Can Live Music’s Big Return Withstand the Delta Variant?

The pandemic and political polarization are continuing to put a damper on musicians’ efforts to get the show back on the road

After a long season of despair in what had been a $28 billion worldwide live music industry, the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines finally allowed artists and venues to rush back into action: Major tours were announced, tickets were selling out, clubs across Los Angeles were full again. “People were absolutely raging,” says John Giovanazzi, longtime independent promoter of industrial, goth and post-punk events in L.A. “It was like when World War II ended and everybody was just partying in the streets.”

That euphoria didn’t last long, as the highly contagious delta variant shocked the music world back into reality. Even L.A.’s leading rock & roll cheerleader, Dave Grohl, had to reschedule a Foo Fighters concert at the Forum in July when a band associate tested positive. Then Kiss leaders Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, both fully vaccinated, caught the virus and several shows were postponed. The same happened to members of Korn and Slipknot singer Corey Taylor, who became “very, very sick” the day after finishing a solo tour. Soon after, Nine Inch Nails canceled its 2021 dates, Neil Young pulled out of his appearance at Farm Aid, the annual benefit concert he co-founded in 1985, Garth Brooks canceled the rest of his stadium dates this year, and Stevie Nicks postponed her tour, saying: “While I’m vaccinated, at my age I am still being extremely cautious.”

Other shows have been canceled when artists and venues clash over safety requirements. “Playing a show in Los Angeles is a lot different than playing a show in West Texas,” says agent Andy Somers, whose Paladin Artists books acts ranging from Brian Wilson to Social Distortion. “It’s a very divided country.”

By August, promoters at the club level in L.A. were experiencing 30 percent no-shows by fans who bought tickets but stayed home. Tickets to concerts catering to fans under 30 have bounced back, but older audiences are wary. “What we haven’t determined yet is: Are ticket sales slow because of requiring vaccinations,” says Somers, “or are they slow because we’re not requiring vaccinations?”

With the end of pandemic unemployment insurance, many independent musicians say they have no choice but to hit the road. “It’s like Russian roulette,” says Dimitri Coats, guitarist for the hardcore supergroup OFF! and manager of reunited punk veterans the Circle Jerks, currently on tour. “Some musicians are saying, we’ve got to make a living, and we’re going.”

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