Expert Advice from Epitome's Production Safety & Risk Management Specialists


Examining the Concert & Live Music Industry’s Response to COVID-19

The concert industry is coming back to life after the worst single year in memory. This summer saw the re-opening of many venues, and the fall concert season will see the re-opening of even more. 

Fans and audiences are excited to see their favorite bands again, but this return to live music is happening in a chaotic environment in the United States. With a lackluster national policy, most of the pandemic safety protocols have fallen to individual states to write and enforce. This has created a confusing spectrum of guidelines that will have compounding effects on the concert industry.

This article is part of an ongoing series that explores the realm of large-scale events with an eye towards COVID-19 safety. In this second installment of “The Price of Admission,” we examine the state of COVID-19 within the live music world of the concert industry.

To do this, we have divided this article into four parts:

  • The size of the industry
  • Current COVID-19 protocols
  • Areas for improvement
  • The bottom line

Before we look at what the concert industry is doing this year to keep its performers, crews, staff, and spectators safe, let’s take a moment to understand the industry’s scope.   

The Size of The Industry

The concert industry consists of over 67,000 venues and over 180,000 employees. In the 21st century, this industry has grown at a record pace, reaching an all-time high in 2019 with over $35 billion in annual revenue. Then COVID-19 shut it down.

2020 was the worst single-year drop in revenue on record. At the height of the pandemic, the industry saw a job loss rate of 95%. Many worried that the entire industry might never recover.

Things were so dire that 800 independent music venues joined forces to form the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA). The goal of the organization is to raise industry-saving money through donations and a robust congressional lobbying campaign. 

NIVA includes many of the most storied venues in the country: The Troubadour in Los Angeles, Howlin’ Wolf in New Orleans, New York’s Capitol Theater, The Bill Graham in San Francisco, and Chicago’s Auditorium Theater.

But 800 is only 1% of this giant industry. Major national and international corporations control most of the venues. Live Nation and AEG World Wide are the two largest by far.

Climbing back from the brink, the concert industry is re-opening in 2021. Let’s look at how they’re doing it.

Current COVID-19 Protocols

Given the lack of national policy and the significant difference between COVID-19 policies in every state, the industry was forced to take matters into its own hands. But there is no single entity or unity in this large and varied industry.

As of this writing, there are two major sets of instructions:

Let’s take a quick look at each one.

NIVA’s COVID-19 Guidelines

According to their document, the NIVA guidelines adhere pretty closely to the CDC’s general safety protocols. Their recommendations are divided into two categories

  • Front of House (FOH) Guidelines: These are for audience members and staff who interact with the audience. NIVA asks that venues upgrade their ventilation systems or hold the event outside. They ask for physical distancing, masks, touchless tech, and temperature screenings. 
  • Back of House (BOH) Guidelines: These are for performers, crews, and the venue staff that interacts with them. Here NIVA asks for much of the same as FOH but includes a few special requests for BOH; namely, no buffet-style catering, and they encourage performers to supply their own microphones and other high-touch devices.

Taken together, these guidelines provide a foundational level of safety, but they leave far too much unchecked. We’ll get to those issues in a moment, but first, let’s look at the other major set of guidelines.

Live Nation’s Statement on COVID-19

Live Nation is the world’s largest events venue company, so when they make a statement, it carries enormous weight. Live Nation hasn’t yet published a complete set of public guidelines; however, they have taken things a step further than NIVA by mandating vaccinations for all their employees.

This statement from Live Nation was followed quickly by a similar announcement from AEG. Both require that attendees show either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to enter one of their venues. Live Nation’s new guidelines go into effect on October 4th and AEG’s on October 1st.  

While these are certainly more steps in the right direction, both NIVA and Live Nation/AG’s fall far short of maximum safety.

Areas for Improvement

Right off the bat, we would advise NIVA to turn their requests into mandates. The wording of their guidelines doesn’t require anyone to do anything. NIVA leans on the CDC and deflects toward state regulations. We would highly encourage NIVA to make their recommendations into strict protocols.

As a new and loosely affiliated group of independent venues, this step may create some friction amongst its members. But recommendations are simply not a strong enough stance to take in our fight against COVID-19.

Live Nation and AEG’s statements are only valid at venues they own. As event companies, they also produce touring events at venues they don’t own. This adds an additional layer of uncertainty and confusion for both audiences and performers. 

To maximize safety for NIVA, Live Nation, AEG, and all other concert venues, however, we would recommend the following:

  1. Standardize Procedures Industry-Wide: If all the disparate unions in Hollywood can come together to create The Safe Way Forward, the concert industry should be able to cooperate to establish a single set of guidelines for COVID-19 safety that all venues, crews, and performers agree to follow.
  2. Limit Capacity: The coronavirus spreads most easily in crowded indoor spaces with poor ventilation. Until the country has better control of the pandemic, we would recommend that, for all indoor venues at least, capacity remain capped to limit the potential spread of the virus.
  3. Track Immunity: FDA-authorized Neutralizing Antibody Testing measures the level of COVID-19 specific antibodies in your bloodstream and can determine your level of immunity. This is a vital weapon in our fight against the virus and one that would allow concert venues to admit only people with high levels of immunity. 

With these three critical additions, concert venues would dramatically increase their safety levels.

The Bottom Line

We must emphasize that COVID-19 is still a threat. The Delta variant, which is far more contagious, is now the dominant strain of the virus in the United States. We should all continue to practice proper COVID-19 safety: social distance, wear masks, sanitize our hands and high touch surfaces, and refrain from unnecessary travel.

To music fans, we say: Music may be vital to our lives, but we should all think twice before attending a concert during a pandemic. If you must attend one, choose an outdoor venue and check that venue’s specific COVID-19 safety procedures.

To venues and venue owners: Consider coming together to create a single set of industry-wide guidelines that are simple, straightforward, and loophole-free. Any comprehensive safety plan for this pandemic should include mandatory PPE, capacity restrictions at indoor venues, and immunity tracking.

With a full spectrum plan in hand, concert venues should be able to re-open on the right note. And when it comes to music, if we are not on the right note, we just might fall flat.

Join us next month when we look at The Price of Admission for Business Expos.  

Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.

DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your investors, all applicable union reps, and health and safety professionals before participating in organized athletics during a pandemic.