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Wasn’t the Future Great?

Dan Daley • June 2020The Biz • June 8, 2020

Four months ago, it was still cold out. Three months ago, we knew something was very wrong. Two months ago, the world had changed, possibly forever. The extent to which the Covid-19 virus has altered a previous reality is so radical that trying to figure out where we might be while writing about it a month earlier is an exercise in futility. So the only useful pursuits are looking at ways to survive the most radical alteration the live music business has ever experienced, and trying to predict what the world might look like on the other side of this. But one thing is for sure: it isn’t going to look the same.

The first topic could fill a book — a week. Fortunately, non-profit Sound Girls has done a lot of great work on this, assembling a lengthy and useful list of resources here: soundgirls.org/educate-and-collaborate-surviving-corona-virus. That listing includes various financial resources that tour professionals (female, male and otherwise) can leverage to help keep food on table and a roof over head, as well as ways to manage things like health and credit, along with a rubric I see as simultaneously hopeful and ominous: “Side Hustles.” Another is a page maintained by MusicBiz (the former NARM): musicbiz.org/covid-19-industry-support-resource-page, which is nearly as broad and has links to CrewNation, Live Nation’s pro-oriented help fund.

For better or for worse, navigating the alternate world of governmental and non-governmental resources, from enhanced unemployment benefits to the seemingly chimeric Payroll Protection Program (as much a racket as a resource, unfortunately) is turning out to be a career unto itself. You may have to compete with the L.A. Lakers and Ruth’s Chris, but as long as Congress keeps putting money in the till, keep trying to get some.

‡‡         Where We’re Headed

The present may be hard to look at, but on the other hand, the future is hard to see at all. This isn’t like 2008 or 2000, or other past financial train wrecks. To use an anatomical allegory, those financial disasters were broken limbs compared to the catastrophic organ failure that occurred when live music — and everything else — was suddenly and completely shut down. There are not a lot of templates out there to draw strategic cues from.

One possible indicator might come from sports, which are also shut down now. The cumulative ticket values for the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL combined are close to the U.S. touring industry’s roughly $6 billion value before this year. Keep an eye on what the major leagues (and their broadcast partners, whose television contracts more than double the value of ticket sales) are doing, among which are live games but with empty seats. In terms of strategy and logistics, they are the Pentagon compared to music touring’s militias. In other words, as always, follow the money.

The biggest unknown now is what the market for entertainment in general (and live music in particular) will look like once the shutdown begins to lift. Audiences will certainly be skittish about gathering in droves, and convincing them to sit side by side — after months of being told that could be deadly — will not come easily, while keeping every other seat empty cuts potential revenues by at least half.

Then there’s also the matter of what John and Jane Q. Public might be willing (or able) to pay for entertainment, in the wake of what’s being called potentially the worst financial disaster since 1929. The concert touring business had been riding the crest of an economic wave that saw unemployment at its lowest levels in decades and the stock markets at their highest levels ever. Even with rampant income inequality, enough people had jobs that allowed them buy $300 and $400 concert tickets a few times a year. That fueled a touring business that hit close to $6 billion while at the same time building solid sales foundations for pro audio product manufacturers, a robust rental business and a touring infrastructure that let thousands of professionals have solid middle-class (in the best sense of that term) lives.

Then there’s the matter of the capital needed to put tours and concerts on in the first place, and where that’s going to come from. Live Nation, the world’s largest concert producer, ceased concert operations in the middle of March, abruptly cancelling about 8,000 shows while also slashing executive compensation and implementing additional cost reduction efforts — including hiring freezes and a reduction in the company’s use of contractors (read: sound reinforcement, lighting and staging providers). The working capital to restart shows is not going to come from the usual sources. To that point: in April, the government of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund acquired a 5.7-percent, or about $500 million, stake in Live Nation. Expect to see a lot more VC and other capital activity in this sphere.

Finally, what will production look like when live music returns? We’ve been inundated with online concerts in recent months, and while they fill a part of the void, their novelty is quickly wearing thin. April’s flimsy One World: Together at Home television event was no Live Aid, although it did raise $128 million, almost as an afterthought. (Live Aid raised £150m in 1985 — more than $550 million in 2020 dollars — but a portion of the proceeds were likely spent on guns instead of famine relief.) In any case, humans crave spectacle and scale, and after a few months of Fallon and Kimmel on Zoom wearing neither pancake nor a decent suit and over a 720p webcam and Apple ear buds, we’ve realized we really do miss good production values.

Expect touring to be considerably scaled back when it does return. At first, simply having live music in the room will itself be a novelty, and many of those rooms may be some scaled-up versions of house concerts. There are dozens of agencies that have been booking these types of shows for decades, and portable sound systems are plentiful, cheap and remarkably good sounding, so the infrastructure is there. Think Daryl’s House or Levon Helm’s Midnight Rambles barn, where security can check temperatures as guests enter, as they are already doing at Disney’s recently reopened Shanghai resort, where guests must also present a code on their phone showing they’re virus-free.

It’s also possible that some form of hybrid show will emerge. As we’ve written about here before, holographic performances had been gaining traction in recent months. These kinds of shows derive some of their authenticity from the fact that live musicians perform onstage with the digital images of deceased music artists, but what’s to say the entire performance cannot be done holographically and remotely, thus protecting the performers and some technical staff? Advances in VR could ultimately produce a performance model in which both the show and its audience are represented digitally.

We’re going to have a lot of time to figure this out. Zeke Emanuel, director of the Healthcare Transformation Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, told The New York Times that, “realistically, we’re talking fall 2021 at the earliest,” due mainly to the time it will take to develop, produce and distribute a workable vaccine. But expect there to be a number of performance models coming together out of this before then. The good news is that most or all of them will require astute technology professionals to make them happen. These next few months are not going to be easy, but they will provide a good time to acquire as many new and diverse skills as possible.

 

Biz Tip of the Month

If your mortgage is federally backed, lenders are supposed to allow forbearance for those experiencing financial hardship due to the pandemic. But also understand that all the missed payments, plus interest, will all be due when the forbearance period ends.

 

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