Touring

Everything You Need to Know About How -- And When -- Concerts Will Return

back to live touring
Illustration by Matt Chase

With the constant rescheduling of tours and a tangled web of conflicting state laws, music fans and industry pros would be rightfully confused about when — and how — concerts will return. Look no further: Your burning questions about how to protect your health (and bank account) as the pandemic’s end draws near are answered here.

When can I go to a concert?

That depends on where you live. The return of shows will be decided largely on a state-by-state basis by both governors and city leaders, not federal officials, although many states and private businesses will build their reopening strategies around guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Florida and Texas have already allowed concerts to resume, though not without some issues: Steve Aoki and Diplo each got warnings from local police and reproof from the mayor of Tampa, Fla., for performing in front of maskless crowds during Super Bowl weekend in February.

More restrictive states like New York and California have announced that outdoor concerts could resume as soon as April 1 if capacity is capped at 25%. Bright Eyes is moving forward with a rescheduled show on July 31 at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens, while Outside Lands organizers have put tickets on sale even as they moved the 60,000-attendees-per-day San Francisco festival from August to October.

Does that mean my favorite big artist could still play this year?

Chances are low. While audiences may not mind being capped at 20% capacity, most acts still need 100% of their audience to play a show. “There’s just not enough money at 20% to sustain a touring band and their crew,” says tour manager Christian Coffey, who works with acts like A$AP Rocky and Run the Jewels. Coffey says that most artists need to draw 70% to 80% capacity each night to break even. “And they still need their manager and driver and roadies and guitar techs to help the group look and sound their best. That’s not possible if they’re only earning 20% of the revenue they used to make.”

When will shows reach 100% capacity again?

So far, there’s no definite answer. Experts like the National Independent Talent Organization’s Nadia Prescher say most of their peers anticipate that two conditions must be met in order for touring to resume: Cities looking to host concerts must have 70% to 80% of their citizens vaccinated, and at least 70% of U.S. cities must have reached this goal for national touring to be economically viable.

It also depends on what kind of artist you’re hoping to see. For artists who play large theaters or amphitheaters with capacities in the 2,000- to 10,000-seat range, there must be sufficient connectivity between tour route stops allowing an act to play a show every 300 to 400 miles and thus sustain the costs of playing big venues. But those artists could also choose to play smaller venues in a set geographic area — say, the Southwest trio of New Mexico, Arizona and Texas — much as smaller, independent artists do in order to build a following. They could also opt for underplays and special engagements, especially in Los Angeles and New York, in which major artists play intimate venues and a label or sponsor picks up part of the cost. Those exceptions aside, says Prescher, the return of large-scale touring — which generates the bulk of live business revenue — will really need most states open at the same time to truly work.

Could I at least see my favorite indie act sooner?

Maybe. Smaller clubs are expected to reopen before arenas, and some artists have tour dates mapped already — like the Grammy Award-nominated Black Pumas, who have 13 shows scheduled through late April and May in locales like Chicago, Pittsburgh, Brooklyn and Austin.

How long will all of this take?

As of mid-March, the United States was vaccinating about 2.5 million Americans per day, according to Bloomberg’s COVID-19 tracker, which measures the speed of the rollout. At that pace, vaccinating 70% to 85% of the population would take until the end of the year, according to leading government infectious-disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci.

What do promoters risk if they book a band and then the show gets pushed back or canceled due to COVID-19?

Losing the deposit they paid the band, which in many cases can be 50% to 100% of the total fee the artist was set to earn at the show. Prior to the pandemic, promoters were able to rely on force majeure or “act of God” contract provisions, which protected show organizers from cancellations caused by events beyond their control. But savvy agents are demanding changes to those provisions so that their artists don’t risk having half of their tour canceled because of an overzealous promoter.

Will I have to prove I’m vaccinated to attend a concert?

Ticketmaster says it has technology to allow fans to digitally verify their vaccine status after they purchase a ticket, but it hasn’t provided many details on how it will work, and president Mark Yovich says that the company would only use that if local and state health officials mandated it. “Ticketmaster’s goal is to provide enough flexibility and options so that venues and fans have multiple paths to return to events,” says Yovich, adding that the company’s development strategy is based on “what’s greenlit by local officials and desired by clients.”In New York, at least, starting April 1, fans must provide evidence they’ve been vaccinated or tested negative for COVID-19 to attend reduced-capacity events. Proof can be as easy as producing a copy of your inoculation card at the venue door.

Will I still have to wear a mask?

Most public health officials, including Fauci, believe that vaccinated adults will be required to wear masks in public buildings through the end of 2021 to prevent the spread of COVID-19 variants.

I’m not vaccinated. Is it dangerous for me to go to an indoor venue?

Initially, public health officials believed concerts — especially indoor shows with fans tightly packed together — posed a significant risk for the spread of COVID-19. But a recent German study found that indoor concerts may pose a low risk of viral spread if the venue is properly ventilated. Researchers from the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg in Saxony-Anhalt conducted an experiment in which 1,500 volunteers attended an August concert by singer Tim Bendzko at a Leipzig arena. Participants were armed with digital movement tracers and fluorescent-dyed hand disinfectant that allowed measurement of physical interaction during the show; the researchers even used a fog machine to simulate the spread of aerosolized droplets that could cause infections. Their analysis found that the risk of COVID-19 infection was reduced by 90% if the air inside the venue was constantly recirculated with outside air.

