When I speak to my friends and colleagues who work in music, film, TV, dance, theatre, photography, or creating live concerts and events, they all seem to be waiting for things to “go back to normal” after the COVID-19 pandemic finally recedes. I think the assumption that the virus will be cured and dispatched from our planet is an enormous “blue sky” hope that will sadly not happen (in our lifetimes). I contracted COVID myself in April, and with worldwide numbers of new cases surging, I think we will continue to socially distance, work and be educated from home, and live in fear for years as we await the demise of this mysterious plague. The pandemic has re-cast every aspect of our lives and work and will continue to shape things well into the foreseeable future.
That said, consider that all the stunning changes we have witnessed in 8 months across every entertainment platform and genre have actually been in motion for decades. The pandemic didn’t cause these changes; it sped them up drastically…
Let’s do a quick overview of what this might mean:
The worldwide movie theatre business is never coming back the way it was in 2019 or before. Regal Theaters suspended their US operations on October 5th, 2020 because they can read the writing on the wall. Watch for other chains to follow suit very soon. Too much overhead. No customers. Too much competition and too much cash from the streaming platforms. So while there might be some theaters eking out an existence or trying to create an “upscale” movie/dining experience for those few brave enough to venture outside, theaters will definitely be relegated to “non-priority” (read: second-run) status when it comes to releasing first-run motion pictures. The economic fallout from this important shift has been a turbulent bumpy ride for some years in Hollywood.
Did you hear that MGM “secretly” spoke to Apple/Netflix about “selling” the new James Bond movie “No Time to Die” for an amazing $600 million instead of waiting until April for a traditional theatrical release? As soon as the news broke, a spokesman walked back the story and said MGM was “committed” to a theatrical release. Theatre lovers, don’t hold your breath. If the streamers actually coughed-up $600 million in cash, that is FAR more than the producers of the film would net out from theaters, even if the film was wildly successful.
The seemingly quick death of movie theaters during the pandemic has actually been almost three decades in the making. The rise of home video in the 1980s and ’90s, and then nearly unlimited high-quality streaming at home in the 2010s signaled the eventual end for theaters through dwindling ticket sales. It’s kinda’ like what has happened to terrestrial radio after music streaming and satellite radio took over, or what happened to hundreds of Vaudeville theaters when the first commercial motion pictures were released in the 1920s. Some see “progress.” Some see a disaster. Either way, the deed is done. What’s going to happen to all that real estate?
Live Music Concerts and Events:
Sorry kids, the concert business is never back to anything like the way it was before 2019. Countless tours and performances cancelled. So many musicians scrambling to create new sources of income. So many completely lame “living room” concerts streaming on Facebook. (deep sigh)
Like the movie business, the seeds of this change were planted starting way back in the late 1990s. The last two generations of college age music fans would much rather go see (and dance to) Diplo, Tiësto or DJ Snake in a huge club than to see any solo act or band in concert, or even at a pub. Any good music agent or promoter will tell you that it is “older audiences” that have usually bought concert tickets over the last 20 years to see their heroes from the 1970s and ’80s do it on stage one more time. Again, we can’t blame the pandemic for the rapid changes across the live concert business — it only drove the nails in the coffin much, much faster than the organic demise of this industry.
The biggest reason why most clubs, bars, arenas, and concert halls will not be presenting live concerts anytime soon (maybe ever) comes down to a single word: “liability.” Imagine a world where customers and patrons start suing venues when people begin to discover they caught COVID when seeing a concert. Despite printing signs, placards, and even virus warnings on the back of tickets enforcing strict mask rules for everyone in the facility, venues will come under scrutiny quickly in this new environment. Imagine that bands who try to play will need their own liability policies and “Errors and Omissions” coverage before any engagement could be confirmed. Under the best of circumstances, these policies are very hard and expensive to acquire. During or after the pandemic, obtaining this coverage will be impossible. Moreover, this issue of liability is not just relegated to the “big” genres like Hip Hop or rock — classical, jazz and others will fall under this problem.
Again, the issue of liability has been sneaking up on the touring industry for a long time. This cost has made it very tough for promoters to create tours, and unless you are U2 (who self-insured their last world-tour under very strict guidelines for the entire crew) it is unlikely that you will see a “up and coming” band playing live in your hometown.
