Coronavirus

How Drive-In Concerts Are Becoming a New Model for Pandemic Performances

drive-in concert
Lukas Kabon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A drive-in concert in Ostrava, Czech Republic on May 15, 2020.

"This is not a long play," says Live Nation’s Tom See. "But you’ve got a pent-up fan that really wants to go out and have a good time."

At first, when Danish singer-songwriter Mads Langer hit the stage in late April, he was perplexed that he couldn't hear the crowd cheering. Then a large man started shaking his small car. Then another car was shaking. And another. Soon all 500 cars in the diamond-shaped Aarhus, Denmark, drive-in theater recently built for coronavirus-era concerts were wiggling in rhythm. “It was very different, depending on the size of the car and the size of the people in the car,” he says. “Those moments kept happening in a way they don't happen at a regular concert.”

With concerts shut down for the foreseeable future, enterprising artists and desperate promoters are reaching out to drive-in theater spaces that have dwindled in popularity over the decades -- 447 such U.S. theaters were operating in 1999, compared to 305 last fall, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association. Drive-in concerts have popped up in Denmark, Lithuania and Germany over the past two months, and they're multiplying in North America -- from a Keith Urban benefit for health-care workers in Tennessee to an impromptu Seattle Center parking-lot concert starring local rapper Raz Simone to an upcoming national tour with singer-pianist Marc Rebillet. “This is not a long play, by any stretch of the imagination,” says Tom See, Live Nation’s president of U.S. venues. “But you’ve got a pent-up fan that really wants to go out and have a good time. It’s a concert you never forget.”

EDM promoter James “Disco Donnie” Estopinal Jr. had to abruptly cancel two scheduled festivals and hundreds of shows when the pandemic hit the concert business on March 12. He’s organizing raves at drive-in theaters to make up a fraction of that money -- Riot Ten and Subdocta will headline the first event in Houston on May 29. "It's better to have $1 coming in than no dollars coming in," Estopinal says. "Dealing with the drive-ins has been very complicated. They don't answer the phone, they don't answer their email. They've never been so busy. I'm not just competing against other rave promoters, I'm competing against everybody -- families, schools, country promoters, rock promoters."

Are drive-in concerts pandemic novelty events? Or are they crucial new revenue sources for a concert business that stands to lose billions of dollars during the coronavirus crisis?

George Couri of Triple 8 Management booked the Eli Young Band and Whiskey Myers at the Texas Rangers' Globe Life Field Stadium for a series of drive-in events beginning June 4 and says the economics are "very repeatable" and opening-weekend ticket sales are “already profitable for everybody involved.” The Globe Life shows will open with 450 cars, at $40 per car, but they could expand to 1,500 cars with two or three ticket buyers apiece. The estimated gross for such an event works out to $120,000, plus potential sponsorship revenue.

And for some drive-in concerts, expenses are lower than usual since many acts will opt to transmit audio wirelessly instead of hauling in pricey sound equipment. "It's not interesting to artists who are used to making $200,000 or more a night, but those artists probably don't need the money right now," Couri says. "If you can get a place that's big enough, you're talking about carving up $100,000 or $200,000 a night -- that's very worthwhile to a lot of people."

But when it comes to expanding the audiences, he adds: "The big question becomes bathrooms."

For most live-music events, drive-in theaters have simply boosted restroom staffing. “There’s going to be someone who walks in right behind you, with gloves and sanitizer, so for the next person, it’s totally sanitized,” says Allen Thompson, managing partner for the 150-car Digital Drive-In AZ, in Mesa, Arizona, where regional jam band Spafford will play a $100-per vehicle concert on Sunday evening.

Now that its Urban concert went so smoothly -- “the only thing that’s changed is the tailgate party will now be the concert,” the country star said -- Live Nation plans to expand drive-in shows to its 50 amphitheaters. That means restrooms, in addition to parking lots and security staff and attendants, are built in.

For a giant promoter like Live Nation, these types of shows are a financial pittance, but they can be profitable for individual artists and indie drive-in theaters. “The profit margins are slimmer, obviously, than a regular concert,” says Christian Bernhardt, one of Rebillet’s agents at UTA. “But with the right budget and resources, you can definitely create something of significant scale.”

