Without making light of the situation, the existential conundrum facing the concert industry — which was poised for an ambitious return this summer after 18 months of lockdown, only to see its plans upended by COVID variants and spikes — can be summarized in a tale of two Jasons.
On one hand, there’s country singer Jason Aldean, who started off his tour this month by making nightly anti-masking proclamations. “The coolest thing to me right now,” he told a New York audience at Jones Beach, “is that I’m looking out, seeing all you guys, and I don’t see one fucking mask. I’ve had just about enough of that shit.” Predictably, chants of “USA! USA!” ensued. Behind the scenes, masks were required to attend meet-and-greets with Aldean, but the front-of-house message was clear: We’re in a post-pandemic boom time for concerts… screw caution.
On the other hand, there’s outspoken Americana luminary Jason Isbell, who on Aug. 9 took a bold and then-lonely stand that fans would have to show proof of vaccination to get into any of his shows, effective immediately. He faced considerable pushback, on social media as well as with some of the venues where he was booked. Isbell tells Variety, “People said, ‘Well, you’re going to lose half your audience.’ But I don’t know how many different ways I can tell people that, if you’re going to throw caution to the wind and have no respect for the health of the person standing next to you, I do not want your money.”
It seemed like the kind of stance that perhaps only maverick, indie artists would be likely to take, if even very many of those. But then, the day after Isbell made his proclamations, the Eagles announced that the next show they were putting on sale would require vaccination proof to get in. From there, suddenly, where a few artists had led, the biggest companies in the live music business seemed to follow — although they would claim, credibly, that plans to put limitations on universal access to shows had been in discussions for weeks. In a flash, by mid-August, the debate was no longer about whether there should be restrictions or no restrictions, except among the most conservative artists, fans and states. Deliberations in the mainstream of the music business were all about which kinds of proof of being COVID-free will be required going forward.
Almost concurrently, the two largest music promoters in the world, Live Nation and AEG, announced different levels of barrier-to-entry at their owned-and-operated U.S. venues. As of Oct. 4, Live Nation-owned halls will require either vaccination proof or a recent negative test for entry. AEG has gone a step further: By Oct. 1, it’ll be vaccination-only, for patrons, event staff and musicians alike; in their houses, opting out with a COVID test won’t fly. These rules don’t apply to the many venues where AEG and Live Nation merely promote shows but aren’t completely in charge. And there are roadblocks to instituting these requirements in the handful of states — including Florida and Texas — that have put laws on the books forbidding businesses to ask for vaccine status. But even in the venues where they can’t call all the shots, both companies are urging their concert production partners to get on board.
Ironically, perhaps, AEG was driven to make its call in part by a failure, of sorts — the need to cancel its New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, due to severe hospitalization numbers in Louisiana — whereas Live Nation puts its decision partly down to a success story, with the Lollapalooza festival having successfully implemented a vax-proof-or-negative-test policy similar to what will soon be widely instituted.
Two weeks after Lollapalooza took place in Chicago July 29-Aug. 1, Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said that just .05% of the festival’s estimated 385,000 total attendees had since tested positive (although the methodology was not entirely clear). Says Live Nation’s longtime VP of touring, Omar Al-joulani: “One of the most fascinating stats is that 12% of those who came to Lollapalooza said they got vaccinated just to come to Lollapalooza. I think Lollapalooza was really the bellwether of: If you can [require proof of vaxxing or testing for entry] with hundreds of thousands of people, then you can definitely do it for smaller groups. We’re just going to continue to be on the forefront of encouraging people to get vaccinated and use that vaccination as their ticket to get back to going to shows.”
AEG Presents COO and general counsel Shawn Trell says the need to put Jazz Fest on ice again this year was at least a partial prompt for deciding to require vaccination proof. “I don’t know that that was the catalyst, but certainly having to do that was an indicator that we needed to implement that which we had been talking about for some time,” Trell says, “and it’s a bigger step than anyone else has taken in this industry.” He thinks AEG’s rival isn’t going quite far enough: “We’d obviously love to see Live Nation get on board and align with us in this respect.” As for general fan and industry reaction to taking it a step further this October: “We anticipated there would be some pushback, and there has been some. But it’s the right thing to do, and the reaction has been overwhelmingly supportive.”
Tim Leiweke, CEO of the Oak View Group and co-founder of the Arena Alliance, which represents 29 of the nation’s 32 top arenas (including Madison Square Garden and L.A.’s Forum), thinks AEG’s more stringent approach is the right one. (He might have a slight bias, having been the CEO-president of AEG from 1996-2013.) “We’re not promoters — we’re arena owners and operators — so we let those two fight it out,” Leiweke says, while himself maintaining that “vaccination-only, so it’s mandatory, is, in my opinion, where we should go as an industry.”
