Empty rows and musicians behind shields could be the future of live music
TORONTO -- Live music is slowly returning to some parts of the country, but it looks nothing like it did before. Forget sold-out shows, cramming together at the stage, blasting speakers and crowd-surfing musicians.
Free-wheeling gigs are a thing of the past, at least for now.
Crowds are small. Think dozens, not hundreds or thousands. And in many places, patrons must remain in assigned seats.
Concerns about spreading droplets are leading to new rules in Newfoundland limiting the number of singers and wind instrument players to a maximum of two at a time. They must be separated from others by at least 4 metres or a physical barrier.
Audiences have to be at least 4 metres from the stage.
“In many small pubs, that means the audience has to be in the bathroom,” says music promoter Dustin Parsons, who lives in Corner Brook. “And I’m not kidding about that.”
In Toronto and Ottawa and other Ontario cities, it’s instrumental music only, no singing. (And no dancing.) Venues can only host live music on patios, nothing indoors.
In many places, bands are being asked to keep the decibels down, over concerns about loud singing projecting particles and patrons having to talk closer or shout to be heard.
Vancouver has seen a return of music but venues can only be 50 per cent full, no more than six people can sit at one table and at some venues, the stage is blocked off by plastic barriers – the equivalent of a “musical aquarium,” said one music publication.
Guests have to sign in (in case contact tracing is necessary) and patrons signal to masked staff with a light on their tables.
Seeing artists in pubs, bars and concert venues won’t be the same for a long time, says Erin Benjamin, CEO of the Canadian Live Music Association.
When concert halls reopen, she says, fans will likely receive texts telling them when they can enter the venue, have their temperatures taken at the door, and be seated in bubbles of friends or family.
VIP concert tickets, with access to sound checks, meet and greets, and photos with artists are likely a thing of the past, at least for the foreseeable future, says veteran music publicist Eric Alper. Artists can’t risk getting sick and they may not be able to get insurance if they come into contact with fans, he says.
Concerts at arenas of 25,000 people may be over, too. Global entertainment giant Live Nation has said it’s going to experiment with broadcasting fan-less concerts to people’s homes, and will replace arena shows with multiple performances in spaced-out theatres or clubs.
This artist rendering released by Live Nation shows the set up for Live Nation's 'Live from the Drive-In,' concert series taking place July 10-12. (Live Nation via AP)
With or without a vaccine, live music is going to look entirely different, says Alper. A reckoning was already on the horizon before COVID-19, because at least so far, most of today’s teens and twenty-somethings have not embraced going out to hear music.
Festivals – a staple of summer in Canada – are prohibited across Canada but event organizers, promoters and venues are coming up with ideas that would have sounded crazy just a few months ago.
Drive-in concerts, where fans stay in their cars, are the new rage. Restaurants are hiring bands to play from balconies and rooftops, solo acts and ensembles are heading off to driveways, lawns and porches for private concerts.
Alper has even heard of hotels renting out rooms to music fans to watch poolside concerts.
Home concerts – paid gigs of 40 or 50 people in a living room or, more likely these days, a backyard – will become more common, says Alper, especially if venues permanently shutter.
“I think they will come back in a big way. Artists love them because the audience actually listens to the music and the homeowner commits to selling the tickets.”
LIVING ON LIVESTREAMS
The irony is that while halls and arenas are dark, there has never been more live music being produced, says Benjamin at the CLMA, which represents show promoters, festival organizers and owners and operators of music venues.
Musicians in all genres and at all levels of celebrity are connecting with fans through livestreams, some selling tickets, usually at low dollar amounts, while others are asking fans for donations. Most livestreams are coming from an artist’s living room or recording studio, while a few have come from empty venues or with a very small and spaced out audience.
Benjamin says livestreams have provided much entertainment and relief in times of uncertainty, but can’t replace either the social or economic impact of in-person shows.
The live music industry in Canada accounts for 72,000 jobs – not including performers – and generates $3.5 billion in economic activity, according to the CLMA. Benjamin says 2020 was poised to be one of the biggest years in live music in Canada and globally, but in an industry dominated by small players operating on slim profit margins, COVID-19 has been devastating.
- Complete coverage at CTVNews.ca/Coronavirus
- Coronavirus newsletter sign-up: Get The COVID-19 Brief sent to your inbox
Where the true effect will be felt is at the venue level, says Benjamin. Her organization is predicting -- based on polls of members -- that up to 96 per cent of live music venues in Canada are in danger of being permanently shut down.
That will affect generations of artists to come who will have few places to perform and leave a void in communities across the country, says Benjamin. While non-profit festivals and theatres have been given some emergency relief and Toronto and Montreal are among municipalities rolling out financial support for music venues, the CLMA is lobbying for co-ordinated federal support for the industry to keep it afloat.
