Drive-Ins Won't Save Live Music

Concerts in COVID-19 mean seeing Metallica debut a film or watching Jeff Tweedy perform from your car. Is that a substitute for the real thing?
JT
Chicago, US
September 24, 2020, 6:43pm
Drive-In Concert
(Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images) 

The COVID-19 pandemic has decimated the live music industry for the past six months. Thousands of independent venues are shuttered, many permanently if Congress doesn't take action to save them, and touring is effectively halted until there's a vaccine. The only ways to safely experience live music of any sort comes through livestreams, which are barely an alternative given that you’re watching through a screen; one of the misguided and dangerous un-social distanced concerts rogue organizers have put on for artists like Chase Rice and DaBaby; or, at a drive-in, which is by far the best and safest option music fans have right now, provided that they stay near their cars (unlike the disastrous Chainsmokers drive-in at the Hamptons).

Over the past few months, drive-in concerts have been multiplying across the United States. The newly popular stop-gap alternative to a traditional show lets you see Metallica debut a concert film from the comfort of your car, watch Jeff Tweedy's solo band play its only show of 2020 in a north suburban Illinois theatre, or take in a set from Third Eye Blind and Saves the Day parked in repurposed county fairgrounds in southern California. While there are different ways to broadcast a drive-in, be it via an FM transmission available to all parked cars or through live amplified sound, all drive-in shows have uniform strict social distancing: concertgoers are required to wear masks and stay inside their cars and parking spaces unless they're going to the bathroom in port-a-potties that are regularly sanitized throughout the set.

Drive-ins are such a new frontier for live music, so there aren't comprehensive statistics of how many drive-in concerts have taken place since the pandemic started. But they're popping up everywhere. They aren't going away anytime soon, at least until there's a vaccine or colder climates shut them down for the winter. One organizer of these events is CBF Productions, which has pivoted from hosting the California Beer Festival to hosting in-the-round "Concert In Your Car" drive-in shows at the Ventura County Fairgrounds. Co-founder Vincenzo Giammanco explained that Paycheck Protection Program funds allowed him to rehire his staff laid off from the pandemic shutdowns and move forward on hosting these shows.

"We want to fill that void for entertainment," said Giammanco. "Since our June opening, we've done over 50 shows successfully at this venue and we feel like we've kind of created something that's another lane in the entertainment space." At CBF drive-ins, the sets are transmitted through an FM signal to promote social distancing and concertgoers staying in their cars. The shows have been such a success Giammanco has claimed that all of the 700 car capacity shows at the Ventura Fairgrounds have been at 85 to 100 percent full. In fact, CBF productions has expanded to Del Mar in San Diego this month and plans to open in Arizona in October. They have shows scheduled until December with more to be announced in the coming weeks.

So far, according to Giammanco, things have gone smoothly: fans are staying masked and distanced while performers are enjoying an opportunity to play. "We've been blessed to figure out a way to keep this live entertainment alive," he said. "My team gets rapid tested weekly. Everything is outside. All of our touchpoints get wiped down every 15 minutes, the bathrooms get sanitized every 15 minutes. We're doing everything that the CDC tells us to do."

Elsewhere, organizers at Collectiv Presents, best known for their electric and trailblazing Baja Beach Fest, which specializes in Latinx performers, have found their own lane for drive-in shows in suburban Chicago and Atlanta. So far, they've gotten performers like Umphrey's McGee and Jeff Tweedy and plan on hosting over 15 more concerts between both cities until the middle of November. "Starting in May we really felt like there was an opportunity around doing some drive-in concerts that were socially distanced," Collectiv co-founder Chris Den Uijl said. Tickets are priced per car by parking spot and passenger, with standard rates at $240 for mid-row spots and $180 for cars with only two passengers.

Unlike Concerts In Your Car, which rely on an FM signal to broadcast the music, Collectiv's "At The Drive-Inn" series is more like a traditional concert with an amphitheater-like sound system. Both options are expensive to produce as promoters need to rent the venue, build the stage, hire workers to ensure customers wear masks and stay in their parking spots, and pay their performers. "I almost have to sell out to make money," said Den Uijl. "We don't provide concessions at our events. We don't sell alcohol or beverages or things like that because we're trying to create as much touch-free, social distancing as possible." While most drive-ins don't sell concessions, other promoters like Chicago's Lakeshore Drive-in provide concertgoers with a QR code so they can order food and beverages from their vehicle.

Due to the economic realities of hosting a drive-in at scale, these events largely exclude smaller artists or bands that you could see for $15 at a local independent club before the pandemic. "When it applies to these smaller artists, it almost isn't even an option unless you just want to lose money because the margins are so small," says Den Uijl. "Unfortunately, it's just not a viable model for them or us." There just isn't a market for concertgoers to pay a premium and sell out a 200-700 car-capacity venue to see a smaller act that isn't yet a household name. For now, drive-ins will almost exclusively feature proven live ticket sellers like the Cypress Hills, Kane Browns, and Avett Brothers of the world.

While drive-ins provide the closest alternative to seeing a band in a packed club that you can safely and legally get in a pandemic, they don’t feel close enough to the real thing. I recently attended a drive-in concert seeing Chicago bands Whitney and Beach Bunny in the parking lot of Chicago's Adler Planetarium. It was fun and the process was smooth: the crowd was respectfully masked, it sounded good, and every five minutes an event worker would patrol the parking rows to make sure concertgoers were following the rules. Although it was great to see live music for the first time in six months, I kept wondering these things: What do you do when the song is over, do you clap from inside your car or honk your horn? Would I have paid the $240 ticket price had friends in the headlining band not offered a guest list parking pass? Is the future of live music exclusively for car-owners who can afford a several-hundred dollar ticket to see a bigger act in a parking lot?

All the promoters VICE interviewed for this piece mentioned that some concertgoers have said they enjoy drive-ins more than the traditional show, but Den Uijl didn't seem optimistic they'd stick around after a vaccine is ready and live music can resume. "As promoters that have traditionally come from four walls and music festivals with little to no social distancing, we would like to find ways to safely start to bring that back once there's a vaccine," he says. "There probably won't be drive-ins at scale in the future."

It's inspiring to see how scrappy the music industry can be, but drive-in shows won't save the concert industry. You can't replace thousands of cultural institutions and music venues who have been forced to close. Live music shouldn't be a luxury just for car-owners who can afford ticket prices that for many are prohibitively expensive. It's great artists are getting paid for one-off shows in a difficult year but it can't replicate an entire sustainable touring ecosystem. "I applaud any promoter for trying new things and for being creative but the most important thing to remember is none of these will keep the business afloat," says Audrey Fix Schaefer, Head of Communications for the National Independent Venue Association.

After over months of weathering a pandemic, there's a sizable demand for live music again. While drive-ins are the best thing we have right now and it's good to see events being produced in a safe way, they're also a stark reminder of what live music has lost this year.