Industry Experts Discuss Live Performance Space Post COVID-19

We asked two experts to break down the future of live performance in light of COVID-19.
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With many states and locales in different phases of reopening after shelter-in-place orders forced the closure of all live performance venues across the United States, it’s time to consider what live performances might look like post-COVID-19. 

To do that, we asked industry veteran Mark Tavern, an artist manager and consultant who regularly contributes to DJBooth, and Kevin Casini, an entertainment lawyer and the founder of Ecco Artists Services, to have a sensible discussion on the topic. 

That conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, is below. 

Kevin Casini: I was working on an article on the prospects of income for recording artists and the performance/appearance landscape in a post-COVID world. Data is bleak.

Mark Tavern: It is bleak. Super bleak. It’s important for everyone to understand the extent of it.

KC: I’ve been consuming opinions from the venue and label side, the touring and management side, and then the MIDiA data. The article “The Future of Live” came out at the same time as the Music Canada study, and wow—it’s so much worse than advertised.

MT: Back in March, I watched a client have dates postponed a month, then a couple of months, then a whole year. It’s easy to underestimate how much planning goes into each show because so many small clubs book only six weeks or so out. Festivals, performing arts centers, and bigger venues can book as much as a year in advance, so many places are moving their remaining 2020 dates one full year ahead, into 2021. To me, that feels like the live performance business is being put into a coma, but I worry about how difficult it will be to wake it up in the future.

Things are moving in slow motion. There is no precedent for any of this, and little guidance, so it’s like this long, slow progression. On top of that, the business is still very much in shock. Unlike other businesses that could continue remotely, or had expectations that they’d be able to reopen quickly, the live performance business is closed for the foreseeable future, and that’s weighing heavily on everyone involved with it.

KC: Oh yeah, [shows] that are rescheduled to September? Yeah, right! Speaking with managers outside the northeast and agents in Nashville and LA, it seems like this whole calendar year is a wash.

Do you see anything different?

MT: Rolling Loud Miami moved from May 2020 to February 2021. Coachella from October 2020 to April 2021. Both the Metropolitan Opera and NY Philharmonic have postponed all of their Fall 2020 dates. Broadway Theaters have announced they will remain dark until 2021. Everything is being moved, even Bonaroo, which was initially postponed from June to September, has now been canceled for 2020. So 2020 is over from a touring standpoint.

KC: There’s a new venue in New Haven that is delayed entirely until Spring 2021, and it would be by far the largest outdoor music space in the area. Maybe shows will take place where people are clamoring to reopen, but does anybody want to even play a date right now? Will anyone buy tickets? Let’s say you have a state, South Dakota, that had limited COVID numbers, opened up fast, and now sees a spike—enough to alarm. Even if allowed, can a venue manage to put on a show if the house is reduced by two-thirds, either through a governor’s order or the will of the free market?

MT: I’m wondering if the antidote is to move forward in many different ways, all simultaneously: live-streams, or other online concerts for some, open-air or drive-in concerts for others, and for cities where clubs have been allowed to reopen, smaller-scale shows with limits on capacity.

KC: Small 2020 shows may happen, but is anyone coming? A lot depends on geography and demographics. If your client is Michael Bublé, you’re done. If your client is an up-and-coming northeast rapper, same thing, but if you’re in Denver, you might get some shows. When will things return to “normal”? What is that?

MT: I’m not sure what “normal” will look like, but anything that represents the “old normal” can’t return until a COVID vaccine is developed.

KC: Are people going to take it? They won’t even get tested or wear masks. Looking at the rates of people that get the flu shot, it’s not good. Optimistically, what new opportunities are emerging?

MT: Humans are amazingly resilient, and as I saw with my music business class, my students adapted to distance learning pretty quickly. We will all become more and more OK with substituting a private, recorded performance with a public, in-person one. That change won’t be permanent or universal, and as a result, it will open up new opportunities for artists to engage with (and hopefully monetize) their fans.

