Live & Touring

Overthinking the fall concert season (as a music industry professional)

James Shotwell digs into what a fall concert season could look like, as delta varient rages on, and venues, artists, and audience all question what the next few months will bring in terms of live performance.

Guest post by James Shotwell of Haulix

Every day someone asks me the same question: Where do we go from here?

On July 8, something incredible happened. For the first time in over 14 months, I stepped inside a music venue and watched multiple bands perform to an all-ages crowd without masks or social distancing. I cannot lie and say it felt normal. The first sign of a mosh pit made me cringe, as did the first person I saw crowd surfing. Over time, however, I grew comfortable. Everything was the way it would’ve been at any point before March 2020, and for a moment, that felt great.

Then I snapped back to reality. The year is 2021, and we are still in a global pandemic claiming more lives with each passing day. The world as we know it is not returning to normal. We don’t know what normal looks like anymore. 

But entertainment is one of several industries leading the charge for normalcy. The last several months have included countless tour and festival announcements, each with on-sale dates and massive promotion. Tickets for these events have been selling in record numbers. Some analysts describe consumer behavior right now as “the YOLO economy.” People are spending more money to do more things than ever because they’re sick of the way we’ve been living for the last year. It seems everyone is willing to do anything that gets them out of their house, and most will pay whatever it takes for an experience that makes them feel a bit more alive.

At the same time, news of new COVID variants makes daily headlines. The cold hard truth is that nobody knows how to defeat the beast that this pandemic has become. Vaccines are incredibly effective at preventing sickness and keeping those who do contract the virus from dying. Still, there is a large segment of the population who are seemingly unwilling to get a shot. Then there’s the ongoing discussion about the possibility of needing additional injections down the line, as well as disagreements at every level of government as to what citizens should be made to do and what should be considered optional. All that, coupled with the increasingly aggressive variants that are continuing to emerge, the ongoing wage crisis in America and the worker shortage it’s creating, and that potential for a positive COVID diagnosis to completely derail any event at a moment’s notice, is making a lot of hurdles for people hoping to maintain the illusion of normalcy. 

I cannot remember the last week that passed without one or more of my coworkers asking me what the industry at large was thinking regarding the coronavirus pandemic. At first, everyone was delaying their projects and tours until they could properly promote them with face-to-face fan interaction. Certain people who made that choice later pivoted to digitally releasing their creations without a proper promotional tour. Others are still sitting on ideas that have been percolating for nearly two years. 

Elsewhere, some people are touring, and others are canceling tours. A few festivals are requiring proof of vaccination to enter, but others are not. Jason Isbell says he’ll cancel shows if they don’t require proof of vaccinations. Don’t test it. He’ll do it.

To put it in the simplest terms: The music industry as we know it is a mess right now. Nobody agrees on the right way to do things, and that is confusing the entertainment ecosystem. That confusion inevitably leads to anxiety, which creates stress, and before you know it — everyone is miserable.

But what can we do? The answer, for most of us, is nothing. We are at the mercy of the public. How millions of strangers choose to live their lives will decide what happens in our careers. If people are irresponsible, more music professionals will lose jobs, and live shows will disappear once more. If people protect themselves and others by following the guidelines of those on the frontlines, then maybe touring can continue. If touring can continue, albums can release, artists can sell merchandise, and everyone can make money. That money will then help pay to support label staff, publicists, management, booking agents, promoters, marketers, merch sellers, bus drivers, road crew members, producers, engineers, studio and office overhead costs, etc. 

Trying to stay positive in the music industry right now is a lot like trying to stay positive about the future of civilization while being fully aware of climate change. In both instances, we recognize the need for change, but we also understand that the level of change needed is greater than what we can accomplish alone. The best we can do is stay safe, stay informed, and support one another. There will always be music. There will always be people writing songs and trying to find ways to get those songs to people who need to hear them. The music industry as we know it will inevitably change, but that change will hopefully lead to a better entertainment business for everyone. Change may be scary, but it is (usually) also good.

If you’re reading this right now and you or someone you love is working in music, please know you are not alone. Whatever storm of thoughts and doubts are circling your brain right now are plaguing many others as well, myself included. Nobody knows what next week is going to look like for our industry, let alone next month. What matters most is that we support another, talk to another, and never lose sight of why we fell for music in the first place. Music is the great equalizer. Throughout time, music is what brings people together. It is there for us in our darkest hours and our most brilliant moments. Music means so much to so many, and that will never change. Our roles in the industry will evolve and (more than likely) disappear in time, but new needs and opportunities will emerge. Throughout it all, music will remain.

Take it easy, my friend. There is nothing to do that isn’t already being done. For every problem, there is a solution, and we will find the answers we need in time. Until then, in the immortal words of Laura Jane Grace, “Don’t Lose Touch.”

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