COVID-19: Musicians, Production Pros Struggle Over Future of Live Concerts

A sound engineer mixes audio for a packed crowd in 2019. (Courtesy Francesca Cecala)

One sector deeply affected by the onset of the coronavirus is the live event industry. And now, a resurgence in positive cases suggests a return to concerts, festivals and conventions — events where large numbers of people congregate in a confined space together — may be on hold until 2021 and beyond.

“It’s obviously been hard,” Francesca Cecala, an audio engineer and veteran of the live event business, said. “I was OK for the last few months when I was collecting unemployment but started to freak out about what I was going to do when the $600 compensation ran out at the end of July.”

While restaurants can limit seating and rely on takeout business and hotels can reduce capacity and institute social distancing measures, the live event industry can only reopen, in earnest, once the public feels safe enough to congregate. 

“I feel very lucky that I was able to find a new job [as a marketing manager for a coffee shop]” Cecala said. “However, the pay is nowhere near what I should be making this summer as a sound engineer.”

Both behind-the-scenes technicians and artists who make their living performing are scrambling for replacement income. As positive coronavirus cases surge in certain communities, the possibility that live events will be back at some point in 2020 seems remote.

“I think in order to feel safe I would just like to see the numbers going down and stay down consistently,” Eli Winderman, a native of Bucks County and keyboardist for the band Dopapod, said. His band has had to put U.S. touring dates on hold due to the coronavirus.

In lieu of live performances, some artists and bands have utilized the internet and social media to keep fans engaged.

“We’ve been recording songs individually at our houses and making these quarantine versions,” Winderman said. “We also were doing some Zoom hangs with the band and livestreaming them on Facebook. Other than that, we haven’t been doing much.” 

For some artists, keeping fans engaged was easier in the first few months of the pandemic, but engagement has grown more difficult as social media content and livestreams have flooded the internet.

“I feel like there’s so much content flying around right now,” Winderman said. 

As more states and cities have opened up and people have been leaving their homes more often, the market for livestreamed events has also shifted. 

“Things have been really tough,” Jordan Caiola, lead singer and guitarist for the Philadelphia-based rock band Mo Lowda & The Humble, said.

Caiola is set to release a solo project in early August.

“We tried to get out ahead of the whole livestream thing at the very beginning and were able to monetize it really nicely,” he said.

According to Caiola, over the past couple months, attracting a large enough audience to make livestreaming financially prudent has gotten more difficult.

“The livestream things have really slowed down,” Caiola said. “Which, I think is natural. You have lots of rules lightening up a bit at this point and no longer have people completely cooped up in their homes planning their nights around the next livestream.”

As state and local governments lift business restrictions and relax social distancing guidelines, artists, event staff, and event promoters must balance economic security with health and safety.

“There’s no way I’d be able to put on a concert or festival in this environment,” Chris Mario, an event promoter and operator of the Luna Light Music & Arts Festival, said.

For Mario, lifting reopening restrictions without fully containing the coronavirus puts promoters like him in a difficult position where they must balance economics and ethics. 

“I don’t think it’s fair to get other people sick,” Mario said. “We just can’t keep control of where everyone has been, and I would feel horrible and responsible if anyone got sick. There are just too many variables. We need to see a decrease in cases before I can even think about organizing a show.”

Even so, as a few event and gig opportunities begin to appear, desperation among event staff makes the decision of whether or not to work a festival or concert, despite the obvious health concerns, a difficult one.

“I would take it because I would feel like I can’t turn down any money right now,” said Cecala when asked if she would accept a job at a live event in the current environment. “But I would definitely be very nervous for every single attendee. I feel like I could keep myself safe. If I was the monitoring engineer or the [front of house] engineer I wouldn’t really need to come into contact with many people at all.”

Even at an outdoor event, different jobs would experience different kinds of risk. 

“If I was a stagehand, I’d be a little more nervous because I’d be dealing with all the bands a lot more,” she said.

Aside from the precautions needed to produce an event safely, uncertainty remains around whether or not audiences will even show up.

“As long as the distance is maintained I would feel safe,” Lisa Meseroll, a music fan who regularly looked forward to live events before the pandemic, said. “But at the same time, how do you enforce maintaining the distance with large crowds? It would be tough even with extra security.”

Caiola and Mo Lowda & The Humble canceled three outdoor shows in the southeastern U.S. planned for the second week of July, just as cases began to spike in southern states. Despite the intended social distancing protocols at their shows, Caiola stressed the safety of both the band and fans was paramount and uncertainty surrounding their ability to keep people safe was the final straw.

“We canceled those out of respect for our own safety as well as others,” Caiola said. “I feel we have a bit of responsibility to not encourage group gatherings during this time, as much as we [expletive] miss it.”

For Caiola, it is becoming more and more difficult to remain optimistic about the fate of live concerts and festivals as the United States surpasses 155,000 deaths due to COVID-19.

“Now the reality of ‘when the hell will this ever go back to normal’ is creeping in heavily,” Caiola said. “It gets harder and harder to feel optimistic about what true live shows will be like when they return.” 

Cecala plans on returning to live event work in the summer of 2021, but she fears a lack of precaution by the general public may push that back even further to 2022.

“If we could get everyone to wear a mask maybe we’d be able to have concerts again sooner but we all know that’s never going to happen,” Cecala said.

More pressing, though, is what will happen over the next several months as unemployment benefits are reduced and job opportunities remain few and far between.

“The rest of the year will be quite a challenge financially,” Cecala said. “Pretty much every other production person I know is in the same boat. And most of them haven’t found another job yet and have no idea what to do.”

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