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The Future of Touring. Notes from the Latin Alternative Music Conference.

One of the panels at the Latin Alternative Music Convention in New York this week (actually, online from New York) was “The Future of Touring”.  It was pretty clear from the outset of the panel, as it has been since the coronavirus began spreading, that the first answer is “who knows?” and the second answer is “ it’s in trouble.” 

Since large gatherings have been banned and the idea of even small shows of a hundred or so is out the window, the idea of coliseums and amphitheaters with 20,000- 30,000 fans or festivals with hundreds of thousands going through the gates and mingling at the beer stands and porta potty lines is simply not feasible. The future of live touring looks very bleak.

The global live music industry, which includes touring concerts, major venue bookings, festivals, and mega shows, earned $5.5 billion last year on 57.7 million tickets sold worldwide, according to Statistica.  Merch sales, food and drink sales, travel, lodging, fees, etc. brought that total to almost $30 billion – about $500 additional spending per ticket.   

The industry generates employment not only for the bands and their crews of gaffers, electricians, roustabouts, drivers, tuners, and sound and light engineers but also for thousands of local vendors, caterers, promoters, construction crews, prop suppliers, and security firms among others.  It also represents hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue to local venues, local cities and counties, food and drink suppliers, merch sales forces – all of the people who make a tour or festival happen.  These people are now out of a job.

The LAMC panel noted that in the US and parts of Europe, many of these people are unionized and get some kind of benefits if they are not working; not so in Latin America.  If you are a merch vendor in Mexico or Chile or Argentina and you depend on four or five festivals or major concerts a year for the bulk of your income, you are broke.  Some of the firms represented on the panels are actually giving despensas – food baskets – to these people as part of their ethical obligation and to keep them in the industry.

So where to now? The panel agreed that creativity as well as hope is the watchword of the day.  The bigger players – promoters and touring companies like AEG or Live Nation –  have capital reserves and other income streams.  But at some point, everyone gets hurt.  So, there was a discussion of the touring companies branching out into what is becoming a solid live streaming market, although this may be difficult because of the established players like Facebook Live, Stageit.com, and Instagram live.  Other suggestions included revamping the live experience like Denmark is doing, with drive-in concerts, similar to the drive-in movies boomers grew up with.

Of course, there was a conversation about how to produce COVID-safe live concerts, similar to the discussions going on in live sports.  But the panelist noted that drastically reducing the number of tickets sold to a concert to meet COVID protocols makes the financial numbers unworkable. Some other model has to be created and it hasn’t yet.

So, it looks like a summer of touring and festivals and live concerts are going to be lost.  There will be a shakeout: bands with no savings and no streaming or royalty revenue, local promoters with no business, vendors with no place to sell, crews with nothing to do will be out of money, and some are now. Many will find other businesses to start and lines of work to support themselves. Bands that stay in the business will get much tougher about collecting their income and much sharper about their contracts, so there may actually be an uptick for entertainment lawyers.

More ominous for the live touring industry is that audiences are being trained to stay home, avoid the lines and the expensive tickets and get to know their favorite stars intimately via livestream.  And bands are noticing that they can generate revenue – not as much, but not nothing – without the huge cost of touring, not to mention the impact on their health and families. 

As livestream technology platforms learn to accommodate truly massive online audiences who pay, bands with large fan bases may decide that touring is not worth it and opt for global streaming for revenue and album promotion, and local venues for their live hit of audience feedback electricity.  

But right now, no one knows.  It will be interesting to attend the LAMC next year, live or online, and see if there is still a need for a discussion of the Future of Touring.

Patrick O’Heffernan, PhD., is a music journalist and radio broadcaster based in Los Angeles, California, with a global following. His two weekly radio programs, MusicFridayLive! and MusicaFusionLA are heard nationwide and in the UK. He focuses on two music specialties: emerging bands in all genres, and the growing LA-based ALM genre (American Latino Music) that combines rock and rap, blues and jazz and pop with music from Latin America like cumbia, banda, jarocho and mariachi. He also likes to watch his friend drag race.

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