COVID Tears Through Live Music Plans for a Second Straight Summer

By Thought Leaders Archives
Cover image for  article: COVID Tears Through Live Music Plans for a Second Straight Summer

Late summer 2021 was supposed to be the time when outdoor amphitheaters, theaters, clubs and even some stadiums would be filled with fans, hearing live music they were denied for a year and a half because of COVID lockdowns and precautions. Big tours set for summer 2020 were simply moved to the same date in 2021, assuming the virus by then would have passed. Other acts who were always planning tours for this year tried to fit in their own dates, as well.

If anything, the problem in all the heady planning was too many artists on the road at the same time, creating a kind of touring traffic jam that made it impossible to properly market each show. Then the delta variant arrived, and cases rose again, particularly in states with lower rates of vaccination. Big tours and festivals were canceled or postponed. Artists who had postponed shows once, twice or three times already had to postpone again. Stages that remained open had to navigate volatile rule changes and vaccine mandates imposed by state and local health officials, promoters or the artists themselves.

"Crazy world," says Jim Bozzi, regional marketing director for Live Nation in Connecticut, which opened a new amphitheater in Bridgeport last month, but was hit with a cancellation by the country band Little Big Town for Aug. 26 because multiple members of the band's crew had been exposed to COVID-19.

Live Nation's amphitheater in nearby Hartford had a Korn cancellation because lead singer Jonathan Davis tested positive, and Neil Young pulled out of Farm Aid there next month due to pandemic concerns.

"I find myself wondering whether Farm Aid will be safe for everyone with the COVID pandemic surging," Young posted on his website. "I worry about that. I don't want to let anybody down, but still can't shake the feeling that it might not be safe for everyone."

One of the biggest tours halted halfway through was from Garth Brooks, who, after five stadium shows, postponed his remaining five.

"In July, I sincerely thought the pandemic was falling behind us," Brooks said in a statement. "Now watching this new wave, I realize we are still in the fight and I must do my part."

Other bands halting tours or canceling dates because members tested positive include Widespread Panic, Lynyrd Skynyrd, String Cheese Incident and Black Berry Smoke. Counting Crows postponed a pair of shows when a member of its crew got the same results. And on Aug. 25, Kiss canceled a date in Pittsburgh (Aug. 26) when lead singer Paul Stanley tested positive for COVID.

Fall Out Boy fell out of big ballpark dates with Green Day and Weezer in New York, Boston and Washington after a member of its crew tested positive.

Like Brooks, other acts bowed out of performance plans this summer out of an abundance of caution, from Nine Inch Nails to Stevie Nicks.

"When originally planned, these shows were intended to be a cathartic return to live music," NIN wrote on social media. "However, with each passing day it's become more apparent we're not at that place yet."

"While I'm vaccinated, at my age I am still being extremely cautious," Nicks, 73, said in a statement. "Because singing and performing have been my whole life, my primary goal is to keep healthy so I can continue singing for the next decade or longer."

One of her gigs was to have been the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival planned for October, which itself was canceled this month.

Elvis Costello called the cancellation of the New Orleans Jazz Fest "a big disappointment and discouragement for musicians, organizers, crew and music fans alike."

But COVID has caused other ripple effects for touring musicians like Costello. The closing of international borders meant that he'll have to play at least a couple of planned shows this month in Kansas City and Omaha without keyboardist Steve Nieve.

Similar complications put the kibosh on the mammoth world tour planned by K-pop superstars BTS, whose international outing was put off this month until sometime next year.

One big festival that went off without an apparent spike in COVID cases was Lollapalooza in Chicago. Figures released Aug. 12 said that just over 200 attendees of the festival later tested positive for coronavirus, which represented less than 1 percent of the total attendees.

More than that, the festival looks to have boosted vaccinations. "Twelve percent of fans said Lolla was actually their reason for getting vaccinated, which is a huge number with 400,000 attendees throughout the weekend," a spokesman told NBC News.

Other festivals, from Bonnaroo to the Governors Ball to the Austin City Limits Festival will require vaccinations or a recent negative COVID test, as will remaining summer shows presented by concert giants Live Nation and AEG.

Before those companies decided on those restrictions, though, it was up to artists themselves to stand up and demand them, which caused some push back.

One of the most outspoken performers to demand proof of vaccination or negative test results for entry has been Jason Isbell, the Grammy-winning Americana artist. A show in Houston was canceled because, he said, "the venue flat-out refused to even attempt to implement the policy.

"I'm all for freedom," he said on MSNBC, "but I think if you're dead, you don't have any freedoms at all."

Michael Jaworek, booking and marketing director for the venerable Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria, Va., was implementing its vaccination requirement in its 55th season with a show by the BoDeans Aug. 27.

"We have gotten some negative calls and ticket refund requests, but I think they are minimal," he said. But, he added, "a vaccination card or negative COVID test within 72 hours of a show is rapidly becoming an industry standard, both from venues and artists."

Jaworek has been juggling dates for a year and a half. James McMurtry recently moved his tour due to virus concerns for a fifth time. He said in speaking with other promoters this summer, they are seeing some shows selling out fast, or as expected, "but we all have four to six [shows] that are off 20 to 30 percent and further, it seems, across age, genre and race demos, which has all of us scratching our heads."

Foo Fighters began the summer with a sign of hope -- the first full capacity rock show at New York's Madison Square Garden for those who had proof of vaccination. But the band had to postpone a similar show in Los Angeles reopening The Forum because a member of the band's organization tested positive. Ever hopeful, Foo Fighters, currently on the road, have even announced new dates for the U.K. in 2022.

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