Coronavirus

Could Arkansas' Socially-Distanced Concert Be The Blueprint For Live Music in 2020?

Travis McCready
Sergione Infuso/Corbis via Getty Images

Travis McCready performs at Fabrique Club on March 8, 2019 in Milan, Italy.

Since live events across the country started getting canceled or postponed in early March, the biggest questions occupying the live music industry have been when shows can resume and what they will look like when they do. Many government officials have stated that concerts, festivals and large gatherings will be among the last parts of pre-COVID-19 life that will return.

But the virus has impacted communities at varying levels of severity, and now, Fort Smith, Arkansas has stepped forward to become the front runner in showing the rest of the U.S. how concerts can move forward, even as the pandemic still rages.

On April 23, concert venue TempleLive in Fort Smith announced a show with Travis McCready of country rock outfit Bishop Gunn, set to take place May 15. The acoustic performance would be a smaller one for McCready, whose full band went on hiatus earlier this year, and would be the first show of its size to put social-distancing practices into place.

TempleLive’s Mike Brown called McCready with the idea, which he said he was eager to try after nearly two months of cancelled events that coincided with the launch of his solo career.

“I know Mike is a pretty professional guy so I wanted to see what he had,” McCready tells Billboard. “He described everything to do with the show and the venue and it seemed like a go to me. After seeing the big list of safety precautions and the whole order of the thing, it seemed to be alright.”

The lengthy list of precautions include TempleLive's 1,100 capacity theater being reduced by 80% for a total of 229 available seats. All those in attendance will be required to wear face masks, which will also be available at the event for those who don’t bring one. Per CDC guidelines, fans will be directed by venue staff through one-way walkways to maintain social distancing throughout the event. There will be a 10-person limit on each bathroom and all soap and paper towel dispensers will be no-touch, while employees will be wiping down touch points in the venue and restrooms. All beverages at the event will be prepackaged or have lids, and attendees will have their temperature taken before they enter the venue.

Prior to the May 15 show, the venue will be sanitized by an independent third party with fog sprayers, and tickets can only be purchased in what Ticketmaster is calling “fan pods” of two to 12 seats to avoid mingling amongst groups that have not been social distancing together.

“We had a pretty in-depth conference call [with Ticketmaster] on how we could build this event because it is not one of our interactive seat maps,” Brown says. “You can’t just buy an individual ticket. You have to buy [fan pods] and that’s who you are comfortable social distancing with. That’s either people inside your household or close associates that you don’t have a personal issue being within six feet of.”

Brown says that after a 45-minute call with their ticketing partner, it only took Ticketmaster a few days to build the technology and educate the venue’s box office on how it would work. Prior to that, the venue staff also had to determine which seats could be sold. According to Brown, it took “different iterations of going around the venue with a six-foot rope and making a radius to see what seats we can use and how we do the traffic for the footpath. The pit in front of the stage typically holds 180 and now there are 20 seats there.”

TempleLive has been able to attempt one of the pandemic’s first socially-distanced concerts due to the loosening of restrictions in Arkansas. On Monday, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson announced that indoor venues could resume live shows as of May 18 -- three days after McCready’s scheduled performance -- with the directive stating venues can open up with fewer than 50 people in attendance and "requires strict social distance among performers, contestants and members of the audience." 

Brown explains that the venue is in constant contact with state officials and believes the governor will amend his directive since other large gatherings, such as religious meetings, are allowed immediately without capacity restrictions.

TempleLive has also been able to move forward with live events because of the relatively low impact COVID-19 has had on the state. At the time of publishing, Arkansas had fewer than 4,000 cases state-wide and Governor Hutchinson never announced a stay-at-home order for residents. 

“It may not be for everyone,” says Brown. “It may not make sense to have a show in a 1,000-seat venue. But we just wanted to do something to get it back to normal, or close.”

Many communities around the country that have been hit harder by the coronavirus have stay-at-home orders and far-stricter regulations for restarting the economy, with cities like Los Angeles and Nashville placing live events in the final phases of reopening plans. Independent venues in more heavily-regulated areas have sought federal aid while waiting for instructions for when they can open their doors again. National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) president and owner of Minneapolis’ First Avenue Dayna Frank told the virtual audience for the AMP Summit on Wednesday (May 6) that there is no clear uniformity amongst NIVA’s 1,300-plus members on when they can go back to work.

“Some members really want to open. They need it for their business. They don’t know how they are going to make it through this. They don’t have any federal commitments or financial support and they want to open,” Frank said in conversation with live-event attorney Simon Rust Lamb. “That’s a decision that every business is going to have to make for their business and their family within their state guidelines. NIVA is not saying, ‘No. We’re in solidarity. No one is opening until there is a vaccine.’ No way. We are independent. We are united in our independence.”

NIVA is currently in the process of synthesizing best practices for when venues can reopen alongside the Event Safety Alliance in order to share that information with their members and keep artists, fans and staff going forward. 

“One of the things that might take us to viable solutions is the fact that states like Florida and Texas are leaning towards opening their business lives more quickly and I think we’ll see what the results of those experiments are,” Lamb said during the virtual summit. “If things go well in those states, it helps everybody because we can look at it and go, ‘Here is the price we are paying. People are getting sick. People aren’t getting sick.’ We can use that information and share it.”

Even if government officials give the okay for concerts to resume and safety guidelines are streamlined, these socially-distanced shows may not be financially viable options for a lot of artists, venues or other members of the live music ecosystem. Socially distanced shows like the one at TempleLive will continue to require close to, if not a full staff for venues that will only be bringing in a maximum of 20% of its ticket sales. The limited attendance will also mean fewer fans purchasing food and beverage, parking and merchandise that venues and artists rely on to broaden already-tight profit margins. 

“I think there's kind of a shared understanding that [everyone will be taking less money] and a little more willingness from everyone that's like, 'Okay, a door deal makes sense. We're willing to just go in together on this. We know there's so many unknowns. We're trying to stay busy if we can,’” says Treefort Festival co-founder and Duck Club Presents promoter Eric Gilbert. “I think until the parameters normalize again, it's going to be kind of like that. All parties have to recognize -- and you've been hearing this a little bit in the industry and it's refreshing -- that we really are all in this together.”

The result of varying local regulations and limited capacities could also push concerts into more secondary markets instead of highly-impacted major markets and force venues and artists to make tough decisions based on their personal financial needs.

“It’s really not about making money at this point,” says Brown of McCready’s TempleLive show, which will have to use a full operating staff despite the limited capacity and income from the $20-per-head event. “We really want to get something back to normal. This is a small step in the right direction. If the market continues to respond to it well and we can move forward with the state, I think that this is a great litmus test for us to see what we can do going forward.”

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