Concerts May Never Be The Same, But Virtual Entertainment Is Thriving
Wallows, the alt-rock trio fronted by “13 Reasons Why” star Dylan Minnette, wrapped the first leg of their biggest tour yet in Providence, Rhode Island, on March 2, before the coronavirus pandemic halted the live music industry.
Like other artists, the band had to postpone their 2020 spring dates, but remained hopeful for a fall lineup.
“We had no idea what was going to end up happening,” Minnette told HuffPost during a phone call with his bandmates Braeden Lemasters and Cole Preston earlier this month. “I remember at that time Coachella was moved to October and I was really wanting to go, but [our tour] was rescheduled for then, so I couldn’t. It’s funny how those little problems that I thought I had back then were completely irrelevant.”
Coachella, the marquee music and arts festival, eventually was canceled, as were Austin City Limits, Bonnaroo, Essence Festival, Lollapalooza and Stagecoach. Wallows was set to appear at Lollapaloozas in South America and Berlin, Reading and Leeds, and Splendour in the Grass for a festival circuit, but those international events also were called off. Considering their debut album “Nothing Happens” earned them a substantial following in the indie rock community and a certified RIAA gold single with “Are You Bored Yet?” the band was looking forward to traveling the world and performing for fans in the U.K., Australia and Asia.
The virus had other plans.
As strict social distancing guidelines have prevented groups from performing at concert venues, the live entertainment industry is completely on hold. Everyone from Celine Dion and Elton John to Snoop Dogg and Billie Eilish have postponed or completely given up on their tours. Instead, a lot of artists are taking the show online, whether it be over social media platforms and YouTube, or virtual reality and concert streaming sites like Twitch, LiveXLive, NoCap, Veeps and Nugs.net. Acts are looking for creative, temporary ways to reach fans until they can get back on the road, and streaming live or pre-taped shows have proven successful in terms of sustaining revenue for their out-of work touring teams and giving back to charitable organizations.
Wallows band members Cole Preston, Dylan Minnette and Braeden Lemasters in an empty theater.
In the typical live entertainment business model, concert promoters like Live Nation and AEG bank on touring schedules and ticket sales. Last year, Live Nation generated $11.55 billion in sales, up from $10.79 billion in 2018. For the second quarter of 2020, the company reported revenue dropped 98% from the previous year’s period due to pandemic shutdowns.
“When Live Nation and other companies pulled the tours off the road in March, they expected to be back in May. I think a lot of the agencies, and even the artists, felt the same way,” Dave Brooks, senior director of touring and live entertainment at Billboard, told HuffPost. “The severity of the first week of the lockdown and people learning more about coronavirus, that’s when it started to sink in: There might be no business at all in 2020.”
As in-person music events are canceled and refunds offered, the mega live entertainment companies are struggling to maintain revenue and implementing cost-saving measures, including salary reductions for senior executives. Live Nation President Joe Berchtold told HuffPost in a statement that the company is “confident that our actions taken to cut costs and increase liquidity will provide us with the runway we need until the time is right to bring shows back.”
And when live shows do return, seats apparently will be filled. According to Live Nation’s Q2 earnings report, 19 million tickets have been sold for 4,000 concerts and festivals in 2021. Plus, 86% of fans are holding onto tickets for rescheduled 2020 shows, and two out of three fans are keeping their tickets for rescheduled festivals.
Though all signs point to a concert revival, even Live Nation decided to adjust to the times. The company launched its own “Live From Home” platform in April, which earned 67 million views of concerts and festivals globally and is set to feature performances by Megan Thee Stallion, among others.
“Given the tremendous popularity of these shows, we are seeing the potential for livestreaming to become an additional long-term component of our concert business, allowing fans in other cities, or those who can’t attend, to enjoy the concert as well,” Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino said.
The number of livestreaming platforms continues to grow as the music world adapts to help curb the risk of coronavirus spread. Many artists have created their own sites, including Erykah Badu with Badu World Market, which launched earlier this year as an online store, and Good Charlotte’s Joel and Benji Madden with Veeps, a three-year-old company now pivoting into ticketed streaming to generate revenue to support charities, touring crews and offset lost income. Verzuz — Swizz Beatz and Timbaland’s project in which singers, producers and songwriters battle on Instagram Live — became a cultural sensation and is now in partnership with Apple Music and Apple TV+. And Visible, the first all-digital wireless carrier backed by Verizon, is debuting Red Rocks Unpaused starting Sept. 1, a free three-day interactive concert series featuring Lil Baby, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, Phoebe Bridgers, Sam Hunt and Brett Young. Spotify is reportedly looking to add virtual events feature to its app, too. (HuffPost’s parent company, Verizon Media, is a Verizon division.)
“There’s a gold rush right now in the livestreaming business,” Brooks said. “There’s a lot of capital involved with all these companies trying to facilitate streaming and all these artists who want to do it. We will see some major players start to form.”