KC: Yeah, agreed. And here’s one positive for our industry: instantly everyone turned to music consumption. Artists were online, doing shows, doing benefits, letting people go behind the scenes. But it wore down, it was tough to keep things fresh, and people got screen fatigue. Next, you’ve got these beautifully talented people that are used to giving everything they have and getting that energy right back, and they’re sending it to their laptops and getting nothing. It isn’t sustainable. So yes, the live-stream component is coming to everything. Hell, Live Nation has even tried to build it into their deals (no idea how that would work, but Peter Shapiro was talking about it in August of last year as a mandatory for his venues and festivals).

Do you think live-streamed concerts are here to stay?

MT: Yes, some of these changes will become permanent. If fans are willing to pay to watch a live-stream, the artist should make that part of his or her offering. I also think everyone has different thresholds for risk, and so there will remain some need to provide “safer” performance conditions for a while. Honestly, there is a silver lining here, as a new revenue stream is emerging.

KC: I don’t know if live-streaming as the primary thing is here to stay. Anecdotally, fans seem to have run out of attention and bandwidth for live-streams. Maybe more importantly, though, the artists I know and work with that deliver the highest energy and most engaging shows are weary. They’re giving everything into a laptop screen, and they’re getting nothing back, and there’s only so much gas in that tank. I was talking with a friend who works in ticketing today; he sees a LOT of shows, and he said two things that resonated: 1) He was ALL IN on streams when they started; he paid money, bought weekend tickets, etc., and he lost the interest, he’s worn out. 2) Can you imagine someone like Springsteen playing exclusive streaming shows? Or the Stones for that matter? The experience is the EXPERIENCE. Without the fans, what kind of energy are the acts delivering?

But what about live venues? Can they provide a safe experience?

MT: This is unclear as there isn’t a lot of guidance about what reopening performance venues will look like. I assume we can expect what we have seen tried in other businesses: social distancing, reduced capacity, required mask use, heightened cleaning protocols, internal traffic patterns to minimize contact, cashless transactions, plus other performance-venue-specific changes, like no intermissions, altered food, and beverage service, changes to seating. All of these changes are front-of-house or customer-based; we also don’t know yet what will need to happen backstage: will performers be required to wear masks? Quarantine together? What about dressing room conditions, hospitality? There are lots of unanswered questions.

KC: “Safe” is changing from one region to another. Whatever local regulations are, venue owners or club managers can implement them. Who is enforcing? Think of the things that are wholly illegal outside a concert that are completely allowable inside, that are just accepted/expected practice.

MT: With no live performance revenue, how will 360 deals change knowing they are dependent on it?

KC: I don’t know how any of it goes without touring. Ticket sales are the only real product we’ve got. Spins, plays, streams; whatever they are now, they pay only a fraction of a penny. No one is buying the CD. Streams are just marketing to get you to go to the show. Without shows? What’s the point of a 360 deal for either side?

MT: Agreed. Touring revenue will be gone for a while, but I don’t know how that might affect the 360 model. Any changes will depend on how the individual label offering the 360 deal sees the revenue mix. If an artist was signed because of their live revenue, then it’s likely that relationship will be reevaluated, just as new signings will likely be viewed through a different lens.

How will the revenue split change between live and live-streamed?

KC: Some artists can do better, show by show. But... can you maintain the energy? Get the audience to come back again? I have someone who made $5k for an hour in tips/donations only. Didn’t pay anyone except a sound tech. But most people? They’re scraping by unless it’s a sponsored event.

Is any of this sustainable? Who knows.

MT: The answer to this will revolve around how the act attempts to monetize their live-streams. If they expect to do so solely by collecting streaming royalties, they will fail, as the rates just aren’t high enough. But if they can develop a new revenue stream by selling tickets to a live stream performance, they may have an easier time.

This will be much easier for those artists who have already developed a fan base that is engaged enough to pay for a show. Acts that rely on walk-up sales and live performance as a discovery tool don’t have fans who are far enough down in the artist’s sales funnel to provide enough revenue.

KC: I’m glad you brought this up. This is where I’m at: How can you be creative in your approach, marketing, integration, scheduling, placements, etc. so that you land in people’s minds and on their screens? This is what I think about constantly. A few ideas I’ve batted around, some of which have been used and worked: thematic shows around an album; a historic event; a certain venue; covers or duets that are unexpected; mixing up genres, cross-pollination; swapping pages or social media handles; account takeovers; bespoke gigs. Damn, I’m giving away my secrets now. OK, no more free ideas!

