Live music return coronavirus
Photo by Jonathan Mehring

It's Going to Take a Lot of Luck for Live Music to Come Back Safely

As independent agencies lobby Congress for coronavirus relief, bookers are in a constant state of rescheduling tours for the artists they represent.
July 23, 2020, 11:00am

In March, when the initial spread of COVID-19 canceled all spring festivals and tours, booking agents scrambled to reschedule shows for the summer. As the pandemic worsened, they moved events to the fall, before eventually slotting them for some time in 2021. Now, when those shows will actually happen is anyone's guess.

"The way I've been explaining to a lot of my artists is that we are planning for best-case scenarios and putting together plans B, C, D, and E, while just continuing to monitor the virus," said Agency for the Performing Arts agent Greg Horbal, whose clients include Alex G and Beach Bunny.

With upwards of 65,000 new coronavirus cases reported each day in the U.S and with no guarantee of a vaccine by year's end, the return of live music has been further and further delayed. Experts like Lollapalooza co-founder Marc Geiger have predicted 2022, although agents are hoping the tours they have on the schedule for 2021 can still happen as planned. Meanwhile, the global concert industry is set to lose $8.9 billion this year, and agencies are struggling to plan for their artists as they navigate an uncertain and potentially catastrophic future if Congress fails to bail out independent venues and their own businesses.

"Our job is really just planning stuff for people," said High Road Touring's Wilson Zheng, who works with Soccer Mommy and Ratboys. "For our clients, we talk to them on a two to three-year plan: their album cycle, first shows, long term booking goals, and just big picture things." Booking agents schedule tours, identify the right venues and festivals for their clients and negotiate the offer from the promoter. Lately, they've been trying to stay busy even though the pandemic has kept them in limbo.

"Everyone's going to scramble at the last minute once things can come back, and we're trying to prevent that for our artists," said Ground Control Touring's Natasha Parish, who represents artists like Ohmme and Drab Majesty.

For agents like Parish and Zheng, it's common for single tours to be postponed and rescheduled multiple times over the last few months. "It's just this constant cycle of looking at the calendar, getting worried, and then contacting promoters again to reschedule shows," Zheng said. "Everybody big and small is all dealing with the same kind of problems with no real solution. If the dates have to move again, fine.".

Parish said she's been trying to do as much damage control as possible. "There's only so much you can do without knowing about a vaccine or when things can safely and fully reopen," she said. But the earliest credible projection for a vaccine happening is in December, and the longer this continues, the harder it is to plan for live music at all.

The number of new coronavirus cases must be dramatically reduced before anything can move forward. "We don't want to be the first people out there and rush into playing shows," Horbal said. "No one wants to put their artists in a situation where either they feel unsafe or they feel like they're putting their fans in an unsafe situation." Zheng's company High Road Touring also works with acts with older fanbases like Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, and Richard Thompson. "If next year rolls around and these dates I have on my calendar don't feel safe for our clients or their fans to be on the road, they shouldn't be there," he said.

Navigating patchwork local guidelines, which differ dramatically from region to region, is an added challenge. Philadelphia, a major touring destination, recently banned all gatherings of over 50 people until at least February 2021, whereas in Washington D.C. there are no events permitted at concert venues above 250-person capacity until there’s a vaccine, further delaying any scheduled tour plans. Of the agents interviewed for this piece, a summer 2021 return to live music was the optimistic consensus.

Independent venues face months without shows and with no guarantee of long term government assistance, and many of them have begun to close permanently. "The longer we push dates back, will these places even be around then?" Zheng said. When Austin's Barracuda permanently shut down in June, Parish had to find new local venues for several of her scheduled tours. In cities like Boston, which had the now-closed Great Scott, there are no venues between 80 and 500 capacity that fit for a smaller touring act. "This will really be hard for developing bands because the venues that are getting hit the most in the past four months are the small clubs," Parish said. "Every big band got their start by playing these venues and they're the ecosystems of their communities."

Making matters even more complicated, some of the largest promoters, like Live Nation and AEG, have hit pause on sending new offers to agents to reschedule shows. "When you're trying to book a tour a lot of times, there are at least a couple of venues that are booked by one of these big companies," said Parish, adding that she has to plan some tours that don't have venues secured for stops in certain cities. For the promoters who are still sending out offers for bands to eventually play their venues, the deals haven't been as good for the artist. "Most venues have said that they can't really afford to operate at less than capacity," Zheng said "The same goes for artists. Artists can't afford to lose half their income."

These reduced offers, though inevitable in a hurting industry, are going to hit smaller bands the hardest. "Developing artists have no power against the promoters," Zheng said. "Bands are going to have to take a hard look at their budget and figure out if it's even viable to tour." Horbal said he doesn't' see how any of this is going to work "You can plan ahead all you want but when is it going to be sustainable for these bands?" he said. "You can go from making good money to awful money in this new reality."

Taking cues from the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), independent talent agencies have formed the National Independent Talent Organization to lobby Congress for financial assistance. Now composed of 712 members, including 81 independent booking agencies and 90 independent management firms, the vastly growing organization is supporting the RESTART Act, which promises extended assistance to the small and medium-sized businesses funding six months of payroll, benefits, and fixed operating costs. "While we don't know what's in the crystal ball, it is dark," said NITO co-founder and owner of the longstanding agency Madison House Nadia Prescher. "There are many in the independent space, both in venues and agencies, who will not survive this without help."

For NITO founding member Frank Riley, a 40-year veteran agent and owner of High Road Touring, this funding is critical. "We need some money allocated that allows our companies to survive and get through this period. We all have viable businesses that if the world was a safer place and audiences felt good about going to venues, we'd have no issues," he said. Booking agencies only earn money after tours take place, so independent agencies need support from RESTART to survive. "Bigger corporations have ways to weather the storm, but the people who own independent agencies are completely self-funded," said Prescher. "We've basically put everything we've got into our businesses."

"I have artists that I represent that have been with me upwards of 20 years," said Stormy Shepherd, a NITO co-founder and owner of Leave Home Booking. "They aren't just names on a roster. We know their families and their crew. How do they get through this and put food on the table for their families?" Shepherd and her colleagues are also worried about the future of live music. "If all the independent agencies go out of business, when people go to buy talent, they're only going to have a few different options," said Prescher, adding that it's a very dangerous system as it will likely spike ticket prices and put non-corporate buyers at risk. "Independent agents and venues put a necessary balance in the system."

So much needs to happen for live music to safely return, and a vaccine isn't a cure-all that will bring regular shows back. Even when there is a vaccine, will the institutions that sustain live music still be around? Will there still be an appetite for concerts? Will artists find that touring is sustainable in the post-COVID economy? Independent venues, booking agencies, concert promoters, and touring crew all need financial assistance in order for that to happen. Live music will return somehow but the details are anything but guaranteed.

"Independent agencies are a small function of a much larger ecosystem, but every part of that ecosystem is important to the next part. None of us survive without all of us surviving and that's the impetus behind forming NITO," said Riley. "Without this community, we're not going to survive. None of us have ever seen something so existentially threatening."