Edited by Frank DiGiacomo
With COVID infection rates low (so far) and vaccination rates high in the major music-business hubs of New York, Los Angeles and Nashville, companies in various sectors of the industry are taking steps to bring their U.S. workforces back into the office safely while monitoring news about the Delta variant of the virus. This highly transmissible version of the coronavirus, which is about 50% more infectious than the Alpha variant, according to The Washington Post, has some companies taking a wait-and-see position when it comes to deciding whether to require employees to be vaccinated before coming into the office.
Of the companies Billboard surveyed, most are aiming for a soft, limited-capacity reopening after the July 4 holiday, with a more complete return scheduled for after Labor Day, which is Sept. 6. Many are also adopting some form of a hybrid work week in which employees will have the option to work from home during part of the week. “It’s not going to be like returning to 2019,” say BMG COO Ben Katovsky. “This is really an opportunity for us to re-think the way we’re working and bring the best of the old world into the new world.”
Katovsky explains that BMG tested its return-to-work plan at its offices in Sydney, Australia, where COVID infection rates were low until recently. After surveying its global staff, Katovsky says that moving forward, the majority of BMG’s employees will be permitted to work from home two days per week. “We’re eager and excited to get back into the office, but we’re also pragmatic about that, and accept that we’ll have to make changes along the way,” he says.
Meanwhile, a source says Sony Music has told its employees that, moving forward, the company plans to support more flexibility regarding working from home, and Triple 8 Management founder George Couri says the company’s employees, who are based in Nashville and Austin, Texas will have the option to work at home for part of the week.
“As it turns out, everyone likes one another and keeps choosing to work together in the office,” says Couri. “I think we all missed the creativity that comes from a collaborative space.”
Here’s where several companies across the biz stand so far in terms of their back-to-office plans:
Universal Music Group: Last week, UMG’s executive vp/chief people and inclusion officer Eric Hutcherson sent an email to staff indicating that the company, which is expected to go public in the fall, is planning to reopen UMG’s U.S. offices in mid-September, although no date was given.
Hutcherson’s memo outlined the easing of the company’s restrictions on in-person meetings and artist-related travel and business for the time being. Attending local events that do not require travel is now allowed on a voluntary basis, as are limited staff meetings outside the office for senior and business-critical staff, while some senior leaders and “select team members” will be allowed to voluntarily return to the office. Artist-related and business-critical travel can now be approved by label heads and UMPG, though other travel and overnight stays remain restricted.
According to the memo, Universal’s “next phase” of reopening in mid-September will include allowing limited numbers of senior and artist-facing staff to return to the office on a voluntary basis; mask requirements for in-person meetings; and health screenings upon entry into the office. It also says that throughout its phased reopening, UMG will maintain a hybrid schedule that will allow staffers to be in the office two to three times per week, while the company is following local guidelines regarding vaccinations.
Sony Music Group: Optional, limited capacity opening after July 4 break; full return after Labor Day, according to sources there. Staffers will have flexibility regarding working from home, and the company is following local guidelines regarding vaccinations.
Warner Music Group: Optional, limited capacity opening after July 4 break for fully vaccinated staff; full return after Labor Day, according to sources there.
BMG: Its U.S. offices have been at 25% capacity since June, and Katovsky says the objective is to increase that cap in the fall with a full return at the beginning of 2022. Most employees can choose to work from home two days a week, while employees working in Los Angeles will be returning to a brand-new office that was completed during the pandemic.
Big Machine Label Group: The Nashville-based label is still working through the details but expects employees will be working a few days a week in the office starting late summer or early fall, according to a source.
Live Nation: The live-industry giant does not plan to open its offices until after Labor Day and is developing a hybrid program that will allow employees to work part of the week from home. It is encouraging employees to get vaccinated but has not made it mandatory at this point.
AEG: The touring business’ other major is asking its employees to return to the office on July 19. Like Live Nation, vaccination is encouraged but not mandatory. On June 25, AEG’s general counsel Shawn Trell sent an email to staff indicating that mask wearing would be optional, but a source says that an hour later, the L.A. County Health Department, which has jurisdiction over AEG’s main office, recommended employees wear masks inside if an employee is not vaccinated. For now, AEG will only allow vaccinated employees to work at its offices. “There is a little jealousy over here that Live Nation is being more flexible about coming into the office,” says another AEG source. “But they got hit harder than we did with the layoffs, which has to be pretty difficult to come back from. We’re all coming back a little rattled.”
UTA: The agency opened its Beverly Hills office on June 1 and is planning to have all employees return on July 19.
CAA, WME and Wasserman Music (formerly Paradigm): Had not yet informed staffers of their return plans. —Dan Rys, Dave Brooks and Melinda Newman