Grammy COVID Precautions Add Millions in Production Costs to Music’s Biggest Night

Jem Aswad and Shirley Halperin
·6-min read

Grammy Awards executive producer Ben Winston and his team have taken a refreshingly glass-half-full approach to staging the big show this year. “Rather than saying, ‘Oh, what can’t we have?,’ we’re focusing on what we can do,” he told Variety earlier this month. “We have 25 of the greatest artists in the world, the greatest production team I can possibly put together, an amazing venue and a three-and-a-half-hour slot on the No. 1 network in America: How do we make this incredible?’”

But their optimism is also in full acknowledgement of how difficult and, not least, expensive it is to hold such an event under COVID restrictions.

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The show will be held on Sunday in and around the Los Angeles Convention Center without the usual audience: There will be four stages surrounded by a small gathering of fellow performers, nominees and their guests, with a few segments taking place outdoors. But any money the show might be saving from the scaled-down approach is far outweighed by the expense and complexity of the necessary safety precautions.

“Oh man, it’s costing way more than usual!,” Recording Academy interim president/CEO Harvey Mason jr. tells Variety. “I don’t have an exact number, but the COVID protocol alone is millions and millions of dollars, and there’s other things in play: trying to do this in an environment where we have more space for performances and [distancing], and when I say COVID protocol, that’s just the testing. Changing the date” — from Jan. 31 to March 14, due to a late-year COVID spike in Southern California — “was expensive too,” he continues, “but we felt that was really important because we didn’t want to risk anyone’s health over a TV show.”

Jack Sussman, CBS’ executive VP of specials, music and live events, tells Variety, “Short of the Super Bowl, the Grammys are as big and intricate as it gets as a production. Ben Winston and this team really figured this out. Some of the artists asked for more protections and we want them to feel safe. For example, we’ve created venue areas for talent with only one-way access which helps make sure that nobody crosses paths with people who aren’t in the same pod.”

Reps for the Recording Academy declined to provide figures, but one executive with knowledge of recent awards shows tells Variety that a smaller music-related one spent around $1.5 million on COVID testing, and gave a conservative estimate for the Grammys of around $2.5 million (based on a conservative average of $75 per test for two weeks, and including the personnel administering the test and the lab fees), although Mason’s comment suggests the sum may be significantly more. Some artists’ teams also insist on rapid tests on-site for the artist’s arrival, which could add up to an additional $500,000.

Granted, the artists are working with much smaller crews than they would have in 2019 and many arrive on-site camera-ready. However, some artists are rolling relatively deep: a source tells Variety one major artist is coming to a pre-taped performance with a team of eight (including management, creative director, stylist and others), in addition to their musicians.

And even though a number of the Grammy performances are pre-recorded, the same protocol had to be maintained. “COVID testing not cheap, and they have to have it,” the executive says. “It’s a very lucrative business right now, and I don’t expect it to go away with the vaccine.”

Along with countless other intangibles, simply navigating the venue is a time-consuming and expensive proposition as well. Patrick Menton, the Grammys’ talent producer, tells Variety, “Everyone is tested every 48 hours, everyone has to wear PPE or face shields, there’s no eating and drinking, we all have to stay six to eight feet away from each other, there’s no yelling, there’s pipe and draping in the hallways to make sure there’s one-way traffic,” he pauses to catch his breath. “We’ve spent countless hours making sure that safely is the number-one priority.”

And that’s for the people who have already run the gauntlet of actually getting on-site. Mason, who says he’s been at the convention every day for the past couple of weeks, says, “You get tested before you come anywhere near the building, and once you get to the building, there’s another test. Then, there are zones you can go into — and zones you cannot — and different testing for every zone. There are a lot of steps in place to make sure that no one here has COVID, and if someone did, we would have very specific guidelines around who that person came into contact with, and what zones they were in.”

And it’s not as if the performers are living in a sealed room when they’re not on site; these are busy performers. “An artist or presenter may be working on another project where they are tested, but is that test within the protocol for [the Grammys]?,” one executive with knowledge of awards-show protocol tells Variety. “Will the artist be traveling? How many days a week are they rehearsing, and where? How many people will be attending those rehearsals?”

Then, of course, there’s the deeply complex matter of insurance. “The costs are somewhat astronomical,” one executive with knowledge of live-event insurance tells Variety. “But if COVID coverage is offered and purchased by a production company, in order to actually pay a claim, a claimant would need to establish that they actually got COVID at the event, which insurers look at on a claim-by-claim basis, considering factors like whether the individual went out to dinner or to a bar or somewhere else within specific time frames — it’s very difficult to prove where a person actually got COVID. And for productions companies, there are even more costs to consider: If someone on their staff does test positive, they may have to cover paid sick leave and continuing expenses for staff that may be at a hotel, and they have to replace that employee while still paying the [positive-tested] employee.”

This executive also notes the ballooning costs that distancing brings, such as additional vehicle rentals to reduce the number of people inside, additional trailers needed for offices and so on.

And yet, amid the complications and expense, the show will go on. The formidable additional expense “will absolutely impact us, just like it’s impacted so many other businesses and institutions,” Mason says. “But the Academy is built to be able to sustain something like this, and we’ve done sound financial planning so that we have the ability to weather a year where we have a downturn.

“I’m very proud of the show and I’m optimistic that we’ll have something very special on Sunday,” he concludes. “Music is a great opportunity for people to start healing, and provide some hope.”

The Grammy Awards will air live on CBS on Sunday, March 14 at 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT.

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