Recognizing ‘Huge Drop in Ratings’ for Virtual Awards Shows, Behind iHeartRadio’s Decision to Have a Live Audience

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As announced this morning, the iHeartRadio Music Awards will return to Los Angeles’ Dolby Theater on May 27 with Usher set to host and the Weeknd with Ariana Grande, Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak as Silk Sonic, Dan + Shay and Doja Cat, among others, slated to perform. Also on deck: a tribute to Elton John (pictured) featuring Coldplay’s Chris Martin and Lil Nas X. The A-list music event has long been a top television draw, but in partnering with Fox for the 2021 edition, it takes another step closer to a return to live music in front of a physical audience, as John Sykes, president of entertainment enterprises for iHeart, explains to Variety.

Instead of committing to a virtual event, they “decided to wait,” says Sykes. “Lucky for us, a month ago, we got a clear message from the state of California and Los Angeles County that we could safely put a full audience in a room.”

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A crowd serves several purposes, not the least of which is conveying a sense of normalcy, but just as important for those in the room, the artists performing can draw energy from the people, which always makes for a better show. Sykes, who has worked at iHeartRadio for a decade and who also chairs the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, recently saw that firsthand as executive producer of Global Citizen’s Vax Live show, held at L.A.’s SoFi Stadium. He shares that experience and his plans going forward.

What did you take away from the limited capacity audience at Vax Live?

We got a preview of the issues we’ll be dealing with — mainly the safety of the audience and the artists coming to perform — because, as we’re hearing from every health organization, we’re not out of this yet, so we have to be careful as we see the light at the end of the tunnel. First and foremost, we had to build a COVID protocol that would follow the strict orders of the state and county, and then add even more to make sure the artists and the audience, both felt safe and comfortable attending. We’re spending a lot of time and money on the COVID protocol. At Vax Live, I was tested every single day, both rapid and the overnight testing, any time I set foot on that property. And that’s what will happen at our show coming up on the 27th.

Will attendance require vaccination?

Yes, everyone will be vaccinated and the audience will primarily be healthcare workers and first responders, [some of whom] we’ll fly in. So they’re going to get a great show for free — everyone vaccinated and everyone tested. Tickets will not be sold. … [Like] the Global Citizen show, we see this not only as a great opportunity for America to experience live music and returning to culture, but also extend a warm thank you to these incredible people who put their lives at risk for us everyday. It’s a small token of our thanks … and just seemed like the right thing to do.

What can you tell us about the Elton John tribute?

We let Elton pick the artists, and what’s surprising is, he didn’t reach out to his contemporaries, he went for very young performers. Elton loves new music. I remember what a fan he was early on of Bruno Mars, and obviously his [management] company launched Ed Sheeran. He has an incredible talent for discovering new music. He’d be a great A&R person. So he’s given us a group of young artists he wants us to reach out to. He did request Chris Martin and Lil Nas X to present the award to him, which they will do that evening. The others we’re still curating. But they’ll do a special tribute not only honoring his global impact on music, but also culture. So it’s going to be an incredible moment and an incredible lineup of performers.

What differentiates the iHeartRadio Awards from other music award shows?

It’s 100% a pure reflection of the music that fans listen to all year long on iHeartRadio. There’s no backroom committee making choices that make no sense to the fans. That’s number one. And number two is that it’s a unique performance and usually involves a collaboration. If you looked at our last awards show in 2019, we had Kacey Musgraves and Chris Martin, Garth Brooks and Chris Pratt, Alicia Keys and her son. Almost every performance had a special moment in it, which made it a reason to watch the show. Otherwise you can just turn on your laptop and watch YouTube. Thirdly, rather than focusing on the competition between artists, we decided to celebrate the winners without pointing at the losers.

Did you consider that you might have to settle for a virtual version?

We were lucky to have great partners at Fox who agreed to track the national narrative literally daily, beginning this past January and right up until this announcement coming out. We were well aware of the under-performance of these virtual awards shows. They were experiencing a huge drop in audience, which made it clear to us that people come to these shows to connect with the event nature, to see the larger-than-life moments that just couldn’t be duplicated by virtual performances in a small room. It worked early on with the living room concerts and other moments and will live on, I believe, beyond the pandemic for certain shows. But for these award shows, you really want an escape from your everyday world.

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