Music Biz 101 / Lesson 1: Post-COVID (Where To From Here?)

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With some recent developments providing at least glimmers of hope in our current pandemic struggle, everyone in the music industry — from both the supply and consumer perspectives — is jones’ing for a return to a post-COVID normalcy at the earliest, safest time possible.

In that regard, Live Music (my modest firm’s arts interest) is no different than any other segment of the USA and global economies.  All seem to accept that wherever our hard work and faith leads us, it won’t be quite the same.  Given that, we all adapt a ‘new normal’ perspective of what any future looks like.

The major difference that distinguishes those other industries from live music, however, is that while the vast majority of  the former’s examples were enjoying the fruits of financial success and healthy growth curves, the music business was already in deep doo beforehand. Yes, this flies in the face of the rosy BS fed to us by the Big Music conspiracy, But deep data dives matter, and the fig’s show us that any claimed increase in live music revenues was simply the result of the continuing rise of big show/fest ticket prices and it all went into the pockets of the .01% mega-acts.

Meanwhile, the lower and middle markets of the business —  which we define as shows typically staged for audiences in the 100-999 (lower) and 1K-5K (middle) ranges — have long been in recessionary mode and often underwater.  Any decent inventory count reveals the truth of the matter: fewer venues, fewer performance opp’s, fewer interested audiences and fewer artists taking a shot at it.

Then along comes COVID and the industry has gone from seriously wounded to dead in the water. Venues are closed, shows are canceled, tours written off and the whole supply chain –  from guitar slingers right down to the kid taking your $20 at the door –  are sitting at home like many of the rest of us.  To compound the situation, the general operating model of this business (i.e., cash compensation) prevents many from even collecting unemployment.

All this aside, we shall nonetheless make a few predictions as to what may lie ahead in the Live Music universe.  Where do we go from here as we crawl from this wreckage? My read on it:

THE BIG FESTIVALS

“So you still want to convene 25,000+ people in front of a stage in a field, do ya? Get outta here.” 

There’s the typical permitting process taking place as we speak. That’s if a fest organizer even thinks it is a good idea to proceed with their event – which most do not.  Half of 2020’s summer fests are outright canceled while the other half are pushed back to hopeful holds in the now-crowded late summer and early autumn calendars.

If they DO happen, the odds are they will be under downsized attendance restrictions.  This, in turn will result in a slimming of the lineups: those three originally scheduled headliners will now be one.   Pissing matches will certainly ensue between the talent agencies of those two that were scratched.

So yes; expect some late-season fest action to proceed this year. Some here and there, but not all. After all, who can predict with confidence what the demand will be for any such public gathering?  The art of  attendance forecasting — the critical skillset of this business –  is in totally new territory.  When the financial risk of a fully-executed festival is so huge to begin with, this uncertainty is such that most will opt to cut their losses and point to the following year.

But even 2021 poses many of those same problems.  Mass permits may still be rare and lowered capacity limits will likely exist way into the future.  Attendee demand will no doubt be lowered as well; it’s just a question of to what extent and what does that curve look like over time? 50% in one year? 80% in two?  All bets are off –  and how can one operate in that type of environment?   Don’t forget insurance: premiums are already going thru the roof for these things.

A place like SPAC –  which is, in essence a music fest series –  is in this very predicament. Watch for early season cancellations and gate limits for shows that survive.  There  might even be some replacement shows featuring  middle rung / emerging acts booked now; which isn’t necessarily a bad thing compared to the dinosaur-rock and pop-schlock  lineups we have come to expect from this once-glorious shed.

THE INDOOR VENUES

“Hey Joe: want to go stand shoulder to shoulder with 400 sweaty strangers in some dark joint?”

Now think about how’d you like to be the owner of a venue that typically and historically hosts that scenario right there.  Ouch.

This is the part of the industry that was in the most trouble coming into the pandemic and will be most harmed in the post-COVID future.  As opposed to the fests’ biggest challenge of capacity limits, the key problem for the indoor rooms will instead simply be one of pure Demand. Whereas for the outdoor gatherings we were attempting to guess the reduced demand for their offering, we don’t need to guess for the indoors: we KNOW it will be real and it will be substantial.  Re-read the Hey Joe picture painted above and ask if that won’t be a common conversation throughout the land and with it a near-universal reply of “Uh; not really.”