The Canadian Heritage Ministry earmarked $20 million this week for for-profit live music in Phase 2 of the $500-million COVID-19 Emergency Support Fund for Cultural, Heritage and Sport Organizations.
The money will go to artist managers, booking agents, concert promoters, for-profit festivals and venues through the Canada Music Fund.
In a statement, Benjamin welcoming the funding, saying it will be the first time for-profit live music will get federal support. “Unfortunately, we have already lost venues and companies. But this will make a difference for others, and comes not a moment too soon.”
Venues on the edge worry Larry Feudo, president of the Hamilton Musicians Union and a guitarist in blues band Trickbag. He says already underpaid musicians are going to be squeezed even tighter.
“When Live Nation is only guaranteeing 25 per cent of the usual rates for the big acts in arenas, you know things are going to be tough for everyone else.”
Trickbag was booked through September when COVID-19 swept in and wiped out the lucrative summer festival season.
“Everyone is starting to feel the pinch and hit the panic button,” says Feudo, who represents more than 600 local musicians.
Feudo is worried many venues won’t be able to outlast fear of the virus and that music lovers will get used to watching music online long-term.
“Live music may never come back as it was.”
Industry surveys indicate a majority of even the most diehard music lovers won’t return to live music venues for months and many not until there is a vaccine.
Benjamin worries that crowds won’t return even in 2021.
THE END OF THE ROAD?
Veteran Canadian rocker Kim Mitchell says after a career of four decades, he is reconciled with the possibility that he may not tour again. He was just weeks into a tour for his first album in 13 years, The Big Fantasize, when the pandemic lockdown hit.
“Who knows when a crowd can gather in a sweaty, rock ‘n’ roll room or an arena again?” he said to CTVNews.ca from his Oakville, Ont. home. He won’t venture on a plane or play in front of a crowd until there is a vaccine.
He’s set aside savings and is only “vaguely interested” in drive-in shows or rooftop concerts. He won’t step behind plastic shields to perform.
That’s not to say he will miss touring if it comes to that. Playing live with a band and crew “gives me life. Nothing has been more magical in my life and there isn’t anything I’m more grateful for.”
Many of today’s top draws on tours are what Alper, the music publicist, calls heritage acts, including the Rolling Stones, Metallica, Bon Jovi and Fleetwood Mac. No one knows how many performers and fans in that age category will want to head back to arenas again, he says.
Even Alper says he won’t risk going to a concert until a vaccine is found.
But touring and selling merchandise is the bread and butter of veteran performers, along with those in traditional genres such as folk, blues, jazz and roots, says Alper, who spoke to CTVNews.ca from his home in Markham, Ont.
“I think it’s fair to say that about 80 per cent of income comes from live performance for people over 30 these days.”
Young artists in pop, hip hop and rap haven’t been as affected by COVID-19 shutdowns because they don’t tour much anyway, says Alper. They rely on streaming, releasing videos and performing live on social media platforms.
The artists at the top of the streaming platforms are making big money, says Alper, roughly about $4,000 per 100,000 streams. So Canadians The Weeknd or Drake make millions on that.
But for indie artists, says Alper, the streaming money just isn’t there. And now neither is the money from touring that could gross a performer attracting 150 people roughly $1,000 to $1,500 a night or generate $10,000 to $25,000 a show before expenses for acts in small concert halls.
“In this time of coronavirus, there may be a whole generation who figure out that music isn’t a financial option for them. They might not enter the business because there are no places to play or sell merchandise.”
Halifax-based singer-songwriter Christina Martin fears it will take two years for live music to rebound.
So she’s spent the last few months concentrating on using performance and engagement platforms that generate a regular income, including livestream site Crowdcast and Patreon, a kind of crowdsourcing for creators.
Martin says she’s been surprised by her success so far “but I don’t know what to expect down the road. I don’t know if I can sustain myself on virtual events.”
But she doesn’t feel safe booking home concerts, once a mainstay of her performing life. She’s got just one show in Dartmouth booked this summer and consulted with her doctor about it because she’s nervous.
SYMPHONIES GOING SMALLER
Many of Canada’s orchestras are too big to come together to perform under pandemic gathering restrictions, never mind adding an audience.
The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra has cancelled 48 performances so far and it will be a very long time before its 2,500-seat Orpheum concert hall will be filled again, president and CEO Angela Elster told CTVNews.ca from Vancouver.
The VSO has worked through dozens of performance scenarios, including small ensembles in smaller venues, community concerts in places like hospitals and seniors homes, outdoor and drive-in performances, livestreams to movie theatres, and shows where the audience travels to various venues.
