Even as state officials begin to open up some businesses in towns and cities all over the country, we understand that measures will need to be taken to adjust our normal way of congregating: restaurants may have to decrease capacity at any given time or space patrons’ seats further apart. Medical offices may have to decrease the number of patients seen on any given day, or patient exam rooms may have to be left empty for a time between patients. And New York’s Broadway theaters just announced their performance suspension extension through September 6 of this year. Certainly, everyday aspects of life will change fundamentally.
For musicians, the Covid-19 pandemic has interrupted all levels of musical life, from album releases to small live gigs to already-planned stadium concerts. Performers are finding themselves quite suddenly without an income source, the effects of which threaten to be longstanding.
With the approach of summer, one great rite of summer, the large-scale music festival, feels particularly in danger this year. Its very premise flies in the face of social distancing—the crucial method public health officials have called upon to lessen the effect of the spread of the virus. Certainly, venues that draw large crowds will be the final ones to open up. Can an experience defined by crowds and multiple performers all within a contained space adapt to fit a new format? Would it even be worth it to try?
In short, is the large scale music festival a thing of the past? We talk with two industry experts to discuss how Covid-19 is reshaping music festivals and even music performance and economics.
Anne Saunders, Artistic and Publicity Director for the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, now 32 years in existence, states, “We are in a holding pattern here at Falcon Ridge Central right now and still hold out a small hope of having the fest in August on the Dodds Farm, but feel the chances of doing that safely are not good. We are exploring our alternatives.” Coincidentally, Saunders' other career was in Molecular Biology, Virology and Immunology, making her able to offer some work “on behalf of my town and community” during this time of Covid-19. When asked, “Will things ever be the same after Covid-19?” Saunders’ response is to the point: “No, likely not. This is a 9/11-like event in our lives and will change the way we do many things, hopefully for the better, since it has come at such a cost.”
Dennis Elsas, WFUV Afternoon Host, and lauded DJ, interviewer and documentarian, notes the recent words of the Governor of Rhode Island, Gina Raimondo, who responded to questions about the viability of holding the Newport Folk Festival this summer. Elsas notes that Raimondo stated that plans for the Newport Folk Festival are "very fluid". Raimondo then continued, “however, it's hard to see as of now how we could permit large gatherings and crowds. And if any of these gatherings would happen it would be under different regulations with much fewer people and it will be a much different event." Raimondo’s words certainly point to a very different summer festival season for 2020.
It has been vitally hopeful to see the ways musicians are taking to online platforms to hold live concert streams or solo performances or to offer interesting new recordings made with unexpected collaborators. And for music fans, music is one of the ways that many are finding their way through this pandemic.
At the same time, the music industry will have to continue inventing and reinventing themselves, should the normal festival or concert format be a thing of the past, at least until 2021 or later. Says Saunders, “Many events, venues and artist careers along with other businesses will not survive this. Those that do will need vision and innovation to do so while keeping their vision and their community safe and intact.”
Elsas notes: “Though it is encouraging to watch all these free on-line performances and in some cases quickly created series like Rolling Stone's ‘In My Room’, it's not a revenue generating event for the performers. It's good for promotion and publicity, and perhaps once the novelty of these spontaneous pop-ups has worn off, artists could find a way to monetize what they are offering.” Only time will tell, and if it’s one thing this pandemic has shown us, the innovations that can come within just a day’s time or a week’s time, in all fields, from medicine to politics to finances, grow by leaps and bounds. Certainly, within the next few months, performers will be making strides in figuring out how to create new venues and performance formats. One outside-the-box approach in Denmark gives some hope. The town of Aarhus, Denmark was the site of a drive-thru performance by Mads Langer. The event sold 500 tickets, and viewers were able to access the audio through a limited FM frequency. If this is any indication of the music industry’s inventiveness, perhaps we will see a remaking of the large scale music festival in refreshingly unrecognizable ways.
Elsas acknowledges the brutal downturn in revenue this has created: “At the moment the only upside I can imagine and hope for is that sometimes when ‘the business as usual’ model just doesn't work any more, creative people discover new and unexpected ways to get things done.”
Written by Cynthia Darling
Cynthia Darling is currently working toward her MFA in Creative Writing with the Bluegrass Writers Studio at Eastern Kentucky University. She holds an MA in English from Boston College and has taught high school English for the past 20 years. Cynthia’s literary work has appeared in Louisiana Literature, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Wanderlust Journal, and as part of the literary series Quiet Lightning. She has written for Teaching Music magazine, New York Family magazine and All About Solo. Check out her writing here: www.cynthiaburnsdarling.com
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