This so-called Grassroots Music Venue part of the food chain is, if not doomed, is at least now scheduled for life support.  Rooms will shut down +/or convert to something else with the players that formerly relied on them to advance careers will now be seen in that local over band at your friend’s wedding or teaching your kid’s English class.

No scenario could spell worse news for music as both a sustainable industry and as a creative, breathing art form. But here we are.

THE BARS

“Hey look at the guy on the stool. I used to work with him”

While there may be some short-term pain here (capacity limits), the long game prediction here is that this segment will recover into being“pretty close to where we were” in the immediate years ahead.

Given this segment is primarily cover bands, we don’t especially look at that as being good news. Considering that it is also more aligned to being part of the hospitality industry than it is to the arts/music classification, its participants here are at the mercy of what happens to the bars and restaurants in general as they gradually shift from their current takeout operating model back to some scaled down version of their old Eat and/or Hang value prop.

But will it pick up some of the slack that results from the destination type music venues disappearing and present at least more original style music than prior?  The disappointing prediction from here is: probably not. After all, what motivation do they have to do so? They don’t.

THE SMALL FESTIVALS

“Grab the lawn chairs; we’re getting some fresh air and maybe we’ll wave at some friends”

It is here that we at least have some room for optimism… 

The small fests or music series can claim a worthy product that should have some legs:  the ability to sit in a limited group size outdoor setting while maintaining more than-adequate social distancing protocol and getting good live music tossed in as part of the bargain.  BYOBs and keep it to just you and your mate –  and who can say no?

There lies the opportunity for a possible successful operating framework into the next few years. Heck, it might even present a chance to actually IMPROVE the performance of an existing model.  Additionally, it pushes money to the emerging touring and regional acts that actually deserve it and can even help with the development of local music ecosystems.

Its just too bad that we have this thing called winter that erases fifty percent of the possible benefits.

SUMMARY

The Live Music world is in a heap of trouble.  For those of us that love it, this is a sobering and saddening realty to face –  a true question of survival.  Will it or can it emerge in some sort of sustainable manner or will we be at the mercy of the big corporate interests to tell us what we get to hear and see?  Are we at the mercy of local and state governments being the only outlet that can potentially finance our seeing anything different?

These are certainly bleak prospects we face. The only hope is that somehow rock & roll (in particular) has one act left in it and with the help of some energetic visionaries can somehow overcome these existential challenges to deliver a new-new we can live with.

Robert Millis is principal of The 398Group in Saratoga Springs, NY.  Having been involved in the execution of hundreds of concerts as well as the launch or production of several music festivals, that business is now offering business and strategic advisory services to the wider Music & Events industry.

2 Comments
  1. ToastWRPI says

    Thank you for the opinion piece. I enjoyed reading it. One item you mentioned I would disagree with: ” Any decent inventory count reveals the truth of the matter: fewer venues, fewer performance opp’s, fewer interested audiences and fewer artists taking a shot at it.”

    Before the pandemic, every band was on tour. Not “fewer artists taking a shot at it”.
    Because the revenue for selling music is down, all bands were touring to make money. Sometimes national bands were hitting the same market multiple times in a year!

  2. Robert Millis says

    A Toast to Toast!

    Thx for the input. I will “counter your counter” in these ways:

    1) If there are fewer venues and fewer performance opp’s (both being verifiable data givens), then it would logically follow that there are fewer tours.

    2) Further: what is often defined as “Tours” in the past few years do not meet the traditional definition of the word. Given there are precious few Sun thru Wed gigs to be had in the current reality, it makes no sense to be on the road for just 2 or even 3 shows weekly. So many resort to just a weekend schedule, keeping day jobs and doing a “spoke and wheel’ routine where they often only venture to engagements that allow them to return home each night. Being ON TOUR ain’t what it used to be.

    3) While many bands are ready / willing / able to play gigs and tour, I think it is a safe bet to predict very, very few of them are getting enough live shows to make it a sustainable business enterprise.

    The days of 20 shows/month for an original act are rare; at least in the lower and middle markets. A larger and larger part of that sector is happy with 4/month

    It’s simple SUPPLY and DEMAND: too many acts (supply) for the diminishing number of performance slots (demand)

    Survival for many becomes
    – Keep the day jobs
    – Join a local cover/party band
    – Delete the idea of playing out-of-town as being part of your operating model
    – The original music becomes a hobby (a studio band exercise)

    Those that shrug off these forces to fight the good fight against all odds? Well, they are the heroes.

    Again, your taking the time to reply was appreciate on this end

    – RM

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