Have you heard of any other better practices?

MTLaura Marling put on shows in June that were “geoblocked”; one was available only to fans in the UK and Europe, and another only to fans in the US. By doing so, she manufactured scarcity and was able to charge the 4,000 fans who signed up. US singer-songwriter Rhett Miller has created a similar situation and is now performing regularly online. For me, this seems to be a logical way forward, especially for singer-songwriters, as they can accompany themselves.

Both Tinashe and John Legend are taking part in some VR concerts; LiveXLive has an “at-home” series. I feel like much of this is experimental, and while much of it took place at the beginning of the pandemic, no long-term solutions have materialized.

There’s also Verzuz, with Swizz Beatz and Timbaland curating weekly IG Live battles. These have become collaborative contests and have been boosting streaming numbers, as well as drawing older fans to Instagram and introducing younger fans to hip-hop artists who helped create the genre.

Back to live music: When will it happen again?

KC: Actual full-scale festivals? I don’t know that they’re coming back at all. We were in a vast music festival bubble. Private equity was getting in the game. But with insurance costs sure to skyrocket, I doubt the little indie festivals can all come back, and I don’t know if you’re going to see weeklong festivals at all. My ticketing friend’s wife asks: Which of these stalwart acts is showing up? Some of them are 70+. It may just not be safe. Meanwhile, I have acts that would go camping now to fill their slots.

MT: I don’t know; the answer is still TBD. Performances and tours will begin again when states complete their reopening plans, but that will vary widely by region. I looked at New York State’s online tool to get a sense of what is allowed. New York City is currently in Phase 3, and the tool says that “Musical Groups and Artists” are “operating with restrictions.” The rest of the state is in Phase 4, meaning that “low-risk” arts and entertainment businesses are now permitted to open, with both mandatory rules and additional guidance as to how they may operate.

Much has to do with how states handle the current surge in cases. Everybody is more than ready to get back to normal, but with cases skyrocketing now, I wonder how opinions will change. Country musicians Chase Rice and Chris Janson received criticism for their headlining shows with packed audiences who weren’t social distancing.

Beyond this, national or even regional touring will become much more complicated, as each market will have different dates and guidelines, and an artist traveling through them will have a much harder time routing their tours. As it is, the European Union banned travel from the US starting July 1; that will undoubtedly impact touring opportunities for US-based artists.

KC: Three things need to happen. Venues need to be allowed to house enough to make money. Ticket buyers need to want to go. Acts need to want to tour. Until all three things coalesce, it’s not happening.

How will promoters fare in this climate?

MT: All agencies and promoters will suffer, and I doubt that any new business will be done until a venue’s reopening date is confirmed. Whether existing businesses will survive will have to do with their cash flow. Big companies with lots of money and many employees can last longer, either by drawing down any cash reserve (if they have it) or by furloughing or laying off workers to lower their ongoing expenses. Smaller outfits will have much more trouble, as they likely don’t have either option, and their PPP money is running out. If these venues are unable to open and have no target date, they can’t sell tickets, whether for “tonight’s” show or for any show in the future.

KC: Those that can take a hit will survive, and those that can’t get destroyed. Look at the proposed terms Live Nation put out. Those are insane. I know they got walked back, but it shows you what the big dogs were thinking. Is that enough to drive people like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson to make their own? Maybe, but I kind of doubt it.

MT: I’m not surprised by Live Nation’s move to renegotiate all of its contracts, but what do you think of their position? They’re asking artists to take a considerable haircut: lowering guarantees across the board and reducing the amount of a guarantee that can be kept by the artist should the performance get canceled because of low ticket sales. These moves are expected, but several go further: Live Nation is taking the position that should the artist cancel the show, he or she must pay back the guarantee with a penalty on top; artists must obtain their own insurance policy against cancellation [and they] must be prepared to eat any losses incurred should venue capacity be capped or reduced. How will shifting all this risk to the artist affect the business?

