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Breaking Down the Return Of Live Music — And What To Expect Next

This story is part of Billboard's annual Year In Music package, which identifies and explores the major music trends and industry stories that defined 2021.

In the first year of the pandemic, North America lost over 100 independent music venues due to nationwide bans on mass gatherings following shutdowns in March 2020. But the vaccine rollout in early 2021 changed the course for live entertainment, with COVID-19 cases dropping and ticket sales soaring by the summer, leading to a complex current reality.

First: Latin Led the Way

In April, as vaccines were becoming widely available, Latin superstar Bad Bunny announced his El Último Tour del Mundo 2022 arena trek in support of the three albums he released in 2020. Over 600,000 tickets sold in the first week — a high not reached since the on-sale for Beyoncé and JAY-Z’s On the Run II Tour in 2018. Within days, Bad Bunny tickets were averaging 10 times their original price on the secondary market, with ticket data company TicketIQ stating it was “the most expensive tour we’ve ever tracked.” As TicketIQ CEO Jesse Lawrence said in April: “Between the pent-up COVID demand generated by a first-ever Spanish-only No. 1 LP and his ability to stay visible in pop culture, [it’s] the perfect storm for Bad Bunny demand.”


In a truncated year for touring, Latin acts notched nine of the top 40 tours in 2021, bringing in over $196 million across 159 shows from Maluma, Pitbull, Grupo Firme and others, according to Billboard Boxscore. Reunited Mexican grupera band Los Bukis became 2021’s sixth-highest-grossing tour of the year, raking in nearly $50 million from nine concerts.

Then: Festivals Felt Demand

Festival season began with 80,000 fans flocking to Florida, which didn’t have statewide, mandated COVID-19 regulations, for Rolling Loud Miami in July. Chicago’s Lollapalooza followed in August, bringing almost 400,000 attendees to Grant Park. The first mass gathering of its size since the start of the pandemic, Lollapalooza — in an effort to avoid becoming a “super spreader” event — required fans to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of attending. The Chicago Department of Public Health later found only 0.0004% of vaccinated attendees reported testing positive, quelling concerns for outdoor festivals to come.

In October, San Francisco’s Outside Lands broke its Billboard Boxscore record by grossing just over $33 million during its three days. Meanwhile, the third edition of Travis Scott’s Astroworld at NRG Park in Houston expanded to two days this year, doubling the number of tickets sold (100,000) before its lineup was even announced. The first day of the festival, Nov. 5, came to a tragic end after 10 people were killed and hundreds more were injured in a series of crowd surges. The second day was canceled — and the event exposed an alarming security staffing shortage across the industry.

“There’s not enough people interested in doing that kind of work,” says Stephen Sternschein, managing partner at the Austin-based event promotion, production and marketing company Heard Presents. “[A lot of] people tried it, realized how much it sucks and don’t want to do it anymore.”

Next: Mandates Arrived

The country’s two largest concert promoters, AEG and Live Nation, announced in August that proof of vaccination or a negative test, respectively, would be required to attend shows at their owned-and-operated venues where legally allowed. The decision followed local governments and independent venues taking a similar stance after spikes in breakthrough COVID-19 cases threatened to reshutter an already struggling industry.

Yet despite such mandates across the United States, cancellations kept occurring. Limp Bizkit, looking to cash in on its show-stealing slot at Lollapalooza, launched a reunion tour but quickly called it off to be “responsible” in combating the virus. Similarly, Garth Brooks, Florida Georgia Line, BTS and Nine Inch Nails canceled or postponed tours out of caution. Zac Brown Band, Korn, Lynyrd Skynyrd and KISS all canceled or rescheduled dates after band members contracted COVID-19 on the road.

A smaller contingent of artists canceled shows in response to vaccine requirements. After a bad experience with the AstraZeneca vaccine, Eric Clapton vowed not to play any shows that required attendees to be inoculated. Country singer Travis Tritt also canceled a handful of shows in October, stating that any COVID-19 safety protocols were “discriminating” against concertgoers, adding, “It’s definitely going to cost me money, and that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.”

Now: Prepping for a Potential Spike (Again)

Despite capacity limitations lifting in several major markets and artists resuming nationwide touring, uncertainty returned this fall as ticket sales cooled and concerts had higher than normal “no-show” rates — 20% to 30% of ticket holders didn’t attend versus 10% pre-pandemic.

Chase Center vp content and programming Sheena Way says the high no-show rate stems from the spate of rescheduled shows, where fans lost track of new dates or even moved away during the pandemic. In contrast, she says 2022 stops at the San Francisco arena from John Mayer, Metallica and Trevor Noah are all sold out.

While Way doesn’t expect the concert business to match pre-pandemic numbers until 2023 or later, she anticipates a rise in stadium shows because bigger artists can entertain more people on one night — which also cuts down on the number of days their teams can be exposed. The Weeknd already canceled his 2022 arena tour to retool it for stadiums.

Way also believes the fear of another COVID-19 spike has eased after nearly two years combating the issue, adding that, above all else, the industry has learned to be flexible. “Let’s book all this stuff,” she says. “If there has to be a change, we change it.”

This story originally appeared in the Dec. 18, 2021, issue of Billboard.