Jason Isbell on the Concert Biz’s Shift Toward Vaccination Mandates: ‘Some of Us Saw the Building Was on Fire’

In a Q&A, the rocker talks about why these requirements are essential to avoiding another live-music shutdown, why he credits capitalism for the move to adapt new measures, and why he engages adversaries on social media.

Jason Isbell
Robb Cohen/Invision/AP

Rocker Jason Isbell may usually have one of the funniest celebrity accounts on Twitter, but when it comes to his engagement with other users on subjects related to the COVID explosion in the last year and a half, it’s been no laughing matter — or at least a subject of acerbic gallows humor, at most. And he’s not just a social-media or magazine-profile warrior. In early August, he started putting his touring livelihood where his mouth is, declaring that henceforth only patrons who could show proof of vaccination could get in… even if that meant he had to cancel gigs at venues of festivals that can’t or won’t allow the requirement, which he has.

In the second week of August, that was a lonely stand to take. By the third week of the month, he had company, not just from some like-minded artists and venues, but from concert business giants AEG and Live Nation. The former promoter will be instituting a similar vaccinations-required policy for its owned-and-operated venues beginning in October; the latter will be requiring either a vax card or a recent negative test for its owned halls, arenas and amphitheaters. But the business — or the individual states — may have to learn some lessons the hard way before everyone joins Isbell in making this an industry-wide norm.

As the tide was dramatically turning last week, Variety spoke with Isbell for our story in the current issue, “For Those About to Vax: Why Vaccination Proof is Suddenly Becoming a New Standard for Concert Entry.” He’s an eloquent enough spokesperson for the emerging point of view on the way forward for the music industry that it felt worthwhile to break this conversation out into a separate Q&A.

VARIETY: Generally in the music business, things go well when it’s actually musicians leading the way. Now we’re seeing AEG, Live Nation and other promoters and venues taking a stand with vaccination policies. Do you think yourself and other artists helped instigate this by drawing a line?

ISBELL: You know, maybe so, but I don’t know that that’s important. I know there were other people doing it before I did. And if me speaking out about it and putting these restrictions in place helps some people feel more confident about doing it themselves, that’s a great thing. But it’s not something that I’m going to take any kind of credit for. I feel like some of us saw the exit, and the building was on fire, and now we are trying to talk everyone into following us to the exit so we don’t get burned. It’s pretty much as simple as that. And also, I just don’t think that our business is going to be able to continue this way unless we put some restrictions in place. I know my crew and my band might not be able to withstand another shutdown, and I think a lot of people are in that same situation. So I’m just happy that it’s happening and that people are getting on board. I don’t necessarily need to feel like I’m leading the way.

You engage with people who feel differently on Twitter and you do actually offer counter-arguments to their arguments. Does anything surprise you about the reasons why people still object to vaccine policies or vaccines generally?

Not at this point. But you know, I’m not necessarily engaging with the individuals who are disagreeing with me on Twitter. I’m trying to engage with my entire base of followers, and maybe even some more people outside of my followers. I’m just using what they’re saying as a prompt to do that. I think that’s something a lot of people don’t necessarily understand about Twitter. The whole point of the website is to use conversation as a prompt to give some information to a large number of people. A lot of folks, even people who I consider friends, will come at me on Twitter and say, “Why are you engaging with these people? Why are you punching down?” Well, I’m not actually talking to those people. I’m using what they are saying to me as a prompt to talk to a wider audience. And that’s the whole purpose of Twitter. That’s why it’s not Facebook.

You went back and forth with Marc Broussard, an artist who had a very different point of view about putting any requirements on anybody to come to show. How big a segment of artists do you think he represents? It’d seem like your position would be like the vast majority at this point, but there are artists who are “live and let live,” laissez faire types.

Well, they’re not really like that, though. I don’t think that’s really how they feel. I think they’re afraid that they’re going to lose their ability to make a living. And the problem that I have with that is: It’s just so hard for people to say, “I’m afraid.”

