At the end of the month, music venues in Ontario can reopen to half capacity or 500 seats (whichever is less). By March 14, the plan is to allow clubs and concert halls to host full houses. It is a positive development in a saga that has seen the live music industry devastated by lockdowns and restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Still, music managers and presenters aren’t in a high-fiving mood just yet. Ticket sales are lagging. The sense in the industry is that consumer confidence has been shaken because of repeated cancellations and postponements.
“Tickets are moving at a snail’s pace,” says Heather Gibson, who programs pop music at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. “It’s dismal, and it’s very distressing.” Adds Bernie Finkelstein, long-time manager of Bruce Cockburn: “People have grave doubts the shows are going to happen.”
Some in the industry blame provincial policies that seem to send the message that an all-you-can-eat evening at East Side Mario’s is safer than a night at the opera or a sit-down show with Cockburn at Southam Hall as part of a masked audience. Restaurants, cinemas and casinos are allowed to open at full capacity on Feb. 21, weeks before music rooms can do the same.
“We’re a law-abiding people,” Ms. Gibson says. “When the government holds back the full opening of music venues, people presume there’s something unsafe about it.”
Not all tickets sales are sluggish. Earlier this month, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California sold out in 75 minutes, despite surging Omicron cases in the state. This year’s lineup for the three-day affair in April features Harry Styles, Billie Eilish and Ye (né Kanye West).
At the NAC, seats for a pair of concerts by the young Montreal singer-songwriter Charlotte Cardin are all but gone. Tickets for the 76-year-old Mr. Cockburn, on the other hand, can be had by the row-full at the same venue. The evidence is anecdotal, but some observers feel that some audiences are more hesitant to enter concert venues than others.
“I think younger demographics have embraced the return to live music, but the older demographic is on the fence,” said Paul Brooks, a former programs manager at the National Music Centre in Calgary and currently a publicist with music public relations firm Take Aim Media in Brampton, Ont.
Brooks worked on a concert by the Art of Time Ensemble at Toronto’s Koerner Hall in December. The show was put on sale at a reduced capacity of 1,000 tickets. Of those, a little more than 600 seats were filled.
If older audiences were hesitant to attend a concert before, the recent cases of high-profile postponements caused by the new highly contagious coronavirus variant aren’t going to settle their worries. Last week, the British superstar Adele was forced to scuttle a series of concerts at Caesars Palace Hotel in Las Vegas.
“We’ve tried absolutely everything that we can to put it together in time and for it to be good enough for you,” Adele said in a tearful video posted on Instagram. The Rolling in the Deep singer said half her crew had contracted the virus.
This week, Elton John announced that he had been stricken by COVID-19, which forced him to postpone two Dallas concerts on a farewell tour that he had just restarted after a two-year hiatus. “It’s always a massive disappointment to move shows and I’m so sorry to anyone who’s been inconvenienced by this but, I want to keep myself and my team safe,’” Mr. John said on Instagram.
The 74-year-old piano man said his symptoms were “mild,” and that he expected to be back on stage for a Saturday night engagement in Little Rock, Ark.
Less newsworthy, a series of concerts in Florida by the Toronto-based Classic Albums Live was called off when many of the crew and musicians contracted COVID-19 during a recent string of shows in Florida. “It spread through us like wildfire,” said Craig Martin, chief executive officer and founder of the touring group, which presents iconic albums in their entirety.
Concerts by Classic Albums Live attract older audiences. Upcoming dates include a performance of Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 album Rumours in Orlando, Fla., and a presentation of Led Zeppelin I in Medicine Hat. Like others, Mr. Martin has experienced a soft ticket market. “It’s slow all over. We just did six shows in the United States, none at the numbers we’ve previously seen.”
Because of the nearly two-year-long pandemic, his concerts in Canada in particular have been postponed and rescheduled multiple times. It has caused a bottleneck of six concerts scheduled for Toronto’s Massey Hall alone in the next four months, including live renditions of Paul Simon’s Graceland in April and U2′s Joshua Tree in May. Fans of Classic Albums Live are loyal, but that’s a lot of shows in a short time span.
“Are we going to burn out the market? I don’t know,” Mr. Martin said. “The shows we’ve been doing lately haven’t been at the capacity we were looking for, but we’re so thankful to be touring.”
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