Imagine this: You’re all fired up to go see your favorite band at Madison Square Garden, but when you get there, you have to proceed directly to your seat, order food from your phone and make a reservation to go to the restroom. And, oh yeah, the arena will be 20 percent full max.
These are some of the scenarios that have been envisioned for live music to make its return to the big stage in a COVID world. “You’re just gonna be really controlled. That’s kind of the plan,” says Dave Brooks, Billboard senior director, live & touring. “And that might not work, that might not be enough.”
In the heart of what would have been festival season any other summer, the concert industry has been testing different ways to keep the music playing for now. This weekend, the Chainsmokers will headline the “Safe & Sound” drive-in benefit concert in the Hamptons on Saturday, while Tomorrowland Around the World — a virtual version of Belgium’s big Tomorrowland festival — will be bringing Katy Perry, David Guetta and many more to a digital stage, safely away from any infectious droplets, on Saturday and Sunday.
In summer 2020, the live-music biz has been forced to think outside of the box by thinking outside of the stadium, the amphitheater and the festival grounds. “It’s really inspiring,” says Brooks. “There’s a ton of innovation and creativity from the artists, their managers, and then the fans not only want to watch, they want to support.”
After all those at-home performances streamed and televised during quarantine, Brooks adds, “We all are tired of watching someone play the guitar on their couch.”
“Safe & Sound” — which will benefit No Kid Hungry, Children’s Medical Fund of New York and Southampton Fresh Air Home — will take over 100 acres at Nova’s Ark Project sculpture park in Water Mill bringing the Chainsmokers back to their old stomping grounds. But even more important than the music of the DJ-production duo are the strict safety measures: They include temperature checks, no alcohol and mandatory masks when using the restrooms, with stalls placed 6 feet apart.
As for the vehicle rules, you are allowed four people per sedan and six per SUV, and while you don’t have to stay in your car, you can only leave your designated area when using the restroom. “We call it your safe zone,” says Seth Kaplan, co-founder of event producers In the Know Experiences. “You’re quarantined with your friends and family you came with. You have a 20-by-20 area for these platinum packages and a 20-by-13 for gold.”
Even the Chainsmokers — with only two of them to worry about — will be properly social distancing onstage while playing in front of about 500 cars. “This only works with smaller acts,” says Kaplan, who believes that this kind of production is “the wave of the future,” even once a vaccine is hopefully found. “We see this trend continuing for years to come — these smaller, more intimate [events].”
Tomorrowland Around the World is already taking it into the future with its digital festival, which was conceived after they had to cancel both Tomorrowland Winter, which was slated to take place in the French Alps in March, and the summer festival, which would have been having its second of two sold-out weekends in Boom, Belgium.
“We had 400,000 people that would have come to Belgium from all over the world, and for them Tomorrowland is the highlight of the year,” says Michiel Beers, co-founder of Tomorrowland. “And we felt like we needed to do something, we can’t just have it passing by … in these circumstances.”
With 3-D design, Tomorrowland Around the World will feature computer-rendered lighting, lasers and even fireworks to re-create the festival experience on different stages. “Everybody all around the world can party with their best friends or family in a small group,” says Beers. “That comes closer to the real spirit of Tomorrowland — that people unite.”
Brooks has also seen innovation happening in live-streamed concerts with enhanced production — from a cyberized Travis Scott performing in the popular Fortnite video game to Boston’s Dropkick Murphys playing in Beantown’s Fenway Park. And acts are offering extra perks, too. “The paid streaming stuff, it’s amazing how well artists are doing when bundling online performances with their merch, special vinyl and stuff,” he says, noting that K-pop group Monsta X has even offered virtual meet-and-greets for fans. (As Jay-Z would say: Can’t knock the hustle.)
Looking at the future, Beers thinks that a digital experience such as Tomorrowland Around the World “has the right to exist next to the real festival. But it’s not gonna replace it. I would really, really love to do a beautiful, real Tomorrowland next summer … We’re dependent on the race for a vaccine.”
Even then, Brooks says, “People are going to be kind of germaphobic going forward. Do you want to stand next to, like, the sweaty guy in front of the stage?”
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