With almost no tours having been undertaken in the past year, the Pollstar Awards pivoted in two different directions for the 31st annual edition of the show held Wednesday night at the Beverly Hilton Hotel ballroom. One shift in focus was to deliver awards to the top touring artists of the last decade, instead of the year, in different genres. Another was to give out possibly one-time-only awards that were specific to 2020-21, but focus on artists and execs who were innovators, either in finding different ways to perform live or who made a difference philanthropically.
Beyonce won as the top touring artist of the decade. Rob Light, CAA’s head of music, accepted on her behalf and read a statement from the singer in which she wrote, “2020 has taught all of us that the touring community needs to be cherished and is the backbone of our industry.” Beyond thanking a list of cohorts that included Jay-Z, “my ride-or-die,” she gave a shout-out to her ticket-buying fans: “You sing all the choruses, you go hard on the choreo, and I see you every night.”
In individual genre categories, Lady Gaga was named pop touring artist of the decade, Bruno Mars won hip-hop/R&B touring artist of the decade, Jennifer Lopez was cited as Latin touring artist of the decade, Kevin Hart was named comedy touring artist of the decade and Cirque du Soleil got the honor of being non-music tour of the decade.
Some of the artists sent in video acceptance speeches, like Jon Bon Jovi, whose eponymous group won for rock touring artist of the decade. “Welcome to my kitchen,” the singer quipped. “I’m begging you — promoters, agents, managers, get me out of the house!”
Garth Brooks, who won country touring artist of the decade, spent considerable time in his acceptance video pointing out the work done behind the scenes. “I worship the band and crew,” he said. “Your crew is there hours before you and hours after you leave.” Of the honor itself, he vamped, “That’s pretty sweet, man. Thanks for the ride.”
Among awards that went to hosts rather than artists, Coachella was named festival of the decade, the Troubadour in West Hollywood picked up nightclub of the decade, Radio City Music Hall was cited as theater of the decade, L.A.’s Forum became arena of the decade, the Hollywood Bowl picked up amphitheater of the decade, and the Royal Albert Hall won for international venue of the decade.
Among the topical awards for 2020-21 that went to artists, companies or venues who figured out a way to do it their own way during the pandemic: Mandolin was named best streaming platform, with CEO Mary Kay Huse enthusing, “Holy shit, we really didn’t expect this… We spent the last year doing things no one wanted to do. Personally speaking, as a CEO, I did not come from this industry, so the way you guys have partnered and come together and figured out how to make good out of a really bad time was super inspiring to me.” Competitors for the streaming platform honor included BulldogDM, Driift, LiveXLive, Nugs.net and Veeps.
The Ryman/Grand Ole Opry combination won for best livestreaming venue, Trey Anastasio’s “The Beacon Jams” series won best livestream event/virtual festival, Brad Paisley was given the livestreaming artist trophy, Billy Strings was named breakthrough artist of the pandemic, comedian Bert Kreisher won a “damn the torpedoes” award for his tour of drive-ins, and the Flaming Lips’ bubble concerts won a pandemic innovation award.
The most serious or even sobering moments of the awards show — which had plenty of levity from its host, comedian Annie Lederman — involved the awards that were given to “Heroes of Live” and interspersed throughout the ceremony.
The climactic trophy under that heroes banner went to Noelle Scaggs, lead singer of Fitz and the Tantrums, who recently founded Diversify the Stage to develop mentorships for members of underrepresented communities wanting a way into the business.
As the hip-hop artist introducing her, Mystic, put it, Scaggs committed herself to “creating these pathways for Black and brown and indigenous and LGBTQ+ and female-identifying and non-binary-identifying” aspirants. “She didn’t only lend her name or resources, she literally dove in and was present at every step of the path… She has done it with grace,” said Mystic, and “with some colorful language, but always gracefully.” For her part, Scaggs admitted that prior to finding this new path, “I was in a state of not knowing if I wanted to remain as one of these people on stage… I had lost my way.” Then, she said, “I had the opportunity of saying what I would no longer stand for: me being the only person that looked like me on stage.”
The first “Heroes of Live” award of the night went to Michael T. Strickland, owner of Bandit Lites, who became an activist on behalf of music industry workers being put out of work entirely during the pandemic, with causes that ranged from getting more than 200 venues to light up in red last September to getting closed concert halls and clubs to help deliver the vaccine when it became available.
“I think most of you have been in communication with me over the last year,” he told the live audience at the Beverly Hilton as well as the ticketed virtual audience watching a livestream. “We are now a $1 trillion business with 12 million people (employed), and we have little to no voice.” Strickland described the entertainment business as “only exceeded in size by the defense industry, but we’re fragmented… The airline and restaurant industries went to congress in battleships, and we went in a thousand canoes… We must come together as an industry and form the Entertainment Association so we have a voice on the Hill and are never again left out of the big show.”
Other recipients of the Heroes of Live award included Heather Lowery, president-CEO of Femme It Forward, and Maria Brunner, who as founder of Musically Fed, helped more than 300,000 free meals get delivered to unemployed music-biz workers since lockdowns got underway. Live Nation’s Michael Rapino, while not present, was given an award for his work with Crew Nation, which raised $18 million to help over 15,000 out-of-work crew members.
The more whimsical awards, traditionally cited in a video scroll at the conclusion of the ceremony, included a nod to Rapino as “most frequently named during lockdown,” Irving Azoff as “person to score a dinner with post-COVID,” Dan Steinberg as “most visible person during COVID (or how can I miss you if you won’t go away),” and the redwood deck at the Greek as the most anticipated hangout spot of the post-pandemic era to come.
The awards ceremony came at a midway point during the Pollstar Live conference, and followed a keynote interview with arena-headlining comedian Sebastian Maniscalco. The conference continues Thursday with panels like “Hell Yes, I’m Still Going: Untangling the Most Massive Rescheduling Campaign in the History of Earth.”