Drive-in concerts: the next step for live music in Canada under COVID-19
The concept has worked in Europe, and now Canadian bands are jumping onboard to reclaim the summer
Studio 720, a five-piece rock band based in the small town of Prince George, B.C., was in the process of recording an album and planning a multi-city summer tour in B.C. and Alberta when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. But rather than stop what they were doing, they put all their efforts into finishing the album.
"We had finished recording everything just before lockdown, it just needed mixing and mastering," says vocalist JP Muldoe. "So we doubled down on the album. We figured people were going to be in their homes and paying more attention to social media, so it would be a good time to get it out."
Studio 720 released the six-track album, Smokes, Let's Go, at the end of April, and were planning on touring in support of it. Normally, when a band releases an album, it's accompanied by a release show, a chance for fans to hear the brand new music and buy merchandise. But now, even as governments talk about opening up economies and having life resume some normalcy, live music is one of the last things that will return. While many artists have taken to social media to stream virtual album release parties, Studio 720 was given an opportunity to take it one step further — Canada's first drive-in concert.
On May 23, on the rooftop of the Canadian Tire in Prince George (Update: it's since been moved to the roof of the CN Centre at Exhibition Park to allow for more cars) — "the biggest small town you'll ever see," says Muldoe — the band will perform a free concert for up to 450 cars, which will be parked in a way that respects social distancing rules. Attendees will be required to stay in their cars, and the band will play into a system that broadcasts the music to your car's FM dial, just like at the drive-in theatre. There will also be a live video stream on the band's social media, as well as a projection of the concert for anyone who wants to get a closer look.
I think this is just the beginning, not only for us, but for the Canadian music industry to make a comeback. - Studio 720's JP Muldoe
"We're definitely the guinea pigs, but we're very excited to be the guinea pigs," says Muldoe. "I think this is just the beginning, not only for us, but for the Canadian music industry to make a comeback."
A way to bring community together safely
Prince George city councillor Kyle Sampson, who also works in communications at Pacific Western Brewing, is organizing the concert, and says they were given the go-ahead by health authorities as long as strict distancing rules were in place.
"This started as something really small with me and my buddy thinking, OK, we'll get a small band and we'll get a couple dozen cars, mostly our friends in a parking lot. Then it spiralled from there," he says, adding that this wouldn't be possible if B.C. hadn't started reopening it's economy already, including drive-in theatres. "Being able to keep people in their cars is going to be key. That's the safety piece. This is a bit of a trial run. Nobody knows if this is going to work or not, but I think it will. I'm hopeful it will."
As is Studio 720's Muldoe, who says the event has given the band a lot of publicity, but think's the idea is even "more plausible for larger, well-known musicians. For smaller bands, such as ourselves, we don't have a huge reputation around the country. But this is a glimmer of hope. It could prove to be a great community event where you can look beside you and hopefully see 400 other cars enjoying the same thing you are."
"For people who live and breathe music and find it healing, and going to concerts is a way of life, there is a huge gap and there is really nothing right now," says singer Leah Fay. "There is no live stream, no VIP Zoom experience, no Instagram Live that can replace that feeling of being present in a space and listening to your favourite songs with other people. It's something that can't be replaced. It's an important time to be making lemonade out of the garbage dumpster fire we've been given."
There is no live stream, no VIP Zoom experience ... that can replace that feeling of being present in a space and listening to your favourite songs with other people.- July Talk's Leah Fay
Bandmate Peter Dreimanis adds that the band was in the process of planning a big summer announcement, "a big step forward for us as a band" when, as Fay puts it, "shit hit the fan."
"It was kind of a scramble thing but then this idea came up and it kind of clicked," says Dreimanis.
After extensive conversations with their promoter, ensuring something like this would be possible to pull off in Ontario under social distancing guidelines, the band started to realize the added potential of a drive-in experience.
"We can actually prepare a full presentation event, with new songs, filming the show live, as well as creating interludes and videos about the making of," he says. "What a great opportunity to draw from the rich history of what drive-in cinema can be.… Who knows, maybe we'll end up playing drive-ins after all this just because it's all fun."
The European model
Drive-in movie culture isn't big in Denmark, so when popular musician Mads Langer, a singer-songwriter with two No. 1 albums on the Danish charts, was looking for ways to play to his audience, it wasn't the obvious choice.
"Looking into our summer of no gigs was just unbearable," says Langer, who was in the middle of a European tour that had to be cancelled when COVID-19 hit. In April, Langer ended up holding one of the very first drive-in concerts. Around the same time, prominent artists in Lithuania started holding drive-in performances in an airfield close to the country's capital.
"We decided on Sunday night that we were going to do it," says Langer. "Monday, we called all the authorities and basically had a green light, and on Tuesday morning we put the tickets on sale. They sold out in 20 minutes — 500 cars, in a festival venue that would normally take 20,000 to 30,000 people."
Without looking to existing drive-ins, Langer and his team created the concert from scratch: building a stage, buying an FM frequency, and ensuring safety measures were taken into account. "It wasn't rocket science, obviously, if we were able to get it all together in a matter of six days."
But there was still the matter of how to connect with fans in a setting where they are unable to get out of their cars.
People would start blowing their horns, waving from the left side window or turning on their windshield wipers.- Mads Langer
"It was so awkward in the beginning because people were sitting behind their front window in the car and it was kind of silent," he says. "But then people would start blowing their horns, waving from the left side window — which they were allowed to have open — or turning on their windshield wipers, stuff like that. When they were really excited they also used the windscreen washer."
Surprisingly, Langer was even able to cut through all the distance and connect with his fans in a way he never had before. A key element of that proved to be a video teleconference link that each attendee was given so that they could get a closer look at the performance. It also allowed Langer to check in on his fans by choosing which car to speak directly to via the video conference.
"It became really personal. People were able to tell me why they wanted this song, or that, you know, we got married to this song, or we danced at the prom to this song. I don't normally hear that.… I was talking to a car where there was a 90-year-old grandfather with his 19-year-old granddaughter. He would never go to a regular concert, but he could attend this and have a different experience."
While Langer personally doesn't see drive-in concerts continuing beyond the pandemic, he is planning a drive-in tour of major cities across Denmark. After the success of his first show, his agent at concert promoter Live Nation has put together a regular festival tour for him and "the other big names on Live Nation in Scandinavia."
It's not perfect, but he says it's about turning the situation into an "adventure."
"This is a way of getting around the fact that you can't go out and see your friends, but you can go out and feel like you're part of a big group," he says. "Also, it's kind of a romantic thing to do."