In 2009, Michael Jackson was planning a “residency” at the 02 Arena in London before his death. Why? Liability. The cost of touring his enormous show around the world might have actually lost money. So, keeping the entire production in one place actually seems logical. However, the people insuring and bonding those concerts were very, very nervous. In 11 years, nothing has changed except that the pandemic has made moving from country to country nearly impossible.
During lockdown, you can see how the industry has begun to transform: the live concert business might be coming back as virtual entertainment. It is anybody’s guess whether this can be monetized in any meaningful way for artists. However, the group or groups who can “crack the code” on creating an amazing virtual streaming concert experience that people are willing to pay for time and again will usher in the new age of concertizing.
Amongst the bad news, here’s a development: on Saturday October 24th, 2020 Billie Eilish performed a global virtual concert, Where Do We Go? The Livestream.[IK1] Performing with Eilish was her singer-songwriter brother, FINNEAS, and touring drummer, Andrew Marshall. It was held at a studio in Los Angeles, using XR technologies to power the immersive interactive set. It was a very cool and very “techy” experience, but only time will tell if this the new way of live music. However, it is a little reassuring to see people take a shot at creating a new paradigm.
Despite the rise in COVID cases this Fall, there is a movement for live music back to places of worship, outdoor events where people can safely listen (weather permitting), and playing in bars at up to 50% of capacity. The problem is that these early attempts still feel desperate versus “new” or unique in our pandemic ravaged society. Once the newness for socially distanced concerts or immersive streaming concerts wears off, we will need to get back to a business take earns real dollars. Quickly.
Interestingly, streaming television has been BOOMING during the pandemic, with captive audiences watching everything they can get their hands on. Netflix has reported subscriber growth of 20% in 2020. That’s the good news. The less good news is that all the major platforms are struggling with creating NEW content (since March 2020) under the strict workplace COVID prevention protocols set down by the LA and NYC departments of public health. In fact, several series that were very popular will not be coming back because of the logistics, costs, and restrictions set down for COVID safety. This poses a tough question for video content producers: “will you change HOW you shoot or will you change WHAT you shoot?” Each television show runner has to make this call on a show-by-show basis; however, streaming television seems to be doing OK in this time of great uncertainty.
Please note: I said STREAMING television was doing OK. Network and cable television continue their endless death spirals as more and more Americans abandon traditional TV and become “cord cutters” (viewers without a cable TV subscription). In this new paradigm, networks become just another content provider losing traction against the juggernaut of Netflix, Amazon, Apple+, Hulu, and Disney+.
Compared with September 2019, total viewership across all broadcast and cable television was down 10 percent in September 2020. Interestingly, these falling numbers also include live sports events, which has been one of the last bastions of good news for broadcast and cable television outlets. Clearly, things have changed and even the experts are at a loss to explain why.
Some sociologists and psychiatrists are concerned about America’s “Bunker Mentality” now that we are many months into a lockdown that shows no signs of ending soon. Dark thoughts. Dark moods. Lots of television. Stress on incomes to pay for food, rent and essentials. Political chaos. Social unrest. All these stresses change HOW people make decisions about themselves and what content they choose to consume. This mentality is changing what is being written, and in about 3–6 months we will see the start of a flood of COVID-inspired content. Will audiences want to see a reflection of themselves during this dark time or will they want to escape? We will have to see…
We could go through many other media platforms and note how they’ve changed in the face of COVID, but the story is largely the same… The fundamental changes we are seeing in how entertainment is consumed has been “baked into” the system for decades. The pandemic simply sped up the rules around organic change and has made it seem like the floor fell out of the world. It didn’t. No person or company could be ready for what we have been experiencing as an industry — but that doesn’t mean we cannot see the new opportunities in this drastically changed landscape. Theatres, concerts, and live events of all stripes will have to evolve to the new “ab-normal.”
A little good news: most major performers are HOME. This means if you are a creative and you want to collaborate with someone on your “wish list” — now is the time. In my own career, I am amazed at the connections I have made during the pandemic and the music I have already released that sprang from being at home. Expect to see some amazing and unexpected collaborations in music, film, dance, and television because creative people had TIME and an opportunity to reach out and start new conversations. This might not push away the darkness of the pandemic but it might help…