A lot of ink has been spilt on the topic of how badly fans and musicians want to get back to the sweaty, life-affirming nights of losing themselves in live music. When it comes to the who, what, when and how of mounting live performances again, there are as many uncertainties as there are opinions about what the future holds. To get some insight, we spoke with Jeff Craib, President of The Feldman Agency – a music industry veteran who’s worked with hundreds of artists on thousands of shows over almost three decades.
While normal live shows have been out of the question for roughly sixteen months now, the folks at Feldman haven’t been idle in the interim. “We’ve focused on some positive projects, and asking, ‘What can we do that’s along the same lines as what we normally do? What opportunities can we bring to artists? Obviously we can’t bring the same kind of opportunities to them, so we’re doing research outside and inside the market to figure out, who fits in a drive-in scenario? What kind of acts fit in virtual shows? How can they engage their fans? What are the best platforms for them to do that? Are there opportunities for one genre of music vs. another? A lot of it during this time was regrouping, reassigning what our team is working on, figuring out what options to present artists, and then just doing that efficiently. That has driven creativity and productivity. Artists are spending a lot of time writing, or in pre-production, trying different things, writing with other writers, and just trying to use this time productively.”
While the pandemic has taken a terrible toll on the live music industry and everyone working in it, it’s also led many of those people to innovate and revamp how they approach their work, Feldman included.
“On the agency side, we’ve refined the opportunities that we’re able to bring to clients and our business. We’ve done a lot of self-improvement in the company – things that, if we were operating at full speed, we may not have had as much focus on because we’d be doing the work at hand.”
“I think it’s been a gut check for some people. It’s not an easy industry to make a living in to start with, and when you throw a pandemic in, it’s disheartening. Some of the payment for being in music is the creative side, but also seeing it right in front of you, seeing the fruits of your labour. And not being able to do that has made it difficult for some people and they’ve left the industry. But in some ways, it’s been a breeding ground for good ideas and for people to excel.”
This brings us to the question everybody wants an answer to… Barring any nightmare scenarios, when do we all get back to work as we knew it?
“We’ve spent a lot of time talking to our clients, managers, buyers, everybody involved in the (live music) wheelhouse. I think a lot of people thought this was going to be much shorter term than it has turned out to be. It’s like they were frozen, waiting for the light to get flipped back on. Unfortunately, it’s not something where a light will just turn on – it’s more like a dimmer. We’re going to phase back into this.”
As for how – he continues: “There are a lot of variables. As far as what I would consider regular business; people playing multiple markets and strings of shows at whatever level – small, medium, or large – they’re going to come back this summer in small ways, if, and this is a big if, there isn’t any sort of significant outbreak, and the vaccinations continue. And it’s going to be different in every region. But I expect that by the time we hit the middle or end of September, we’ll start seeing full performances in some regions nationally. I would say the long shot is that by the beginning of 2022 we’re fully open. However, I believe, personally – just my opinion – we’ll be fully open in November/December 2021.”
As for what that will look like (i.e. how normal will the new normal be?) that depends. “I think the big thing is vaccinations. That’s a safety net. It’s proven. It’s science. As for the actual mechanisms that will be in place, I think it’s a work in progress. If you talk to ten different people they’ll focus on ten different elements of this. Will there be some sort of vaccination passport necessary to enter a facility? Maybe. Will you have to wear a mask inside? Likely. Then you’ve got the question of what’s going to be required from people to operate on the insurance side? What are the guidelines we have to operate under? It’s all a work in progress. It’s difficult in our industry – in any service industry – when there aren’t clear guidelines. And maybe that’s because there can’t be. This hasn’t happened before so they’re making this up in real-time.”
“So, you may have situations where one province says, ‘We’re wide open’ but what does that mean? No masks? No checks on people? Full capacity? No one has defined that yet, so it’s difficult to budget any sort of show, indoors or outdoors, when you don’t know that.”
All that said, Craib does believe the picture is getting clearer as guidelines and a checklist of things that need to be in place for reopening come together. In the near term, however, some things audiences and artists previously took for granted – up-close interactions with local media, VIP events, meet and greets, even the artists’ merch table – will be impacted.
“I don’t know that I’d be in a big hurry to stand in a small room with no guidelines, shaking people’s hands, taking selfies. Right now that’s not practical. Does that mean it will go away? No. Artists are creative and the people around them are creative. There’ll be other options. Maybe soundcheck parties with a limited amount of people and social distancing, but that will still be a special experience.”
And that’s where we come full circle from our earlier discussion of self-improvement. We might see production houses converting warehouses into virtual performance spaces; event services firms repurposing their equipment and staff to serve corporate applications; or musicians engaging with fans via social platforms and (when regulations allow) ‘hybrid’ shows. Being able to adapt and innovate were key to weathering 2020 and 2021 thus far and will remain so.
“What I see going on with virtual broadcasts and what you’ve described as ‘hybrid’ shows, I think that’s useful. It eliminates time and geography. So, if you’re an artist that can’t get overseas, for example – and now things are different with borders and travel and all of the requirements in all of the different international spots – it allows you to include fans from there, and for some global reach that didn’t exist before.”
“I think that part of the lure of virtual events as an add-on is on the creative side. Not all the most expensive ideas are the most captivating either. People may burn out on a singer/songwriter performing in their condo, but there are other ways to present yourself that are cool and help artists feed their existing fan base and grow it. I mean, why wouldn’t you do a virtual show to launch a tour and give people a sneak peek of a song or two as a teaser for the tour? Why not give the fanbase a chance to see you in an intimate setting and see what they’re going to experience live – whether it’s before, during, or after the tour?”
As for how soon and how willing fans will be to break the seal on their front door and head out to traditional live events…
“All I can do is guess,” Craib concludes. “But I’m seeing shows blow out that are still a year away. I would say the demand far outweighs any resistance. There are going to be people who are opposed because they’re so shaken by the fact that this entered our life and it’s not leaving, or due to health issues like immune deficiencies or who are in at-risk age groups. But many people didn’t realize how much they appreciated live music. Now they do. I think we take things for granted. If you eat a five-star meal every night it doesn’t taste that special, but now that everybody has been eating a bowl of cereal for fourteen months they’re looking forward to the five-star meal. There’s a lot of pent-up demand and we’re looking forward to our artists being at the forefront of the live music scene soon.”