But Live Nation allowing ticketholders two different options for getting in, including the within-72-hours negative test, does have a strategic advantage in potentially finding greater acceptance in those deep-red states that have bans on requiring vaccination proof for entry. “We have a real advantage of having so many offices across this country and people connected to their local communities,” says Live Nation’s Al-joulani. “What we’re finding out from that network is that, as long as you have the test option, and you’re not saying it’s vaccination required, then you can actually lead with testing in those states… and have the vaccine be how you opt out of a test. So ultimately we feel like we can accomplish this across about most every state.”
Even Leiweke, who favors the vax-only policy of AEG, concedes the other company may have a point there with its either/or approach at the door. “I think Live Nation’s right on that,” he says, “and Texas is a good example. We have the Moody Center in Texas, which we are partners with Live Nation on. At this point, if we come along and ultimately indicate that it’s vaccination-only as a mandate, my guess is we’ll have some issues with the state.
“But I’m hoping that the politicians stop making this a political issue. and we get to some sense that this isn’t about a person’s individual right anymore,” Leiweke continues.” The reality is, it no longer becomes your individual right when you ultimately can walk into any place — a restaurant, an arena, a theater, a stadium — and infect others. Then that becomes we, not me.”
Isbell already provided an example of how these health-based restrictions could go sideways in Texas=. The Austin venue ACL Live hosted a three-night stand in which he successfully implemented his vax-only admission policy. But he moved his Houston show from the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, which receives state money, to a venue that doesn’t, Billy Bob’s, after a dispute over enforcing the rule. It’s highly possible Texas might have stepped in to stop any of the shows where Isbell required a vaccine card, if events hadn’t moved so quickly.
On the road ahead, if the deepest-red states do prohibit proof of vaccination for entry, or even put a ban on asking for negative tests at the door, is it possible that some tours may start being routed around these states?
Says AEG’s Trell: “That’s a good question, and maybe a better question for other folks to speak directly to — but logically and intuitively, you would think that the answer to that question is yes.”
Isbell’s home state, Alabama, is another one where a law has been instituted barring proof of COVID status to enter businesses. But the artist is confident the annual two-day festival he hosts there, Shoals Fest, will go on as scheduled Oct. 2-3, even with his proof-of-vaccine requirement. “I don’t think they’re going to stand up to me on it,” he says. “I’m bringing a lot of money into that state that weekend.”
Could he foresee a future in which tours start being routed around those deeply conservative states, as the industry tide turns toward asking for vaccine cards? “If it turns out that way, it will very much be a shame,” says Isbell. “But I would think maybe you would look at that and say, ‘Well, if we want concerts in our state, maybe we should vote with that in mind next time around.’ … When everybody has to show their hand, and the shit really hits the fan, then you start seeing which politicians are looking out for your better interests and which ones aren’t. And if this becomes something that’s divided along political lines in that particular way, it’s going to be pretty obvious which politicians care about the health and the economic health of their states and which ones don’t. We didn’t make this a war, but if that’s what it winds up being, there’s going to be collateral damage. You’re going to have good people in poorly run states who miss out. And that sucks. So I hope it doesn’t come to that.”
And for those “don’t tread on me” types out there who might refuse to come to a show with vaccine requirements? “We’re not taking away your freedom,” Isbell says. “You could choose to stay your ass at home, and then you’ll be free, and alone. The constitution guarantees freedom in a lot of situations, but it doesn’t guarantee somebody else’s company. There’s no guard against loneliness, so good luck with that.”
What about the question of enforcement, though? Patrons at shows where a vaccine or test has been required have widely reported that they’ve seen ticket-takers barely even steal a glance at the supposed proof ticketholders are offering at the door. Without a national vaccine pass, these new vax requirements could just weed out those who feel strongly enough about their anti-vax views not to cheat or lie their way into a show.
The Live Nation and AEG toppers insist, somewhat vaguely, that venues will be able to institute appropriate safeguards to separate the truly vaccinated (or tested) from fakers. Isbell, for his part, acknowledges there probably won’t be a perfect system. HIs analogy: “You know, you can drive drunk if you want to, and you might not get caught, but you might run over somebody’s kid. So I think it’s still a good idea that we make it illegal to drive drunk.”