“It’s a time to explore and experiment … Music has been a balm for the soul during COVID-19 and we take that responsibility seriously,” said Elster, who was in her role just three months before the pandemic shutdown hit.
“We are in our 102nd year, so we’re not about to let the music stop now.”
Under current physical distancing rules, the VSO could have a maximum of 28 of its 65 musicians on stage at one time. It’s created a proposal to the B.C. Ministry of Culture that calls for three shorter, back-to-back shows with 500 to 600 audience members at a time.
But Elster acknowledges that provincial health authorities have been adamant that indoor gatherings will be limited to 50 people until a vaccine is developed.
The VSO and other orchestras across Canada are carefully watching what has unfolded in Europe and other regions that have more broadly reopened. The Berlin Philharmonic, for instance, began performing in late May. Only 15 musicians could be on the stage together, with string players sitting two metres apart and woodwinds and brass spaced out five metres apart.
There have been concerns raised about the playing of wind instruments and how the blowing of vast amounts of air – of course, without a mask – could heighten risk of virus spread. (Similar red flags have been raised about singing.) Scientists have been scrambling for answers.
Since its first performance, the philharmonic and other orchestras in Germany have adopted guidance from infectious disease experts to surround the wind-blowing musicians with plastic barriers. Musicians are tested for COVID-19 before rehearsals and concerts and they must agree to maintain strict physical distancing between gatherings.
Audiences have definitely returned, with many music lovers complaining they couldn’t get tickets. Some European orchestras doled out coveted seats in a lottery for subscription holders. Audience members must bring a registration form with their ticket in which they much vouch for being symptom-free. They are sprayed down with hand sanitizer at the door and led to their seats.
Household members can sit together but in between are gaps of three or four seats and every other row is left empty.
The Manitoba government has drafted guidelines for vocalists and instrumentalists, which included recommendations that the length of an instrument be considered an extension of the individual for physical distancing purposes, sharing of equipment such as drumsticks or music stands be avoided, and that brass players empty their instruments of accumulated saliva into disposable containers rather than onto the floor as is normal practice.
The 67 musicians in the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra have not been together since March 13 when they packed up their instruments mid-rehearsal and headed home. Twenty performances and a tour to the Netherlands the orchestra has been planning for five years have been cancelled.
The WSO is planning to perform in small ensembles through the fall and winter, with the hope to be back to full-scale concerts next spring, says executive director Trudy Schroeder.
“We don’t want to give up. Some organizations are scrapping the whole season.”
That includes the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, which cancelled all of its 2020-2021 season this week.
Schroeder says Centennial Concert Hall, where the WSO performs, can fit up to 40 players sitting 2 metres apart, but many fewer when more distancing of wind players is necessary. The WSO is also looking at adding barriers.
Audiences will be assigned doors through which to enter and exit to minimize the route to their seats. Concerts will be shorter and without intermissions, to reduce crowding in bathrooms, she says.
Travel restrictions will mean the WSO will focus on featuring its own musicians and other Manitoban performers as soloists, she says. Reduced ticket sales means performances are already sold out.
SHIFT TO VIRTUAL
Major music festivals have been iced across the country, including Boots and Hearts and Big Sky in Ontario, the Edmonton Folk Festival, jazz festivals in Vancouver and Ottawa, and the Dawson City Music Festival in the Yukon.
Some music festivals have shifted to virtual this year, including the Winnipeg Folk Festival. Folk Fest at Home will present three hours of music, instead of three-and-a-half days. The free online show, premiering on both Facebook and YouTube on July 11 at 7 p.m. CT, will be a mix of new recorded performances along with archival footage from past headliners.
Lynne Skromeda, the festival’s executive director, says the 47-year-old festival is a summer tradition for generations of Manitobans, including herself. She first attended in 1980 at six years old and hasn’t missed one since.
Festival supporters are embracing the virtual edition, she says, with food vendors putting together festival specials that can be ordered for delivery, and fans sharing their plans for gatherings in backyards, cottages, living rooms and parking lots to watch the livestream.
Many in the business think the pandemic has ushered in an era of livestream or pay-per-view type options for everything from arena-scale national tours to gigs at local venues and music festivals.
Skromeda says going online gives the Winnipeg Folk Festival a “global reach” it’s never had before. She says licensing rights for artists have been a sticking point up until now, but she believes the effects of COVID-19 will motivate all sides to sort that out.
She doesn’t share the fear that going virtual, even for free, will reduce crowds at the shows.
“The live music experience, that emotional impact, can’t be replicated.”
