What Is the Future of Live Music?

What Is the Future of Live Music?

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At this point, it seems abundantly clear that—at least, as far as the United States is concerned—we’re going to be living in the midst of some form of the COVID-19 pandemic for years, vaccine or no vaccine. When it comes to leisure activities, all the theorizing about what may or may not be different or existing in the future may as well be out the window at this point, since the industries behind providing them seem more interested in trial-and-error’ing themselves back to some operative capacity rather than remaining shuttered for the good of, y’know, the future of humanity as we know it.

For posterity, here’s what I said about the future of live music (specifically, when it comes to music writing, but I think it applies in general too) in the first installment of this newsletter last month:

fall of 2021

Since then, Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino has claimed that live events will more or less be operating regularly by the summer of 2021. That sure does seem like a generous assertion—the type of wishful thinking one might express when their industry’s revenue has been entirely wiped out—especially since we’re still in the throes of the pandemic’s first wave and facing what many experts are warning will be a ceaselessly brutal fall and winter.

Also, consider that a sizable amount of the ticket-buying public might be (rightly) cautious to pony up cash for a concert due to economic and health concerns. Everyone’s dealing with the pandemic in different ways emotionally (headlines like these are more than illuminating in that regard), and it’s more than worth considering the possibility that the few who will be able to afford concert tickets (more on that later) may not even want to go to one for a long time.

But the live music industry is going to try to come back in some form anyway, whether or not the pandemic is truly over. Live Nation themselves are planning a purportedly safe and still-up-in-the-air 12,000-person concert in Germany next month (featuring Bryan Adams, who gained fresh notoriety in May for posting a rant about the supposed “bat eating” origins of COVID-19). And the unquestionably ill-advised attempts to cash in on a currently-ailing market are well-documented by now, from the Pictureplane-DJ’d Brooklyn rave and Smash Mouth’s mask-less biker-palooza to the Chainsmokers’ Hamptons “drive-in” disaster in congress with some of the Fyre Fest morons.

All that being said: we are starting to see a few measurably successful attempts to stage concerts in the age of COVID-19. Earlier this week, the Virgin Money Unity Arena—an outdoors UK venue designed specifically for social distancing—hosted its first concert with a 16-song performance from Sam Fender, an artist I have nonetheless never listened to in my entire life. Unlike the country’s recent failed attempt to stage an indoor socially distanced concert with Frank Turner headlining, the concert…seems to have gone okay? I guess we’ll know in a few weeks!

Hot take: COVID is actually a plot by the corporate concert industry to create a world where every ticket can be sold as a VIP package https://t.co/IOGgh6hlUIAugust 12, 2020

Earlier this week, the AMC theater chain announced that they’ll be selling $0.15 theater tickets when they reopen theaters (in the states they’re allowed to) on August 20. Setting aside the utter cravenness of such a promotional gesture—come kill grandma to watch Russell Crowe have road rage, cheaper than ever before!—AMC is trying to suggest that a return to something that appears like the ghost of normalcy is available to those who really want it. The problem is that so many other leisure activities will only be available to those who can really afford it.

“I’m really afraid that things many of us used to do for leisure, like eating in restaurants, will become only for the rich,” Libby Willis, co-owner of Brooklyn restaurant MeMe’s Diner, told Vogue earlier this week. They continued to posit the need for sustainable solutions to better serve communities—questions that the live music industry seemingly has no interest in asking right now. All those ridiculous VIP bungalows that once signified the act of going to festivals as pure lifestyle culture? They may be the only option to safely see live music going forward.

Who does this hurt? Smaller bands, smaller venues, fans in lower income brackets—they’re all likely fucked for a while. (There will almost certainly be an attempt at DIY alternatives in the usual urban community spaces, and their success both financially and in terms of public safety purely rests on how well organized they are.) A few months ago, I envisioned going to a show in the distant future as a PPE-filled nightmare, but as usual the future seems more boring: as it turns out, all you might need to have is a decent salary. (Remember those?)

There are non-Sam-Fender(?)-level acts that will be able to survive in this potentially more expensive approach to seeing live music, though. Consider the successful and socially distanced Yo La Tengo shows at Mass MoCA, which went off without controversy with $40 advance/$50 day-of tickets (to be fair, roughly what you’d pay pre-pandemic to see them at a venue like, say, Town Hall in Manhattan). Dinosaur Jr. just announced a pair of socially distanced performances as well; current sticker price for tickets starts at a whopping $110.

Necessity of price (and, when you take into account the extra measures and reduced capacity such shows require, it unfortunately is necessary) aside, can bands like Dinosaur Jr. afford to play concerts with ticket prices that reach the level of what someone would pay for a pre-pandemic Billie Eilish arena show? Absolutely. If anything, indie rock bands from the ‘80s, ‘90s, and 2000s—bands that could be considered “legacy acts” at this point—stand to have greater success with this approach than nearly any other non-classical genre of music out there. (Given the number of starched-shirt older men that I saw at a Parquet Courts show last year, big-name indie bands from the past decade might end up just fine, too.)

Even though bands like Yo La Tengo and Dinosaur Jr. are regularly attracting rite-of-passage younger listeners, their fan base is—and this isn’t age-shaming by any means—older than your typical Billie Eilish arena show attendee, or your “Can I get on the list for the SOPHIE set at Elsewhere?” aging millennial hipster. They’re the type of consumer that wasn’t necessarily rubbing elbows pre-pandemic at a Trans-Pecos show; a “night out” is likely something more rare for this type of consumer, which means that shelling out triple-digits for an evening excursion isn’t as unreasonable as it might be to, say, an out-of-work 33-year-old with a newsletter. (Don’t forget to subscribe!)

Again, none of this is to speak ill of bands who choose to go this route as the pandemic rages on. Everyone needs to make money, being a musician was a low-income job pre-COVID-19, and I’m certainly not going to begrudge Ira Kaplan or J Mascis for paying their bills—especially considering the time spent up to this point. But the future this suggests is more than concerning. If only legacy acts can survive this current and future climate, how does anyone even go about building new legacies?

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Jamie Larson