Mosh pits, or even sitting at a symphony, now seems like willingly diving into the sand pit that ate Boba Fett in Star Wars. Close contact with strangers can be a crucial part of the live concert experience, yet, in the time of corona, that sounds like the furthest thing from a good idea. Still, faced with COVID-19 restrictions, many musicians have improvised, attempting to bring the live concert experience into fans’ homes. With no end to the pandemic in the U.S. in sight (wear your mask, folks), it bears asking: what’s the future of concerts in the U.S.? Well, that first requires looking at the highs and lows of the current state of concerts.
Picture this: as the sky darkens over Sturgis, S.D., pulsating neon lights flash off the leather vests and illuminate maskless faces crowded together to celebrate the death-defying music of … Smash Mouth? How about risking it all to go to an ironically-named Safe & Sound drive-in concert in the Hamptons featuring The Chainsmokers and DJ D-Sol, CEO of the multinational investment banking institution Goldman Sachs, where the crowd ended up looking suspiciously normal for a concert in a state that was among the first for COVID-19 to hit hard? No worries, though, because the concert, for which people paid up to $25,000 to attend, brought in approximately $152,000 for various charities. Rich people being out of touch, who would have thought?!
A recent study found that the 10-day Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in August, during which the Smash Mouth concert occurred along with other performances from Quiet Riot, Lit, Big Skillet, and more, is responsible for 260,000 COVID-19 cases, 19 percent of all of the U.S.’s coronavirus cases between Aug. 2 and Sept. 2. While there’s no data regarding cases connected to The Chainsmokers’ concert in late July, the rest of us can rest well (potentially in the days waiting for coronavirus test results because of testing delays) knowing that now at least Hamptons party-goers are spending $500 for rapid coronavirus testing at entries for house parties.
Although the stake is high — death or severe health complications, for some — for the live concerts that do occur, they are a small part of a bigger picture of musicians and venues trying to keep afloat and perform for their fans during a pandemic. Thankfully, most have turned to safer methods. Artists such as Katy Perry, Liam Payne, and Pearl Jam are among the many musicians that turned to livestreams to perform. Some live streams are free and across many social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitch, and YouTube, whereas others are in a significantly cheaper range for most concert tickets ($5 – $25), with many donating profits or a portion of profits to charities or encouraging voter registration. Some musicians perform from the comfort of homes or studios. While accessible, these live streams do make a viewer question how important a crowd is to an atmosphere. Maybe those steep prices for nosebleeds in the past seem oh-so worth it.
However, one band found a creative solution to bringing fans together in-person. The Flaming Lips took their concert staple of giant plastic bubbles to a new height on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. In addition to each performer being encased in their own plastic bubble, so was every member of the audience. Where the drive-in Hamptons concert saw a lack of success with people failing to remain sequestered to their cars, these plastic bubbles have become innovative in the time of a pandemic, forcing people to keep their germs largely to themselves.
Although the concept of plastic bubble concerts is amusing and certainly better than maskless free-for-alls, it’s not a practical solution for independent venues and musicians with a smaller following who rely on them. Social distanced concerts are not cost efficient for small venues that already have a low minimum occupancy. Without concerts or government support, 90 percent of independent venues are facing permanent closures. The National Independent Venue Association has launched the #SaveOurStages to encourage long-term government assistance for venues that have closed, provide tax relief for impacted businesses, and continue unemployment benefits, particularly artists and independent contractors. So, the reality becomes that, without sufficient support, there will no longer be hole-in-the-wall venues, leaving local musicians floundering. This has the potential to greatly shift the concert scene to larger, more corporate venues that alienates less mainstream musicians, also already seen in the music industry as smaller venues are already particularly vulnerable due to gentrification .
As U.S. concert-goers, it can be frustrating to see the U.K. return to concerts social-distanced style, DJ’d pool parties in Wuhan, China, or see a concert with 10,000 masked attendees in Taiwan. Yet the U.S., both in governing decisions and as individuals, has not put the work in towards controlling the coronavirus to have this be our future, let alone our present. The future of in-person concerts is playing out in other parts of the world, but, to get there, the U.S. first needs to actually commit to protecting public health, which maybe should come before seeing Smash Mouth live in terms of priority.
Feature photo: Courtesy of CBS.