Concerts by the Carload: Live Nation Looks to Take Drive-In Shows Bigger This Summer

Keith Urban's glee at performing for socially distanced fans at a drive-in theater in Tennessee may soon be shared by more major artists, as a Live Nation plan to use amphitheater parking areas for shows could bring the automotive concert concept into the mainstream.

Keith Urban Drive in Theaters Concerts
Courtesy of Keith Urban

Had your fill of livestream concerts lately? You and Keith Urban, both. 

“I’m grateful that we have the technology to do ‘at home’ concerts,” says the country superstar, “but come on — without the audience, it’s just one looooong soundcheck.” That’s why he was thrilled to get some genuine human feedback on May 14, when he became the first major artist of the pandemic era to do a concert for fans sheltering in place in (or on) their vehicles, playing for about 200 people in 125 cars or trucks at the Stardust Drive-In Theatre in Watertown, Tenn. “The only real challenge for me was [the absence of] the energy from a mosh pit,” he says. “But the car horns, the flashing headlights — that was crazy cool.”

Urban’s show was a secret, invitation-only freebie for Vanderbilt University medical personnel. But it was also a road test of sorts for scaling up the concept of drive-in concerts, which began popping up in Europe earlier this year, from novelty one-offs to the mainstream. Concert promotion giant Live Nation is looking at taking the concept nationwide this summer, although it would skip the drive-in theater middleman and produce the concerts at its 40 amphitheaters — outside the front gates, in the parking lots.

So just when you thought you’d mastered every wrinkle about concert ticketing and fees that there was to learn, get ready to hear a lot about a phrase previously limited to habitués of the 300 or so drive-ins left around the U.S.: “carload pricing.”

Thomas See, Live Nation’s venues president for U.S. concerts, is hoping the company will soon have a cure for American music lovers’ cabin fever. “I’m not ready to say tomorrow or the next day, but we would love to get out there in the next month or two with some active content,” he says. “We’ll crawl a bit, and it’s not a speed game, but when we do it, Live Nation will do it right, that’s for damn sure. … I oversee over 40 large outdoor amphitheaters where we would traditionally do 30-40 shows a year that have parking lots and restrooms all set up, and if we can find a way within each jurisdiction to get the artists and the fans to connect together, that’s the ultimate goal.”

The trend has already been taking shape on a smaller scale. D-Nice just did a drive-in show for first responders in a parking lot in Florida (which was livestreamed to the thousands of fans he’s picked up with his celebrated Club Quarantine DJ sets). A quirkier DJ, Marc Rebillet, has booked an entire run of drive-in theaters across the Midwest for a June-July tour. The Beanstalk Music & Mountains Festival, which normally takes place in the wilds of Colorado, is taking over the Holiday Twin Drive-In in Fort Collins, Colo., on June 26-27, and in a day’s time sold out the 380 available double-spaced spots under the big screens. Baseball’s Texas Rangers have turned into concert promoters as well, booking artists like Pat Green and the Eli Young Band for a series of eight shows in the Globe Life Field parking lot on June 4-7. All were instant sellouts. 

To use an existing theater or start from scratch in a parking lot? Says Urban, “I have no idea when I last went to a drive-in, but it’s the perfect setting for this: everyone in cars orderly positioned, all facing a singular point, and a massive pre-built video projection wall. All we had to do was park a flatbed truck at the base of the screen, point a camera at the stage, tap into the FM frequency so everyone could hear us in their cars, and we were off and running.” A PA was set up, above and beyond the in-house FM audio, to provide audio for fans who preferred roof-sitting to bucket seats. 

There are a lot of issues concert promoters have not much had to think about before, and haven’t universally settled upon even now: radio sound or loudspeakers; carload or individual pricing; allowing lawn chairs or trying to keep customers inside their cars; and whether to go with parking lots or existing “ozoners” (as Variety used to call drive-ins), of which the U.S. has about 300 left.

Christian Bernhardt, one of Rebillet’s agents at United Talent Agency, went with the novelty of a full drive-in tour for his client partly because the FM transmitters eliminated the need to lug a full sound rig on the road. Having fixed screens helps, and not just for live close-ups of the headliner: “We’ve decided to screen a few short films produced by other UTA clients in lieu of an opening act.”

Ryan Noel, co-owner of the Beanstalk Festival, says going with FM-only sound is one way to get attendees to stay in their cars; having the concession stand take orders via text for delivery is another. “We’re going to hire a security team to make sure people aren’t just freely roaming around,” he says.