American artists and promoters have paid close attention to European drive-in events, such as the concert by Lithuanian singer Giedrė Kilčiauskienė at the regional Palūknio airport in late April. Event-management company Showart handles restrooms by distributing a private phone number for attendees to call; six to 10 workers in brightly colored jackets, masks and sanitary gloves are on hand to escort fans to the facilities, which are "always disinfected thoroughly so there would be no danger," says Žygimantas Gudanavičius, ShowArt's project manager.

"There were almost no mistakes," he adds. "It all went smoothly."

In Dusseldorf, Germany, event-management company D.Live had to cancel 45 concerts, including 400,000 tickets, on one day in March. "A big shock," says Michael Brill, the company's CEO. But his team quickly pivoted to its Dusseldorf drive-in theater property, which they adapted to shows starring local rappers in April. Those went so well that they're planning weddings, boxing matches and pole-vaulting competitions in addition to more live music. "We were afraid people would come to a show and just behave as if there wouldn't be corona," Brill says. "But everybody was so thankful and happy about going somewhere that we didn't have a single incident."

For artists, drive-in concerts are a blank canvas. Ten years ago, Seattle rapper Raz Simone began pondering a silent listening party where he would pass out wireless headphones to attendees. About a year ago, he went so far as to buy 200 of them -- which came in handy in early May, when he held an unauthorized pop-up concert at a Seattle Center parking lot with three electrical generators, a soundboard mixing table, DJ equipment and a wireless transmitter for broadcasting the music to fans in their cars. His team disinfected the headphones, told “maybe less than a dozen people” the time and location and when they got there found 40 cars waiting for them. "It was surreal. So many people are walking or pulling up, like, 'What's going on?' Everybody's honking, but it's completely silent," Simone says. "Security guards actually pulled up on us and we ended up giving them some headphones and they were rocking out."

Artists planning formal drive-in events have to contend with local laws on social-distancing, masks and sanitation, some of which are changing constantly. July Talk, a Toronto indie-rock band, is working out logistics for shows at still-unannounced locations beginning in August, using existing theaters' technology of transmitting sound signals to car audio systems via FM frequencies. (Live Nation plans to eschew the FM approach and create enough space for each fan to have a 28-by-27-foot “pod” for live sound-system listening.) "The safety protocol has been a big focus: How do the washrooms work? How do the food concessions work? We've hired a safety officer," says singer Peter Dreimanis. Adds singer Leah Fay: "These drive-in shows are us making lemonade out of the raging Dumpster fire that 2020 has been thus far."

For its Digital Drive-In AZ show on May 24, Spafford will set up a PA system to go with FM transmitter broadcasts. Band members will stand six feet apart onstage, and producers and crew will wear masks and gloves and constantly wipe down the equipment. "I think most people will park their cars backwards and sit in the trunk," says singer-guitarist Brian Moss.

"There are a lot of strange logistical and organizational hurdles," adds Rebillet, the improvisational singer-pianist who'll take two flights and stay in hotels for his five-show (and likely more) summer drive-in tour beginning June 11 in Charlotte. "I'm going to have it set up where I can run around the cars and interact with people -- to a safe degree. It's a lot of rushing to get this thing together."

For all the excitement about a new way of approaching concerts, there's still some sadness to the events. Ricky Muñoz, frontman for the Norteño fusion band Intocable, wonders how fans will dance during the June 6 show his band is planning at a to-be-announced San Antonio-area location. "Do I really like the idea? I wish it'd all be like it used to be, really, but we've got to do what we've got to do," he says. Stuart Ross, a manager at Red Light Management, also has many questions: "Is this going to be a good experience? People generally want to be as close as they possibly can be," he says. "Is it going to be good for the artist? Live performers get their energy from people being close to the stage and the reaction of patrons. It's a very different paradigm."

But many in the concert business hope the events can be a stopgap financial solution for artists and their teams, as well as some event production staff, who've been sitting at home, making no money. And some musicians are inspired.

Like Mads Langer, Rebillet hopes to take advantage of windshield wipers. "You know there's going to be squirting material," he says.

Langer adds: "It's been really interesting to get pushed out of your comfort zone -- the normal concert format hasn't really changed in so many years. This is something I'll never forget. It's going to be a highlight of my career till the end of my days."

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