To them, I think they would rather ignore the severity of the virus than actually take real steps to deal with it going forward. And that’s what got us into this pickle in the first place. I mean, when Trump did it, in order to keep the economy going, and to keep everybody from panicking — quote-unquote — he downplayed the severity of the virus, and that’s what made it a political issue to begin with. That’s why we’re having so many problems now getting people to take the vaccine. It should have never been a political issue. Any kind of decent leadership across the board would have said, “Okay, here’s a virus, it’s serious; we need to take these steps to try to reduce its impact.” And then when the vaccine came out, they would have said, “Okay, now we have a vaccine. If you can take the vaccine safely, you need to take the vaccine.” Anything else was just a complete failure. And I think that failure happened because of fear. People just don’t want to admit that it’s fear. They would rather say something about freedom or come up with some nonsensical argument about how epidemiologists don’t know what they’re talking about.

In terms of the practicality of making these policies work, probably anybody who really wants to get into a show can, because you can fake vaccine cards, or we hear that people who’ve even been to your shows recently have seen people at the door just barely glancing at whatever proof people are putting out. It’s not this incredibly rigorous process that you have to pass to get in, so far.

Yeah. But 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. You know, we’re doing what we can. The practicality of it really just doesn’t matter to me at all, because it’s what needs to be done.

It’s hard to figure out right now which states have different laws that affect this.  AEG made its statement about their new policy and it had the asterisk “except in states where prohibited.” A few states have laws now against any kind of vaccine policy from any business, but then others just have it where any venue that receives money from the state can’t do it. And it seems like you ran into a problem with one of your venues that receives state funding and said that’s why they couldn’t do it.

Yes. It’s hard to know at this point, because even in some states where those venues are under threat, we’re still going through with it. And I expect that there is a chance that we’ll be playing a lot more venues that are completely self-sufficient in these states, places that don’t need state funding. That’s just an assumption. I mean, it is going to require more logistical work from our standpoint, and at some point it might take some legal fees. I might even have to pay some lawyers. But I like my lawyers, and I’ll do whatever I need to do.

It’s gonna separate the venues in some situations. But none of that is really even worth considering. I mean, whatever needs to be done, we’ll do it. It’s better to do a little bit of extra logistical work and try to figure out where we can play and when than it is to not be able to work at all. I know my tour managers would much rather be trying to sort out whether or not we can play at a particular venue than just sitting at home trying to figure out how much longer they’re going to get paid before we can go back on the road — because we’re headed for another shutdown if we don’t do this. It’s just as simple as that. It’s not going to be possible for us to just ignore the Delta variant and go on about our business. This is really the only way forward.

Probably nobody wants this to be a deal where suddenly it turns out like the blue states are the “have” states, and the red states become the have-nots.

If it turns out that way, it will very much be a shame. But I would think maybe you would look at that and say, “Well, there’s a reason that happened. And if we want concerts in our state, maybe we should vote with that in mind next time around.” You know, I’m not doing this for that purpose, but 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.

If it does become a political football like that with the states, it’s easy to imagine there could be a split among people, as there has been is in other cases where a group of people has pulled out of a state because of some decisions they made, whether it was baseball’s all-star game or filmmakers pulling filming because they don’t like the statements a state is making. As a result of these actions, you get people within the state who miss those things and find validity in artists or companies boycotting the state, and then of course others who are like, “Fuck you, Hollywood” or “Fuck you, baseball, we didn’t need your money anyway.”

Of course. You know, 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.

But we’re getting to the point where our political stances are beginning to matter to people that were able to ignore them up until recently. There’ve always been people (for whom) every part of their life was a political challenge, from having a child to getting enough food on the table to keeping their family out of prison. Those people have always existed. But there’s also been a whole lot of people like me who had the option of ignoring politics for most of their lives. And now a lot of those people aren’t going to get that option any more, because we’ve reached a crisis mode. Things are gonna become political very quickly for a lot of people who, up until now, have been able to say, “Why can’t we just keep politics out of everything?” Well, if you do that for long enough, politics will find its way into everything, whether you like it or not.