Another burning question: How long will these new rules likely be in place? Will they still be a factor when the big spring festivals roll around in 2022, like AEG’s Coachella and Stagecoach?
“Hope not — right?” says Trell, with a sigh. “Everybody hopes not.”
Leiweke thinks that, given what we now know about the variants, spikes and reluctance of many to get vaccinated, this won’t have ceased to be an issue by 2022… or 2023. “We are now beginning to figure out: This isn’t a few months’ worth of a transition; this is something we’re going to be living with for many, many years. And I’m proud of the industry, that now everyone understands that this pandemic will be an epidemic. We live in a global world, and this won’t be the last one of these we see… I think we’ll get this in a box, and I think we’re going to contain it, and we will be able to operate and go on with our lives. But going forward, things like filterization systems and air circulation as well as mandatory vaccination — welcome to the new world. And that’s what will keep our industry up and operating at 100 percent.”
One hundred percent is exactly where the industry is operating. Says Live Nation’s Al-joulani, “Our venues right now in August are as busy as they would have been in any other August. And we kick off early in 2022 with the Weeknd having sold well over a million tickets for his tour at this point, and Billie Eilish sold every ticket when that went on sale a few weeks ago. The demand for live music is, I would say, unprecedented at this time.”
AEG’s Trell doesn’t think vaccination requirements will put much of a dent in that, despite all the anti-vax cant in the country. “There are some people who will choose not to go to the show because of something like what we rolled out. OK, we accept that. We went into that with our eyes open, obviously. But for those people that were already going to the show, or maybe weren’t going to the show, but now will feel more comfortable, everyone will be there knowing it is a safer concert environment” — and feeling better about making a return trip.
Leiweke says that at the arenas his Oak View Group is aggressively working on opening, like Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle this fall and another that just broke ground in California’s Coachella Valley, “We are building MERV 13 air filterization and air flow systems that are like hospitals and operating rooms. It’s tens of millions of dollars at each arena. Ansd when we’re making that decision, I’m not thinking of the person that sits there and goes, ‘It’s my right not to get vaccinated.’ I don’t think so! It’s probably my right to put in a shitty filterization system,” he laughs, “but I didn’t do it.”
There may be a different debate yet to come — about whether the show should go on at all. We’ve now seen, for perhaps the first time in music history, more progressively minded fans going onto their favorite artists’ social media accounts to ask why the singers aren’t canceling shows. There’ve been artists from Stevie Nicks to Limp Bizkit that have canceled runs of concerts outright… and when the group that sang “Break Stuff” at Woodstock ’99 is the model of caution and responsibility, it’s a more topsy-turvy world than we could have guessed.
The latest shocker in these daily developments: Garth Brooks announced Wednesday that he was canceling the remaining dates on his stadium tour for the rest of the year and issuing 350,000 future ticketholders automatic refunds. Even having just played to 90,000 people at a show as recently as last weekend, Brooks now says, “In July, I sincerely thought the pandemic was falling behind us. Now, watching this new wave, I realize we are still in the fight and I must do my part… With a hopeful heart, we will reschedule and start over when this wave seems to be behind us.”
But some wondered, was this too cautious a move? Why couldn’t Brooks have put the shows on sale and just instituted a vaccination-only policy, like the Eagles and others are doing? The answer may be that the country superstar just wants to err on the extreme side of caution, especially having had his wife, Trisha Yearwood, be one of the many celebrities who has come through a case of COVID. But others suspect there could have been a reasonable feeling that a good part of the potential audience for Brooks’ shows just might not stand for any requirements at the door, given that his fan base overlaps with Jason Aldean’s even more than it does with Don Henley’s.
It’s not just much of the country audience or artist roster that is resistant to any kind of rules, of course. Van Morrison may be the entertainment world’s most renowned anti-vaxxer/open-society-up proponent, and this fall he’ll be playing in plenty of venues like the Hollywood Bowl, which now is under an L.A. County mandate to require masks through the duration of concerts, as well as venues where fans will have to provide proof of vaccination or a test. Given his disgruntlement with anything he sees as an infraction on personal freedom, when he gets to the States, we may hear some not-so-wonderful remarks.
But the tide has definitely turned away from just assuming the live music boom can’t go bust again. And Aldean? He hasn’t suddenly turned into the model of COVID consciousness; his wife’s statement that those who don’t get the vaccine are “better off” still stands on social media. But after his camp got some private pushback from within the music industry as well as public rebuke, in Aldean’s most recent concerts, the nightly anti-mask speech has been dropped as a staple of the show.