USA TODAY International Edition
Do you need vaccines to see concerts? It depends
Rules on shots and masks are vague as stadiums fill up, but fans may balk at mandates.
Fans attending next month’s Eagles concerts at Madison Square Garden must show proof they’ve been fully vaccinated for COVID- 19 to attend. ● But when the band plays TD Garden in Boston three nights later, vaccinations aren’t required. ● Those headed to jam with Dead & Company when their tour kicks off Aug. 16 in Raleigh, North Carolina, must prove they’ve been vaccinated to enter the general admission pit on all dates of the tour. Those who can’t will be moved to an alternate viewing location, as noted when purchasing a ticket via Live Nation.
Recently in Atlanta, Styx and Collective Soul couldn’t play a planned show at Cadence Bank Amphitheatre in Chastain Park because city ordinances allowed for a maximum 2,000 capacity when tickets went on sale – a limit that would be financially unviable for the bands. The concert was moved to the 12,000capacity amphitheater in the suburb of Alpharetta – where no crowd- size rules existed – 15 miles away.
Welcome to the post- pandemic live music industry, where ambiguity reigns.
“We’re all gypsies going out there to different places and different rules,” says Charlie Brusco, president of Red Light Management Atlanta, which manages Styx, Collective Soul and dozens of others.
A year ago, as artists and fans dreamed of a return to the holy trinity of stages, sweat and singing, live music experts scrambled to determine how to reassemble an industry obstructed by an unprecedented shutdown.
Although marquee names such as Garth Brooks, John Legend, Guns N’ Roses, Marc Anthony and Sheryl Crow were sidelined last year, live shows are roaring back with cautious road trips or – in the case of Alisters such as Katy Perry, Usher and Celine Dion – new Las Vegas residencies.
“We never had a situation where
you didn’t know what the next six months look like,” says Ryan Borba, managing editor of concert industry trade publication Pollstar. “Artists have gone from ‘ We’re going to decide if we’re going to do the whole tour or not’ to this rush of acts who decided by May what they were going to do. People are trying their best to figure this out as they go because every market and even every county has different rules. There’s a lot of different factors at play.”
For much of the past year, concertgoers eager to experience live music prepared for a regimen of rules beyond the now- typical metal detectors and clearbag policies. Venues indicated there would be temperature checks. Separate seating for vaccinated and unvaccinated fans. Mandatory mask wearing. Social distancing at concession and merchandise lines.
Such protocols are anomalies at most venues, on the cusp of a summer and fall blitz of tours postponed from 2020 and new outings by restless musicians desperate to pay the bills.
Debbie and Charlie Small of Richmond, Virginia, have attended several outdoor shows since May – from Jamey Johnson to Grace Potter – and found what is becoming an expected hodgepodge of rules.
At Johnson’s show in Doswell, Virginia, masks were mandated for entry. But past the gates, the fully vaccinated couple realized they were in the minority of those who stayed masked in the common areas.
Meanwhile, Potter’s show at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado separated seating into quadrants with dedicated parking and entrances for each area.
“Although people kept their distance, it seemed nobody was thinking about COVID. They were just into the show and it felt like the good old days,” Charlie Small says. “A lot of people have gotten vaccinated and feel comfortable. But those who haven’t just blend into the crowd, and a concert is the perfect place for that.”
He ponders his ideal scenario: “Do we feel people should be vaccinated ( to attend)? Yeah. Or at least have something like a smoking section if you’re not vaccinated.”
When Foo Fighters played Madison Square Garden for a venue- reopening blowout in June, the proof- of- vaccination requirement rankled a segment of the rockers’ fan base, and some picketed outside the venue the night of the show.
Currently, MSG is hosting fully vaccinated productions as well as those with vaccinated and unvaccinated seating sections ( identified during ticket- buying), depending upon the event.
A similar scenario with a handful of disgruntled fans claiming discrimination greeted the June 26 opening night of Bruce Springsteen’s “Springsteen on Broadway” run at the St. James Theatre.
Whether fans must be vaccinated typically is a decision rendered by the artist, coupled with local and state guidelines, particularly on major tours.
Live Nation’s backstage protocols guide notes that acts may request two weeks in advance that all backstage team members are “either fully vaccinated prior to their backstage assignment or complete a COVID rapid antigen test prior to each backstage assignment.”