KC: It’s all bonkers. I can break this all down if we want to, but it’s a lot: 1) Mandatory insurance? How? Who is insured? See above regarding availability. 2) Mandatory streaming? Who is paying the rates for everyone to appear? 3) Artists must accept only 25% of their guarantee if the venue or government cancels, but must pay back 200% of their guarantee if they cancel? No way. The Live Nation “offer” or whatever it was, is a non-starter. Plenty of guys in Nashville instantly said, “Eff that I’ll make my own festival, and we’ll play in the middle of a field.” If any of these terms are indicative of what the ticketing and event side of this thinks is necessary to have a concert season, it’s going to be a long while before we get anything like what we’re used to.

MT: How do we manage new contractual issues? “Pandemic clauses”?

KC: Here’s the problem with pandemic clauses—it’s no longer an unforeseen force majeure event, so who is going to agree? I don’t think you’ll be able to insure against it anytime soon either. Here in the Insurance Capital of the World, people can’t find policies because the actuaries can’t price them: too many unknowns.

MT: I read in Billboard that Lizzo’s agent is not returning her deposit for headlining Virgin Fest. The new festival has been postponed, but she wasn’t given the ability to reschedule. Her agent negotiated 100% upfront given that the festival has no previous track record, but is it OK that her agent is unwilling to return even a portion of that money?

KC: Well, first, I’d say, her agent will do whatever Lizzo says is to be done. So I’m not putting it all on the agent. The best deal was negotiated. Is it OK? It depends on your threshold for skullduggery, I guess. I don’t generally weep for venue owners or promoters, but you do need to go along to get along.

MT: As for getting along, artists and their teams need to remain close to their promoter and venue counterparts, but be sensitive to their collective needs. Agencies are being destroyed right now, too. We talk about how losing live performance is terrible for artists, but they do have other revenue streams to turn to. It may not be much, but if you’re an agent or a promoter or a venue, you likely don’t even have that flexibility.

KC: Take this time to clean up your admin. I have a client who has millions of Spotify streams. Literally millions. Isn’t registered as an artist with a PRO. Isn’t registered with SoundExchange. Now, a pandemic hits, the European tour gets canceled, then the US tour. Support slots all gone. If the admin had been clean, to begin with, there would be money coming in, and any new tracks they cut could be added to the pot. Instead, time needs to be spent on cleaning all of it up. So, how to prepare? Get your shit together.

I have another client with a complete album done and ready to go so we can drip it out. Yeah, she released one already. She’s prolific—she writes a new track each week it seems.

MT: I think there will be a renewed focus on recordings, and yes, releasing in drips will become even more widespread. (A separate conversation can be had about how that material gets recorded if it needs to be done in a live room.)

KC: All my conversations with clients start with: What do you have already, and what do you want to get done? Where do you need to be next year?

MT: Yes. Artists will be forced to think much further into the future and develop plans based on that, but that will still have to manage uncertainty in the present. I saw what I thought to be good advice previously: that if an artist had a release with live performance dates scheduled, they should try to postpone everything, but if they were solely releasing music, they should go ahead. However, as the pandemic drags on, that advice will no longer be valid, and artists will have to adapt their plans.

Everything seems very bleak right now. Frankly, I haven’t wanted to talk about it much. [Kevin’s] been DM’ing me for weeks with his questions, but Donna [Donna-Claire Chesman, DJBooth Managing Editor] called me last week and got me thinking about it. We had a great chat, and she inspired me.

We have to remember that much of how we feel about this is the result of it being unprecedented. We are also grieving a loss. We’re only going to find solutions—and solace—if we talk to each other if we help each other out. Just because the pandemic may be unprecedented doesn’t mean the solutions can’t be.

KC: My final, and maybe over-arching thought on what to do now, is shore up those connections and relationships. Prep yourself to be out doing what you do as soon as it’s possible. Know your audience and what their comfort level will be. Figure out ways to continue to provide value and stay connected with them, maybe partnering up with other acts that overlap, but I would resist the urge to jump right back in as soon as allowable. The blowback against performers trying it now is not worth the ticket sales, let alone the potential for much bigger issues.

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