New York, NY (May 28, 2021)—On the other side of the world, the concert business is moving full-speed ahead. Case in point: New Zealand has been allowing major events to take place, such as when homegrown rock band Six60 held a concert for 50,000 fans at Eden Park stadium in April. That’s what happens when your entire country has had just 26 COVID-19 fatalities to date. In the United States, however, the pandemic has taken a far more deadly toll, resulting in a live events industry that is now starting to reawaken as the first post-pandemic tours head out in June.
The spring season, usually marked by summer tours gearing up and outdoor venues tackling maintenance issues before the crowds return, has been quiet other than a small stream of artists and festivals putting dates on sale, usually for August or September. Current gigs—and the work they bring for audio pros and production companies—are still few and far between, even as a brighter future draws nearer by the day.
“There are still a lot of unknowns from where we’re sitting now,” said Shaun Clair, vice president of sales at Clair Global, “but we also see a lot of hope in what’s to come. We see an immense amount of opportunity ahead.”
The hard part for the touring industry remains getting to the point where shows return. Even with the fall season starting to heat up due to festival and tour announcements, there’s still the thorny issue of making a date stick; plenty of tours announced during the pandemic have already been pushed to next year, and more than a few venues that are hosting concerts this summer expect to be operating with skeleton staffs until absolutely necessary.
Adding to the confusion for production personnel is the lack of national guidelines on COVID-19 precautions for large gatherings. Every city and state has different mandates for appropriate capacities, social distancing, mask-wearing and more, turning each show on a tour into a collection of moving targets in terms of safety measures, potential ticket sales and more.
While COVID has made touring far more complicated, that isn’t stopping some acts from heading out. The Tedeschi-Trucks Band springs back into action starting June 11 with a show in Jacksonville, FL—the first of 30 dates scheduled through the end of July, followed by two weeks off and then more touring. Production manager/FOH engineer Brian Speiser readily acknowledges the road will be a different place for the hard-touring group this year.
“We’re not taking the full band and crew out,” he said. “We’re going to do a much more scaled-down, socially distanced show outdoors, so we’ve got half the band and a little more than half of the crew. We’re all going to hop onto one bus, throw a bunch of band gear in a trailer on the back, head out as inexpensively as possible and try to make something happen. We’re going out there in the safest, most responsible and least expensive way we possibly can, to do shows in a way that is not going to get people sick.”
Numerous executives at national and regional event sound providers pointed to vaccinations as crucial to the industry making a resurgence. “If you’re not getting vaccinated, you’re not getting hired; it’s that simple,” said one, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Whether you want to get [vaccinated] or not is your business, but considering how bad the last year has been, it’s actually surprising the number of people I talk to who haven’t gotten [vaccinated] yet. It takes five weeks for the shots to reach full efficacy, so if they want a chance to do something if an opportunity comes up, the ones holding off are almost too late already.”
Band and crew vaccinations are already in full effect on the Tedeschi-Trucks tour, said Speiser, who views the precautions from an unusually open-eyed perspective. “To supplement my income during the pandemic, I worked for a company that does COVID testing for the movie and television industry, so I spent six months driving around to actors and crew people’s homes, administering nose swabs and then dropping them off at a lab,” he recounted. “Having done that, for me, the safety issue is very important, plus I’ve also seen people who are vaccinated who have still gotten sick. The idea of now getting on a bus with a bunch of people, traveling around the country, going to places where there’s going to be a lot of unmasked people and cities where they have looser restrictions than they do here in New York is pretty scary.”
The production’s overriding concern isn’t merely to keep people on the tour safe, but also to ensure that they don’t inadvertently bring COVID-19 from one tour stop to the next and endanger the venue’s personnel. With that in mind, the Tedeschi-Trucks Band has developed a specific COVID-compliance rider that it has forwarded to all stops on the way, said Speiser.
“The rider lays out the minimum of what we expect to see when we show up to the venue— nobody is allowed access to certain areas, everyone has to be masked, that kind of thing,” he said. “Most of these venues we’re playing are places that were set up to do shows in a COVID world. When they get the rider, a lot of them are telling us, ‘Yeah, we will be going even further than what you’re requesting.’ Of course, there’s a few who take a look at the paperwork and are like, ‘That’s cool that you have that, but you don’t have to worry about it so much here.’ And our response has to be, ‘We’re worrying about this everywhere. Don’t think that just because you don’t think it’s important that we’re going to forego these restrictions. This is how we’re going to tour.’”
As vaccination rates go up and the number of new COVID cases continues to decrease, states are loosening venue capacity restrictions. Unless they get derailed by spikes in the number of cases, the fall festival and tour dates being announced now are likely an accurate assessment of when most regions will see live event work ramp back up. Once shows resume in force, it’ll be time to buckle up—next year is expected to be a free-for-all, with pent-up consumer demand for concerts being answered by a touring business more than ready to deliver. “2022 looks to be an incredible year,” Shaun Clair confirmed, “and obviously, we’re all just really excited to get back to work and start doing what we love.”