No Audience? No Problem. Full Production Concerts Are Returning to Empty Venues

Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires
Erika Goldring

Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires perform live at Brooklyn Bowl Nashville on May 15, 2020.

Shows like Jason Isbell at Brooklyn Bowl Nashville and Rauw Alejandro at El Coliseo de Puerto Rico in San Juan are a stopgap investment in a stalled live music industry.

On May 15, Jason Isbell celebrated the release of his latest album, Reunions, with his band the 400 Unit by christening the stage at the newly-built Brooklyn Bowl in Nashville alongside his wife musician Amanda Shires. The music venue and bowling alley was scheduled to make its grand opening in March, but remained shuttered after a tornado hit Music City and the spread of COVID-19 halted live shows around the globe. 

So, instead, Isbell and Shires took the stage without the full band and played to roughly 20 people made up of just crew and venue staff, who kept more than six feet apart and wore masks in the 1,200-capacity club to prevent spread of the novel coronavirus. 

Jason was going to play a show anyways at the Bowl. It was going to be a surprise thing around the record release,” says Brooklyn Bowl owner Peter Shapiro. “We are adjusting to what is in front of us and the Jason thing lined up.”

The 75-minute show was livestreamed via Fans.com, which Shapiro owns, with more than 100,000 live viewers and an additional 60,000 post-live celebrating the release of Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s Reunions and with fan donations raising more than $100,000 for MusiCares’ COVID relief fund. 

That same night, Bud Light Seltzer aired a pre-recorded performance from Brad Paisley where he and his band played a full-production arena show from the Steel Mill rehearsal space where Paisley and his crew had been practicing for their upcoming tour before the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Paisley told Billboard afterwards that his team went through great lengths to safely stage the show with video content company Moo Productions and live audio experts Sound Image. That included taking band and crew members’ temperatures, marking spaces on the stage where each member could perform without coming within six feet of each other, Paisley setting up his own microphone and his guitar tech applying fast-drying alcohol to everything he touched. 

“We took three days to do something that would have been hours [normally],” he said. “For a typical load in, you’d hire a local crew. We didn’t do that. This was all people that work for our company or Moo Productions or maybe Sound Image. You didn't want more than six or seven people in a certain area.”

Paisley’s Bud Light Seltzer concert garnered between one and two million viewers within a few days of the performance, according to the country superstar. 

Both Paisley and Isbell’s free performances followed a trend of artists and venues making the best of a bad situation, broadcasting full concerts without an audience. The crowd-free streams serve as a way to engage fans tired of at-home sessions and provide revenue for music workers and venues since they are often sponsored or underwritten by labels, management companies and brands. 

The staff being used to pull off these audience-free shows is limited and the streaming content is typically free or far less than a ticket price, but venues and the music industry are treating the performances as more of investments in live music rather than money makers. With concerts in various stages of reopening across the world, audience-free shows can serve as a bandaid to get some crew and staff working until crowds can gather again and hopefully keep fans interested in live music.

“Right now, we’re trying to put some work on the staff that has been several months without doing anything and not getting paid. Most of the workforce are freelancers, so it has been hard for them,” says Eduardo Cajina, GM of the 18,500-person capacity El Coliseo de Puerto Rico in San Juan, where they hosted a live show with Rauw Alejandro on May 16. The hour-long full production show has already been viewed more than 6 million times on YouTube.  “At least with this, they can do something and get paid. It’s a way to start doing things and reactivating show business.”

In Mexico, event promoters, artist managers, venue owners and other music executives have joined forces to launch an ambitious project they hope will help revive the concert industry's economy by creating more than 1,000 temporary jobs during the month of June in Mexico City and Guadalajara, Jalisco. The plan titled Reactivation of Entertainment and Music in Mexico (REMM) opens two venues -- Pepsi Center WTC in Mexico City and Conjunto Santander de Artes Escénicas in Guadalajara -- for audience-free shows that will be livestreamed for $5 or less. (These concerts are only available to watch live, not later on-demand.) Income generated from the shows will be deposited to Asociación Civil MEXIMM A.C., which will manage and distribute the funds to musicians and professionals of each concert.

"All areas are being affected [by COVID-19],” Norma Gasca of Rock Show Entertainment and co-founder of the REMM initiative told Billboard last month. “From security personnel, accesses and technicians, to bartenders, waiters, drivers, aides and catering; it's not just about talent, promoters and booking agencies. It's a timid next step to, based on the result, keep proposing ways until we get back to the times of live concerts."

While venue workers are slowly getting back to work through these shows, the revenue generated is minimal at best and a far cry from the multi-million dollar tours the concert industry had grown accustomed to before the pandemic with revenue streaming from ticket sales, merchandise, food and beverage, sponsorships and more. For the Isbell show at Brooklyn Bowl, Shapiro says they did not charge Isbell to use the building and the room was already wired for livestreaming, adding, “I think it will be a cool thing for that venue forever.” Cajina says the Alejandro performance was put on at cost, which was paid for by artist management and venue sponsors. 

Bud Light footed the bill for Paisley’s performance as part of the company’s virtual Bud Light Seltzer Sessions and believes sponsorships are the way to continue monetizing digital shows going forward. 

“You'd have to find the right thing and you have to make it fair. It shouldn't even approach what a real ticket is because it's not nearly the same experience. But I like the idea better that companies [sponsor],” Paisley said. “I’ve done two different quarantine concerts for Bud Light already. One from my kitchen and another from the Steel Mill, both with incredible production.”

Cajina and Shapiro both say requests to do more audience-less shows at their venues are pouring in. El Coliseo de Puerto Rico is looking to book bigger names to draw more viewers with several concerts with soon-to-be-announced artists already in the works for later this summer and fall. Cajina says they are planning to start charging viewers low rates between $2-3 per performance for some shows going forward. 

For ticketed full production livestreams, artists and promoters might be wise to  look to the Korean music industry for tips on successfully monetizing concerts. On April 26, K-pop supergroup SuperM performed from an undisclosed venue for a livestream show its label SM Entertainment says generated 75,000 paid viewers in 109 countries and earned more than $2 million, according to numbers reported to Forbes. On June 14, BTS’ BANG BANG CON: The Live virtual concert drew more than 750,000 paid viewers, according to their label Big Hit Entertainment. Based on Big Hit’s numbers provided to Billboard, the show -- which was produced in partnership with Korean telecom company Kiswe Mobile -- broke a record for the most-attended paid virtual concert to date and brought in at least $18 million based on ticket sales starting at $24. 

But Brooklyn Bowl’s Shaprio doesn’t know expect paid livestreams to work as well for smaller artists and independent venues. “It’s all new. People are happy to donate,” he says. “I am sure some pay-per-view ticketing will start happening more. No one knows exactly how to do this because it has never happened. The numbers are way bigger when it is free and people are giving to charity.”

He hopes, instead, to use the paid livestreams as a means to supplement live concerts going forward as audiences return at reduced capacities. “There will probably be more of these shows without audiences first at venues,” he says. “We’ll look to do more, but then hopefully it will be some minimal crowds.”

In the meantime, venues can take some solace in the fans they are continuing to interact with via the livestream audience-free shows. For Paisley, more than 1 million people tuned into his May 15 show -- an amount of fans he said would have taken one or two full tours to reach. 

“When you play for a million people in one year, that's a hugely successful year. So you had those eyeballs. Make no mistake, this does not replace the live concert someday. We all know that,” Paisley said. “We have been thrown the test of all tests, haven't we? This is a stop gap and all of us are doing different things. All of us have a desire to continue to reach people.”

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