A concert in Fort Smith, Ark. on May 15 will be one of the first — if not the first — live, socially-distanced show in the U.S. since the beginning of wide-scale shutdowns, meant to curb the spread of the pernicious parasite that sickens people with COVID-19.
The show promises to be weird. The ornate venue, Temple Live, will only fill 229 of 1,100 seats. According to the promoter’s plans, everyone must wear masks. Attendees will have their temperatures taken before entering. Temple Live will have a company disinfect rooms with fog sprayers before the show, featuring a solo performance by country rocker Travis McCready. And though the hall will be mostly empty, you can’t sit wherever you please: Ticketmaster is selling tickets in groups of two to 13 seats, to keep parties separated by at least six feet.
Infectious disease experts emphasize it’s impossible to completely stop the spread of the new coronavirus when people gather together. It’s only possible to reduce the odds of infection (perhaps by a lot). If reliable medical treatments become available for COVID-19 and the number of cases also drop, more cities and states may allow these masked, socially distanced, sparsely-attended concerts, similar to Temple Live’s test of the murky, pandemic waters.
It’s dystopian. But such is the reality when a virus has already killed over 75,000 Americans (as of May 7) in just some four months and the CDC expects tens of thousands more deaths over the summer. The first vaccine, however effective, is probably at best a year away.
“Early gatherings will likely have to follow strict social distancing guidelines, allowing only a limited percent of venue capacity to attend events and requiring all attendees to wear face masks, potentially with hand sanitizing stations and even health screenings before entry,” said Jennifer Horney, the director of the Epidemiology program in the College of Health Sciences at the University of Delaware.
That’s largely Temple Live’s plan, if they stick to it. This could be a well-managed event.
“I think we can view this as a responsible experiment that a serious operator of a serious venue is able to undertake,” said Larry Miller, a professor of music business at New York University Steinhardt.
WATCH: Fundraiser aims to help SXSW musicians after festival cancellation
A question that looms large, however, is whether many people will feel comfortable attending amid a pandemic (dozens of tickets, all $20, were still available as of May 7). Strict, yet necessary, precautions sound like a killjoy at an event that’s supposed to be, well, joyful. What’s more, most everyone now appreciates that this virus exploits gathered people. And in groups or crowds, there will likely be infected people who don’t know they’re infected, meaning they’re asymptomatic.
“Even a few asymptomatic positives among a crowd of concert attendees would have the potential to efficiently spread infection,” said Horney, because masks and sanitization don’t guarantee protection from a microscopic bug. People will share bathrooms, for example, and be seated next to each other in their respective groups. That’s close contact. Around one in four infected people are asymptomatic, according to CDC director Robert Redfield, while research in Iceland showed that 50 percent of infected people didn’t show symptoms at the time of their test.
So will going out to a highly-regulated show like Temple Live’s be reasonably safe? It’s not possible to definitively answer that question.
“Everyone wants an easy answer — and it’s not an easy answer,” said Henry Raymond, an associate professor in the Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at the Rutgers School of Public Health. “At the end of the day, everyone has to make decisions for themselves.”
🚨JUST ANNOUNCED🚨 An Intimate Solo Acoustic Performance With Travis McCready of @bishopgunnmusic May 15th. Tickets on-sale tomorrow at 10am.
Please see our COVID19 Operating Protocol that we will be following to ensure a safe experience at our venue. pic.twitter.com/3rB7KPkjNP
— Temple Live (@templelivefsm) April 23, 2020
It would, of course, be significantly more reasonable to go to a live show perhaps later this year when immunologists have learned much more about this newly-emerged disease, when there might be a robust, proven, and widely-available medical treatment, and when infections were going down, not up. Even then, social distancing will still be necessary to limit the spread of disease. Pandemics don’t promptly end, like dumping water on a campfire. They never have.
“I might go to an event where every second or third seat is sold,” said New York University’s Miller, referencing a time in the future when there are at least treatments for COVID-19. “When we think about the live music business returning to something like normalcy, it’s hard to imagine that happening until there’s a reliable, highly effective treatment, and probably a vaccine.”
“I hate saying that out loud,” he added.
To allow for relatively safe live music environments during a pandemic that will likely come in waves or surges over the next year or two (the deadly 1918 pandemic influenza had three major waves), the music industry might prioritize outside concerts, where the virus won’t circulate in a closed space or through air ducts (though this won’t help many venues).
“One way to present a concert that is safer than traditional shows in venues is to host outdoor shows,” said Rich Barnet, a professor of music business at Middle Tennessee State University who teaches concert promotion and touring.
