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One option for actual in-the-flesh shows is the drive-in concert, with fans self-isolated in their automobiles.LIVE NATION/Reuters

On Feb. 27, the concert-promoting colossus Live Nation Entertainment announced its 2019 earnings and a rosy outlook for 2020. Revenue for the year was up 7 per cent on operating income that jumped 19 per cent to US$325-million. Attendance was up five million to 98 million globally.

Things were looking even better for this year. About 38 million tickets had been sold for 2020 concerts, a year-over-year increase of 10 per cent. Sold seats for large-venue shows were up by nearly a third.

We know what happened next. In mid-March, Los Angeles-based Live Nation suspended large-scale tours as COVID-19 spread. Later, because of government restrictions on public gatherings, concerts of all sizes were cancelled or postponed.

The industry’s lucrative summer season is a write-off. Tours have been pushed to 2021. And with its amphitheatres ghost towns, Live Nation is in an unforeseeable crisis. If the long-term future for live music is a bit uncertain, the short-term outlook is completely up in the air.

“I can’t guess,” says Joey Scoleri, Live Nation Canada’s head of industry relations, when asked whether the concert experience will be different when things open up again. “It’s a wait and see. It’s up to what the various levels of government dictate, in terms of gathering in public spaces.”

In late April, Live Nation’s ticketing arm, Ticketmaster, furloughed a quarter of its North American work force. In May, the company boosted its liquidity by US$1.2-billion through a secured note sale – enough, said president and chief executive Michael Rapino, to allow for “an extra cushion to withstand any scenario well into 2021, as well as ample resources to capitalize on current innovations and ramp business up quickly when the time is right.”

But even when concerts come back, a big question remains: Will audiences?

Music Canada recently commissioned a poll to gauge the comfort level Canadians have for returning to concert venues postpandemic. The findings revealed that even self-identified “live music lovers” were wary of braving crowds, with more than 40 per cent saying it would be at least six months after attendance restrictions were eased before they would feel comfortable attending large-venue shows and festivals.

Publicly, Live Nation is putting on a brave face. After the announcement of the company’s first quarter results, Rapino spoke optimistically about the industry: “We believe 2021 can return to show volume and fan attendance at levels consistent with what we’ve seen in recent years.”

Rapino, who has temporarily sacrificed his US$3-million salary, also hailed the “great broadcast opportunities” of fan-less concerts. The shows, performed at empty venues or in remote locations, would be streamed online and/or broadcast on television. Sponsorship dollars would generate revenue in lieu of ticket sales.

As an example, on May 30, Live Nation Canada premiered its Budweiser Stage At Home concert series on television and online. Pretaped episodes involve interviews and fan-free performances. The participating acts (including Blue Rodeo and the Black Crowes) were scheduled to play the Live Nation amphitheatre in Toronto this summer. Coming episodes feature City and Colour, with Leon Bridges (July 18) and Alanis Morissette (July 24).

As for actual in-the-flesh shows, Live Nation’s plans call for reduced-capacity concerts, with big-name artists playing a string of fancy small theatres or high-end clubs. When Rapino says, “we can make the math work,” he means ticket prices would be sky-high.

Another option is the drive-in concert, with fans self-isolated in their automobiles. This spring, country-rocker Keith Urban worked with the promoter to stage a secret show for health care workers at the Stardust Drive-In in Watertown, Tenn.

“The car horns, the flashing headlights – that was crazy cool,” Urban told Rolling Stone magazine.

Live Nation’s idea is to erect screens in the parking lots of its North American amphitheatres. The promoter’s first such series took place this past weekend, with “Live From the Drive-In” shows held in Nashville, Indianapolis, Ind., and St. Louis, Miss. A pair of drive-in concerts by Canadian rockers July Talk is set for Aug. 12-13.

While Rapino forecasts sunshine in live music’s future as far as consumer demand – “It’ll be back as big as ever” – Live Nation is taking steps to lessen its financial exposure. In a memo obtained by Rolling Stone last month, the company cited a“ shift in market demand” and the “overall increase of uncertainty that materially affects our mission” as the reason for new policies that, in 2021, would cut pay to artists and shift the financial burdens of festivals to performers.

Live Nation also wants to decrease the monetary guarantees paid to artists by 20 per cent. Moreover, if a show is cancelled owing to poor ticket sales, it would give performers only a quarter of the guarantee, as opposed to the full amount promoters traditionally pay. Even more severe, if artists cancel a performance in breach of the agreement, they will pay the promoter twice their fee – an unprecedented penalty.

“We are fully aware of the significance of these changes,” the memo to talent agencies closes, “and we did not make these changes without serious consideration.”

Despite the doom and gloom, history reveals that concertgoers have shown little fear in the face of viral calamities. After the SARS outbreak in 2003, half a million people took to a field in north Toronto to see a festival headlined by the Rolling Stones. The Woodstock Music and Art Fair of 1969 took place during the waning days of an influenza pandemic.

“People will always want to gather communally to listen to music,” Scoleri says. “It’s inherent to the human experience.”