With the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine being distributed to the first recipients in the U.S. this week (huzzah!) and the FDA approval of the Moderna vaccine expected to soon follow, the beginning of the end of the devastating coronavirus pandemic has begun and the return of the live industry seems closer than ever.
The festival world is taking notice. In North America, Bonnaroo and Lockn’ have already set dates for Q3 2021, while events such as Outside Lands, Osheaga and Riot Fest have upped the ante, announcing late summer and early fall lineups that include marquee talent such as Foo Fighters, Cardi B, Post Malone, Tame Impala, The Strokes, Lizzo, J Balvin, Tyler, the Creator, Vampire Weekend, My Chemical Romance, and Run The Jewels. Overseas, festivals including the U.K.’s Reading and Leeds, Lollapalooza Stockholm, Spain’s Primavera and Australia’s Splendour In The Grass have also unveiled both dates and lineups.
True to the live industry’s optimistic, “show-must-go-on” spirit, there are several U.S. festivals with dates booked in Q2 including Miami’s Rolling Loud, Hangout Fest, Summer Camp, EDC Las Vegas and Coachella and Stagecoach. In Australia, which has largely had success containing the virus, Byron Bay Bluesfest will return April 1-5 with an all-Australian lineup. The Q1 calendar isn’t empty either, with Ultra Miami set to return March 26-28; on the other hand, some festivals have vigilantly postponed their events to Q4.
With COVID continuing to spread across the U.S. and months to go before healthy adults receive vaccinations on a widespread basis, exactly when a full-fledged live comeback will happen is still TBD. Despite their larger attendances, there’s an argument that festivals may return before large inside events because it’s easier to social distance outdoors and the setting is safer than indoors when it comes to the airborne nature of the highly contagious coronavirus.
Live events seem certain to return in 2021, once the vaccine is rolled out, but the question remains: What quarter will festival season kick off?
“Unfortunately it really is out of the control of both the agent and the promoter, we’re both at the mercy of medical professionals and state and local government,” festival agent Kyle Kernohan of ICM Partners told Pollstar. “I’m not trying to be like the Fauci of festivals. What we really need is for the [COVID] numbers to start going down. The vaccine is great but we need to start seeing these graphs heading in a downward direction.
“For the sake of our sanity and planning as if we’re going to be in a good place, we’re all pushing forward until told otherwise,” he says. “There will always be territories, states, festivals, promoters that are more bullish than others. But I think the general consensus across the board is still that the main priority is to have a safe, responsible experience, whether that’s May or whenever. But somebody does have to be first, and we need good examples and success stories.”
Cara Lewis, CEO of Cara Lewis Group, whose clients include Chance The Rapper and Travis Scott, who is set to headline Rolling Loud Miami and Portugal and was supposed to headline Coachella 2020, agrees that the return of festivals and touring will be dependent on COVID conditions and solutions, “which is why they may not return at the same time.”
“Every city will have their own sets of challenges, which is why most of our 2021 tours will commence later in the year or in 2022 and why one-off stand alone festivals/dates could play earlier,” Lewis says.
As fans and artists await more clarity, many festival organizers continue to gear up for 2021. One of the earliest in-person festivals on the books for 2021 is Miami’s Ultra’s Music Festival, organized by Ultra Enterprises, March 26-28 at Mimia’s Bayfront Park. The dates were announced this March when Ultra became one of the first U.S. fests canceled because of coronavirus concerns, along with Austin’s South by Southwest. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis moved the state into the third and final phase of re-opening back in September, with the state’s “Safe. Smart. Step-by-Step” Plan” dictating that large venues “should re-open fully with limited social distancing protocols,” and has not reinstituted restrictions as Sunshine State cases have surged in November and December. Plus, Ultra has already hosted a full-scale, in-person festival during the pandemic, with “Road to Ultra: Taiwan 2020” held at Dajia Riverside Park in Taipei Nov. 14 with a reported 10,000 attendees. A few weeks earlier Taiwan hit a milestone by going 200 days without a locally transmitted COVID-19 case. At press time, Ultra had not returned Pollstar’s request for comment about its 2021 Miami event. As for South By, the festival is sticking to digital with SXSW Online. A statement on SXSW’s website says it expects “the City of Austin will continue its restrictions on large gatherings through March 2021.”
In 2020, AEG and Goldenvoice initially postponed Coachella – long seen as an industry barometer – and country fest Stagecoach from April to October, but in June announced neither festival would happen this year. Goldenvoice’s June statement posted on social media said “as for now” Coachella is scheduled April 9-11 and April 16-18, followed by Stagecoach April 23-25. Media reports in October claimed that Coachella would be moved once again to October 2021, but Goldenvoice has yet to confirm that news.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the NIH, told NPR Dec. 15 he predicted that after vaccinations are distributed for healthcare providers, essential personnel, the elderly and those with underlying conditions, by “the end of March, the beginning of April, we’ll be vaccinating people who otherwise are what we’d say normal population, don’t have any underlying conditions.”
Even when festivals return they are expected to implement COVID-safe guidelines like cashless transactions and mask wearing.
During a Center for Strategic and International Studies virtual health event Dec. 14, Fauci said
“I don’t believe we’re going to be able to throw the masks away and forget about physical separation in congregate settings for a while, probably likely until we get into the late fall and early next winter.”
Often held in late August or early September, Lockn’ had originally planned its 2020 event celebrating Phil Lesh’s 80th birthday for June. After the coronavirus halted live events, the Arrington, Va., festival postponed to October 2020, before calling off the event for 2020 and rescheduling to Oct. 1-3, 2021, the latest it has taken place in a calendar year in its near-decade history.
More cautiously, New Orleans’ BUKU Music + Arts Festival announced earlier this month that it was pushing its March 2021event to March 2022; organizers will present BUKU: Planet B, “an immersive, one-time-only, alternative take on BUKU,” Oct. 22-23, 2021.
“I played it safe and held multiple routings for my clients looking to be on tour next year,” Paglierani says. “With so many unknowns as to how things will play out, having a plan A, B and C ready to go has been crucial to ensuring artists are set up to be successful once it’s safe to be on the road again.”
ICM’s Kernohan concurs: “There’s obviously been an extra level of thoughtfulness that goes into our overall plans for our artists for 2021. As agents we’re definitely not going to let ourselves be in a position where a tour budget hinges on a festival happening or not. … We’re always going to have alternative options and things ready in case we have to pivot. ... The thing that sucks and the thing that’s so unfortunate is it’s so common in our artist touring plans to use festivals as anchor dates. ...
“We want these things to be back, we all do,” Kernohan continues. “Festivals are such an important part of the touring ecosystem. We understand how rough of a year it was [in 2020] and how interesting of a year it’s going to be next year on top of the everyday risk of putting on an event like a major festival. We all need to approach this together, we need to work as a team to make sure these events are successful.”