In a recent address to the Association of Performing Arts Professionals, Fauci expressed support for the findings, noting that “if the indoor venue is well-ventilated and maybe has some HEPA filters, I think you could then start getting back to almost full capacity of seating.”

That said, the study also found that periods of prolonged contact were highest when participants lined up to enter the venue at showtime, as well as during breaks, when they used the bathroom and bought beverages. They were safest when they remained in their seats for the duration of the show — so for now, experts say fans who aren’t vaccinated should do the same.

What kind of technology is being developed to minimize viral spread at concerts?

In October, Ticketmaster rolled out its SmartEvent platform, which repurposes some of the smartphone technology it had developed to fight ticket scalping into a platform for facilitating contactless visits to concert venues. Ticketmaster’s main technological innovation — the digital ticket — was designed to phase out print-at-home tickets. Mobile tickets can’t be duplicated by scalpers, but they can be easily transferred from the box office to the fan, eliminating lines at will call. Ticketmaster has also outlined plans to create applications allowing fans to order food on their phones, form a digital bathroom line and use GPS to assist with contact tracing if infections at a show are reported.

Will artists continue livestreaming concerts once in-person shows come back?

Livestreaming won’t just stick around — many believe it will continue to grow, not as a replacement for live events but as a new fan offering that coexists with an album or tour cycle. “It’s one more tentpole moment you can create around an artist’s career,” says Underoath manager Randy Nichols — much like a comedian’s TV special or the DVDs of the “final show of the tour” concerts of yore. High-production value livestreams have proved profitable, with some sales in the seven figures: Dua Lipa’s Studio 2054 took in over $5.3 million in ticket sales (moving 284,000 units) according to her management company, TaP Music, and over 5 million people tuned in, thanks in part to agreements to stream the performance for free in India and China. Niall Horan sold over 125,000 tickets for his livestream concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall, netting $2.5 million.

“Because of the pandemic, we’ve taught fans to embrace this new platform they weren’t comfortable with before,” says Nichols. “It will live on after the pandemic, even if the application is applied differently.”


Save The Date

As COVID-19 cases continue to decline, a full-scale recovery for the live business looks ever more possible in the near future. Watch these dates to track the comeback of concerts in the United States.

April 24: With under a month to go, dance festival Ubbi Dubbi — a 25,000-person camping event near Dallas with major artists like Kaskade and Illenium — will be an early test for vaccine-era events. Two days later, Moon Crush, a socially distanced concert vacation in Miramar Beach, Fla., is set to begin.

May 1: President Joe Biden has instructed states to make all Americans eligible for vaccination by this date; how close the country comes will determine when concerts resume.

June 4: Florida has hardly been a leader when it comes to pandemic safety precautions, but if Gulf Coast Jam in Panama City happens, it will still be a welcome indicator of progress — particularly for Nashville and its country headliners.

Aug. 7: Lady Gaga’s rescheduled Chromatica Ball stadium shows touch down stateside after a planned kickoff in Europe in July; it’s one of the first big superstar treks on the calendar.

Aug. 28: High-priced residencies have fueled billions of dollars of spending in Las Vegas; if Morrissey’s at the Colosseum at Caesar’s Palace goes off as planned, it’ll bode well for the revival of that business.

Oct. 29: Outside Lands, which typically takes place during August in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, will certainly be colder this year — but attendees probably won’t mind if one of the biggest music festivals in the country proceeds according to plan.


The End Times Aren't Nigh!

Last March, in the wake of the first pandemic-induced lockdowns worldwide, touring professionals descended into doomsday thinking. But thanks to a $15 billion aid package passed in the final days of the Trump administration, the Biden government’s $1.9 trillion capital intervention and revenue generated by the rapid growth of livestreaming, the live space is intact and preparing to open — at reduced capacity, at first — this spring. Here are three of the scariest predictions for what would happen — and why, thankfully, they didn’t come true.

A Requiem For Indie Venues

Bleeding cash and reeling from years of lopsided corporate competition, over 3,000 U.S. indie promoters came together in June to form the National Independent Venue Association, sounding the alarm that without government aid, 90% of U.S. venues would close by the end of 2020. Following the extensive Save Our Stages campaign, however, $15 billion in entertainment industry relief was approved in December, allowing many indie venue owners (along with cinemas, museums and other cultural institutions) to stay afloat as they awaited the funds. The Small Business Administration says those funds will become available in May.

Leverage, Lost

After a Live Nation memo that leaked in June detailed plans to renegotiate artist contracts due to the pandemic, many of those performers (and their agents) feared the company would limit access to major festivals and available concert dates unless they agreed to accept less money and more financial risk. Live Nation quickly retracted the key points of the memo, however, after it went public. A high-ranking source at the company told Billboard an internal analysis at Live Nation concluded that the plan would backfire, opening the door for a new, well-capitalized competitor to enter the space.

Bye Bye, Agents

With a liquidity crisis at Paradigm, poorly timed acquisitions at Endeavor and layoffs at APA, UTA and Creative Artists Agency, a major meltdown looked likely, with agencies either crushed by mounting debts or spun off by their new private equity partners, paving the way for managers to take over their duties. For better or worse, though, agents stayed busy as the pandemic dragged on — cancelling and rebooking dates for their clients ad nauseam.

This article originally appeared in the April 3, 2021, issue of Billboard.