What was the mood as the music industry gathered for Pollstar Live?
The recent Pollstar Live conference was the first gathering of the live music tribe since the pandemic effectively shout it down for 15 months.
Guest post by David Benjamin De Cristofaro
In the month prior to the pandemic shut down in March of 2020, Pollstar Live took place- Little did anyone know at the time it would be well over a year before members of the diverse business community of agency, venue, production company, promoter reps and execs would gather again.
This past week, as the City of Los Angeles and the state of California, started opening back up, the annual conference and award show returned as the first major music industry in-person hybrid conference in a post-shutdown 2021.
A flagship event for the concert industry publication owned by Irving Azoff co-founded venue consultancy company Oak View Group, the conference features insightful panels, keynotes, and conversations. This in addition to a wealth of networking opportunities.
The crowd in attendance looks like a real-life manifest of a Venn diagram as it brings together a “who’s who” cross-section of the music business and live industry.
The conference typically takes place in early February during a timeframe in which a number of other major events in music are taking place in L.A., including the Grammy’s. Even without the benefit of the high-profile industry figures that the regularly scheduled time-of-year for L.A. award and event season brings, this year’s edition certainly was not lacking in that department. Panels included heavy hitters from Irving Azoff’s Oak View Group partner Tim Leiweke to Casey Wasserman and testified to both the big bounce-back taking place while addressing the risks in a return from the pandemic.
In addition to the invaluable insights and industry intel being shared from the stage from leading voices in and around relative spheres, the value of music still being a relationship-driven business was on full display by way of some of the most well respected and seasoned veterans of the touring industry. This was especially visible during the week’s opening day, Production Live, which saw talks by long-time industry legends and friends such as Jake Berry, Kelly Weiss, Stuart Ross, and David Garretson, stand out amidst the several days of programming.
The discussions contained a wealth of extensive knowledge and experience for anyone with an interest and passion for the business of music and fields to live events industry.
Access to this forum offers to some of the most experienced insiders and key players, as well as to the booking and talent agencies representing the majority of artists in music at every level during the final day’s Agents Live edition.
From the speakers and attendees to the student ambassadors who staffed the event, the several days were a strong representation of Pollstar’s strength and resiliency as a key insightful event in the music business sphere.
Here is a look at some of the week’s highlights:
Relying on “muscle memory”:
A prevalent notion shared by multiple speakers was that, initially, the live sector will need to lean on routine production and practices to return to normal as we know it, in order to recover. It was also noted, however, that sanitization and safety would likely be changed forever, and a number of other issues were noted from supply to geo routing and regional requirements were also mentioned. The obstacles these present to ritual systems and methods might possibly yield lasting innovations and improvements.
COVID and the industry’s navigation of it was a common topic in alluding to some of these adjustments. The production manager for Neil Young and Pearl Jam, Steve Drymaski spoke on how different states and different cities not having continuity and having different protocols presents challenges.
The company manager of VStar Entertainment Shelly Cohen pointed out from the theater perspective how some of the different areas of live entertainment come with different specs and requirements. Her panel pointed out that a lot of people in different sectors of the live industry are taking different approaches and even degrees of safety and are not on the same page while also noting that rapid tests are becoming the norm.
“Different types of live sectors have different backstage zones, processes and interactions between crew and venue, and performers and staff that require different approaches” Shelly pointed out.
David Garretson, acting as a special representative of IATSE, also pointed out regarding safety request that just because it’s in the artist’s rider doesn’t mean the local crew will comply.
These conversations also highlighted how limitations to backstage access, VIP and guest lists, restricted to specific zones would likely be in effect moving forward in the immediate future.
COVID is not insurable:
While it is exciting to have tours and festivals on the calendar for 2021, some eye-opening information that is not being talked about in the eco-chamber of news and media was brought to light- There is no insurance coverage for COVID as what was once “unforeseeable” is now eyes-wide-open and a completely foreseeable risk.
A hot topic during the initial pandemic shutdown was the lack of Force Majeur clauses in contractual agreements for live events. In short, these are clauses for unforeseen events, and with a year of pandemic under the live industries collective belt, COVID is a known risk that no longer falls in this category.
Roger Sandau of Epic Brokers pointed out as much during a Day Of Show: What Can We Expect? panel, noting that there is not an insurable backstop for this return to live events, it’s uninsurable and presents issues.
Betting big on music:
In discussing some of the business convergence that took place during the past year to close out the event, Oak View Group CEO Tim Leiweke pointed to panel member Casey Wasserman, whose company notably acquired Paradigm Talent Agency’s North American business in early 2021.
During a “Reviving Live!” panel, the grandson of legendary talent agent and studio executive Lew Wasserman and Leiweke spoke to the acquisition as “betting big on music”.
Wasserman commented that the move was about believing in the live music industry, “and we do for the next 20 years” while adding that the UK/European part of Paradigm “wasn’t far behind,” but had not yet been finalized as it was more complicated.
Pandemic relief funds for venues have been late, slow:
Leiweke made it a point to address how the music and live events industries were one of the hardest hit by the pandemic.
“I don’t think there is an industry that got harder hit than ours. I don’t think there’s an industry that got less support, quite frankly, than ours,” Leiweke said. “We were the one industry that the government, the politicians didn’t pay as much attention to.”
“We probably didn’t get the attention, the support or the understanding that we deserve as to what we have been through this last 16 months,” he added. ““We are blessed that the artists that drive our industry, that are at the center of everything we do, are so keen at getting back on the road and performing live. I think there’s never been more pent-up demand. Last year we kept on talking about the roaring 20s coming back again. What we clearly see now is that people ultimately appreciate life, and they appreciate the great things in life and in my opinion, they probably appreciate live music more than ever before.”
