How the coronavirus could change the live music industry for good

Julia Munslow
·Editor

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Though summer and fall are usually filled with festivals like Coachella and Lollapalooza, the coronavirus pandemic has forced artists to trade massive crowds and well-choreographed productions for the intimacy of their bedrooms and the grainy video on Instagram Live.

Amid the crisis, the live music industry is indefinitely on hold. Tightly packed crowds in concert halls break virtually every set of social distancing guidelines, and 90 percent of independent venues are expected to close in the next few months if there’s no additional aid. And it’s local artists, as well as crew members, who have especially suffered during the pandemic.

Many have turned to live streams, which is one of the only ways fans can get any semblance of a “live” show. While imperfect, the streams have helped to buoy artists’ income, as they are losing out on profits from ticket and merchandise sales. In the last quarter, the events giant Live Nation said it had a loss of $588 million, compared to a profit of $176 million in the previous year.

Some venues and artists have found success with outside events, but others have faced local government crackdowns and fans who won’t follow social distancing guidelines. Some companies, such as Spotify, are developing new features aimed at audiences who want live streams.

Why there’s debate

People have always turned to music for entertainment and comfort, but some wonder if the industry will survive the pandemic. Venues nationwide are fighting to stay in business, even though many don’t qualify for PPP loans, as they are currently completely closed and cannot hire back workers. Even when tours do return, they say, it will take months to schedule and plan, and artists are unlikely to go on a tour that cannot span at least a coast, which means most of the U.S. would need to have the virus under control.

Skeptics also argue that musicians now have to compete with internet stars, who are more skilled at sustaining a virtual fanbase. Plus, without the chance to perform small concerts, early-career musicians trying to catch a break will have to find other ways to draw fans, they argue. There’s also the difference in the perceived value of a live stream and a live show. Fans may not want to pay the same price for a link to a Zoom call as for a seat in a stadium, they say.

But optimists say the music industry will find a way, especially as people turn to songs to cope. That said, they also agree that change is needed to keep the industry alive. The profitability structure has been turned upside down. Some believe companies will be forced to consolidate further. Fans might have to pay artists more, or artists will have to perform more frequently, they say. But indie performers could thrive in the digital era, sidestepping labels to sell directly to fans. There’s also the possibility that live-streaming — which allows fans to watch from any place at any time — becomes more popular, even after the pandemic.

What’s next

A bipartisan $10 billion “Save Our Stages” Act would provide six months of support for venues struggling through the pandemic and is currently making its way through Congress.

Perspectives

Musicians will be forced to compete with internet stars

“Our new era of ‘live’ performance requires something not exactly like cinema, not quite like television, but something more like the internet. Traditional entertainers now feel in direct competition with internet stars, who are preternaturally skilled at performing one-sided conversations to unfeeling camera lenses, then riding waves of online reactions that spin off in unexpected directions.” — Amanda Hess, New York Times

Small, independent artists will struggle to get their breaks

“If artists don’t have small venues to play, there’s a whole ecosystem that will be disrupted. You don’t go from nothing to Madison Square Garden. ... And if those smaller live venues can’t survive, there’s going to be no way for artists to build their careers and develop.” — Heather Lubov to Cheddar

Fans might not want to pay the same price for online and live shows

“My primary worry for our artists is a financial one. I am still not sure that fans are ready to pay to watch artists perform online anywhere near the level that they do for actual live shows.” — Seth Hubbard to Vox

Live music will need more time than other entertainment industries to fully return

“It will take at least four months for touring to be scheduled and for all the venues to be able to have a calendar, because it is such an intricate process. … Artists are not going to get on a bus until there is some type of uniformity across the country for when they can play, because you can’t go to one state and then drive through six other states where you can’t play there just to get to the eighth state.” — Audrey Fix Schaefer to Variety

The industry is resilient, and fans will miss its absence

“The entertainment business is amazingly resilient; even in economic downturns, people look to music to make them feel better.” — Donna Westmoreland to Washingtonian

The industry will be forced to consolidate

“COVID-19 has put a strain on the music industry, entrepreneurs and investors, and consolidation may provide relief, even opportunity and potential gains, for some.” — Brian Penick, Forbes

Profilitbility structures will change, forcing musicians to perform more shows

“Touring musicians might have to play two to three times as many performances to make the same amount of money as a single pre-COVID-19 show.” — Shan Dan Horan, Alt Press

Indie music will thrive as artists sell directly to fans

“Overall, the pandemic has accelerated the music industry’s trend toward artists doing it themselves: whether ‘it’ means recording music, streaming sessions, or selling merch. With major labels’ business models severely disrupted, and some big releases postponed, indie labels have seen a surge.” — Jay Gabler, The Current

Live-stream shows will become more popular and mainstream

“Given the tremendous popularity of these shows, we are seeing the potential for live-streaming to become an additional long-term component of our concert business, allowing fans in other cities, or those who can’t attend, to enjoy the concert as well.” — Michael Rapino to HuffPost

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Cover photo thumbnail illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images