For the past nine years, the iHeartRadio Music Festival has been a staple of the music calendar. Every September, for two nights on the third weekend of the month, some of the biggest names in music — among them: Bon Jovi, Bruno Mars, Fleetwood Mac, Pink, Jack White, Harry Styles and the Weeknd — converged on Las Vegas to fill an arena-full of 18,000 screaming fans (the festival started at the MGM Grand Garden Arena and has since moved to the T-Mobile Arena).
The 2020 edition, of course, faces considerable challenges when it comes to a human audience, but the tenth anniversary show will go on, albeit virtually, for millions to stream on the CW app on cwtv.com or on iHeartRadio stations. Performers booked for the Sept. 18 and 19 event include BTS, Coldplay, Kane Brown with Khalid, Keith Urban, Migos, Miley Cyrus, Thomas Rhett, Usher and more. Ryan Seacrest is set to host. The show will tape from stages in Los Angeles and Nashville and air on the CW on Sept. 27 and 28.
John Sykes, president of entertainment enterprises for iHeartMedia, elaborated on the rigorous procedures the company is putting in place in order to ensure the safety of the artists. For starters, band tapings will be limited to their approved crew and after every performance, the stages will be entirely scrubbed down for another artist to perform there the next day. What’s the advantage to a stage versus a living room? Besides better sound, it’s an opportunity to perform live after so many of these artists had to cancel major tours. K-pop sensation BTS, for one, was due to kick off its 35-date Map of the Soul Tour in April. The stadium trek was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Because so many acts live in L.A. or Nashville, we found a way they can drive to the venue,” Sykes tells Variety in an exclusive interview to accompany today’s announcement in which he reveals additional procedures put into place for the festival.
How will the festival performances conform to coronavirus restrictions?
John Sykes: The ongoing pandemic has caused the narrative to change literally daily. So it’s challenging the entire radio and television community to reinvent how we connect artists with their audience, At iHeart, we have been reimagining since March 29 when we ran the Living Room Concert after the iHeartRadio Music Awards were canceled. We figured out a strategy to put safety first and still deliver a live music experience. What [chief programming officer for iHeartMedia] Tom Poleman and I did was sit down and say, we do have a theater — the iHeartRadio Theater in Los Angeles — which will be completely scrubbed and cleaned with no audience. We’ll put a Zoom suite of fans in there so the artists can look out and see, but they won’t really be there. And we’ll have a production team outside the facility remotely in a parking lot and the artists will have the venue to themselves for an entire day. They’ll be able to rehearse, plug in and play live, we’ll have video effects and sound.
We’ll give each of the 10 artists the theater, we’ve got one in L.A. and also have a soundstage in Nashville, record all the performances, put them together and air them on the two-day period (September 18 and 19), five artists a night, just like we would do on the festival on a live radio broadcast and video stream on CWTV.com. Then we’ll take the best moments from those performances, just like we’ve done the last nine years, and put them on a two-part special on the CW the following week. Soto the fan, it will almost feel the same asd it has over the past nine years, except we won’t be at T-Mobile Arena, there won’t be an audience. But the artists will be performing plugged in on a stage.
So everyone in the building will be handpicked by the artist?
Sykes: Everyone, everyone, everyone! I won’t be in that room. I’ll be outside, I’ll wave to them when they come in … The handful of camera people will all be tested daily and the interviews with Ryan Seacrest will be done with cameras in different rooms. There will be fans who will be connected talking one-on-one in the dressing room with artists. We could never put a regular fan in an artist dressing room, but we can do it on a video screen. We have some virtual ideas too where fans will be able to perform with one of the artists onstage. So we’re using the challenges to reinvent and come up with creative things that have maybe never been done before.
How has the industry response been as you started reaching out to people?
Sykes: Some artists are just taking the year off, they’re just deciding they’re going to step aside. But the artists who have music out this year, or want to stay in the game and be connected, they embraced it for two reasons: they knew we were putting their safety first, and we’re giving them a way to basically play in front millions of fans between the radio broadcast, the stream and the television show. If you’re an artist on this bill. you’re gonna be seen by more than just people in a room or in a venue. We wanted to make sure this was airtight for the artist and everyone we laid the plan out to felt 100% comfortable to participate.
Will any of these ideas continue at future iHeart events?
Sykes: Many of these ideas will live on: giving fans intimate experiences and conversations with artists is something we’d never be able to do in an 18,000-seat arena. But there’s nothing like live music and we’re just trying to do our best to connect our fans with the music rather than giving up. Because if you give up, you lose.
This lineup skews younger…
Sykes: We’re talking to one artist who is more of a classic artist — an incredible name that has never done the festival before. Hopefully we’ll reveal someone special from the iconic category shortly.