Your stance and that of some other artists was lonely at first. Then we saw Live Nation first saying the artists could dictate their own politics on this, then clarifying that to say they would require either a vaccination card or negative test in all their owned-and-operated venues. AEG went further and took your route — vaccination proof, period, to get into shows. Did this quick shift from these big companies happily surprise you at all?

I don’t think it surprised me, because businesses like to make money. And I knew from the start that this is the only way we’re going to have any kind of long-term financial health for the music business. So it didn’t really surprise me, but I was very happy to see it. You know, for once, possibly, capitalism may be working in the favor of the public health. We’ll see — not across the board, not 100%, but in this one particular situation. The more businesses, the more venues, the more promoters want to make money, the more they’re going to have the foresight to know what’s about to happen and going to make these kinds of decisions.

These shouldn’t necessarily seem like risky moves for artists to make. But yesterday, I was interviewing Reba McEntire, who just had COVID, and she was really grateful that she was vaccinated because for her, she didn’t even realize what it was until she lost her sense of smell and went to get checked. She was urging everyone to keep wearing masks, and as I was writing that up, I started thinking, “As basic as what she is saying is, she could get some pushback on this.”

Isn’t that amazing? That’s where we are now. You can’t even tell your own anecdotal personal experience without catching hell from people. But you know, Reba’s got a lot of patience. I’ve got a lot of patience, too, you know. I have yet to see a convincing argument to the contrary, and until I see a convincing argument to the contrary, I’m not going to be bothered by foolishness. But it is amazing that just protecting people has become such a polarizing issue. It’s wild.

After one of the first shows you did after instituting this policy, in Austin, you said the feel of the show was really memorable. It’s not hard to fathom: People come to a show in part to feel like part of a community anyway, like you’re there with like-minded people. And maybe the fact that you’ve all agreed to be there under a certain circumstance, agreeing to protect each other’s health, maybe it could give people that 5% extra boost of that community feeling.

Yeah. I think it does. I could really tell also on the Monday night show (in Austin) — after I’d done the MSNBC interview that morning (which got a lot of fan and media pickup) — that it felt like a Saturday night in there. People were very excited and comfortable and able to have a good time. And I’m not saying we’re eliminating all risks. I don’t think that’s possible. But if you do what you can, it’s going to make a difference to people and it’s going to make their experience better.

And as for people who say, “Well, you’re going to lose half your audience,” I’ve heard that my whole career. And I don’t know how many different ways I can tell people I don’t want their money. 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. My life has not situated where I need it. I don’t live beyond my means, and I won’t play the shows.

But if we can do it in a way that feels safe, like we did in Austin, everybody has a really good time. It felt fantastic, and it also felt hopeful. It felt like this is a way forward and maybe we can continue playing shows. And after the last year of sitting at home, nothing feels better than that kind of hope.

As far as your home state of Alabama, it sounds like you probably don’t really know for sure how things will pan out for your festival, Shoals Fest, in October.

Um, we’re going to do it at my festival. Yeah. It’s going to be all right for my festival. I just found out earlier today.

So they don’t have anything in place that would prohibit that?

Who knows? Who knows, but I don’t think they’re going to stand up to me on it. I’m bringing a lot of money into that state that weekend.

You had a classic rejoinder the other day where you responded to somebody on Twitter who objected to you supposedly pushing your views on them, taking away their ability to just enjoy the music. You said something to the effect of, “I think you’re confusing Twitter with Spotify.”

Right. You’re welcome to just enjoy the music. Just don’t go to the website where I’m telling people how I feel about things. Go to the one where you just enjoy the music. That’s an easy choice, and everybody, if they don’t want to come to the show, they can sit at home. They don’t even have to pay for the albums anymore. They can sit at home and just listen to the records for free all the live-long day, all by themselves. That’s fine.

The anti-vaxxers’ position would be that not being allowed to come to the show is a violation of freedom of choice.

We’re adding choices. No, we’re not taking away your freedom. We’re giving you an opportunity to choose. 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.