The ground rules for the Texas shows at Globe Life Field at the beginning of June are taking place with an abundance of pandemic-era caution: Tickets will be scanned through the car window by workers in protective gear. The artists will be performing acoustically, over FM transmission only, to provide for a minimum of crew interaction in the setup. The sets will be strictly limited to 60 minutes each, in part to keep patrons from needing to use the facilities (although there will be facilities).

But Live Nation’s See is working with local governments to see when they’ll be comfortable with full shows attended by fans that are free to sit bumper-side. “Ideally we want to be working in an environment where we’re using the PA,” not FM, he says. “That’s where we might be playing a little bit longer than some of the things that you’re seeing take place now where the requirements are that you’re staying in your vehicle.” Still, the idea will be that fans (and their lawn chairs) will stay in a buffered pod area surrounding the car or truck, except for those moments when nature (or the restroom inside the facility gates) calls.

Is this going to turn into a viable model for touring going forward? Not everyone is riding shotgun with the car-concert idea. An exec at one major concert promoter is blasé about the concept: “It may be great as a marketing tool, and if people want to do it for their fans, more power to ‘em, but I don’t see it as being viable as a business model for what we do.”

Owners of existing drive-ins express mixed feelings about suddenly being called upon to do shows as fans wait for Live Nation to pull together bigger ones. John Vincent, who runs the Wellfleet Drive-In in Massachusetts, is president of the United Drive-in Theatres Association of America, and says that for their affiliate drive-ins, “in this current environment, it’s just a way to fill the screen until the first-run product comes back available. We don’t mind doing one-off special events, but most of us feel we’re here to show movies.”

“I’m in the movie business and I prefer to be in the movie business,” agrees Barry Floyd, owner of the Stardust Drive-In, which hosted the Urban concert. He already intersects with the music biz in nearby Nashville a good deal — his facility has long been a location for country artists shooting nostalgic videos, and Brett Eldridge was shooting one there as he spoke. “If I do a concert, that means I’m not showing movies,” at a two-screen venue that’s doing turnaway business most nights, while local indoor theaters remain dark. But, that said, “we’re having a ton of people contacting us (about) Christian music stuff, somebody from iHeartRadio last week, electronic music — I’m thinking that the concert thing is gonna take off,” Floyd says.

Parking lots may be less romantic than old-school drive-ins as venues and require more setup, but they hold hold more cars … and Live Nation, obviously doesn’t have to worry about losing any money canceling sellout screenings of “Trolls World Tour” by setting up shop on vast stretches of pavement that otherwise would have been dark… and in urban areas, too, as opposed to the drive-in theaters that have largely survived more in rural outposts than in the middle of major cities.

How much of the hunger for live concerts could Live Nation sate this summer or fall? “Can you scale it really big-time? Probably not,” See concedes. “It’s not something that you’re going to do thousands of. But can you get a good number of them across the finish line with artists that want to get out there and connect with their fans? Absolutely. And we’re fielding calls ongoingly since Michael (Rapino, Live Nation’s CEO-president) talked about it recently on the earnings call. We’re in solid conversations around the country in the jurisdictions that we’re in, listening to what the politicians are saying at a local and county and state level as to what phase (of reopening) this could be in.”

As for what size these Live Nation shows might be, “every location is going to be a little bit different, but we’ve got some models out there that are anywhere between 500 and 1000 cars, and we can probably structure a little bit more than that.” The capacity could be less than what headliners are used to inside the amphitheater gates, and “it’s like an underplay in some regards for some of these acts that we’re talking to,” See says. “But their fans are gonna recognize that forever. If you go to a show in this environment with you and your friends in this capacity, this is going to be a show that you will never forget.”

Urban knows there are knots to work out. “As ideal as the drive-ins are, from a design standpoint,” says the singer, “for doing this kind of concert, we’re always going to be limited to how many cars we can play to, and working within safety guidelines that can be different from city to city, state to state. A stadium parking lot holds way more cars. But then you get into the struggle of the more cars you have to reach, the more equipment you need and the more crew to set it up. And then, of course, if you want to tour that, how do the crew and musicians all travel around? But in the absence of traditional touring structures, for the time being at least, it’s a puzzle worth think-tanking on.”

So, honk if you’ve got cabin fever, or if you just want to request “Blue Ain’t Your Color.”