’s offering a way for communities to reconnect, enjoy some music, and perhaps think through what will happen post-Pandemic.

(Sidenote: I don’t want to dwell too heavily on live streaming, because Shawn Reynaldo and Mat Dryhurst over the last few weeks covered many of the pitfalls of relying too much on the endeavor. Perhaps I’ll address the topic more in-depth another week, but I didn’t want to leave this stone completely unturned.)

A question I’ve considered over the last month isn’t so much when venues are going to open again, but what will happen when they do open? Will capacity be limited, like we’re already seeing in certain retail sectors? Temperatures taken at the door? Increased cleanliness? Joe Weisenthal, an editor at Bloomberg, mentioned an outline written by the CEO of Wynn Resorts about what it’ll take to reopen some casinos in Las Vegas. What was fairly clear is that the owner desires government cooperation, but the expectations of higher cleaning and safety standards would likely require increases in staffing. This is to say that returning to even a limited capacity operation, which I’ll say this outline is fast-tracking, involves more than simply flipping a switch, as often implied by many state and federal leaders.

This kicked off thoughts about the social contract between fans, music venues, performers, and all the workers involved in these kinds of spaces. I’ll admit this is something I struggled to articulate when I wrote Nu-Music: A Gig Economy Solution, in which I proposed a better way to organize live music. I’ve been heartened by the work of places like Nowadays, which, beyond still organizing virtual panels and shows, continue to be fairly open about the venue’s future. This feels markedly different from the behavior of companies like Live Nation and AEG, which are dragging their feet to simply offer their customers refunds on what are likely to be cancelled concerts. In New York City, in particular, there appears to be regular communication between various venues, and even nationally there is a drive for venues to speak with a collective voice to stand up to the challenge of the moment.

The prospect of large-scale events with fans returning this year continues to shrink day by day, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be a vision of the future. When small businesses return it should not only be with the health and safety of ticket-holders in mind, but with the venue staff either unionized or with far more decision-making power in how venues and spaces operate. We’re already seeing that those workers deemed “essential” are catching coronavirus more often, and there’s no reason that the music industry should repeat the horrific practices of companies like Amazon or Target.

Pollstar reported that the concert industry is on track to lose billions of dollars if this pause in live music continues. That reality, along with the fact extensive travel is likely to be limited over the next year, would point towards a forced return to the local for music venues. What that “new local” will look like will vary community to community, but as Nowadays co-founder Eamon Harkin hinted at on a live stream earlier this week, this is a moment that could allow deeper reflection on what communities want out of these spaces in the future. Far be it from me to find the silver lining during a thunderstorm, but the future of live music is likely to be much smaller in scope than it’s been in decades. This opens up the opportunity to see if it’s possible for spaces that hinge so much on advertising, environmentally destructive festivals, and uneven artist and staff compensation to change for the better. Okay, I did try to land that cheerful ending!

Unheard Labor

I’ve asked before but especially right now, if there are any major closures or layoffs happening within the music industry, please do alert me to them. This Google Sheet that’s tracking museum closures and layoffs is great and while I don’t expect a music equivalent to pop up out of nowhere, it’s always good to have some goals! Well, now for the sad news.

Last week, Valence Media announced cuts that hit Billboard, Hollywood Reporter, and Vibe. Roc Nation furloughed much lower-wage staff, but interestingly didn’t announce any salary cuts for its high-ranking and rather public-facing executives, despite that happening across many white-collar offices. Eventbrite let go around 500 employees, mostly those that worked in the live music space. If there is any good news, last week California altered its AB5 legislation that was designed to help gig economy workers (think: Uber Driver) to make necessary exclusions for the music industry. (Please hold me to writing about AB5 at some point this year, cause it’s a topic that isn’t going anywhere, pandemic or not.)

How Independent Music Could Suffer If Trump Kills the U.S. Postal Service - Pitchfork

The last month continues to be a fairly eye-opening experience for understanding various parts of the music supply chain. I truthfully wasn’t aware, though not surprised, of the importance of the U.S. Post Service to independent music.

‘Liberty Media already has far too much control over the music ecosystem’: Artist & consumer rights groups oppose iHeart Media buyout - Music Business Worldwide

There’s nothing about Penny Fractions that would support further corporate consolidation in music. So, it’s good to see any pushback against Liberty Media’s continued absorption of various parts of the music industry.

How Long We’re In For - Death Panel

This podcast provides a long-term perspective on what’s forecasted to happen with the coronavirus and discusses the issue with thinking there will be a return to “normal” anytime soon.

The Tech ‘Solutions’ for Coronavirus Take the Surveillance State to the Next Level - The Guardian

My favorite tech writer, Evgeny Morozov, goes into the contradictions that are leading towards tech-first solutions to dealing with the coronavirus. He resists the idea that only private firms, through mass surveillance, can pave the way forward and argues that average people should have a much larger say in such choices.

Enter the Metrics: Data for May and June to Shed Light on How COVID-19 Will Impact the Music Biz - Billboard

Stories like this shed light on the fact that there is an urgency to understand how bad this moment is, almost as if that would be the way to declare this over and business can resume. While these financial numbers and outlooks may be helpful, what we should really be interested in are the Q2 and Q3 numbers that are still many months away.

Music Streaming Falls Short of Video in ‘Brand Intimacy’ Study - Music Ally

The heightened paranoia around the durability of music streaming subscriptions is a worthwhile concern as the rest of the industry is in free fall. Yet, so far we’ve seen little significant data to show a drop-off, or even stagnation, in subscriptions. A recent study showed video platforms hold more sway with consumers than audio, which isn’t encouraging but shouldn’t be shocking. People have favorite Netflix or HBO shows, yet no one would claim to have a “favorite” Pandora song, since the platform’s content isn’t unique to it. This crisis might further highlight the duplicative nature of music streaming platforms but that’s a far cry away from an instant drop-off in subscriptions. Collapse doesn’t always happen all at once.