As Mask and Vaccine Mandates Fall, COVID Rates Soar Among Touring Musicians

·8-min read

From the T.S.A. to the Coachella festival, from your local supermarket to your local music club, mask and vaccination mandates continue to fall across the country, in the face of all credible scientific evidence that yet another coronavirus surge is not only taking place, but raging. Given that, it is not surprising that touring music artists are continuing to postpone dates as bandmembers or crew test positive for COVID-19.

While no definitive figures exist, all one needs to do is look at social media to see dozens of postponed or canceled concerts or tours due to someone in the artist’s party testing positive. That has been the case since touring began to return in earnest last summer, but there’s little question that the situation has grown worse in recent weeks — as noted in robustly reported articles from Pitchfork and the New York Times to musician Damon Krukowski’s “Dada Drummer” substack and, sadly, comments from countless artists, particularly Low and Superchunk, who have been forced to postpone dates. And in the wake of last weekend’s Coachella festival — the largest music festival in North America — it remains to be seen how many artists will have to cancel appearances at the second of the two-weekend event.

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Some musicians have gone so far as to demand if not beg their audiences to mask up. “I am not a big band,” indie musician Sasami tweeted earlier this year. “If we get COVID and have to cancel shows I’m fully FUCKED. If you love me at all, please wear a mask and buy merch so we can keep touring.” At a Sparks concert in New York’s Town Hall earlier this month, the band insisted that the audience wear masks — most if not all members did, but that was a Sparks audience in New York. It’s hard to imagine a similar scenario with many other artists or parts of the country.

However, while it’s easy to point fingers at local protocols (or lack thereof) or major live-entertainment companies, anyone who’s been to a concert in the past few months can’t help but notice the small percentages of people wearing masks at most shows, even in “woke” cities.

“When the band are the only masked people in the venue,” the long-running indie band Superchunk, which has had to postpone several gigs due to COVID in the touring party, wrote on social media, “it’s clear that this stage of the pandemic is going to be around for awhile.”

The problem reaches all the way to the top — Elton John, Justin Bieber, Jon Bon Jovi, Kiss and Jazmine Sullivan are just five major examples who come to mind — but hit much harder in the wallet are the mid-level and indie-level touring acts, the ones who rely on live performances for their livelihood and see little income from streaming.

Those artists are also playing much smaller, more tightly packed and less well-ventilated venues than the Eltons and Biebers of the world — which increases the risk of infection exponentially — and they tour with fewer people, increasing the impact when a member of the touring party tests positive. A postponed or canceled date impacts those artists much more than a superstar act, which has larger teams (and thus can absorb the loss of a staffer or two much more easily) and can afford the costs associated with postponements more readily.

“Every day, I’m seeing one to five artists with tours or dates being postponed because someone in the band or crew tested positive,” says Brian Long of Knitting Factory Management, who handles indie artists Jose Gonzales, Bedouine and !!!, among others. “It’s very, very scary as a manager to see this.”

Mitski was forced to postpone a headlining date at New York’s prestigious Radio City Music Hall, along with two other shows, “due to a positive test in the touring party”; and as noted by Krukowski in his “Masks Are Off” article published earlier today, a partial list from the past two weeks in the indie-rock world alone lists Bartees Strange (Apr 2), Car Seat Headrest (Apr 3), Low (Apr 8), Superchunk (Apr 9), Circuit des Yeux (Apr 11), Brian Jonestown Massacre (Apr 14), Spoon (Apr 14), Jon Spencer (Apr 16), Sea Power (Apr 18) and Bob Mould (Apr 18) — and there have been many, many more.

The costs associated with postponed shows are daunting. “If a person on the tour tests positive, you still have to pay for lodging and food, and for a bus or other vehicles if you’ve rented them — and there’s zero money coming in for those shows,” Long says. “And,” he adds, “if the show being canceled is a festival date” — which, like other “tentpole” dates on a tour, are often much more lucrative than club shows — “it can mean a tour that was profitable is suddenly unprofitable.”

All of this flies in the face of sunny touring season forecasts from Live Nation and other major live-entertainment companies, which, along with so much of the rest of the country, is “getting back to normal” despite overwhelming evidence and advice from the CDC that we’re nowhere near back to normal yet.

During the company’s most recent earnings call in February, Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino predicted “record financial performance” and “the strongest multi-year period ever for the concert industry.” Omar Al-joulani, Live Nation’s co-president for touring, told the New York Times last week, “It feels like we’re much more back to a normal pace and cadence,” noting that as many as 40 tours are in the pipeline for next year and beyond. (While a rep for Live Nation noted to Variety that the number of shows moving or cancelling currently is within 1% of where it was in 2019, obviously that statistic only covers Live Nation-promoted shows.)

“Large swaths of the live music industry are overeager to pretend we’re out of the pandemic, “Speedy Ortiz singer-guitarist Sadie Dupuis told Pitchfork. “We’re leaving behind many folks with disabilities and illnesses, which is not a new problem—just a new way the ableism inherent in many venue spaces is being expressed since COVID.”

While a small number of venues continue to require proof of vaccination and masking, in practice that’s often much easier said than done: In some states they could potentially run the risk of a lawsuit by making that requirement, and mask mandates are extremely difficult to enforce if someone has a drink in their hand — which is the primary source of income for most venues. Add to that, like musicians, venues are recovering from two brutal years with effectively no income, which makes them loathe to alienate audiences (and risk adding to the not-inconsiderable number of people who are staying away from smaller venues in general).

Some, like San Francisco’s DNA Lounge, have tried to keep up a tight protocol but realized the futility of it, saying in a long post titled “Wherein we surrender unconditionally to the coronavirus”: “Being the only nightclub checking vaccination status doesn’t really do anybody any good. It costs us business without actually making anyone safer, since all of our customers are going to be commingling with the unvaccinated at every other club and restaurant in town.”

A rep for the National Independent Venues Assn. essentially confirms that protocol decisions often are not up to the venue hosting the show, telling Variety, “This is a topic that varies from state to state and venue to venue, so there isn’t an association position, per se. Each member is adhering to local mandates, and absent those, are setting their own policies — while fulfilling individual artists’ wishes if they differ. Backstage protocols are also key, as independent venues put a high priority on artist and crew safety so acts can stay in the road, make a living, and connect with fans.”

In the long run, the ones who are usually most harmed by these postponements are the very people that audiences turn up to support: the artists. “They’re the ones in the crosshairs, and they’re the losers in this situation — along with the audiences,” Long says.

And as with so much else during the past two years of pandemic, we can’t wait for authorities to solve the problem: The solution lies with us. So without putting too fine a point on it, mask up.

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