'A leap of faith': the uncertain process of rescheduling tour dates right now
How the live music industry is dealing — and struggling — with rapid concert changes sparked by COVID-19
Live music calendars have fallen silent for the foreseeable future.
Ever since big pillar events like Austin's South by Southwest (SXSW) and California's Coachella Music and Arts Festival decided to respectively cancel and postpone this year's editions due to COVID-19 concerns in early March, nearly every artist and festival has followed suit thanks to continued social distancing measures countries are enforcing.
It's an uncertain time in the live music industry and without any knowledge of when countries around the world may lift mass gathering bans, those working behind the scenes are tasked with a difficult, perplexing job. And while some artists have chosen to completely cancel their events, others are now in the process of rescheduling dates.
"You're taking a leap of faith," Basia Bulat says. The Canadian singer-songwriter, who was scheduled to perform at this year's SXSW and was supposed to kick off her North American tour on April 1 to support her latest release Are You in Love?, is now firming up new dates in the fall. It's a "hopeful" act, she admits, but many artists are currently looking to July, August and beyond as potential months that may be safe to tour again.
"We are so used to living based on expectations and assumptions on what the world is going to be like," Bulat adds. "This is really putting into perspective that things can change on a dime."
But the decision to reschedule a tour doesn't just fall on one person. It's a team effort that goes beyond the artist: it involves band members, tour managers, a road crew, live promoters and local venues. And once a tour is uprooted, it triggers a domino effect of consequences.
When indie-rocker Joel Plaskett, whose new album 44 comes out on April 17, realized he had to move his spring tour, he was "in touch with my manager, Sheri, who was in touch with my agent, Tom, who was in touch with the promoters." Even though Plaskett knew rescheduling was an inevitability, he acknowledges the complications that brings to the many people and companies involved. "No one wants to pull the plug on anything until everyone feels it's the necessary thing to do," he adds.
'There is always a lot to consider'
Olivia Ootes of the Feldman Agency (both Bulat and Plaskett's tours are handled by Feldman) notes that the first order of business when rescheduling is reviewing contracts. "They always include a section on cancellation and rescheduling procedure," Ootes points out.
From there, they have to look into a slew of other moving parts: "Is it on sale? Has it been announced yet? Is the venue available for a new date? Is the band available? How quickly can we notify fans that have already purchased tickets? Are there other implications with other future shows booked in the region?
"Ultimately, there is always a lot to consider when we book an engagement for one of our clients and we have to re-consider most of these factors plus even more when rescheduling a show is involved."
All prospective work after that is currently looming in purgatory until further notice.- Karen Weigold, production manager
Once new dates are sorted, another set of tasks is carried down to an artist's managers. Karen Weigold is the current production manager for Toronto R&B star Daniel Caesar and handles tour logistics for Detroit singer Queen Naija, and she says her role in the process is to ensure all the practical elements of a tour are also moved to the new corresponding dates. That includes "moving rehearsal spaces, delivery dates of all audio, lighting, video, staging, trucking schedules" and much more.
Weigold was in the middle of packing up for the 49th annual Juno Awards, where Caesar was slated to perform, when the event was cancelled due to COVID-19. Their original schedule would've included a stop in Saskatoon followed by production rehearsals for this year's Coachella. But that, plus Queen Naija's tour also getting nixed, has now left Weigold sitting in the same position as many others whose careers depend on live music.
"From a personal standpoint, I had three months of work just disappear overnight," she reveals. "And all prospective work after that is currently looming in purgatory until further notice."
Getting hit financially
Financially, people and corporations on all levels are suffering losses. Live Nation, the world's biggest event promoter, continues to see its stocks drop in a time when the summer live-music industry was seeing a 30 per cent year-over-year increase, according to Billboard. (Two weeks ago, Live Nation's shares plummeted 33 per cent.)
But whereas Live Nation's multi-billion dollar business will get the chance to bounce back — they've already set up a $10 million charitable fund to help support concert crews around the world — indie promoters and local venues are getting hit the hardest during this time.
Shaun Bowring is the owner of the Garrison and the Baby G, two small-sized venues in Toronto's west end. He estimates that both his venues cost about $750 per day "just to have the building sit idle." He also says that since March 12, he has gotten 80-plus cancellations and postponements. These included headlining gigs by Vagabon, Efterklang, Anna Burch and Half Waif.
At the time of the interview, Bowring mentioned having shows planned for "late June," but the city of Toronto has since cancelled all public events until June 30. Bowring knew "full well that we might have to reschedule some of those shows," though. "The variables can be overwhelming but we are staying positive and looking to the other side of this uncertainty."
Venues across the country are dealing with similar frustrations and losses. Andrew Brassard, owner of Calgary's Broken City, told the Calgary Herald his business has lost approximately $45,000 since March 12. Sergio Da Silva, co-owner of Montreal's Turbo Haus, told CTV News this week: "If this goes on for four months and I can't figure something out with my landlord, I will, more than likely, have to close down." Various other venues and businesses have turned to launching online fundraisers in order to cover rent and keep employees paid.
Live streams and the future of concerts
In the meantime, live music has transferred to online platforms, with growing lists of musicians taking to Facebook Live, Instagram Live, Twitch and more to perform for fans from the comfort of their own homes.
"I suspect I'll be doing some form of live stream," Plaskett says, thinking ahead as his April 17 album release date creeps closer. "I have a new release that I have to promote. Singing into a camera in a room on my own instead of performing in a lively theatre or club with an audience doesn't exactly get the adrenaline going, but I'm hoping I can find a way to make it interesting and provide people with the occasional musical distraction."
I expect people to be eager to go out to concerts as soon as it's safe.- Jen Ochej, tour manager
But when the day comes and people are allowed to congregate once again for public events, what will the live music scene look like? Lights tour manager Jen Ochej feels optimistic.
"I think whenever we are able to go back to some semblance of normal, there will be a huge appetite for live music from fans," Ochej says. "It's such an important part of people's lives and we're all going to be looking for an outlet for the heightened emotions and stress of this social isolation period, so I expect people to be eager to go out to concerts as soon as it's safe."
It's a sentiment that Plaskett echoes as a musician. He adds: "My hope is the folks who bought tickets will hold on to them and we'll all be celebrating when we congregate again."
For Bowring, it's imperative that music lovers come back and are not only willing to support their favourite artists once again, but also their local establishments. "When the environment is safe and audiences' comfort levels are ready, we ask that music fans simply get out and see live shows as often as they can," he pleads.
Bowring's bonus piece of advice: "Take a chance on some new acts you aren't familiar with."