Music industry weighs demand for vaccines, policies collide

NASHVILLE, Tennessee, USA (AP) – The coronavirus vaccine gave the live entertainment industry hope for a rebound in 2021. Now, as COVID-19 cases and beds of Hospitals fill up, it feels like March 2020 again.

Tom DeGeorge runs the popular Crowbar club in Tampa, Florida, which once hosted about 300 concerts a year, mostly by touring bands. He managed to stay afloat and reopen last fall, putting on about six shows a month. But with the increase in cases in Florida, more cancellations of shows and attendance has plummeted.

“The amount of people that is dating right now is, I would say, about 25, 30% of what it should be,” DeGeorge said. “I have a feeling that I am probably going to lose most of my fall and winter schedule, but basically I am mentally prepared for the worst case scenario.”

Hoping to save and survive another devastating year, the industry is rapidly moving toward vaccine mandates for concert goers, staff, and equipment. In some cases, attendees are asked to show proof of vaccination or negative COVID test, such as for Harry Styles’ upcoming US tour.

But the politicization of the pandemic and vaccines has dealt another blow to settings like DeGeorge’s. Across the country, there are a host of state and local rules governing when and where mask mandates and vaccination requirements can be enforced.

In Florida and Texas, for example, governors have banned vaccine passports, which in some cases apply to private companies. Executive orders from some governors are being challenged, either in court or by companies testing how far they can go.

“What we’ve really seen in Austin is people with a clear lack of direction trying to explore and understand what can be done,” said Cody Cowan, executive director of the Red River Cultural District in Austin, Texas, home to 15 music venues. “I think certainly the feeling is, both by the venues and the musicians, that everyone wants public health to be in its proper place, even if the state has decided not to implement orders around public health.”

He said Austin campuses are testing various vaccine and testing requirements, but that carries significant risk. Texas state law says companies cannot require customers to show proof of vaccination against COVID-19. The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, which regulates alcoholic beverage licenses, has notified some restaurants and music venues that their requirements were not in compliance. For most music venues, the sale of alcohol accounts for the majority of their revenue, and Cowan says that indicates the state is willing to penalize venues for violations of COVID-19 rules.

“Your license may be suspended, revoked or permanently removed if you decide to try to enforce public health,” Cowan said. “That’s the kind of fear we constantly live with.”

Adjoining ACL Live and 3TEN will comply with artist requests to require attendees negative test results and the use of face masks, according to Colleen Fischer, general manager and director of reservations for both venues. If a fan does not provide test results, proof of vaccination will also be accepted.

DeGeorge, from Florida, said a client has spat at him and others have tried to physically fight him over the requirement to wear a mask. He feels the anger comes from political messages about face masks and other virus protection policies.

But he’s more concerned that as vaccination mandates become an industry standard elsewhere, touring artists won’t bother to perform in Florida.

“The touring bands, the best of the best, will not come here if they don’t feel like they can be safe and that we can’t offer them the same guarantees that they have in other states,” DeGeorge said.

The pressure for concert vaccine requirements comes not only from big promoters like Live Nation and AEG Live, but also from the artists themselves. Foo Fighters, Phish, Maroon 5, The Killers, and Dead & Company have publicly said that they will require a vaccination test or a negative COVID-19 test from fans.

Singer Jennifer Nettles, who performs solo and as part of the country duo Sugarland, said she sees the health of the people who work for her and the fans from a business perspective.

“We can’t force anyone to get vaccinated,” Nettles said. “But we have the right to say, ‘Okay, if you don’t have it, then you can’t come because it’s dangerous.’ It is not a judgment of character that is being done. Is a reality”.

And Nettles is equally frustrated that political division and misinformation are dominating the conversation among fans and, sometimes, artists.

“Especially if you look at country music, wow, when you consider the demographic and political lines that are drawn, I feel like it makes it extremely difficult,” he said.

Other artists have come out staunchly against concert vaccination mandates, including Eric Clapton and Van Morrison. Country singer Travis Tritt said in a statement that vaccination policies at concerts are discriminatory.

“I’ve always been a great advocate for basic human rights and freedom for all,” Tritt said. “No government, employer or private entity should ever be allowed to violate these rights and freedoms. I am also very against discrimination of any kind. All forms of discrimination must be denounced and condemned in the strongest possible terms ”.

Differences in these policies, as well as changing conditions in state COVID rates, have left national tour bookings in 2021 plagued with difficulties and last-minute changes, said Paul Lohr, president of New Frontier Touring, an agency reservation representing some 80 artists, including The Avett Brothers and Rodney Crowell.

“Due to variations from state to state, you can suddenly leave a tour looking like Swiss cheese,” Lohr said. “If you start taking out, and every tour is different, a quarter, a third or a half of your dates, that’s the profit margin on a tour right there. And it just destroys everything. “

At Nashville’s famed Exit / In rock club, owner Chris Cobb said they had to turn away about 10% of attendees the first time they set a vaccination requirement for a show. He said some of those rejected were unaware of the newly enacted policy.

“We have to bear the burden of figuring out how to implement it,” Cobb said. “And it’s extremely helpful for artists to not only provide support, but openly support it.”

While top-tier bands can afford to cancel based on COVID safety concerns, many small, local musicians don’t have many financial options. Roots musician Hilary Perkins saw that the pandemic was creating inequality and systematic problems for musicians who needed to give regular concerts.

“Women are particularly concerned and people of color are particularly concerned,” Perkins said.

When he couldn’t find any industry standards for what musicians and artists could ask for in their contracts, his organization, Whipporwill Arts, developed a set of health and safety guidelines for musicians to ask venues and promoters to adopt. .

“We have the right to ask for what we need, we have the right to say what is required, what is preferred and what can be negotiated,” Perkins said.

Nettles has been posting data on unvaccinated people filling up the small local hospital in his hometown in Georgia on social media.

“It’s not about an artist doing a power play,” Nettles said. “People are dying. There is a way to prevent people from dying ”.

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