‘Live at the Ryman’ Series Looks to Marry PPV Livestreams With Limited Live Attendees, Citing ‘History in the Making’

Opry Entertainment is hoping to get approval to bring in paying audiences at 15% capacity as its pay-per-view livestream series proceeds over the next six Fridays.

Ryman Auditorium in Nashville
Courtesy Ryman Auditorium

Are concert-starved music fans ready to pony up for livestream subscription series involving different artists every week? And is it time for established music venues to start experimenting with letting very small and spaced-out audiences back in their doors?

These may seem like two separate questions. But they’re not when it comes to the storied Ryman Auditorium getting experimental on both fronts with a “hybrid concert model”. The 128-year-old Nashville venue that has been voted “Theater of the Year” for the last 10 years straight at the Pollstar Awards is about to host a six-week series of pay-per-view livestream shows, and the hall’s operators expect to let a very limited number of attendees in the doors to provide a live audience for at least some of those gigs.

The series begins next Friday with the Christian group For King & Country, wraps up Sept. 18 with the alt-country band Old Crow Medicine Show, and has four Fridays’ worth of mainstream country stars headlining in-between, with Cam (Aug, 21), Chris Janson (Aug. 28), Scotty McCreery (Sept. 4) and Brett Young (Sept. 11). It was the hope of the Opry Entertainment Group, which runs the Ryman, that the Nashville mayor’s office would start letting handfuls of patrons in by the time of the kickoff show this coming weekend. That may not happen, but they’re still expecting to get a go-ahead some time in the days or weeks ahead.

Anyone watching at home can pay $10 for a single show, $50 for the entire series, and more for packages that include specially branded merch options. Should paying audiences be allowed in, the price point will be $100-plus to be among the first limited audiences since the pandemic began to see a show hosted with stringent safety measures by an established venue and promoter, as opposed to some of the no-social-distancing free-for-alls that have stirred controversy in small towns around the country. Of course, the Ryman’s reps believe that the hallowed hall itself is as much of a selling point as the artists that might play there. (Mandolin, which has long specialized in hosting pay-per-views, is handling the livestream operations for the Ryman.)

What could dipping a toe back into the live audience business in Nashville look like? Variety spoke with Scott Bailey, president of the Opry Entertainment Group, to find out.

VARIETY: There have been artists who’ve been doing pay-per-view live series from their homes during quarantining, like Brandi Carlile and Melissa Etheridge, but no concert hall of any renown that’s done a multi-artist, venue-based series, right?

BAILEY: Yeah, we’re not aware of anybody else that at this point in time during COVID that has pursued an in-venue hybrid, that includes pay-per-view plus sales for a limited audience in the venue. So it will be a first, and certainly first for Nashville and for us.

Where do you stand on getting city government to sign off on letting audiences in?

Well, here’s where we stand today. So it may change frankly even tomorrow morning. Vanderbilt Medical Center is our partner in helping us to establish protocols for our hotels, the Opry and other franchises, as well as the Ryman. We engaged pretty early with the mayor’s office and health department and walked them through all of our plans in terms of a limited audience within the Ryman, got their guidance on any adjustments and changes, and so we literally are currently in a holding pattern as the mayor is evaluating the current situation in Nashville and whether or not they will approve moving forward. We think we have the support, medically speaking, and that we’re handling it above board in a way to be having the proper enforcements and protocols for those attendees to have a safe environment and enjoy an amazing experience. Based on the homework that we’ve done and the confidence that we’ve built in how we’ve handled things thus far, we’re optimistic that there will be a point during this series where we will be able to allow patrons into the actual venue itself.

Do you have like an ideal target of how many people you’d like to have in the venue and have everyone feel safe?

Yeah, we do. We’ve pegged it at — and what we’ve represented to Metro Health is — about 15% capacity, which puts us in around the 300- to 350-individual category. We think that that is a reasonable and responsible number. We have maps that illustrate seating charts and distancing and all the things that go into how that would come together.