An industry often deprioritized or not prioritized by government at large (both federal and local,) federal funds allocated have been slow and not yet reached venues around the country in need of the relief for survival.
During a panel on how the production business stood tall in the pandemic, which highlighted advocacy as well as charitable pivots that made society-wide impact, Michael Strickland of Bandit Lites who received a “Heroes Of Live” honor, spoke to the delay in venue relief funds as well as to relief still needed in different areas of the industry. His lobbying with Congress on behalf of the live industry and those impacted economically by the shutdown is making an impact on Capitol Hill, with a new “Problem Solver’s Bill” on the horizon to hopefully account for those in the industry not yet accounted for in relief packages.
The delay in federal relief highlights the need for regional governments to take cues from the work of people such as Shain Shapiro of Sound Diplomacy and the Music Cities initiatives to promote allocation of funds for the creative economy at a local level so they can be part of the solution during economic recovery.
Leiweke did also note the future is bright, saying “We are heading into two, three, four years of the maybe the best times in our industry. You’ve all earned it.”
Sustainability and supply chain were notable topics:
Leiweke expounded on the reopening of California, it’s significant timing to allow Pollstar Live To take place, but also Oak View Group’s environmental investment by way of seven arena projects, including Seattle’s Climate Pledge Arena opening in October of this year. The venue will be the first carbon-neutral arena, and the others will follow suit.
“What we have to realize is we have about a 10-year window where if we don’t solve our problems with our planet and what we’re doing to ourselves, the whole Earth as we know it is going to disappear,” Leiweke said. “We cannot lose that battle.”
In addition to the arenas being crafted in an environmentally friendly and sustainable fashion, the company is also tailoring them inside and out for musical artists and concerts instead of sports alone. At the Seattle arena, for example, artists will have their own built- compound with direct stage access instead of being put up in the visiting locker room.
Amidst some of the event’s panel conversations it was mentioned that many music festivals are waiting to evaluate whether their show will go on until “60 days out”, which raised the question of truck availability, supply chain and resource scarcity with three-to-four major events of this kind scheduled per weekend throughout September of this year. It was also pointed out that the shipping industry, which has seen ecommerce marketplaces like Amazon made land, air and sea scarcer in availability in recent year, could also present challenges for bands that can’t afford the rates much less those on shorter turnaround times.
Jake Berry and Bob O’Brien of SOS Global Express pointed explained how the lack of ocean containers, planes, ships etc. all taken over and out of the market by e-commerce creates situations where if you don’t charter or book far enough out there’s scarcity and you’ll have to do air freight, and there’s a lot of bands who won’t be able to afford it.
States, artists and promoters who proceeded as if there was no pandemic:
Multiple speakers on a number of panels made reference to how the states of Florida and Texas pressed forward in foregoing safety regulations. They also alluded frequently to Country music artists who were ready to go back out on the road immediately after the shutdown.
When Insomniac’s attempt to hold 100,000+ attendance EDC earlier in the year prior to nationwide reopening was mentioned, one of the only two silent pauses around the room took place during what was otherwise several days of programming in which the buzz was felt. The EDM promoter also notably moved forward with a festival in Florida during the week of the COVID shutdown in March of last year. The only other audible pause during the week came during a panel mention of widespread vaccine and how to promote people getting it, as it will be up to regional officials then artists whether vaccinations will be required to attend live events, and ultimately up to individual fans whether they get the vax or not.
While these challenges were noted, most all discussions were centered around progress with an eye on moving forward.
A good thing that came out of the pandemic was better industry relations:
One of the most oft echoed sentiments among the panels and speakers was that “we’re all in this together.” It was pointed out how working through the pandemic brought different competing businesses together, improving industry relations between everyone from promoters to agencies.
A byproduct of these collaborations was working together towards solutions to industry wide challenges, which could bode well for efficiencies and improvements in the future.
Things are picking up, moving quickly, and becoming a dash race:
During a State Of The Market For Tour & Event Sponsorship panel, Live Nation global president Russell Wallach said that the company’s festival sponsorship business is booming and that they are way ahead in the UK with their sponsorship as well, noting that brands are also planning for 2022.
Hitlon senior vice president Mark Weinstein added that they were beginning to pivot back to an experiential budget that they normally work with, which was a sign of progress, while Kevin Gelbard of CAA also mentioned that there’s lots of brands hustling to get ready for 2022. Later that day, UTA’s Ken Fermaglich noted that inflation will be an issue, but that business is not inhibited by finance- The market is explosive right now, things are selling.
While the tours and festivals scheduled could be viewed as tentative, the boom of business and opening up of brand spending is a good indication of economic recovery.
In closing the event, Leiweke spoke to the importance of learning from the experience while moving forward, “and how do we do this right.”
“We have a good run coming up and I believe this conference is the beginning of that run,” he said. “But let us not forget those we lost, let us not forget the price this industry and many people paid, let us not forget the 600,000 people that we lost due to this virus.”
“I’m proud that live is back,” he added. “We may have been the hardest-hit the industry, but we’re going to be the one that everybody rallies around.”
David Benjamin De Cristofarois a recent grad ‘available-for-hire’ who achieved National success as an award-winning student of Music Business, Tech, Marketing and Economics with The University of The Arts and Berklee College of Music. While in school, he met with members of Congress in advocacy with The Recording Academy, worked with some of the largest artists, tours, and festivals in Music, and on creative experience projects and solutions for NARAS, the Capitol Records Innovation Center, Fender, Bose, MusiCares, Spotify, and Republic Records. He has served as an international speaker at universities and conferences. He spent the pandemic writing journalism pieces on immersive and fan experience ecosystems, while also contributing to USA Today SMG.