Wallows let go of the up-in-the-air feeling surrounding rescheduled concert dates and found a way to keep making a living while connecting with quarantined fans. Although the group had seen fellow musicians livestreaming from their homes or showing recordings of old concerts online, Minnette, Lemasters and Preston were keen to the idea of a venue-based performance. They knew it was extremely important to support crew members who were booked all year for their tour before being left unemployed amid the outbreak.
On Aug. 6, they announced a return to the stage with a Virtual World Tour featuring four unique shows prerecorded (while following safety guidelines) at The Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles, where the group performed its first headlining show in 2017. The first two performances streamed on Aug. 16 and Aug. 23 (the others are set for Sept. 13 and Sept. 27) via NoCap, a platform for venue-hosted livestream concerts started by Roxy co-owner and musician Cisco Adler. Tickets went for $15 for an individual show and $55 for a four-show bundle, and included the perk of being able to be in a chatroom with the guys.
“It’s not just important for the artists and all the people involved to continue to work, but I think it’s important for the general public that music and art continue to flow,” Wallows manager Andrew Friedman said. “We need, more than ever, to take a break from the news and what’s happening in the world for a second and help everyone relax and calm down. That’s the greatest thing about music, in my opinion.”
For Sturgill Simpson and Darius Rucker, aiding their touring teams was paramount as well. They have donated proceeds from their livestreams and drive-in concerts to organizations such as the MusiCares and ACM Lifting Lives COVID relief funds.
“People see us on stage, but they don’t necessarily think about everyone who worked so hard to build out the production, staff the concession stands, drive the buses,” Rucker, country singer and Hootie & The Blowfish frontman, said. “Those are the people being heavily affected right now.”
Simpson battled coronavirus in March after returning from his tour through Western Europe and the East Coast of the U.S. Even before his virtual performance at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium in June, he raised $250,000 for several organizations, including the Special Forces Foundation. And after his audience-less show streamed on Nugs.net for free, the “Turtles All the Way Down” crooner raised over $400,000 for those facing financial woes, according to his manager Andrew McInnes.
“A lot of musicians are out of work and a lot of the hard-working people in the music business — tour managers and lighting designers — are in need. We wanted to raise money for them,” said McInnes, who also manages Diplo and other acts. “And we wanted to raise money for a local Nashville nonprofit called the Equity Alliance, who was doing a lot with tornado relief, because remember tornadoes hit Nashville right before the pandemic. They do a lot of work in the poorer communities in Nashville to try and help people get into better situations in life.”
Singer-songwriter Sturgill Simpson performs at the Ryman Auditorium on June 5 in Nashville, Tennessee. Sturgill performed the livestream concert without an audience.
It’s the blue-collar side of the business that’s really feeling the ripple effect. To save small music clubs and protect their employees, more than 1,200 venues and promoters have formed an advocacy group called the National Independent Venue Association with board president Dayna Frank, the owner of First Avenue & the 7th St. Entry in Minneapolis. They’re hoping smaller clubs and concert venues will be recognized in the next federal relief package, since the earlier stimulus bills passed by Congress like the $2 trillion CARES Act didn’t completely benefit their business.
“There’s over 100,000 people employed by independent music venues in North America, that are not owned by Live Nation, that are not owned by AEG, that really have been left out of a lot of the care packages,” McInnes said. “It would be a real shame if, when we came out of this, there was no more 9:30 Club and Stone Pony and Troubadour and Bowery Ballroom. Those are venues that I and artists have built their careers off of. You need the place to play to 500 or 750 people to get to a point where you can play in the Garden.”
As with the Wallows shows, NoCap is producing and webcasting performances by top-tier talent in storied venues like The Roxy, Belly Up (Solana Beach, California, and Aspen, Colorado), SOhO (Santa Barbara, California), Analog (Nashville, Tennessee) and Wescott Theater (Syracuse, New York). Nugs.net, a longtime provider of pay-per-view concerts and live music recordings founded by Brad Serling in 1993, also works with theaters, recently partnering with Nashville’s 3rd and Lindsley on a livestream deal.
Partnerships like this can provide significant revenue opportunities for smaller theaters, as successful jam bands like Phish and Dead & Company have been working with Nugs.net for years. The site, which boasts a digital archive of 15,000 concerts and hundreds of on-demand videos, saw a 670% spike in traffic and a conversion rate of 54% from free 30-day trial users to paid subscribers during the coronavirus lockdown. That’s, in part, thanks to mainstay acts like Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots and Metallica offering their talents and prerecorded performances.
“Pearl Jam was about to cancel their tour, and they called up and said, ‘Hey, what should we do if we’re not going to be able to do these shows?’” Serling said, adding that Metallica, Phish and Dead & Company all proposed the same question. “So the notion was: Let’s just start streaming every night. And it wasn’t someone’s virtual tour, it was just, ‘OK, let’s do Metallica Mondays, and we’ll stream the show for free across the band’s socials and on Nugs TV every Monday at 8 p.m.’”