Parsons, the music promoter in Newfoundland, agrees that hybrid events will be the new normal. For instance, he’s organizing an upcoming rooftop concert by emerging band Fairgale at a new Corner Brook boutique hotel. Capacity would normally be 100 but 40 VIP tickets will be sold, and the goal is to attract an audience of 1,000 online.
“That’s a great audience for the band and raises awareness of the venue.”
Parsons is not going to chase a paying crowd though. “You’re seeing $20 or $30 events on Zoom but my experience is that that’s going to fail. It won’t take off because you might get 50 people. Attracting large free audiences is the way to go because sponsors see value in that.”
Online tools and platforms will only improve the virtual experience, says Parsons, but he thinks when it’s safe again, there will be a surge in interest in physical events. Audiences will crave the emotional and social impact of live concerts seen in person.
“It’s like being in church sometimes. The power isn’t there when you’re on your couch on your phone,” he said.
‘POWERFUL’ HUMAN FORCE
There is science behind the “powerful” force of the shared musical experience, says Laurel Trainor, director of the McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind in Hamilton, Ont.
Whether it’s playing music together or being there for a live performance, it’s an intensely emotional and social experience, she says.
Research at the institute, which includes a fully functional concert hall featuring an array of monitoring equipment, has found that when audiences watch a concert video, they don’t move as much or report experiencing as much pleasure as when watching something performed live in front of them, said Trainor.
And scientists have shown that when people move in time to music together, it boosts their sense of trust and willingness to co-operate with each other. Trainor’s own lab work has found that shows up in babies as young as 14 months.
For a host of reasons, Trainor, a professor in McMaster University’s neuroscience, psychology and behaviour department, and a flautist in a local orchestra, is confident that many people will return to live music when it’s safe again.
“I just think that is something humans will want to do again.”
BACK TO THE DRIVE-IN
And until they can do that seated or standing side-by-side, there is the drive-in. No one could have predicted drive-in theatres would be a saviour of live music, but here we are.
The phenomena where the past is the future seems to have begun in Europe in May where car-bound music fans blew their horns, waved out their windows and even “cheered” with their windshield wipers. One show in Denmark even featured a video teleconference link for attendees that allowed them to get closeups of the concert and for the performer to connect directly with people in their cars for requests or to share stories.
Among the biggest North American shows was superstar country singer Garth Brooks’ pre-recorded performance that was beamed to 300 drive-ins across Canada and the U.S., last month. Canadian country singer Brett Kissel played a series of sold-out live concerts in parking lots across Saskatchewan last month, too.
Brad Paisley, Blake Shelton and Toronto band July Talk are among the artists planning drive-in summer shows and new urban drive-ins have hastily been constructed in Ottawa and Toronto to host movies and concerts.
The Ottawa Bluesfest initially cancelled its July event but then quickly shifted to planning for a drive-in festival in Gatineau, Que.
Attendance will be capped at 500 cars spaced at least two metres apart. The hope is that health officials give the OK for attendees to sit outside their cars in lawn chairs, says executive director and founder Mark Monahan. Music will come over car stereos and the all-Canadian lineup over four days of concerts will be projected onto large screens.
Tickets have been “very strong,” says Monahan. “This will be something of an outdoor concert experience. There are only so many virtual concerts you can watch.”
But at the same time, Monahan is among those who sees a permanent shift to a virtual option for music events. The entire Bluesfest event, presented in partnership with the National Arts Centre, will be streamed on Facebook Live for free. He says that will expand Bluesfest’s reputation and audience reach and give a wider platform to artists.
“I think virtual is going to play a role going forward. There are usually early adopters and late adopters but we’ve all been forced to be early adopters.”
Afro-pop singer Michelle Oluwatomi Akanbi, who performs under the name TOME, is one of the featured acts at The Together at the Drive-In event happening July 25-26 at the Stardust drive-in near Newmarket, Ont.
It was supposed to be a big year for her, including performances at South by Southwest in Austin, Tex. and a festival in Jamaica, but instead she released a new album and performed through livestreams.
“I’m just happy to be able to perform outside for a crowd, but it will feel different than a normal show,” the singer said from her Mississauga, Ont. home.
Fellow Together at the Drive-In performer DJ 4Korners, best known for his role as official DJ of the Toronto Raptors, says he’s impressed by the innovation happening in presenting live music as restrictions ease.
“Interacting with people is something I need more than I even thought. I can’t express how excited I am to do this event,” the Toronto resident told CTVNews.ca.
He’s hopeful many will embrace a new appreciation for live performance after the pandemic.
“I think we took it all for granted.”
Edited by Senior Producer Mary Nersessian