Kochina Rude, a Bay Area drag queen who once performed on Halloween with skeletons affixed to her flame-patterned dress, was supposed to headline San Francisco’s Oasis nightclub on New Year’s Eve. But Dec. 31 was during the thick of the spread of the omicron variant of COVID-19 in the U.S., and Rude tested positive, as did several Oasis staff members and performers, so the show had to cancel. They weren’t alone: numerous other acts, from Phish at New York City’s Madison Square Garden to the Zac Brown Band at CBS’ New Year’s Eve Live Celebration in Nashville to Spoon in Austin, had to cancel or postpone their shows due to the spike.
“New Year’s Eve is symbolic of all the ways the drag community in San Francisco had been resilient during the pandemic,” says Rude, who, with her duo Princess, planned to perform Julie Brown’s “The Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun” at midnight. “People were looking for a way to blow off steam after a really challenging year.”
After a devastating 2020, concerts started to come back in the vaccine-and-booster era, but omicron took off just as artists and promoters were preparing their New Year’s extravaganzas. Brown, the country-rock superstar, announced he tested positive “despite taking precautions”; and Phish canceled its three-set MSG performance because, according to a statement, “the health and safety of Phish fans, our crew and venue staff is paramount in our minds.” Zedd, the EDM star, canceled three shows around the U.S. during the week of New Year’s Eve when members of his touring crew tested positive (although he still performed at Las Vegas’ Zouk as planned on Dec. 31).
“We were trying to find a replacement crew, but fans were saying, ‘This is not the most ideal date for us,'” says Lee Anderson, agent for Zedd, Skrillex and Disclosure. “Airlines had to cancel because they weren’t able to staff. Venues weren’t able to staff. It ends up not being the best idea.”
Although Anderson calls New Year’s Eve “a day in the year,” it’s a crucially important day in financial terms for many venues. “It’s been pretty devastating,” says Carissa Hatchel, booking manager for the Oasis, where five of 10 management staffers came down with COVID in December, as well as lighting and sound techs. “If we were charging $40 a ticket, and were able to get 500 people, that’s $20,000 — a significant day, comparable to a full weekend.”
“Big-event holidays” such as New Year’s, Halloween and Pride are critical for drag queen performers, Rude says: “This is a night we’re guaranteed to have a full audience, which means we’ll make more money in tips, more people will get exposed to our art and visibility is heightened.”
Phish was able to reschedule its canceled New Year’s Eve-week shows at MSG to another festive period — four nights beginning 4/20, a holiday for many of the band’s fans. Anderson, the agent whose company, Wasserman Music, also represents Phish, is confident the bleak New Year’s Eve will be a temporary blip that happened to coincide with omicron’s peak. “Everybody’s very optimistic about 2022,” he says. “I don’t think this is going to last that long.”
Smaller acts like the Melvins are more uncertain. The venerable grunge band was supposed to do two shows, Dec. 30 and 31, at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall, but the club ran out of healthy staffers who were able to work and canceled both shows two days before the gigs. “I’m getting really sick of all this,” says Buzz Osborne, frontman for the band, which is scheduled to open a Ministry tour beginning in March, pending omicron and COVID. “New Year’s is a big deal. It would’ve been nice to start over and kick off  with a big thing.”
Canceling the New Year’s Eve gigs, which generally carry higher ticket prices, was “just devastating,” Osborne adds. “We had all these plans and they’re down the drain. [Fans] were going to get a hotel, rent a car, fly there; with us, rent a vehicle, get hotel rooms, employ people. All that just stops. It’s a massive amount of financial nightmarish crap.”