“Dinner and a Movie” with Phish took over Tuesday nights and “Dave Matthews Drive-In” became Wednesday’s offering. “It just kind of snowballed from there,” Serling said. Initially, he and his team looked through their pay-per-view records and re-aired shows on those scheduled band nights.
“The silver lining was tours screeching to a halt encouraged bands to dig deeper into their archives and release stuff that they otherwise might never have gotten to,” Serling said, noting that they released some never-before-seen concerts. “Usually we’re so busy out there every night creating masters when the bands are on stage, so it’s hard to look in the rearview mirror.”
On top of his current schedule, Serling has booked new acts including The Avett Brothers, who will livestream their sold-out, socially distanced concert from Charlotte Motor Speedway on Aug. 29 for a $24.99 HD pay-per-view fee. (For $10 more, viewers can see the performance in 4K.)
“We did Sublime playing from their manager’s back porch in Southern California in May. We did Sturgill Simpson at the Ryman in the beginning of June, and we’re hoping to put him in Red Rocks this fall for a potential series we’re doing there for the end of September,” Serling said. “There are some cool things we’re teeing up.”
Safety protocols are similar to Hollywood film productions, with these venue-based livestreams and virtual tours using strict COVID-19 guidelines for talent, crew and interior staff. To be able to record their shows at the Roxy, Wallows had to keep their bubble as small as possible leading up to rehearsals. Then, once filming began, testing became a frequent activity for the group; a mobile lab was stationed at the venue.
“We did the deep nose, the medium nose, the finger prick, the mouth swab,” Preston said with a chuckle. “Luckily, throughout the entire time, our band and the film crew were all negative.”
Friedman said they decided to prerecord the shows not only to maintain a sanitary environment, but also to be able to experiment with camera angles, lighting design and sound elements to distract from the lack of audience interaction. Their Aug. 16 set felt very intimate as Wallows performed hits while soaked in muted multicolored lights. The entire team wanted to make sure paying viewers were getting a great show, especially those who’d never had the chance to see the guys perform live.
Providing subscribers with memorable viewing experiences has been Serling’s main focus as the founder of Nugs.net. Now, he’s finding it both gratifying and nerve-racking that people are paying attention to and working within a field he’s been hustling in for decades.
“It’s funny to see that the world’s finally waking up to what we’ve been doing all along. It’s also scary as fuck that all these other people are coming in and competing in the space, throwing out gobs of money as advances so they can build credibility,” Sterling said. “But it’s exciting and validating that people realize this is a viable thing.”
Until concert schedules are back in swing, virtual performances will have to suffice. But will touring even resume next summer? And will going to a live show ever be the same?
Most of the industry insiders HuffPost spoke with are almost certain a coronavirus vaccine will help revive the business, especially when young adults are itching to get out. Others feel fans in the older generations might be apprehensive about sitting and dancing in crowded arenas with complete strangers, considering the pandemic has shifted our standards on sanitary behavior.
This summer, people are sitting in their cars at a drive-in concert or hanging out in socially distant “pods” on an open-air field. Some 2,500 fans sat in small groups, six feet apart, at Virgin Money Unity Arena in Newcastle, U.K., at a sold-out concert for indie rock singer Sam Fender this month. Platforms toward the back of the space were put on risers to give patrons a better view, while those closer to the stage were ground-level.
The chatter on social media over “pod” viewing was fairly positive, with many people tweeting support for the idea. And in a poll by TheJournal.ie, 49.5% said they would attend a socially distanced concert in the future.
“Next year, if this is still going on, I’ll be standing on all those platforms,” McInnes joked.
An employee wheels a mobile drink trolley between socially distanced enclosures ahead of Sam Fender performing at the Virgin Money Unity Arena on Aug. 13 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. Sam Fender is the first to perform at the socially distanced music venue.
Live Nation expects tours, concerts and events to resume at scale in the summer of 2021, but most will be held outdoors. Live Nation France already teamed up with fashion house Balmain, chef Jean Imbert and Veuve Clicquot to host a special edition of Lolla Paris 2020, as venues in France are now allowed to hold up to 5,000 people. Live Nation Finland had a successful run of a summer concert series for up to 500 people. And in the U.S., there was “Live from the Drive-In,” a weekend of live shows in St. Louis, Indianapolis and Nashville featuring acts like Brad Paisley, Nelly and Darius Rucker with full concert productions and tailgating zones.
“For me, even though the drive-in concert was so different from what we’re used to, it was fun to be back on stage with the band and see people dancing and singing along. I was excited all week leading up to it because of how much I missed playing live music,” Rucker said. “It’s hard for all of us to navigate through an unprecedented time – whether we’re talking about touring or people’s daily lives – because no one has a crystal ball with the answers. I’m hopeful that we can all continue to follow the guidelines and be safe so that things start trending the right way soon.”
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