“With some ingenuity, promoters could make sure that people stayed at least six feet apart,” Barnet said, suggesting spraying circles in the grass, like stadiums do for football games, that are six feet across to keep fans separated.
Confined, indoor shows may not fly during the pandemic, he emphasized. “My opinion is that there is no way to safely protect attendees in a club environment from the virus,” Barnet said, as some people might just not be keen on following rules, like constantly wearing a mask around others during the event.
This pandemic comes at a terrible time for everyone, but particularly musicians. With the decline in physical album sales, most artists are dependent on the live show to make a living and support their families.
“That’s really the only way for musicians these days to survive,” explained Matthew Donahue, a senior lecturer in the Department of Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University. “Physical sales are just down the tubes.” Although streaming accounts for a whopping 75 percent of all U.S. recording music revenue, it pays artists a pittance. So without live shows, musicians are making peanuts.
“Even those musicians with hundreds of millions to billions of streams are generating 80 percent of their income through live concerts or related revenue,” said Miller.
Something i think may be getting lost in the coverage of the new IHME/U-Wash projection of 134,475 COVID-19 deaths in the US… this would be just through August 4. https://t.co/HcOSmF7oqR
— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) May 5, 2020
But most artists aren’t yet tempting dystopian live shows. Instead, they’re inviting fans into their homes, via the web. On May 6, hundreds of fans paid $15 to join southern rocker Patterson Hood, of the Drive-by Truckers, in his attic for a live, 90-minute show on NoonChorus, a site where musicians can host live music.
“The last thing we want is anyone to get hurt coming to one of our shows,” Hood said during the Wednesday performance, noting the 1918 flu killed several of his relatives during the second wave of the ghastly pandemic. “I heard all about that growing up.”
But the shows must go on — which largely means online concerts right now. “For the short term, that will be the future,” said Donahue.
“We are still a working band,” said Hood, backed by amber light and a velvet rendition of The Last Supper. “We can’t afford to just take the year off.”
The road ahead for largely stamping out the virus and allowing more live music, however, will likely be nationally uneven, coming in fits and starts in different regions. No one really knows what to expect. That’s because there’s no coherent national strategy (just some voluntary guidelines) for safely opening up the nation and regularly testing a significant number of Americans. “The federal government has made it explicitly clear they don’t want a national plan,” Christopher Hayes, a labor historian at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, told Mashable in April.
Musicians, like the rest of the country, don’t have a bright federal light leading an unsettled nation out of the dark, pathogenic woods.
“We can’t afford to just take the year off.”
“No one is truly presiding over our government at this time,” wrote legendary Austin, Tex. musician James McMurtry, whose shows were canceled. “We don’t have a Roosevelt fighting off fear itself, we don’t have an LBJ with a flashlight under his chin promising help to New Orleans after a Hurricane, we don’t have Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter in hazmat suits walking through Three Mile Island to show their faith in the scientists that saved the east coast. We don’t even have George W. Bush, who after cowering in the rabbit hole on 9/11, pulled himself together, crawled up out of the ground, went to ground zero and did his level best to do the job of being president, being there for us.”
It’s unknown how this early show at Temple Live will pan out, or if it might actually spread disease with what, on paper, looks like pretty stringent, unprecedented policies to avoid exposing people to the new coronavirus. But with limited attendance and $20 tickets, it’ll be difficult, if not impossible, to turn a profit.
“It’s clearly not a profit-maximizing event,” said New York University’s Miller.
And, critically, the show in Arkansas — a state that has so far has had relatively few confirmed deaths with 85 as of May 6 — comes with risks. The New York region may have become the epicenter of the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean a place like Arkansas is now in the clear. “We’re likely to see more big waves in other areas across the country as this virus spreads,” said Rutgers’ Raymond. The 1918 pandemic, he reminded, lasted 18 months and came in three waves. The second wave was the most fatal.
“I would not lean towards big community events right now,” Raymond said.
Temple Live did not comment by the time of publishing. Ticketmaster declined to answer questions about the show. And the booking agent for Travis McCready’s former band, Bishop Gunn, did not reply when contacted.
For those fans who don’t want to enter an indoor venue during an uncertain, relatively early point in the pandemic — with masked fans, masked bartenders, and eerily empty rooms — they can still pay to enter live shows online, buy merchandise, and potentially keep musicians afloat in the coming year, and beyond. “You don’t want to see this art form die,” emphasized Bowling Green’s Donahue. It’s not charity. It’s sustaining a cultural center of American life.
“See you at the next rock show,” said the Drive-by Truckers’ Hood, before signing off. “Even if it’s from the attic.”