The Ryman hosts a lot of rock acts during the year and has even had hip-hop. With this six-week series, you’re focusing on genres or subgenres that are kind of native to Nashville — country, alternative country and Christian. Do you see opening it up if this works out and you can do more series?

Listen, the Ryman enjoys a great cross-section of all genres. And I think if we’re able to pull this off successfully and it works for everybody, we would encourage an opportunity to bring in any number of different acts. One consideration we have to take into account, though, obviously, is travel. One of the obvious advantages of being in Nashville is that we’ve got a lot of artists in (those genres that are) able to get to the Ryman, and that is a lot easier than somebody having to fly in. But the answer you’re looking for would be yes. We would want to open it up to everybody. … And we’re building this in a way that can be productized. We can continue a “Live at the Ryman” series once we complete this pilot. But, in addition to that, we’ve built it in a way that if an artist actually wants to have a complete turnkey solution, it can include the pay-per-view technology and the iconic venues of either the Opry House or the Ryman, as well as the marketing and the promotion that we would put behind it, and then the merchandising. We’re really trying to create something that could be a one-stop shop for artists to participate.

What kind of VIP add-ons are you offering for this series, either for pay-per-view viewers or live attendees?

We’ll have packages that include where people can order a package that includes a hat and a specific, purposefully created Hatch (poster) print and a tee. And then we have a limited number — we’re pegging it around 100 — that would have signed Hatch prints that they can order as well from the actual concert. So if you take a look at this moment in time, I think those will be pretty coveted items, specifically because this is history in the making.

Lazy loaded image
Ryman Auditorium in Nashville Courtesy Ryman Auditorium

It’d be interesting to see what the feel is like being part of a crowd at 15% capacity. Artists and fans have gotten used to livestream shows with no applause between songs whatsoever, so maybe any live response will feel like a step up, no matter how spaced out people are and how much it fills the room.

For those lucky people that will ultimately be able to have the opportunity to purchase those tickets, I think it’s going to be an incredible experience for those guys. It’s almost like putting Chris Janson or Cam or For King & Country — any one of the artists that we have lined up — it’ll be like a private concert for them in a venue that you’ll be telling your friends and your kids about for years to come.

As you said, the people who are going to be in attendance may be getting something more akin to a private concert than a typical show. Do you charge a premium price for that — assuming the smaller the audience, the bigger the ticket price?

It’s definitely a premium price, for some of the reasons that you just mentioned, not the least of which is scarcity, and part of the business model that we’ve developed with the artists. So we’ve worked with them in terms of outlining what those costs would be or what that ticket price would be. And for this series, it ranges anywhere from I think $125 to $175, depending on the add-ons and location and so forth.

Whether it was doing the Grand Ole Opry broadcasts over at the Opry House or opening up the Ryman again, you’ve emphasized dealing with Vanderbilt Medical Center. Is that extra-important because of the black eye Nashville’s kind of gotten lately, with people latching onto the social media pictures and videos of tourists crowding around the restaurant-bars of Lower Broad without masks? With Vanderbilt, you’re wanting to push the message that safety is being taken seriously.

That’s exactly right. I’ll tell you a couple of measures that we’re actually putting in place for those that will actually (be part of) the in-venue experience. Number one, it’s very front and center that you’re agreeing to the terms of service when you actually purchase the ticket. And that is that you wear a mask at all times. You will be seated in your location. There’s no rushing to the front. We have three different entrances that will be opened up in order to queue people through on three different sides of the building itself in order to limit the amount of proximity from one individual to another. In addition to that, we’ve got a pretty significant signage reinforcing again the same protocols that we’re putting in on the tickets. The department of health will be there, and we will also have our security, and the Metro police will be onsite observing the mask protocol enforcements. We’ve gone to touchless enhancements as it relates to the bathrooms, with kick plates and touchless soap dispensers and so forth. In addition to that, we’re not offering any food and beverage during that period of time, so people won’t be queuing up in order to grab a snack. So I would say it’s pretty comprehensive. and we’re going to enforce all that and lead by example in this area.

(Tickets for the livestream series go on sale Monday here. In-person tickets will also be sold there when or if Nashville gives the go-ahead for a limited live audience.)