But balancing safety protocols with fan acceptance puts venue operators in challenging positions.
City Winery, an independently owned chain of music venues that hosts artists such as Darlene Love and John Hiatt, initially implemented vaccine requirements for guests when they reopened in May at all locations: Philadelphia, Atlanta, Nashville, Chicago, Boston, New York City, Washington, D. C., and an outdoor “Concerts in the Vineyard” in Hudson Valley, New York.
But currently, only the New York locales have maintained the policy, which City Winery CEO Michael Dorf plans to keep in place “until the pandemic is over – and who knows when that will be?”
Dorf says some markets, particularly Atlanta, Nashville and Chicago, experienced pushback from guests. He’s also competing with area venues that aren’t implementing any mandates, which could siphon potential concertgoers.
“It’s still a prevalent opinion of some people that because the government is saying you should ( get vaccinated) and is offering ( the vaccine), that it’s an invasion of freedom,” Dorf says. “Which is total malarkey, because if you want to go to Africa on a safari, you have to get ( certain vaccines). There’s just a lot of false narratives on all kinds of things.”
On the opposite spectrum, the crowds who roll into the Manhattan location have greeted Dorf with “resounding applause” when he thanks them from the stage for getting vaccinated.
“I tell them, you’re helping to restart the ecosystem for live music in New York,” Dorf says.
Backstage at the Styx concert in Atlanta, there were no guests. No “I’m a friend of the band” hangers- on. Stagehands had to be vaccinated if they would be interacting with the band.
“Most of the artists I’m seeing are asking anyone who will be close to them to be vaccinated or are closing backstages off,” Red Light’s Brusco says. “Forget the politics of it. Forget even the disease of it. The bottom line is, you’re on the road and if someone in your entourage gets COVID, you’re going to lose people who can’t work. This business that I’ve been in for 45 years cannot close down again.”
Indeed, Foo Fighters alerted fans on Wednesday that the group’s Saturday show at the Los Angeles Forum was being postponed because of a confirmed COVID- 19 case “within the Foo Fighters organization.”
The band stressed that the virus infiltrated their ranks “despite having made every effort to follow CDC COVID protocols and local laws.”
Random sickness is an issue that might become more prevalent as touring resumes more vigorously.
“A lot of artists are saying, we might lose one or two shows mid- tour and that’s part of the uncertainty,” says Pollstar’s Borba. “If you announce a tour, a member of the band or crew could get sick and that’s part of the deal.”
The potential for illness raging through cramped tour buses and snug dressing rooms is one reason Kiss icon Gene Simmons told the ABC affiliate in Philadelphia last month: “You ain’t getting into the shows if you’re not safe. You’re not going to risk somebody else’s life because you think the Earth is flat. I don’t care what you believe. I want everybody to be safe.”
Simmons’ remarks were interpreted to mean that Kiss’ rescheduled End of the Road world tour, which launches Aug. 18 in Massachusetts, would mandate vaccinations for concertgoers. Representatives for Simmons, a proponent of the COVID- 19 vaccine, later clarified he was merely making the point that fans needed to stay safe and healthy so they could attend.
That’s the approach of most artists, it seems – protect their immediate surroundings, but don’t give directives.
Mark DiDia, who manages The Black Crowes and Counting Crows for Red Light Management, was in Nashville this week preparing for The Black Crowes’ twice- shuffled reunion tour that kicked off July 20.
The band is requiring vaccines for crew, bus drivers and food handlers. But “as far at the ticket taker in Aisle 17, that isn’t up to us – it’s up to the venue and we aren’t demanding it,” DiDia says. “We didn’t want to be in a position to tell any of our audiences what they have to do. We obviously want to be safe and our fans coming to the shows to be safe. But whatever the city ordinance is, that is what we’re following.”
Other artists, such as Nancy Wilson of Heart, are more determined to play to vaccinated fans.
“It makes total sense ( to require vaccinations) and it’s probably the only way to make touring work, so some sort of variant situation doesn’t boomerang back,” she says. Heart is likely to tour next year “and I’m really excited about the best possible scenario for everyone to be vaccinated and be rewarded for it.” And for those fans who aren’t? Wilson pauses. “Well, it’s just too bad,” she says. “It’s for the general safety of everyone, so if they weren’t vaccinated, they’d have to pull up their socks and walk away.”